Interview: Egypt’s strike wave

Issue: 116

Sameh Naguib, an Egyptian socialist, spoke to International Socialism about the current strike movement and its political backdrop, including the role of the million-strong Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt was gripped by a wave of strikes over the summer. How did this movement begin, and how did it spread?

It started when workers struck and occupied at Mehalla Kubra, a state-run textile plant, which is the biggest factory in Egypt. Their struggle was over an economic issue. A year earlier the prime minister had promised a pay rise, but when the time came this wasn’t carried out. The strike was widely covered in the news—Mehalla Kubra is in the centre of the Nile Delta, and there is no way they could hide what was happening. The official unions all opposed the action. It was led by younger workers, in their thirties, who emerged during the strike. They were organised—groups of workers debated what to do and agitated, for example by producing leaflets—but they had no political affiliation.

Over the past 30 years there have been sporadic strikes, usually lasting for a few hours, then nothing for months. Generally the state would crush the action, while conceding to a few of the demands. Normally if there is a strike on the scale of the one of Mehalla Kubra the army and military police would intervene, workers would be shot and there would be hundreds of arrests. The workers who led the Mehalla strike were prepared for a life and death struggle. But this time no one was arrested or shot at. The workers occupied for five days and the government gave in to all their demands, and even paid the workers for the strike days, which has never happened before. This sent a message to workers across the country that the state was weak.

The second major strike took place in another textile factory, Kafr el-Dewwar. Here 14,000 went on strike and spent three days blockading the factory. Again the government gave in to the workers’ demands. Then strikes spread spontaneously to different industries, to rail workers, dock workers, metal workers and cement workers.

The cement industry is very significant. Companies are relocating to Egypt from Europe because there are no pollution laws here. Workers in this industry took action even though their wages and conditions are far better than in the textile industry. These workers were fighting private, mainly foreign, managements rather than the state. At an Italian-owned cement factory workers were able to raise the average wage from 800 to 2,000 Egyptian pounds during a four-day strike.

Strikes also spread to much smaller industries, for example a small tobacco factory near to the second textile mill came out on strike. I met the strikers; the leader was a veiled Muslim woman. The workers faced terrible conditions: 30 to 40 young women packaged tobacco for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for four Egyptian pounds (about 40p) a day. These workers were very militant and had been deeply affected by the success of the first strike. More recently the Suez Canal workers went on strike, after two workers were fired, closing down shipping on the canal for five hours. The railway workers, an experienced group with relatively good conditions, suddenly became very militant—sitting down on train lines to block them. The metro workers reduced their speed by two-thirds in solidarity and the government caved in straight away.

About 300,000 workers have taken action over the past few months, and that is just recorded strikes. Nothing has happened on this scale since the 1940s, in terms of the days of strikes, the numbers of workers involved and their militancy.

Why didn’t the government smash the initial strike?

From their point of view failing to crush the strike was a huge mistake. Two factors paralysed the ruling class. First, there were cracks among the elite. A new group of technocrats and younger businessmen around Gamal Mubarak, the son of the president, Hosni Mubarak, started to emerge within the ruling party as a kind of alternative. This new group is much more viciously neoliberal. They argued that the old guard were not moving fast enough, that radical neoliberal “reforms” were needed. Second, the state was and still is involved in serious confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. So they decided against opening another front. In addition, the ruling class did not expect the scale and level of militancy of the new workers’ movement.

What is the political background to the confrontation between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood?

For a very long time there was little or no open opposition to the Egyptian regime. Any attempt to organise a demonstration outside the university campuses, even of ten people, would be clamped down upon. With the Palestinian intifada, which began in 2000, there were spontaneous protests in which university students and others went on the streets without any real organisation. That was a fast moving protest involving about a million people. About 20,000 people protested against the Iraq war in the centre of Cairo in a demonstration that turned violent. After that there was a lull. But from late 2004 pressure from the US and events in the region forced the regime to give some limited space for protest.

In December 2004 the “Kifaya” movement emerged. Kifaya started as a series of demonstrations involving Nasserists and sections of the left, and with the limited participation of the Muslim Brotherhood. The demonstrations had three main unifying slogans: for an end to the emergency laws, against the renomination of Hosni Mubarak as president and against Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, coming to power. This was the first time the regime became the direct target. The numbers on the demonstrations were very limited—200 to 1,500 at the peak, in a city of 20 million people—but the protests were in central Cairo, usually in front of the journalists’ and lawyers’ syndicates. Because of the media coverage they had a much broader impact than might be expected from the numbers.

The movement continued until the 2005 presidential elections and accompanying changes to the constitution. There was a sense of failure because Mubarak was renominated and got another term in office, the emergency laws were renewed for three years and the constitution became even more repressive. In 2005 there were also parliamentary elections, and this marked another shift because the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the vote, despite the state trying to prevent this. It was at this point that the Egyptian state tried to turn on the movement, with US support. Now the US clearly supports repression—Condoleezza Rice has come to Egypt several times, never mentioning any of the arrests that were going on.

