The growing social soul of Egypt’s democratic revolution

Issue: 131
Posted: 28 June 11

Anne Alexander

This article is a preliminary and incomplete account of an unfinished revolution.1 It represents a first attempt to explore the implications of the great wave of strikes and social protests which preceded Mubarak’s fall from power and dominated the first months of the revolution. Taking Rosa Luxemburg’s writings on the 1905 Revolution as a starting point, it argues that a powerful dynamic of reciprocal action between the social and political aspects of the class struggle is deepening the revolution and starting to create the potential for the revolution to “grow over”, in Trotsky’s words, from a political struggle within capitalism to a social and political revolution against capitalism.2

“Potential” has to be understood carefully here: I am not attempting to present a comprehensive assessment of the current balance of forces in the Egyptian Revolution, or to make judgements about how widespread the processes described here are. The current phase of the revolution is characterised by the complexity and unevenness of its political organisations, forms of struggle and the consciousness of its participants. In Egypt one hundred days after the fall of Mubarak, it was possible to simultaneously live under a military dictatorship which was increasingly inclined to use forms of repression even beyond those deployed by the old regime, and work in a workplace run by a democratically-elected union committee, where the boss had been deposed by a popular insurrection and forced to flee.

The point, however, about the examples discussed in this article is that they allow us to think in a new way about the potential for revolution to realise the vision of human emancipation that the uprising against Mubarak illuminated. And the fact that the people whose struggles are offering us the possibility of thinking differently are the bus drivers and mechanics of the Cairo Public Transport Authority, the nurses, porters and doctors at Manshiyet al-Bakri General Hospital, train drivers from Beni Sueif and Fayyum, textile workers from Shibin al-Kom and low-paid civil servants in Egypt’s Ministry of Finance, is in itself profound confirmation of the continued relevance of the revolutionary socialist tradition in which Luxemburg and Trotsky stood.

Beyond stages and compartments

Luxemburg and Trotsky’s writings on the 1905 Revolution in Russia both convey the same compulsion to tear down the walls which sought to trap the energy of the revolution in a series of neatly-ordered stages and compartments. The target of Luxemburg’s polemic was the bureaucratic leaders of Germany’s massive trade union and social democratic movements, whose mechanistic formulation of the trajectory of class struggle through “economic” and “political” stages exposed their rejection of revolution and embrace of reformism. For Luxemburg, the idea that workers’ struggles would automatically progress from an economic stage to a political stage, accompanied by a corresponding growth of trade union and social democratic organisations was fundamentally mistaken. Her analysis shows how the 1905 Revolution overturned the assumption that workers’ economic struggles were necessarily at a lower level or an earlier stage in the revolutionary process than political struggles:

Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.

In the following passage, Luxemburg does not only break the linear progression of economic and political stages, but also breaks down the compartmentalisation of what are different aspects of the same class struggle:

In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike. If the sophisticated theory proposes to make a clever logical dissection of the mass strike for the purpose of getting at the “purely political mass strike”, it will by this dissection, as with any other, not perceive the phenomenon in its living essence, but will kill it altogether.3

Trotsky likewise, in his theory of permanent revolution, which first saw light in his writings on 1905, and was later elaborated in his History of the Russian Revolution and other writings of the 1930s, breaks down a different set of stages and compartments within which many of his contemporaries attempted to constrain the revolutionary energies of the working class.4 His crucial insight was to see that the peculiarities of Russia’s uneven and combined economic development made it necessary for the organised working class to lead the revolutionary movement against the Tsarist dictatorship, and possible for workers therefore to move beyond the goals of bourgeois democratic transformation into a struggle for socialism. Trotsky was equally insistent in his attack on the idea that a workers’ revolution against a global system like capitalism could remain compartmentalised within the bounds of the nation state. As Joseph Choonara notes elsewhere in this journal, these insights are contained already in Results and Prospects and 1905, although they were developed and attained even greater resonance and importance in the context of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism.5

Trotsky’s theory is at many levels more developed than Luxemburg’s, as it explains how Russia’s uneven and combined economic development— the “enabling conditions” in Neil Davidson’s phrase6—made permanent revolution possible (although Luxemburg came to relatively similar conclusions of her own accord in The Mass Strike), and Trotsky’s arguments are more radical than Luxemburg’s on the question of the end of the process, drawing the conclusion that it fell to Russian workers to conquer state power in advance of their comrades in Germany.

Upwards and inwards

The reciprocal action between the economic and political aspects of the class struggle which Luxemburg describes as taking place in the context of revolution is woven into the fabric of capitalist society itself, as it is an expression of capital’s simultaneous political and economic domination of the working class. Every strike contains within it something more profound, a temporary usurpation of the power of capital by the power of labour. Every strike also has a political dimension, even if a latent one. The disruption of the boss’s domination in the workplace is, by logical extension, a potential political challenge to the bosses’ domination of government.

Reciprocal action is the process by which these “interlaced” aspects of class struggle during a revolution interact. In one sense it is a sideways movement, with the relative weight of the economic and political aspects of the class struggle constantly shifting in pendulum-like motion. But it has to have overall a movement forwards, penetrating simultaneously further into the heart of the capitalist labour process, and upwards towards the apex of state power. Forms of workers’ organisation such as the Russian soviets can be seen therefore as the fusion of the economic and political aspects of the struggle in a form which simultaneously organises workers’ power at the point of production and encroaches on the political prerogatives of the capitalist state to a degree at which it becomes possible to speak of a situation of what Trotsky called “dual power”.7

The exact name and form of these kinds of workers’ organisations is not as important as what they do. The large inter-enterprise strike committees which emerged to lead the strikes in Poland during the emergence of Solidarność are one example of organisations of this type.8 If the workplace-based workers’ councils of the Iranian Revolution had been able to coordinate nationally or even at a local level between different enterprises they might have begun to take on some of the same attributes of simultaneous challenge to the capitalist order both at the point of production and in direct confrontation with the state.

And in order to turn the temporary rupture of capitalist relations of production and political domination into permanent system-change, something else is required: the seizure of state power by the working class and the internationalisation of the revolution.

