In February the whole world could see that Egypt was going through a revolution, as people rose up against the dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Today the common sense of much of the media is that nothing has changed in the country. BBC producer Oggy Boytchev, who covered the uprising, expressed this mood in a letter to the Guardian.
He wrote, “Without trying to belittle the bravery of thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for a better future for their country, they did not force Mubarak to resign.
“It was his chums in the military establishment who forced Mubarak out. And they did it under direct pressure from the White House, which threatened to withdraw its military aid unless Mubarak went.”
The sight of the former tyrant in the dock does little to dent the pessimism of his perspective—“To paraphrase an old adage: ‘The dictator is in court, long live the dictator’.”
Like Boytchev, I was in Cairo during the uprising. I stood behind the makeshift stage in Tahrir Square on 6 February and watched the heaving, chanting crowds in awe.
Yet, as I sat typing up my report for Socialist Worker, I thought about the trucks of military police I’d passed on the way from the airport, and the tank barricades I’d had to cross to enter Tahrir.
And I warned, “The revolutionary process deepens… but the state is not yet broken.”
Less than a week later, Mubarak had been forced out. Something changed, shifting the balance of forces between the popular uprising and the state. Rising panic in the US was only part of the story.
The revolution was no longer in the streets alone, but had reached the workplaces.
The crowds in Tahrir were changing in composition. There were striking bus workers handing out a leaflet demanding the overthrow of the regime and a constituent assembly.
Striking doctors from Qasr al-Aini hospital, delegations of postal workers, and thousands of Cairo University staff joined the protests, while Suez Canal workers had launched an
Production in the giant textile mills in Mahalla was grinding to a halt, while striking workforces occupied nine of the generals’ own military factories.
In the last week of the uprising the Egyptian working class took on a new and direct role in shaping the revolutionary process.
The popular uprising fractured the state at its highest level. The generals sacrificed Mubarak precisely because the survival of the regime as a whole was at stake.
For most of the past six months they have been buffeted by the storms unleashed when the revolution began on 25 January.
They have been forced time and time again to deepen the purge of the state’s institutions and cede control of the street.
However, it is also important to recognise the limits of what was achieved in February.
Those in power are Mubarak’s generals. Events over the past month show that they are recovering some of their confidence, and finding allies who can mobilise in the streets.
The beginning of July saw huge protests demanding justice for the martyrs killed during the uprising, a speeding up of the trials of key regime figures and a range of other demands.
This included a rise in the national minimum wage.
As a tent city sprouted again in Tahrir, prime minister Essam Sharaf reshuffled his cabinet and ordered another purge of the interior ministry.
Yet the motor of mass
mobilisation began to falter.
As the numbers on the streets dipped, the generals’ hired thugs inflicted a grave setback on the revolutionary protesters by stopping a large march on 23 July.
Hundreds marching from Tahrir to the Military Council headquarters were injured in an ambush.
The Salafist Islamists, who support the generals, filled Tahrir on 29 July.
They pulled the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation along with them in an open challenge to the largely secular coalition of revolutionary forces, which had dominated the streets.
Then on 1 August military police beat the remaining protesters and the families of the martyrs out of the square.
The events of July underline why the organised working class has to be at the heart and the head of the revolutionary movement, if the revolution is to fulfill the hopes of the
millions who made it.
Workers’ consciousness and self-organisation have increased enormously since the uprising. But July showed the gaps and weaknesses that need to be overcome.
There are three key arenas of struggle for the developing workers’ movement—shifting the frontier of control in the workplace, building organisations between workplaces, and fighting to impose workers’ solutions on the state.
In the workplaces, the huge energy unleashed by more than 1,000 strikes and workers’ protests during the first six months of the revolution has produced startling gains.
Strikes have forced hundreds of corrupt bosses to quit. In some cases workers have gone much further.
Manshiyet al-Bakri Hospital workers elected a new director in March. Their colleagues at Zawyia al-Hamra Hospital were planning to do the same this month.
Alexandria council workers elected one of their colleagues to replace the appointed general who used to run the council.
These are inspiring and audacious examples, but not the general picture.
The fact remains that Egyptian workers have extended democracy further into the workplace than we enjoy in Britain.
Revolution is a complex and uneven process, characterised by sudden leaps and ruptures.
Workers’ consciousness and self-organisation also develops unevenly and takes time to mature.
No one knows exactly what the months ahead hold. The global economic crisis will play a crucial role.
In particular, it will make it much more difficult for the US, the generals’ principal sponsor, to simply pump in funds to help contain the revolution with social reforms.
It is clear that workers and the poor can only rely on themselves to defend the gains they have made so far, and to deepen and extend the revolution.
All the mainstream politicians—liberals and Islamists alike—are horrified by the “anarchy” in the workplaces and clamour for restarting “the wheel of production”.
It is also clear that this will require the building of a revolutionary workers’ party.
This must be strong enough in numbers, and clear enough in its strategy, to turn a revolutionary process ripe with potential into a historic victory for the global working class.
Workers’ strength has won concessions and can drive movement forward
The sheer elemental force of the strike wave has meant the generals have failed so far to enforce their strike ban, and have overseen important concessions.
Independent unions have been legalised and the executive of the old
state-run trade union federation dissolved.
Mubarak’s hated privatisation programme has been abandoned.
Workers in a number of companies are campaigning hard for renationalisation, spurred on by a recent court case overturning the sale of department store Omar Effendi.
What the workers’ movement still lacks is the means to exercise authority over its constituent parts.
Workers’ organisations that can coordinate strikes between workplaces or across different sectors of the economy are still largely at an embryonic stage.
This is important for two reasons. The first relates simply to the question of power—coordinated strikes are more likely to have a greater impact on the state.
The second reason is that coordinating their ability to paralyse industry and the state can enable workers to collectively discover their potential to transform the struggle for change within the capitalist system.
This can become a revolution against capitalism itself.
For updates and more information go to http:menasolidaritynetwork.com
To read more background on the revolution get The Egyptian Revolution pamphlet by Sameh Naguib. It is available for just £3 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk