Week 3 — The Workers
In the classic, time-honoured revolution there would be a storming of the radio station. In Cairo, the staff simply locked out the pro-regime bosses and editors of their papers. Now the Cabinet has relocated: Tahrir Square was too close for comfort, and the nearby parliament building is blockaded. With the Square filling up, there is now a list of other places to go: the Parliament building, the state TV, and now maybe a choice of workers’ sit-ins.
This now-unstoppable leaderless revolution started its third week holding all the aces. They’ve survived the violence, created their solidarity, organised the protest environment both physically and morally, stood firm on their demands, and the momentum hasn’t peaked but is still growing. Time is on their side, and with time, demands and goals are discussed and sharpened by a unique process of interplay between small gatherings and the huge crowds.
By now, many millions have tasted the euphoria of joining in actions and demonstrations all over the country. And now workers’ actions and strikes are spreading into a rolling general strike.
Tahrir Square hosted a meeting on 30 Jan that set up the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, in place of the regime’s official (and sole recognised) union body ETUF which in the previous days had instructed all its officials to thwart any workers’ demonstrations and, as demonstrators were being brutally attacked, congratulated the Interior Ministry on the occasion of Police Day. Workers also detained ETUF boss Mostafa Mongy, charging him with corruption and demanding he resign.
FETU is working with two other independent unions that have struggled into existence recently, the Centre for TU and Workers Services, which the government tried to shut down but had to re-open under international trade union pressure, and the unrecognised RETA (Property Tax workers) which recently presaged the revolutionary upsurge with an 11-day sit-in strike in front of the Ministry of Finance.
International union bodies including the American AFL-CIO have sent messages of support, noting their “extraordinary courage and defiance of a ban on free and independent unions.” The International TUC said it supported the new Egyptian unions’ fight for genuine democratic change and respect for human rights in “standing up to an autocratic and illegitimate regime” and supporting the call for a general strike. Two independent trade unions in Israel, WAC-MAAN and Power to the Workers, held a solidarity demonstration in Tel Aviv on 8 Feb.
Actions range from heavy industries to beauty parlours. Many professionals and media workers are taking action. From Tuesday evening (8 Feb) 6000 workers in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia employed to service the Suez Canal Authority started a sit-in strike. The Authority claimed that shipping through the Canal would not be affected, but already the Government’s Canal revenues have dropped.
On 8 Feb workers at Telecom Egypt protested for better wages and the resignation of the company’s board of directors, threatening an open sit-in if demands were not met. On Feb 9 Railway workers came out.
In Mahalla 1500 factory workers at the gigantic textile works, who have staged repeated sit-ins over the past two years, demonstrated and cut the road. In Quesna 2000 workers at Sigma pharmaceuticals are striking. At Aswan 5000 unemployed youths tried to storm the Governorate building. Laid-off tourism workers are registering for government compensation, which is also due to tourism businesses. In a handful of workplaces the workers have taken over and are self-managing.
Some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut, blocking the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones. Hundreds of slum dwellers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor’s headquarters in anger over lack of housing.
The combination of demands over pay and conditions with demands for impeachment, indictment, resignation etc of bosses and officials is common. A list of demands drawn up by independent unions includes the right to work or guaranteed unemployment benefits; a minimum wage, and a maximum wage/salary not exceeding ten times the minimum; the right to social security, health care, housing, free education, and pensions; the right to organise; and the freeing of all detainees held since Jan 25th. So much for the pundits’ claim that these actions are not anti-regime.
Back at the Square, new people are joining the crowds, bringing their babies, getting married there, joking, singing and dancing, joining the continuous debates and writing their own placards. “People now go to Tahrir to spend time in the perfect world where people love & treat each other well”, someone tweeted. Tahrir City now has clinics, theatrical performance stages, food and drink, litter collection and of course political discourse.
“People are going back to the factories from the square to explain the real story of the revolution,” explains Tarek Mustafa, a leader of the independent Property Tax Collectors’ Union. “People outside are beginning to realise that the Egyptian media is lying when it says that the square is full of Iranian spies.”
The regime issues carrots and bribes which have no effect: having advertised to all the world their repressive nature with thuggish violence, organised looting and “de-stabilising”, disinformation, snatching of people it wants to silence* (Wael Ghonem, Ayman Mohyeldin of Al Jazeera, two Amnesty officials) and raiding human rights offices, “normalisation” isn’t working either, though it did bring people out of their houses, who discovered the protests for themselves and joined in. “A new Egypt” is now the foremost aim: not reforms, not a shuffled pack, not resignations of the NDP leadership, not a pay rise for civil servants or even the release of some prisoners, but a revolutionary regime change.
Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions, which preclude any delay in Mubarak’s departure or any transitional governing role for existing members of country’s ruling elite, whether or not this is “unconstitutional” according to an illegitimate constitution.
Washington can’t decide whether it’s more effective to prevent full-blown revolution by slowing it down or by speeding it up: its dithering, and Mubarak’s intransigence, have made the US powerless to affect the outcome on the streets.
The People in their huge numbers have the moral and political power, the army has the physical force and has still to break with Mubarak, and the old regime has neither power nor force. All eyes are on the army: in the absence of an alternative Transitional Authority which can pull the army decisively away from its intrinsic establishment loyalty, and claim legitimacy and international recognition, the demonstrators want the army to unseat Mubarak, come out clearly on their side, and leave the field clear for civilian governance. But that can all too easily land the whole thing in the Army’s lap.
UPDATE 11-02-2011: Many signs of cracks in the army, while Mubarak tried to reprise his performance of nine days previously, when his emotional appeal almost managed to divide the protests. But nine days is a long time in a revolution, and his third refusal to step down has decisively sealed the fate of the regime.
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