A second series of demonstrations, on a bigger scale, was organised by the Muslim Brotherhood in the months following March 2005. The demonstrations opposed the constitutional changes and the emergency laws, and they mobilised a total of 70,000 people in different cities. In the repression that followed 3,000 activists were arrested. The peak of this movement was the 20 percent vote won by the Brotherhood at the end of 2005. However, following the wave of arrests the Muslim Brotherhood pulled back from the movement and tried to calm things down so that their leadership would not get long sentences when they were put on trial. It was during the resulting period of demoralisation and confusion that the workers’ movement emerged.

What is the relationship between the Kifaya movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the strike movement?

The workers’ movement was a completely separate movement. Kifaya might have fed into it, because it showed that the ability of the regime to repress the movement was shaky. In the elections the Muslim Brotherhood won massive majorities in the main working class districts, but the organisation has not been directly involved in the strikes. Their parliamentary representatives supported the demands of the workers, but their activists played no role.

Tell us more about the Muslim Brotherhood—some people on the left simply paint them as Islamic fundamentalists.

It is a major mistake to lump together all the different tendencies and movements that raise the banner of Islam, treating networks of individual terrorists such as Al Qaida, national liberation movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and reformist mass movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the same way.

Another mistake made by many on the left is not differentiating between different historical contexts. The Muslim Brotherhood is treated as the same organisation, with the same programme, principles and tactics, in very different periods. In fact the organisation has been through many twists and turns. It grew rapidly in the 1940s when Egypt was a British_occupied kingdom controlled by the large landowners. But in the 1960s it was crushed by the Nasserite regime and collapsed from a mass movement with 500,000 members to a fringe group of a few hundred mostly in exile in Saudi Arabia.

In the 1970s under Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, it played a key role in supporting the regime and counterbalancing the relatively strong left wing movement. This was reflected in its politics. For instance, its magazine, which Sadat allowed to be published, was full of right wing ideas about a conspiracy by Jews, Communists and crusaders to crush Islam. It preached the sanctity of private property, free trade and so on.

The crisis ridden development of Egyptian capitalism produced an army of educated university students and graduates with few job prospects and with working class living standards. This rapidly became the basis of a massive Islamist movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in the universities. These groups fused with the remnants of the old Muslim Brotherhood, rapidly transforming and rebuilding the organisation. They gained mass support not only in the universities and the organisations of the professions, but also in working class neighbourhoods through charity work and ideological propaganda. When Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978 the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the largest mass-based opposition force in the country. It has since grown to more than one million members.

In this period the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed but existed; the left was repressed and barely existed. What about now?

In the 1970s Sadat allowed the Communist Party to form a legal front, which was initially successful. It became central to the opposition to the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and to the neoliberalisation of the economy. But once the Islamic movement emerged in the 1980s, the Communists became obsessed with those movements, forming an alliance with the state, and putting aside opposition to imperialism and economic reform. This proved disastrous for the Communists. In the early 1980s their newspaper had a distribution of 120,000 to 150,000. By the late 1980s this had declined to about 3,000. The problems of relating to the Islamic movement have really paralysed the Communist left. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon they said they supported resistance to Israel, but that Hezbollah was a reactionary Islamic organisation that should not be supported. They put out a statement earlier this summer saying Hamas was destroying Palestinian unity.

There are other factors—the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example. The Egyptian left was very Stalinist. There was one Communist Party that was completely Stalinist and one that was closer to Maoism. After the fall of the USSR there was a further rapid decline of the Communist left. The space was left open to the Islamists to take over in the syndicates, poor communities and universities.

The revolutionary left started as small groups in the early 1990s. It was able, through propaganda, to win over younger members of some of the left Stalinist groups and build a base in the universities. The revolutionary left is still small, but the rest of the left is disintegrating. We made a conscious decision with the Palestinian intifada that we should get involved in mass politics and become public. It was the correct decision because the situation had changed. People from our group have been arrested, but we have become known to a wider audience.

How has the revolutionary left related to the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood is mainly composed of urban educated lower middle class Egyptians, and so contains a whole set of paralysing contradictions. It shifts from trying to appease the regime to entering into confrontation with it. It takes strong anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist positions, spearheading the solidarity movements with the resistance, but does so inconsistently. So it puts pressure on Hamas to make concessions, does not take a clear stance on what it would do about the peace treaty with Israel if it came to power and accepts participation of its Iraqi counterpart in the US-controlled puppet regime. It rhetorically defends social justice and a fair distribution of wealth, but fails to take any concrete position against neoliberalism and privatisation (although there are signs of pressure to change its position). It defends full legal equality between all citizens yet clings to reactionary views on women, religious minorities and other oppressed groups.