However, if the situation of dual power is one moment of juncture between reciprocal action and permanent revolution, it can be also argued that the relationship between the struggle for bourgeois political reforms led by the working class, and the simultaneous creation of organs of alternative working class power in the soviets, implies a kind of “growing over” which has to take place in workers’ consciousness and organisation before the conquest of state power.

As Trotsky explained in his analysis of the 1905 Revolution in Russia:

Already in 1905, the Petersburg workers called their soviet a proletariat government. This designation passed into the everyday language of that time and was completely embodied in the programme of the struggle of the working class for power. At the same time, however, we set up against Tsarism an elaborated programme of political democracy (universal suffrage, republic, militia, etc). We could act in no other way. Political democracy is a necessary stage in the development of the working masses—with the highly important reservation that in one case this stage lasts for decades, while in another, the revolutionary situation permits the masses to emancipate themselves from the prejudices of political democracy even before its institutions have been converted into reality.9

More specifically, we could say that it is the dynamic of reciprocal action between the political and economic aspects of the class struggle in a revolutionary situation which develops workers’ organisations and their consciousness to the point which allows them to make the necessary leap beyond the bourgeois state to workers’ power. Of course, revolutions do not follow a simple arithmetic progression, so there are always leaps forward and steps back. Nor is there any inevitability about this process. If the dynamic of reciprocal action falters on one side, it can be pulled up or down by the other. Nevertheless, it is the overall trajectory of enlarging the political dimensions of workers’ actions in the economic plane, and the deepening of the economic consequences of workers’ political struggles, which is important in opening up the possibility of permanent revolution.

The masses enter history

It is far too soon to assess the real impact of the 25 January uprising. The awesome scale of the popular mobilisation from below did not only leave its traces in grainy YouTube videos, or clouds of tweets, but was written into the lives of millions of people who, after decades of humiliation and marginalisation, forced their way back to the centre stage of history. The sheer numbers of Egyptians who fought the police, braved tear gas, organised strikes, and saw their friends and neighbours shot down in the streets gives the revolution its elemental force, its ability to enter every pore of the skin, to saturate daily life and transform its makers in the process. And, of course, it is not just about the arithmetic of the crowds, but who these millions are. Some are from Egypt’s middle classes, to be sure: students, professionals, English-speaking executives employed by Google, liberal politicians. Their quarrel with the old regime lay primarily in their political marginalisation: the common experience of police-state brutality which united so many sections of Egyptian society. But for the vast majority who joined the uprising, political exclusion and poverty are two sides of the same coin. They are the workers, small business people, artisans, the unemployed and underemployed whose families can’t support them, those who toil in the shadow economy of petty street-trading and hustling. As Mustafa Bassiouny puts it:

The most important of the gains of the revolution has been the unleashing of powerful struggles by wide sections of society which were oppressed and marginalised by the old regime and who have discovered their presence as a fantastic power in the revolution.10

As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, a crucial feature of the uprising was the explosion of workers’ struggles in the final week before Mubarak fell. Beginning with strategic and symbolic workplaces where, in many cases, underground networks of independent union activists already had a track record of organising strikes, such as the Post Office, the Cairo Public Transport Authority bus garages, the Suez Canal service companies, the strike wave quickly broadened out into other workplaces, bringing at least 300,000 workers out on strike by 9 February. 11

From Tahrir to tathir: cleansing the nation

On February 11, the uprising finally forced one part of the state—its senior military commanders—to act against another part—Mubarak and his immediate entourage—in a desperate attempt to preserve the integrity of the whole. The removal of the dictator opened space for a wave of struggles similar to those of the saneamento (cleansing) of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 which sought to purge the supporters of the old regime from their positions of authority in the state and wider society. In Arabic the process is often described as tathir (purification).

At one level the struggle to remove corrupt bosses and officials from power can be seen as playing out the drama of the uprising itself on a more intimate scale: within a workplace, local neighbourhood, hospital or school. Seen in this way, it is easier to understand the revolution as a process actively involving millions of people, rather than a series of spectacular events. However, as Tony Cliff noted in relation to the Portuguese Revolution:

bq. Saneamento...meant much more than simply locking up the secret policemen. Effectively and thoroughly carried out, it means to virtually destroy the structure of the bourgeois state. Because the corporate state meant control over every level of social life, banks, churches, schools, universities, offices and factory managements, a complete saneamento would mean the destruction of the entire social hierarchy from board of directors right down to foremen.12

The process of tathir has already begun to demonstrate the mutually reinforcing dynamic of reciprocal action between political and economic struggles which Luxemburg identified. In particular, the removal of managers and state officials, by popular protests and strikes, has at least temporarily shifted the “frontier of control”.13 More importantly, in a small, but growing number of cases workers have succeeded in imposing formal democratic control over their managers by choosing replacements to the purged officials of the old regime through elections.

Two aspects of the process of tathir are important here. On the one hand, tathir is literally a repeat of the narrative of the uprising in miniature, impelled by both the scale of the popular mobilisation and the ferocity of the battle with the state. In Mansoura, for example, on 13 February, the first working day after Mubarak’s removal on the 11th, one newspaper report alone details strikes and protests demanding the removal of senior officials by employees in two of the city’s local authorities, the First Criminal Court, the Mansoura International Hospital, the Mansoura General Hospital, and a demonstration by workers in the province’s central administration demanding the sacking of the provincial governor for corruption.14 A wave of struggles also engulfed the university campuses, with students and staff seizing control of the offices of the hated secret police and organising massive protests against the heads of universities appointed by Mubarak.15 Government ministries, hospitals, the postal service, and the big public sector workplaces such as the massive spinning and weaving plant in Mahalla al-Kubra went through similar protests and strikes.16

However, the “cleansing” of corrupt officials, even when framed in terms which are squarely within a narrative of political reform, if it is carried out by pressure from below, has potentially profound implications in the social dimension. At the very least, the removal of the director through collective action from below overturns normal relations between workers and bosses. In the context of revolution, “cleansing” has much greater potential to grow over from being a largely political campaign (and one which can be taken up by a variety of political forces, not always those on the left), into a deep social process. In Egypt tathir has so far been woven about with social demands, often for improved pay and working conditions, since the beginning of the strike wave which exploded in the week before the fall of Mubarak. At one level, “cleansing” can provide a model for social struggles, and vice versa, since both are often carried out by the same means. At another level the success of strikes and protests to remove corrupt bosses can encourage workers to raise new, social demands (and a similar feedback loop can be established in reverse where collective action for social goals emboldens workers to demand changes in management).

