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"Which Side Are You on Boys? Which Side Are You On?"

Conflicts of Economic Interests in Egypt

by MARY LYNN CRAMER

Nobel Laureate and aspiring Egyptian Presidential Candidate, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, objected to the BBC reporter attributing recent events in Egypt to the "Youth Movement." ElBaradei complained that calling the "revolt" a "youth movement" was a gross distortion of the truth, and did not in any way describe the range of ages, occupations and incomes represented by the protesters demonstrating in Tahrir Square for eighteen days.

Khalid Ali, a labor lawyer for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights likewise advised a young Democracy Now reporter interviewing him (2/18/11), that she may say Egyptian youth "sparked" the revolution, but there is a big difference between those who "sparked" it, and those who laid the ground for the emergence of this revolution. Workers, he stressed, are the ones who brought down the structure of the Mubarak regime. Of those demonstrators killed protesting, "most were poor workers."

The Egyptian labor lawyer emphasized what Democracy Now and most other news sources neglected to report during the jubilant celebrations ending the occupation of Tahrir Square: the strikes did not end when Mubarak resigned. In fact, workers’ strikes escalated. As I have pointed out in previous articles, while the "April 6" members were obediently following military orders to vacate Tahrir square, thousands of workers in and around Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and across Egypt continued to strike and protest, just as they had before, during, and after the peaceful occupation of the center of Cairo. "There have been between thirty to sixty strikes a day" since Mubarak turned power over to his newly appointed cabinet and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Khalid Ali told Democracy Now.

Just as ElBaradei bemoaned the lack of any direct communication from the Supreme Council, Khalid Ali also questioned the intentions of the military regime, and suspects that those activists who have been invited to meet privately with members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are "cutting deals behind closed doors." This is another indication of the difference between those who "sparked" the demonstrations on January 25, 2011, and those millions of workers who have waged over 3000 strikes during the past decade: "Many political activists ended their protests, left Tahrir square, and settled for their demands, up until now, for democracy and freedom…the success of the revolution for the workers is not simply the departure of officials from the Regime. Its success means an improvement in their living standards, social justice, and a guarantee that their lives will get better in the future." The attainment of such goals as these does not lend itself to secret, back room deals.

Khalid Ali insists that workers will continue to call for the removal of all the corrupt officials of the Mubarak regime. Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, is clearly impatient to settle the question of his presidential prospects. Although the latter says he has plenty of other "globalization" projects he’d just as soon get back to, if there appeared to be a national "consensus" indicating he was the chosen one, he would be proud to stand for president of the new Revolutionary Egypt.

On Friday, 2/18/11, around a million peaceful protesters returned to Tahrir Square, called there for a celebratory gathering by the April 6 "youth" while thousands of striking workers continued making public their demands. Ten million Egyptians earn less than $1.00 a day; 40 million, less than $2,00 a day. Millions of families can’t afford food, medical care for themselves or their children, or a safe roof over their heads. Yet, it appears that solidarity among the working poor is growing with the escalating number of strikes.

In Suez, Cory Flintoff of NPR—apparently just as unaware of Egypt’s long history of labor actions as the rest of his colleagues— reported (2/18/11) that steel workers "have gone from revolution to striking." One worker in this city of petrochemical and steel factories said that he worked 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, received no benefits or medical aid, had been badly injured on the job due to a lack of safety regulations and could barely support himself on his meager wages. Similar to Khalid Ali, he reminded Flintoff that the actions of the youth of Tahrir Square drew from the experiences of the workers of Suez, "the laboratory" for revolution. The reporter points out that demands here are focused on the continuously "dangerous and degrading work conditions," however, in the back ground of Flintoff’s recording one can clearly hear the striking workers chanting: "We Are All Bahrain!" Flintoff made no comment on this, but did quickly add that the workers were initiating a coordinating committee. No one else that I could find reported anything about these militant strikers’ actions that day, nor the growing international solidarity expressed by the steel workers of Suez. Google as I might, all Friday morning, I could find not one reference for those strike actions that day and the workers’ identifying with the bloodied protesters of Bahrain. All eyes were on the display of patriotic pomp, complete with sweetly smiling soldiers handing out thousands of Egyptian flags to the peaceful "revolutionaries" congregating in Tahrir Square. I heard no chants there that "We Are All Bahrain."

Social Networking Youth and Workers Grass-roots Mobilization

Calling on the insights of Standford professor, Joel Beinin, an authority on Egyptian labor movements, Kareem Fahim or the New York Times (2/16/11) reports that "workers never developed strong connections to the Internet activists who became the most visible face of the uprising, like the April 6 Youth Movement, which was actually named for a labor action. The differences were stark: the Facebook activists — patriotic and well intentioned — commanded huge anonymous audiences, but until recently had trouble mobilizing them. The workers knew and trusted one another and could mobilize readily, but their activism was local. Now, amid talk of forming an independent national labor organization, the workers’ strikes and protests seem likely to continue. Striking workers, Fahim, reports, built on "grass-roots mobilization that seemed to find its own steam without the help of Facebook or Twitter or any kind of a national labor network."