Perhaps the most important contradiction is that it needs to mobilise on a mass scale if it is to face up to the repression of the regime and start forming a serious political alternative, yet such a mobilisation frightens its leadership. They feel, rightly, that they would not be able to control the elemental class forces that would explode in such a mobilisation. Therefore they vacillate and continue to call on their membership for patience, to understand “the complexity of the regional and international situation” and so on.

There are three possible responses available to the left:

First, we could say the battles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime do not concern us and we need to focus on building a left wing alternative to both. This is right in the abstract. But what does it mean in practice? A majority of workers, students and professionals support the Muslim Brotherhood and see it as the only serious contender to the regime and imperialism. So this abstract position can only lead to isolation and sectarianism for the left. Also, implicitly, it would mean siding with the regime against the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in the current wave of repression.

Second, we could enter into a full alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring its contradictions, inconsistencies and vacillations, abandoning or hiding our own independent politics and principles, and avoiding criticism of the Brotherhood on issues such as neoliberalism, women and the oppression of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. This would be a particularly vulgar form of opportunism that could only lead to the disintegration of any radical left wing organisation.

We opted for a third alternative, based on the Marxist tradition of the united front. This involves entering into joint struggles with reformist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood on particular issues in particular areas, without abandoning our independence or our open criticism and arguments.

Can you give some examples of what this means in practice?

During the series of demonstrations and protests over democratic issues—against the renomination of Mubarak and the emergency laws—a committee was formed including the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, socialists, Nasserites and others. This allowed us to participate in demonstrations and meetings that included thousands of young Muslim Brotherhood activists. This opened up opportunities for us to work together with those activists without hiding our revolutionary socialist ideas. Our members would participate with their red banners, distributing our papers and leaflets, and arguing over all kinds of political issues.

A second example occurred when there was a series of demonstrations by Muslim Brotherhood women against the French ban on the hijab. Socialist women, who were unveiled, joined the demonstrations, distributing a statement explaining that we completely support the right for women in France to wear the veil, but at the same time defending Egyptian women’s right not to wear the veil. This opened up many discussions and questions.

Finally, we have also been involved in jointly organising the Cairo Conference against the occupations of Iraq and Palestine. This involves not only bringing together activists from all over the world, but also debating the whole issue of imperialism and how to defeat it.

You said that the Muslim Brotherhood did not play an active role in supporting the strikes. What about the revolutionary left? Have you had any influence on the workers?

The workers we have been talking to, the new leadership in the working class, are very open to all kinds of ideas. They will tell you that they voted Muslim Brotherhood, but they are not in the Muslim Brotherhood. They voted for them because they hated the ruling party, or because they seemed less corrupt. Only a few were direct supporters of the Brotherhood. The revolutionary left is trying to help coordinate the various struggles. We are trying to get workers in an industry, or between industries, to get together, to link up the struggles. We are having some success. We are holding serious discussions among workers in different industries to discuss the next steps. But it’s still early days.

There’s a common argument that today workers can’t fight back—for instance because they have temporary contracts and they can just be sacked. Workers in the big factories in Egypt have some rights, but in smaller places there are no rights. Yet people have been joining the struggle.

Yes, you have temporary workers on three-month training contracts, who get fired after three months and then rehired. Some people have been doing this for ten years. There are several examples of these workers going on strike, occupying and winning tangible results.

In the tobacco factory I mentioned none of the workers were documented. When the factory inspectors visited the women workers would be hidden from view.

Another interesting feature of the workers’ movement is that the first strike in the Mahalla textile factory was started by women. Fewer of them have formal contracts and they have worse conditions. It is the garment workers, who are 90 percent women, who went to other sites and brought the men out on strike. Most of the women are fully veiled, but they are extremely militant, spending the night in the occupation alongside the men. If you lose the image of the veil you’d think they were militant socialists, and they are often leading men in the struggle.

What is the tempo of the struggle now? And how are the strikes impacting on wider Egyptian society—peasants and students, for example?

Everyone is talking about the strikes. For at least four months there was a story in the major papers every day. It hasn’t had a direct impact on the land yet, but this is something difficult to know about in detail.

The Muslim Brotherhood students were at one point pressurising their leadership to do something. Left wing students got involved immediately, and sometimes spontaneously, in the struggle. There are attempts now to create students’ and workers’ committees to coordinate solidarity—something that existed in the 1940s.

There are fewer strikes happening now, but some of the strikes, like that of the Suez Canal workers, are very significant. Strikes are not happening at the same pace, but you have this new layer of militant workers without union representation, who are pushing for new union elections in the big factories.

They are giving the state unions an ultimatum—either hold free and fair elections or we will break away and create our own unions. This is completely new in Egypt. In Mehalla Kobra 12,000 out of 27,000 workers signed a petition to stop paying dues to the state union.

There will be peaks and troughs in the movement, but definitely there is a qualitative change in the working class. For years you had small networks of activists not achieving much. Then suddenly you have this movement of tens of thousands that wins its demands.