The politics of the struggle for social justice

Just as the explicitly “political” struggle to remove elements of the old regime in the workplaces and state institutions has had profound implications in the social dimension, so too has the revolution deepened the political impact of the fight for social justice. The raising of social demands was in itself a dramatic political statement. It punctured the complacency of the liberals, who begged the poor to return to their slums and wait for elections. Moreover, for a minority of worker activists, the political nature of the demands outlined by independent trade unionists, such as the 40 or so strike leaders who signed “The social demands of the workers in the revolution” was clear from the start, as it articulated a general manifesto of radical social change.17

At another level, the needs of the struggle itself are deepening the political impact of workers’ battles for social justice. The need to win allies and support among wider sections of the population pushes strikers to formulate general demands which show the broader social benefit of their struggle. The demand for an increased national minimum wage in addition to the specific wage demands advanced by particular workplaces has been raised increasingly widely. Other generalised demands included the issue of maximum wages in different sectors of the economy. The call for a maximum wage dramatically raises the political content of the struggle for better wages by focusing demands on the inequality which lies at the heart of the capitalist system.

By far the most powerful objective factor which is driving the social struggle forward and deepening its impact is the economic crisis. There are two key points here: firstly the legacy of the pre-revolutionary economic situation, characterised by extreme inequality and rampant poverty, and secondly the post-revolutionary economic crisis. From the perspective of the poor, the post-revolutionary crisis has been experienced through rising food prices (after several years in which food price inflation had already reached historically high levels, and was a key motor of discontent), and the impact of loss of wages during the uprising (for people living on the margins of survival already there is no slack in their finances to cover any gap in pay). Food prices in April 2011 were up 20 percent on the same month the previous year.18 For some of the best organised sections of the Egyptian working class, strikes have won temporary gains to offset some of these pressures in the short term, by forcing concessions on pay and payment of bonuses. From the perspective of the ruling class, the post-revolutionary crisis has involved not only the economic costs of the uprising and the strike wave, measured in terms of lost industrial output, but also the dramatic fall in foreign currency earning following the temporary collapse of tourism.19

Finally, there is the state’s response: both repression and accommodation to workers’ demands in the context of the revolution have an enhanced political impact. Where employers or the state make concessions to workers’ demands, in the ferment of self-organisation from below, the likelihood of limiting social demands by these means is much less. Rather the opposite process takes place, with victories by one group of workers being seized on as encouragement by other groups of workers to raise their own demands. This process could already be seen strongly at work in the pre-revolutionary period during the post-2006 strike wave. Since the revolution began, workers’ self-confidence and organisation have increased dramatically, significantly increasingly the possibilities of the generalisation of demands across industries and geographical areas.

On the other hand, state repression can have a politically radicalising effect. The uprising stripped away layers of masks from the face of the state, revealing more of its inner structure to the masses. The army has a new role in direct repression, including the crushing of strikes and social protests, which has the potential to push workers towards radical political conclusions. The rash of court cases against prominent strike leaders at the beginning of May gave a sense of what is at stake in this conflict. The intervention of the state in an attempt to discipline the Cairo bus workers, by prosecuting Ali Fattouh, a leader of the independent union, for incitement to strike, had the immediate effect of producing a political strike against his prosecution in the days before the court case.20 Yet the rapid concessions on the economic demands raised by the bus workers during the strike, without conceding the central demand of dropping the prosecution, were also clearly an attempt to divide and rule.

The state and the counter-revolution

The intoxicating glimpses of liberation opened by the Egyptian Revolution in its first four months are all the more mesmerising because so little has yet changed at the core of the state. The army hierarchy, the iron backbone of Mubarak’s state, remains intact under the leadership of Marshal Tantawi, a man who, in the words of Shashank Joshi “embodies the reactionary forces still embedded at the heart of a regime that may have shed its figurehead but not its essence”.21

Mubarak’s old generals preside over the trials of their former civilian colleagues from the ruling party, but few have dared to call them to account. They deploy the same techniques of repression which made the old regime so hated: torture, military tribunals, the silencing of dissent and criminalisation of protest. Moreover, at the time of writing, central democratic demands of the uprising itself remained wholly or partially unmet.22 A referendum on 19 March endorsed a number of amendments to the constitution, which included limits to the number of presidential terms, a dilution of the president’s executive power, the restoration of judicial supervision of elections, and an easing of the restrictions on the eligibility of presidential candidates, but these relatively limited potential gains at the level of formal democracy had to be set against the actuality of military rule. Independent unions finally gained legal recognition, but a new law announced on 23 March promptly removed the right to organise collective action by criminalising strikes and protests.23

The dynamic of reciprocal action outlined above is taking place in a context which is shaped by the balance of forces between the popular movement and the state. However, this balance is never static, not least because the mass institutions of the state, including the army itself, are under intensifying pressure from below precisely because of the dynamic of reciprocal action which the uprising set in motion.

As far as the repressive apparatus of the old regime is concerned, it was Interior Ministry forces which bore the brunt of popular rage during the uprising. The Central Security Forces riot police were defeated in pitched street battles between 25 and 28 January, during which hundreds of police stations were destroyed by protesters. Moreover the leadership of the Interior Ministry, in particular Habib al-Adly, the minister himself, was an early casualty of the regime’s attempt to purge itself of its most unpopular figures in order to appease popular anger. However, the regime was able to stage a tactical withdrawal and remove most CSF troops from the streets on 28 January before their internal discipline broke down. Over the following week the regime made selective but extremely violent attempts to break the morale of the protesters by a different strategy: mobilising the baltagiyya, probably a mixture of State Security officers and hired thugs, rather than the mass of CSF conscripts, in an attempt to break the protest camps in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. The withdrawal of the regular police from the streets was also seen by many as a deliberate attempt to create a sense of chaos, and prompted the creation of neighbourhood popular committees in at attempt to restore security. In Tahrir itself the baltagiyya were repulsed by activists, including many from the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing. Swelling numbers on the demonstrations, and finally the strike wave after 8 February, paved the way for Mubarak’s removal, which then led rapidly to the dissolution of the State Security police on 4 and 5 March. From that high point, however, there have been numerous attempts to reintroduce the police to the streets, beginning with the return of the regular police for traffic control during March, to the reappearance of the CSF in their old role of suppressing protests during demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy on 15 May.

