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Egypt: Cracking down on labour activists?

Revolutionary Socialist activist discusses Egypt's labour movement and the recent arrest of Haitham Mohamedein.

Last Modified: 12 Sep 2013 13:08
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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The Revolutionary Socialists condemned both Brotherhood rule and the anti-Morsi coup [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

As Egypt's military-led government shows signals of expanding its repression, from Brotherhood members to other critics of Morsi's removal, the core struggle of the January 25, 2011 revolution might finally be moving towards centre stage.

The Revolutionary Socialists are one of the only political movements to explicitly condemn both the Muslim Brotherhood's rule and the military's removal of Morsi and its subsequent violent crackdown. The group played a central role in the January 25 uprising and has been a leading revolutionary voice in the post-Mubarak era despite its comparatively small numbers.

Last week, labour lawyer and Revolutionary Socialist activist Haitham Mohamedein was arrested by security forces and detained for several days before being released. The group has been targeted during and since Mubarak's rule. The charges against Mohamedein included "being a member of a secret group which aims to stop the state's authorities... incite and empower a certain social class against the entire society ... and attack citizens and to disrupt societal peace".

Mark LeVine spoke with Revolutionary Socialist activist and Media Committee member Tarek Shalaby in Cairo about the implications of Mohamedein's arrest, the struggles facing the revolution, and possible strategies for reviving the fortunes of Egypt's revolutionary forces.

Mark LeVine: It certainly doesn't seem that Egypt has moved much closer to socialism since Mubarak's ouster. Why would the military go after the Revolutionary Socialists now, and particularly a labour lawyer? Don't they have bigger fish to fry with the Brotherhood?

Tarek Shalaby: Mohamedein's arrest points to the situation in which the state finds itself, one in which the state presently sees labour protests as a core threat to its interests and even survival. We all knew it would be bad, and that sooner or later the government would come after the non-Brotherhood activists. But what's becoming clear only now is that the state really sees the biggest threat to its power the workers' strikes, which brought the military to its knees in February 2011 and could easily do so again. Their main fear is that workers would begin striking in larger numbers, and this could challenge state power across the country and escape SCAF's control.

ML: Since Mubarak's removal from power 31 months ago, what has been the situation of the Egyptian labour movement?

TS: Prior to #Jan25, there were merely three independent labour unions, and the syndicates all belonged to the state. In fact, in the years leading up to the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood struggled to control some of them with various rates of success. Today there are over 2,000 independent labour unions across the different sects and throughout the entire republic. That is extremely significant and it shows how much faith the working class have in self-emancipation, as well as their rising level of political awareness.

It's also interesting to note that these unions and their continual actions get very little media coverage, which is itself a measure of the threat to the state they pose. We try to counter that with our revolutionary propaganda. While there's still got a long way to go, there's no going back to pre-#Jan25, and the labour movement can only grow.

ML: How have the events of the last few months changed the situation?

TS: We've seen waves of strikes that reached extremely high levels. In September-October 2011 there were dozens of strikes on a daily basis across different sectors. These followed in the wake of previous months of popular protests in response to the failure of the SCAF government to deliver on any of its promises, the worsening of the economy because of the ongoing political instability, and the gradual exposure of SCAF as an anti-democratic, counter-revolutionary force. ... These strikes at least forced the government to pay lip service to addressing existing problems.

Normally, it's the police or security forces that break up labour protests. But [the Suez strike] was such a threat the military itself had to intervene.

- Tarek Shalaby

And then since March and April of this year there was some of the greatest strikes witnessed in recent history. They were so powerful that they in fact proved to the military that Morsi and the Brotherhood couldn't, or were incapable of, containing the revolutionary movement. This was, after all, their sole responsibility when SCAF allowed them to take power. So the direct result, in our analysis, of these strikes was SCAF deciding to depose Morsi. This is a chain of events that few people mention, but it is crucial to understanding the rationale behind SCAF's actions, as well as understanding why there was such a revolutionary upsurge against Morsi as well. Revolutionary forces and SCAF did share, for a moment, the same interest - to remove Morsi - but for opposite reasons: the revolutionaries to strengthen their power against the system, and SCAF to preserve it from a major perceived threat.

Things have seemingly gone well for SCAF in the sense of its renewed power and prestige, but in fact it only went well for a few days. Soon enough there were huge strikes again that really show how precarious its position is. The first involved around 2,000 workers at the "Suez for steel" factory, where [the] army had to intervene and make arrests to end the strike. We need to comprehend the significance of the military directly intervening. Normally, it's the police or security forces that break up labour protests. But this was such a threat the military itself had to intervene.