Muhammad Abdelsalam al-Barbari of the Coordinating Committee for Labor Freedoms and Rights told the NYT reporter "that labor leaders could organize strikes on the spur of the moment should come as no surprise," as they had developed close relationships "over many years of meetings and joint struggle…It was natural during the protests to ask around about what labor action is being taken here and there."

"Strikes over the past decade accelerated in the past six years in response to the government’s efforts to privatize the economy," Professor Beinin remarked.

Protesters’ Political Demands and Workers’ Economic Priorities

In the meantime, the military regime has issued a communiqué that they will take all "legal" means necessary to end protests and strikes should they persist (Lehrer News Hour, 2/18/11). What is "legal" is now up to the Army Generals to define, as the constitution had been suspended and emergency powers are still in place. Under the Emergency Law, in effect since 1981, the government can imprison any one they choose for any reason. Suspension of this law was the No. 2 demand of the April 6 Movement.

Although the No. 1 demand for the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, as for those striking workers across Egypt was the resignation of Mubark, it appears that from that point priorities differ. Various sources have underscored workers demands for better wages and working conditions. Few, have set out a clear or comprehensive list of demands. However, there is one such list drawn up by the iron and steel workers:

1. Immediate resignation of the president and all men and symbols of the regime.

2. Confiscation of funds and property of all symbols of previous regime and everyone proved corrupt.

3. Iron and steel workers who have given martyrs and militants call upon all workers of Egypt to revolt from the regime’s and ruling party workers’ federation, to dismantle it and announce their independent union now and to plan for their general assembly to freely establish their own independent union without prior permission or consent of the regime which has fallen and lost all legitimacy.

4. Confiscation of public sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatized as well as the public sector which belongs to the people and its nationalization in the name of the people and formation of a new management by workers and technicians.

5. Formation of a workers’ monitoring committee in all workplaces monitoring production, prices, distribution and wages.

6. Call for a general assembly of all sectors and political trends of the people to develop a new constitution and elect real popular committees without waiting for the consent or negation with the regime.

(Source: February 10, 2011, LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal)

Contrast these demands of the striking workers with those reportedly put together by various groups on the 17th day of the Tahrir Square occupation (first 9 of 12):

1. The resignation of president Mohammed Hosni Mubarak

2. Canceling the Emergency Law

3. Dismantling the state secret service

4. An announcement by Omar Sulieman that he will not run in the next presidential elections

5. Dissolving the Parliament and Shura Council

6. Releasing all the prisoners since January 25

7. Ending the curfew so that life resumes as normal across the country

8. Dismantling the university guards system

9. Referring officials responsible violence against protesters to an investigation committee.

These, according to a blogger present, Wael Khalil, and reported on Global Voice Online (2/10/11) are said to be some of the immediate demands, while a list of additional demands for the transitional period to follow were as set out below:

1. Drafting a new constitution

2. The right to set up newspapers, open television and radio stations without a prior permission

3. Putting the minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian Pounds into effect

4. The right to set up political parties, by notification

5. The right to set up associations and unions, by notification

6. Achieving a real autonomy and independence for national newspapers, television and radio

7. Canceling the national service in the police force

8. Ending the security clampdown on telecommunications and the Internet

There are briefer accounts from several sources referring to fewer demands, primarily that President Hosni Mubarak and his regime step down; and secondly, that a transitional leadership should be formed, as well as a committee established to write a new constitution for the country; and finally that parliament be dissolved. Another often mentioned priority of the April 6 Youth is release of all protesters jailed since January 25. This, like all of the foregoing save the resignation of Mubarak, has not been met. ElBaradei in his BBC interview 2/18/11 was clearly frustrated by the regime’s mysterious plans and lack of transparency which he described as a "black box," since he had no idea what the army generals would do with the demands. If the negotiating process is as labor lawyer, Khalid Ali, suspects—closed door meetings with select individuals in order to buy off sectors of the opposition—which list of demands do you think the generals will choose to cherry pick their deal-making possibilities?

A local long-time human rights activist noted that the iron and steel workers’ list starts with redesigning the Egyptian socio-economic system from the "bottom up," while the other list looks to be "top down." It is also quite likely that the demands of the latter would be readily supported by workers. But, not so clear that the reverse would be true.

MARY LYNN CRAMER, MA, MSW, LICSW has degrees in the history of economic thought and clinical social work , as well as over two decades of experience as a bilingual child and family psychotherapist. For the past five years, she has been deeply involved in "economic field research" among elderly women and men dependent upon social security, Medicare, and food stamps, living in subsidized housing projects. She can be reached at: mllynn2@yahoo.com