In contrast to the Interior Ministry forces, which were temporarily defeated, the uprising first neutralised the army and then forced its leaders to act on behalf of the revolution against their will. Unwilling to break the demonstrations by force, probably out of fear (or knowledge) that orders to shoot would not be obeyed, the army leadership found itself forced not only to remove Mubarak from power, but also to carry out a purge of the civilian leadership of the old regime. Over the months following the fall of Mubarak, the dynamic of pressure from below, in particular periodic “million-man” marches in Tahrir Square on Fridays, forcing concessions from above in relation to the purge of old regime figures, continued. Meanwhile, the army’s increasingly open role in repression has begun to undermine the Supreme Military Council’s self-proclaimed role as guardian of the revolution and weaken the appeal of the slogans celebrating the army and people as “one hand” against Mubarak. Nevertheless, the army leadership was still presiding over an institution which largely retained its cohesion and internal discipline (with the notable exception of the protest by junior officers on 8 April) and had yet to face a mass mobilisation by civilian challengers, although there were rising calls for a “second revolution of anger” emerging towards the end of May.24

The political landscape of the period after Mubarak’s fall has been fundamentally shaped therefore by the contradiction that the army’s role expresses: the Supreme Military Council was forced by the popular uprising to act for the revolution and remove Mubarak while at the same time the generals are the principal force attempting to lead a counter-revolution. The sheer scale of the mobilisation from below, followed by the enormous wave of social and political protest in an intensifying dynamic of reciprocal action, is what has enlarged the democratic space and held them at bay.

This balance between the popular movement and the state also structures the counter-revolution. As Alaa’ Awad reminds us, the counter-revolution is a process which “begins from the first moment of revolution, and its tactics and trajectory are determined by the balance of political forces on the ground”.25 Awad argues that there are three principal axes to the counter-revolution: firstly the concerted attempt by the military leadership and its civilian allies to limit the revolution to the narrow set of constitutional changes enshrined in the 19 March referendum, secondly the deliberate escalation of sectarian conflict, and thirdly consolidating a stable post-revolutionary political order based on the creation of a democratic façade for a non-democratic regime.26

The first round of struggles to limit the revolution was fought over the constitutional referendum of 19 March, and pitted the Supreme Military Council, the leadership of the Brotherhood and the remnants of the former ruling party against a fairly diverse coalition of liberals and the left. The continuing social protests and the growth of new forms of independent workers’ organisations both shifted the terrain of struggle and reconfigured the social and political forces engaged in the battle. The Supreme Military Council and the leadership of the Brotherhood were joined by liberals, businessmen, and even some of the revolutionary youth activists who had leapt to prominence during the uprising, in condemning strikes for expressing “sectional” interests and demanding that workers restart “the wheel of production”. Pitted against them was the awakening social force of the working class and urban poor, still weakly organised, but conscious for the first time of their role as a power in the revolution, together with the small organisations of the left and the independent unions.

In relation to the second axis of the counter-revolution, Sameh Naguib argues that the entry of the Salafi movement, Islamist activists who lay strong emphasis on correct personal behaviour according to their strict interpretation of Islam, into the political scene is an expression of the military leadership’s attempts to foment sectarian conflict as a means of creating a climate of chaos.27

Thus there were a number of incidents in May where Salafis mobilised in force over the alleged kidnapping by Coptic churches of Christian women who had apparently converted to Islam, creating an atmosphere of tension which spilled over into attacks on churches and Christian property in Imbaba on 8 May that left 12 dead and hundreds injured.28 The trajectory from moral panic over a supposed “threat to Islam” to attacks on Coptic Christians was already set by the tone of the debates over the constitutional referendum in March, where some Islamists posed the question of accepting or rejecting the amendments in terms of a struggle to preserve Article Two of the constitution, which guarantees Islam as the religion of the state. Moreover, as Awad notes, the question of sectarianism overshadowed and diverted the popular struggle against the appointment of the new governor of Qena province in April.29 The appointment of a Christian governor triggered large popular protests calling for his removal, and although the initial impetus behind the demonstrations was a rejection of the whole principle of centrally-appointed governors (especially those simply replacing the most corrupt and brutal with their second or third in command), the intervention of the Salafis shifted the focus of the protests onto a rejection of the new governor on the grounds of his religion.

There is not space here to explore the question of how far the military leadership and some configuration of its civilian allies will work to consolidate a façade of bourgeois democracy and to what extent this will be an enlarged democratic space in comparison with the pre-revolutionary situation. Certainly, if the principal architects of this new political order are the generals of the Supreme Military Council then it is likely that the bounds of this stabilised “democratic” system will be very precisely determined by the degree to which the masses are prepared and organised to fight to keep it open.

From one perspective then, the resilience of the core of the old regime, its capacity to mobilise for counter-revolution and its ability to build alliances with mass civilian organisations such as the Brotherhood, to limit and even turn back the revolution, presents a bleak picture. Yet it is crucially important to understand that the same dynamics of reciprocal action at work in wider society are also increasing the pressures within both the mass institutions of the state and those political organisations with a mass base, particularly the Brotherhood, holding up the prospect of them fracturing. As Naguib argues in relation to the Brotherhood:

Permanent vacillation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm, is a result of the nature of the Brotherhood as a popular religious group which comprises sections of the urban bourgeoisie side by side with sections of the traditional and modern petty bourgeoisie (students and university graduates), the unemployed and large sections of the poor. This structure remains stable at times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation, when it becomes almost impossible to reconcile the various contradictory social interests under a broad and vague religious message .30