The second strike, which began [in] the last week of August, is even more significant - taking place in the core revolutionary city of Mahallah, where massive strikes in 2006 and particularly 2008 were the direct impetus for the most important revolutionary movements of January 25. ... Indeed, this strike was so powerful that the military not only had to intervene, but it had to send a tank directly into the complex [NB: this is not the first time the military has had APCs or tanks inside the Mahallah complex]. That's a huge step, and a visual representation of how the military is not siding with the people. In fact, these types of moments break the harmony and counter SCAF's propaganda of being "one hand" with the people.

ML: This seems a bit optimistic, no?

TS: The problem is that in the wake of the initial uprisings, we as Revolutionary Socialists did not present an alternative to the emerging polarity of SCAF or the Brotherhood, and so people felt they had to choose between SCAF and the Islamists.

And while SCAF represents the counter-revolution and Islamists potentially counter-revolutionary forces as long as they were powerful enough to fulfill that role, what people didn't realise is that the workers could still play such a big role, even if it's not understood as such.

The reality is that their actions were so threatening to the state - that is, so revolutionary - that Morsi was kicked out after one year. Of course, the media and propaganda are focused on either discrediting or ignoring it, and that's why someone like Mohamedein would be arrested now, to test the waters and see if they can get away with a major crackdown on revolutionary and labour activists before they're too powerful.

ML: I have spoken with Revolutionary Socialist members or former members who in fact became upset that the movement didn't do more direct organising in the wake of the January 25 revolution to build ties to workers, and particularly in the agricultural sector, which you don't mention as being active yet. If you were going to be self-critical, what do you think you and other core revolutionary movements could and/or should have done differently after February 11, 2011 to make stronger inroads into not just industrial and textile workers, but also the huge and hugely repressed agricultural sector?

TS: If I were to be self-critical, I'd criticise the group for failing to recruit members prior to the revolution, and for not building a strong communication network within to make it a solid movement. I'd like to think we're working on both, but we've obviously still got a long way to go. On the other hand, we need to recognise that we're a small movement. If we were big and powerful enough to organise a general strike, the revolution wouldn't be where it is now. The lack of connection with the workers is in no way intentional, but its limitations given our resources and capabilities.

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We're slowly but surely growing, and I'm very optimistic in that sense. One thing is sure: It's no coincidence that they arrest a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists who's a lawyer for striking workers in Suez.

ML: In the first few months following Mubarak's departure, it seemed like there could be some kinds of coalitions between labour/socialist/revolutionary parties and religiously grounded activists concerned about economic injustice. But it didn't really materialise. How come, in your opinion? And why even now, when the Brotherhood has lost so much legitimacy, don't we see more activists from that tendency moving over towards economic justice issues, where they could rebuild some lost trust with the people?

TS: That's a good question. I think under normal circumstances, if the Brotherhood had simply remained in power longer and became increasingly unpopular ... this might have happened. However, as soon as SCAF stepped in and deposed Morsi and then cracked down ... it became an issue of survival. They feel they have to defend the leadership, even if they don't agree with them politically, because they know that the only way to avoid going to political prisons with the support of millions of Egyptians is by siding with the leadership and trying to pull through somehow.

This is why, ultimately, this coup is very counterproductive if your aim was to get rid of political Islam. That is, the military's actions are making the core Brotherhood cadres even more cohesive and united. I think so many members understand how wild it is out there and the necessity to stay close and united. Reaching out to groups against whom they were so recently aligned, even groups that have harshly criticised the military, might not be a good survival strategy in the present situation.

ML: Speaking of which, did any other major political group explicitly condemn the deposing of Morsi and current military power? Or were the Revolutionary Socialists alone in this?

TS: It's true that we were the only significant political organisation that explicitly condemned both Brotherhood rule and the toppling of Morsi and subsequent state-violence against the Brotherhood and its marchers. Yet it also has to be pointed out that civil society saw many important organisations take such a stand: No to Military Trials, the anti-sexual harassment group; the Front of Lawyers for the defence of protesters; Moseireen, and the like. But very few political groups.

If we do our work right and spread our message and use alternative media and other forms of communication not controlled by the state and its allies, people will start realising that they don't have to choose - they can oppose both forces. They can be against the Brotherhood without supporting massacres; they can be against SCAF without wanting Morsi back in power. What we need to do, all of us, is bring all the revolutionary groups together against SCAF, Mubarak and the Brotherhood. We need to rebuild the revolutionary coalition.

At the end of the day, you can put thousands of people in the streets and the state will ignore you. But if hundreds go on strike, the whole dynamic is changed and they have to pay a lot more attention to its citizens.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on "rock and resistance and the struggle for soul" in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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