At the time of writing, only the briefest glimpses of tensions within the base of the army and the security forces were visible, but these included significant incidents such as a reported strike by Central Security Forces in the Gabal al-Ahmar camp over conditions in their barracks on 1 May. According to newspaper reports the policemen threw out their officers, took over the camp, and elected a strike committee to negotiate with the Ministry of the Interior.31 More significant were the signs of collective dissidence appearing among the group of junior officers who took part in the massive demonstration in Tahrir Square on 8 April and called openly for the dissolution of the Supreme Military Council.32

Organisations to deepen the struggle

One of the crucial roles that revolutionary socialists play lies in building and seeking to win political hegemony over those organisations which are capable of deepening the process of reciprocal action between the political and economic aspects of the class struggle. However, as outlined above, the pendulum motion from politics to economics and back again needs to be combined with movement upwards, towards the apex of the state, and inwards, towards the heart of the organisation of capitalist production. At its highest point, then, the dynamic of reciprocal action produces a fusion between the political and economic aspects of the class struggle: a challenge to the existing state based on workers’ collective social power to disrupt the functioning of capitalism in the workplace in the formation of a counterpower capable of overthrowing the existing bourgeois state and replacing it with a workers’ state.

The dynamic of reciprocal action is not set in motion by some act of will on the part of a revolutionary minority: it is one of the inbuilt logics of the revolutionary crisis itself, as it is also an expression of the fusion of capital’s economic and political domination over the working class. However, at crucial moments in the struggle the actions of revolutionaries do make an important difference to how events unfold. They make a difference to how arguments are put, and what tactics workers adopt to achieve their goals. The sequence and timing of events plays a crucial role in shaping the revolutionary process. Moreover, organisation is not only necessary to act on the positive dynamic of reciprocal action, but also on its inverse, to stop the virus of sectarianism from infecting the workers’ movement and undermining the unity they need to defeat the boss, for example.

Nor is it only important to build organisations that are to some extent initiatives of the left. On the contrary, finding the mechanisms with which to act on the dynamics of reciprocal action means above all being where the masses are. Thus, as will be explored below, socialists are both building independent unions among health workers and leading struggles from below in the existing doctors’ union.

Independent unions

The independent unions are currently a mechanism for transforming workers’ spontaneous social protests into organised collective action which can be coordinated across sections, between workplaces and even at a national level. They are spreading and popularising workers’ general demands such as the rise in the national minimum wage, which, if implemented, will benefit the working class as a whole. As they grow in size and strength, the independent unions show the potential to become mechanisms for forcing the state and the bosses to concede these demands. The emergence and consolidation of a trade union movement which is genuinely independent of the state furthermore set down a significant challenge to the Egyptian ruling class, which has for more than 50 years striven to subsume all mass political and social movements under its own banner (it of course failed to do this with the Muslim Brotherhood, but has not since the 1940s faced the challenge of a mass movement organised for secular goals). Although Mubarak ostensibly abandoned Nasserism when he signed up to the neoliberal project, his most loyal allies at the bitter end were the leaders of the corrupt state-run trade union federation.

The experience of the railway workers from Beni Sueif illustrates how the new unions are creating an excitement and enthusiasm among workers for independent class organisation on a scale that Egypt has not seen for several generations. Rail workers in the Beni Sueif area of the Egyptian State Railways network began a campaign to organise an independent union uniting all grades of railway staff in the wake of the fall of Mubarak. They put up banners at railway stations and soon had a steady stream of people coming to ask for information about the new union. Hundreds of rail workers signed up to join, and workers from the nearby towns started asking about how they could get organised too. The founding conference of the union took place on 4 May in Beni Sueif and was attended by around 5,000 workers, far more than the 1,200 staff in the Central Section alone, as there were large delegations of workers from elsewhere in the rail network and from the local area.33

The experience of the hospital workers’ union in Manshiyet al-Bakri hospital in Cairo demonstrates the potential for a fusion of political and social struggles which open up completely new horizons for the working class. It also points very concretely to the difference that the intervention of socialist activists can make in this process. Being a revolutionary socialist necessarily involves the act of imagining the world otherwise, of conceiving at a theoretical level that work could be differently organised, and that ordinary people have both the capacity and the will to transform their own lives. The art of turning theory into reality lies in finding the means by which this idea can be realised by workers themselves, through their own struggles—in other words, finding the methods of struggle, the forms of organisation, and the political arguments which organically connect what exists already to the transformed society we are fighting to build.

The story begins in Tahrir Square, with Mohamed Shafiq, a doctor at the public hospital in Manshiyet al-Bakri in Cairo. Shafiq, a socialist activist, describes how he returned to the hospital a few days before the fall of Mubarak:

It started on 7 February. I had been in Tahrir Square working in a makeshift hospital. I went back to my hospital and found a revolutionary mood. Even people who supported Mubarak were saying the situation in hospitals couldn’t continue. So I did a leaflet with doctors’ demands. Unlike previous experiences of petitioning, nearly every doctor signed. It was amazing. A number of nurses asked to sign. At first I said no. There has always been an invisible barrier between doctors and nurses. But so many asked that I thought, “Why not?”

Faced with the question of where to take these demands, Shafiq and his colleagues began to discuss taking the petition a step further, and beginning to organise themselves into an independent union. Again, there was an overwhelming response. Hundreds of staff from all grades wanted to get involved.

We decided to set up one trade union for our hospital. Within two weeks we held elections. Some were uneasy that doctors, porters and nurses would have an equal say. But we won this argument.

With the vast majority of hospital staff now members of the union, and against the backdrop of the wider process of tathir unfolding across Egypt, it was not long before a clash came with the hospital director:

We rearranged the hospital and the budget. Our manager refused to implement these changes. Hospital managers are small dictators—Mubaraks. So we told him to go and not come back.

What distinguished this act of “cleansing” was that the hospital staff were already organised and therefore able to propose and implement a new democratic mechanism for choosing the director’s replacement.

The union council ran the hospital but we knew there would be problems—cheques need to be signed and we have to work with government and local officials. So we elected a manager. The new public transport trade union oversaw the process. The technicians made ballot boxes and we had special forms that couldn’t be copied. Some workers are illiterate so we used pictures of candidates. About 500 people voted. We asked the deputy minister for health to appoint our manager before news of the election appeared in the press. He tried to argue—but rang us within two hours to agree.

The first crucial point here is that everything is predicated on the mass movement. The simple, concrete demands for improving doctors’ conditions and the state of the hospital became, in the context of the uprising, a lightning rod which gathered anger from below like an electric storm. However, the new union became an instrument for imposing workers’ control over management not only because hospital staff had the model of the removal of Mubarak in front of their eyes, but also because within the hospital itself a certain threshold of mass mobilisation had also been crossed. The mass membership of the independent union, in the charged political atmosphere following the fall of Mubarak, concretely raised the question of who should control the workplace.

However, the second point is that, in this case, the form of organisation itself helped to intensify the dynamic of reciprocal action. In particular the fact that the independent union was organised to break down the pre-existing hierarchy in the hospital had important effects: it rapidly tipped the balance of power between management and the workforce because it united almost everyone except the very senior managers. The internal democracy of the union itself was a powerful factor attracting the support of nurses, admin staff and porters, because it offered them a real say in running the hospital.

The experience of the Manshiyet al-Bakri hospital workers raises very concretely the question of leadership. At a number of key points in the story the intervention of socialists played a crucial role, from taking the initial step of organising a petition, to arguing for a general union and helping to win the debates over its internal democracy, to building connections with other workers in struggle and looking beyond the hospital itself to organise health workers on a national level. Yet this was also done in dialogue with the wider layers of workers in the hospital who were drawn into building the union. As Mohamed Shafiq stresses in his account above, it was not he who initially thought of trying to organise jointly with the nurses, but they who demanded it, and they who fought the most fiercely alongside him over the question of democracy. The issues of democratic organisation and leadership therefore go back directly to the question of mass politics. Without an organic connection to the living struggle from below, democratic organisation loses its capacity to intensify the dynamic of reciprocal action. Likewise, socialist leadership which consists of projecting theoretically correct demands and programmes onto workers’ struggles from outside is not leadership at all.

The degree to which the independent unions are capable of acting on the dynamics of reciprocal action to deepen the revolutionary process does not depend, therefore, on the nature of their leadership, or on their internal organisational arrangements, but on their connection to workers’ struggles and the overall balance of forces in revolution. Even undemocratic, bureaucratic trade unions can be a launchpad for struggles for the narrowest of demands which are capable of rapidly bursting the bounds of sectionalism.34

The national doctors’ strikes in Egypt on 10 and 17 May are illustrations of this point. The organising centre for the strike lay in networks of activists within the old Doctors’ Union, the Egyptian equivalent of the British Medical Association. In the wake of the revolution it would have been easy to write off the old union, with its fossilised leadership structures, as incapable of expressing the anger from below, or of providing any kind of organising vehicle for the class struggle. In fact, the idea that doctors could be considered part of a wider working class, let alone organise national strike action, was, until the revolution, just as extraordinary in Egypt as it would be in Britain. Yet the pressure of the mass movement from below, the wave of spontaneous strikes and protests in hospitals demanding the cleansing of hospital management, was also washing into the Doctors’ Union. On 25 March 4,000 doctors took part in the Doctors’ Union general assembly which discussed how to raise doctors’ pay, conditions and professional standing and set out a basic programme of demands. On 1 May another general assembly of around 3,000 doctors voted to call a national strike on 10 May and elected a strike committee. Both meetings were punctuated by stormy, and at times physical confrontations between left wing and secular activists and leading figures in the Brotherhood over whether to call for strike action.

The strike itself was an immensely significant event. Not only was it the first doctors’ strike since 1951, but it was also the biggest single instance of coordinated national strike action since the revolution, as it was observed by 65 to 75 percent of hospitals in Cairo and Giza, and 90 percent of hospitals in the provinces.35 Although the initial motor for the strike was doctors’ own demands for better pay and conditions, the activists leading the strike (including Mohamed Shafiq from Manshiyet al-Bakri Hospital Union, who is a key member of the strike committee) argued for and won the position that the strike should articulate wider demands for the improvement of the health system.36

The Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution

The Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution are another example of organisations which revolutionary socialists are actively building with the aim of deepening the revolutionary process by transmitting the effects of collective action in the political domain to the social domain and vice versa. The Popular Committees have their origins in the spontaneous eruption of “committees of protection” which were formed during the withdrawal of Interior Ministry forces following the defeat of the police in the great street battles on 28 January. However, in their current form, unlike their precursors, the Popular Committees are shaped by a project of organising some of the wide but rather diffuse layers of the population who have been radicalised by the revolution, in order precisely to have a mechanism for intervening in the social and political struggles in the localities to deepen the revolution. Concretely, this has meant Popular Committees taking up and mobilising around demands for improvements in the distribution of local services, and organising campaigns for the election of local officials or against rising prices. Other initiatives of the Popular Committees have included local “popular conferences”, giving people in poor areas their first experience of mass political meetings, and demonstrations over specific local and national issues, such as against sectarianism.37

The Popular Committees as a project are very specifically focused on turning the political energies unleashed by the uprising against Mubarak from national goals to making social and political gains for ordinary people at a local level, in order to deepen the overall revolutionary process and make further political and social gains at a national level. In their first few months of existence the committees have had a high degree of national coordination, with a national committee of delegates from the local committees meeting regularly in Cairo to coordinate national strategy, and a national newspaper, Misr al-Thawriyya. The Popular Committees’ founding conference in Tahrir Square on 22 April was attended by four to five thousand people representing around 30 local committees, and agreed on a programme of demands including the election of provincial governors and heads of neighbourhoods, the abolition of the system of appointing officials, and the foundation of a national union of unemployed workers.38

Towards a workers’ party

Like unions anywhere, the independent unions in Egypt are subject to competing pressures from above and below. The leaders of better established unions, such as the Property Tax Collectors Union and the Health Technicians Union, are already being drawn regularly into direct negotiations with ministers on behalf of their members, and will thus be subject to the same pressures towards compromise and accommodation with the state that trade union leaders as elsewhere. Instead of acting to intensify the dynamic of reciprocal action between the political and economic struggles, it is inevitable that some trade union leaders will attempt to separate the two, and act as transmission belts for the bosses and politicians’ message that workers should concern themselves with raising production and not meddle in politics.

This is one reason why the efforts to organise workers into an independent political force are so vitally important. The Democratic Workers Party is an initiative to do just this, and represents an important collaboration between revolutionary socialist activists and leading figures in the workers’ movement. In its first few months the party has recruited groups of workers from a number of key economic sectors and workplaces, including the Cairo Public Transport Authority, the railways, the textile factories in Mahalla al-Kubra and Shibin al-Kom, and the post office in Alexandria.39 Many of these members are leading activists in the emerging independent unions and played a central role in the strike waves before and after Mubarak’s fall.

The party’s founding statement lists six basic principles:

1. Our party reflects all the producers in society: workers, peasants, professionals, employees and students and all who believe in justice and citizenship and the restoration of national dignity in the face of Zionist-American projects in the region.

2. Re-nationalising the looted companies and land, the development of their administration with popular oversight.

3. Expansion of the public sector through investment of strategic projects to be the locomotive of comprehensive social and independent development.

4. Consolidation of democracy through the creation of a constitution which serves human rights, citizenship and freedom of expression and the establishment of a parliamentary republic recognising the freedom of political parties, trade unions, the media and based on the election of all leadership positions starting from local government (the election of village mayors, town mayors and governors) to all educational and research institutions and public services.

5. Development of the health service, education and housing away from the logic of profit, as these are rights for the community and drive forward the energy of society and its ability to develop.

6. Raise the minimum wage to the level that would meet basic needs (at least 1,500 pounds) with a link to prices.

The full draft programme expands on these points to include support for the struggles of peasants and the unemployed, as well as taking up the question of building a civil state with full rights for all citizens regardless of gender, religion or ethnic origin, and other questions.40

The difficulty lies not in articulating a programme, but in winning large numbers of workers to support it. There is intense competition on the Egyptian left, with new parties springing up all the time, and old parties reappearing. Workers attending the celebrations in Tahrir Square on 1 May could have chosen between at least half a dozen parties proclaiming their support for a superficially similar set of principles to those adopted by the Workers Party. One factor distinguishing these competing organisations will lie between those which are capable of persuading large numbers of workers to act in ways which deepen the dynamic of reciprocal action between the political and economic struggles and drive the revolutionary movement forward, and those who are not.

The campaign over the renationalisation of the Ghazl Shibin textile mill provides a concrete illustration of how socialist activists can intervene in precisely this way. The mill, a former public enterprise, was privatised and sold to an Indonesian investor in 2007. It has been the site of a wave of strikes and protests over pay and conditions for several years, with growing support among the workforce for the demand to renationalise. Since the beginning of the revolution the demand for renationalisation has emerged with greater urgency during a two week long strike that workers organised in April, which also raised a number of other demands including the reinstatement of a number of sacked workers.41

As Kamal Khalil explains, activists from the Workers Party took a number of initiatives around the strike which were aimed at maximising the political impact of the Shibin workers’ struggles, encouraging them to see the wider working class as key allies in their fight, and to join the party itself:

We organised a joint delegation to the factory of workers from the Workers Party from Shibin and Mahalla. We had a big meeting inside the factory, then we went out in a big demonstration to Shibin al-Kom town, which is about 4 kilometres from the factory. We arrived at the Governorate buildings there, and made a delegation of workers to go and negotiate with the provincial governor and the military governor. When the Mahalla workers went in with the Shibin workers to negotiate, the military governor asked, “What are you doing here? We’re only negotiating with Ghazl Shibin.” But the Mahalla workers replied, “Whatever concerns Shibin, concerns us too”.42

It speaks volumes both about Egyptian workers’ rising self-confidence and the continuing pressure from below on the state, that the Mahalla workers could successfully face down the military governor over this issue, even as a couple of armoured cars menaced the continuing demonstration outside the Menoufiyya Governorate buildings. As Khalil explains:

The negotiations [over the return of 95 sacked workers] were successful, and it came to making an agreement; the provincial governor and the military governor said “OK, we’ve agreed then.” But the Mahalla workers had experience of these things, and said, “This is just a verbal agreement. A proper agreement needs to be written down and the governors should sign it.” One of the results of the agreement was the return to work of those who had been sacked. Then we went out again into the street to complete the demonstration.

For the Workers Party activists, there was another crucial step to come: asking the Shibin workers to join the party itself:

Then we went and sat with the Shibin workers and asked them to join the Workers Party. And they said, “Yes, we’ll join.” And we said, “Fine, now we need to discuss the programme.” They said, “No, we can see what the programme means. It’s the demonstration we just were on.” We’re following this model in other areas.

The struggle over Ghazl Shibin has a wider resonance on many levels. It is becoming a symbol of workers’ resistance to the whole programme of privatisation that was driven through by the government of Ahmad Nazif in the last years of Mubarak’s rule. The demand to renationalise is one which has emerged out of workers’ struggles on the ground and has not been taken up by any of the mainstream political forces, as it directly challenges the entire neoliberal programme. Even the inclusion of Mahalla workers in the negotiating delegation is itself of immense political significance at two levels. It is an important step towards re-establishing a culture of solidarity within the Egyptian working class which has been weakened by long years of dictatorship. The strikes and workers’ protests that have taken place since 2006 have seldom resulted in concrete expressions of solidarity between workers in different workplaces, and even more rarely been translated into solidarity strike action. It has been common for workers to take up demands raised by colleagues in other workplaces in their own struggles, and to see other strikes as a model for their own, but in the absence of independent unions connecting workers within industries or across geographical areas, it has been hard so far to give workers the sense that their strikes are significant for the class as a whole, beyond the walls of their individual workplace.

It is in relation to the struggle against sectarianism and counter-revolution that the need for workers’ organisation beyond trade unions shows itself most clearly in the current situation, however. In the wake of attacks on churches in Imbaba on 8 May thousands of Coptic Christians organised a sit-in outside the Radio and Television buildings in Maspero, just south of Tahrir Square, in protest at the state’s failure to protect churches from sectarian attacks. A delegation from the Workers Party joined the protest in solidarity with the Coptic demands, raising a new slogan which was taken up by thousands of the demonstrators: “Muslim and Christian, hand in hand—together we will make a new dawn”.43

The significance of building workers’ solidarity against the oppression of the Copts goes beyond the reflex action of opposition to sectarianism, important though this is. In the wake of the Imbaba clashes there were a number of initiatives by liberal political figures to rebuild a sense of national unity, including a march led by prominent liberal personalities including Wael Ghoneim.44 What the Workers Party potentially offers which is different to these kind of initiatives is the project of building revolutionary unity of the Muslim and Christian masses from below, united in a common struggle for social justice. The cross-fertilisation of the social and the political struggles here is vitally important in a context where some of the left have already been sucked into a series of abstract debates about the defence of secularism. As Sameh Naguib rightly concludes:

Secularism itself, as an abstract principle with no connection to the interests of the working class and poor, is meaningless, and in fact defence of secularism on such a basis only serves the Islamists.45

The two souls of Egypt’s democratic revolution

The struggles of the poor, with organised workers at their heart, are the fundamental force shaping the present phase of the Egyptian Revolution, and they will write its future. The great wave of strikes and protests which began before the fall of Mubarak (and played a crucial role in his overthrow), demonstrated the impossibility of separating the liberal democratic revolution against dictatorship from its “social soul” of rage against economic injustice. The liberal politicians who thought that the masses would return to their slums on 12 February and tell their hungry children to wait gratefully for the next election have so far been disappointed.

Moreover, the ferment of organising from below that accompanied the rising tide of social struggles between February and May showed that a different kind of democracy is stirring. It is too soon to say whether the promise embodied in the process of cleansing the workplaces by the independent unions will be realised, and whether the initiatives of the left will gain enough traction among the wider working class to provide a pole of political leadership opposed to the state, the Islamists and the liberals. Yet even the small examples discussed in this article demonstrate that the question of the revolution “growing over” from a revolt against dictatorship to a revolution against capitalism is no longer simply a matter of theoretical speculation. The question is not whether Egyptian workers are capable of creating, through their own struggles, the seeds of a more advanced and complete form of democracy which extends into the workplaces rather than being restricted to the rotation of bourgeois parties through parliament. The question is whether these experiences will be generalised or remain at the level of inspiring, but temporary, shifts in the “frontier of control” in the workplace. The success of the revolutionary left in building organisations of sufficient weight which are capable of deepening the dynamics of reciprocal action beyond and between individual workplaces will be a crucial test which will shape the future course of the revolution.

However, the most compelling reason why the struggle for democracy and the struggle for social justice can be neither separated nor counterposed is the unfinished nature of February’s revolution. The uprising rocked the state to its core, and shattered some of its outer layers, but the heart of the regime remained intact. More than that, the generals have shown absolutely no compunction about deploying new instruments of repression, such as the legislation criminalising strikes and demonstrations. The principal force that prevents them from applying these more widely is the continuing wave of protest from below. The resilience of the core of the state can only be broken by new processes of reciprocal action which will interlace the coming battles for social reforms, such as raising the national minimum wage, with the struggle to build democracy from below, through the workplaces and neighbourhoods, and with the battle to protect and extend the gains in political democracy made during the uprising.


1: Three visits to Egypt between February and May 2011 gave me opportunities to witness the Egyptian revolution first hand and interview leading independent trade unionists. I benefited from discussing some of the ideas here with other friends and comrades. I would like to thank in particular Mustafa Bassiouny, Dina Samak, Hisham Fouad, Haitham Muhammadain, Sameh Naguib, Ibrahim al-Sahary, Dave Renton, Joseph Choonara, Charlie Kimber, Unjum Mirza, John Molyneux, Phil Marfleet, Alex Callinicos, John Rose and John Chalcraft.

2: It does not deal with other crucial aspects of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, such as the role of uneven and combined development in producing the conditions for the revolution, with the internationalisation of the revolution which he believed was crucially necessary for its success. It also treats the revolution as a purely Egyptian affair, rather than a phenomenon which had already leapt borders to reach Egypt from Tunisia following the fall of Ben Ali. This is clearly problematic and I hope to deal with the regional and international aspects of the revolution in future articles.

3: Luxemburg, 1906.

4: Trotsky, 1907, 1931, 1932.

5: Choonara, 2011.

6: Davidson, 2010.

7: Trotsky, 1932, chapter 11.

8: Barker, 2002.

9: Trotsky, 1907, Foreword.

10: Bassiouny, 2011.

11: Alexander, 2011a.

12: Cliff, 1975.

13: Bayat, 1987.

14: Salih and Al-Dib, 2011.

15: Ahmad, 2011.

16: AFP, 2011; Fouad 2011a

17: Socialist Worker, 26 February 2011. See

18: AP Cairo, 11 May 2011.

19: Khalaf, 2011.

20: Interview with Haitham Muhammadain, Cairo, in Arabic, 2 May 2011.

21: Quoted in Knell, 2011.

22: Key goals included the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power and the neutralisation of his vice-president, Omar Suleiman, the dissolution of the fraudulently-elected upper and lower houses of parliament, the dissolution of the State Security apparatus, the annulment of the Emergency Law, the drafting of a new constitution, legal rights to form political parties and independent trade unions, the release of those detained during the uprising, the prosecution of those responsible for violent repression and the enactment of the law raising the national minimum wage to £E1200 a month. See Khalil, 2011.

23: El-Wardani, 2011a.

24: For example Thawra al-Ghadab, 2011

25: Awad, 2011.

26: Awad, 2011.

27: Naguib, 2011.

28: El-Elyan, 2011.

29: Awad, 2011.

30: Naguib, 2011.

31: Al-Marsaqawi, 2011.

32: Alexander, 2011b.

33: Muhammadain, 2011.

34: Cliff, 1985.

35: Fathi, 2011.

36: Higher Committee of the Doctors’ Strike, 2011.

37: Selected articles from the Popular Committees’ newspaper, Misr al-Thawriyya, have been translated into English by the Tahrir Documents project,

38: Al-Wardani, 2011.

39: Khalil, 2011.

40: Hizb al-Ummal al-Dimuqraty, 2011.

41: Barthe, 2011.

42: A video of the demonstration is available on YouTube here:

43: Fouad, 2011b.

44: El-Wardani, 2011b.

45: Naguib, 2011.


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