The labour movement and the future of democracy in Egypt

The actions of the Ultras and the labour movement could determine the future of revolutionary politics of Egypt.

Leaderless protests tend to lose ground "when the terrain shifts towards more ordinary politics" [EPA]

Irvine, CA, & Cairo, Egypt – There has never been any coordination between them, but over the coming months, the actions of the Ultras and the labour movement could well determine the future of revolutionary politics in Egypt.

Both movements, with their strong working class roots, have been at the front lines of protest in Egypt in the last decade, with institutional memories of opposing unjust rulers, whether in the football stadiums or the factories, going back much further. Each played a crucial role in the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Years of experience – and often exuberance while – fighting riot police and security forces put the Ultras at the front lines of the early battles of Tahrir, and every battle since. For its part, decades of sit-ins, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience – large and small – made the labour movement a natural deus ex machina to save the revolution on that unseasonably warm day, the Wednesday before Mubarak fell, when Tahrir had lost its energy and Mubarak’s strategy of getting Egypt back to work while letting protesters stew in Midan seemed to be working.

Listening Post – Egyptian news from ‘revolutionary’ sources

In the heat of the revolution and the glow of its immediate aftermath, it was the “facebook youth” and (supposedly) “liberal”, English-speaking activists who were celebrated as the heroes of the Revolution.

Activists and those who watched the unfolding events more carefully knew better; as well-known blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy would put it, the revolution wasn’t made by “facebook” or the “youth” or even in Tahrir, but rather by striking workers across the country.

“We were all saying,” he explained, recalling the dangerous days of February 7-9, “if the working class doesn’t step in, we’re all screwed.”

Mothers and grandmothers of Tahrir

Hardly anyone understood the Ultra’s role in those early post-2/11 days, in good measure because they had little desire to advertise it – their mentality has long been not to brag about anything they do outside the football stadiums.

They also are not generally very friendly with outsiders, and few spoke English, the language of the international media, who at any rate were looking for more photogenic and “appealing” revolutionaries who would look good on the cover of Time or Newsweek, or even the more mainstream Egyptian media.

But after Mubarak was ousted, the role of the labour movement as an incubator of the revolt has been more widely understood.

No one familiar with Egypt’s 20th century history would be surprised at this fact. Look at this video of protests in Mahallah in 2008, and you see the seeds of Tahrir which came up 34 months later.

A veteran labour activist, Mahallah-based Kamal Fayoumi, declared when we met him late last year, “Mahallah is the mother of Tahrir. On April 6, 2008, they said the whole country was in Mahallah. On January 25, 2011, they said everyone was in Tahrir.”

Strikes have been a feature of Egyptian life for well over a century, with unions achieving a major place in the country’s life in the years leading up to the end of the monarchy. The Nasser years saw an authoritarian populist regime dramatically increase wages and living standards for workers, even as it banned all but government-controlled unions.

Under the “open door” (infitah) policies of his successor Anwar El Sadat, the balance of power shifted against the workers and strikes returned, most of them producing at least modest gains in wages or bonuses.

The pace of liberalisation and privatisation of the economy was hastened under Mubarak’s rule, especially after 1991, when the Egyptian government signed major agreements with the IMF and the World Bank to privatise public sector companies as a condition of aid. Within a decade, over 60 per cent of the public sector firms were eligible to be privatised.

Increasing the damage done by privatisation is that few private sector firms, which remain very profitable despite the near poverty wages most of them pay, are unionised.

“Basically, the privately owned firms just skim the top workers off from the public sector companies and don’t offer any of the benefits or protections that unions have won,” explained another labour activist in Mahallah.

Liberalisation and privatisation

Privatisation is a manifestation of a broader process of economic liberalisation, which over the last 20 years, have led to a variety of grievances among public sector workers and workers in the newly privatised firms.

The process of liberalisation and privatisation led directly to the most well-known recent waves of labour strikes in Egypt, which occurred in the industrial town of Mahallah – home of many of the country’s main textile mills. It began in December 2006 and after more than 700 actions, reached its highest pitch with the strikes that began on April 6, 2008.

Al Jazeera World – Egypt: The Other Homeland

The 2008 strikes can be thought of as a trial run for the protests that erupted in Tahrir almost three years later. It indeed lent its name to the coalition of youth movements, the “April 6 Youth Movement”, who were among the most important organisers of the January 25, 2011, protests and the 18 days thereafter.

The meeting on February 8, 2012, wasn’t the usual revolutionary hen house of the last year, a cacophonic swirl of activity and preparations. But people were busy – graffiti artists were making stencils and posters for a national strike planned for the February 11 anniversary.

Facebookers had shared the event as much as they could. There were big hopes after seeing the big anti-SCAF demonstrations in Tahrir on January 25, but there was concern in the air as well.

“February 11 is a beginning. The same as the workers revolt on April 6, 2008, was a rehearsal for the 2011 revolution, this 11 of February will be a rehearsal for our true general strike that will hopefully come,” Kamal Khalil, one of the country’s leading labour activists, told the assembled activists.

“Leadership is what we need for a successful strike, a successful revolution,” he continued. “Students’ unions and workers’ unions unit[ing into] one communal leadership,” as in fact happened back in the 1940s, during the last heyday of union membership.”

To that end, Kamal Khalil and other leading labour activists at the meeting were prepared to “disrupt” the country’s economy to change the system so that it no longer “wheels over the bodies of workers”.

“To everyone who accuses us of wanting to put the country’s economy on pause or even to fall,” he defiantly declared, “I say, Yes, we want to pause [it]!”

Future of protest

Khalil knows better than most activists how delicate is the balance between successful protests and just another demonstration. The Arab protests of the last year have been celebrated for being, seemingly, leaderless – a dynamic that has been credited with making it much more difficult for autocratic governments successfully to repress them and for giving them a wider social base of support.

This horizontalism, which has been a hallmark of the alter-globalisation movement, has its roots in the anti-neoliberal protests of the 1990s and 2000s in Argentina and Zapatista-led Chiapas, Mexico, and well before them, in the anarchist-inspired “affinity groups”, dating back to the 19th century (anarchists were also important, if now largely ignored in Tahrir during the 18-day occupation of the Midan).

“Down with the next president!” read one of the signs in Tahrir during the revolution. A well-known photo of someone holding that sign has recently made its way back onto the Facebook postings.

But leaderless protests tend to lose ground when the terrain shifts towards more ordinary politics. As we see with the Occupy movement in the US and Europe today, to the extent there isn’t a clearly defined and publicly identifiable leadership able to express similarly clear goals, it becomes very hard to compete against other, more organised, socially entrenched and wealthier groups.

Whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or the so-called “deep state” and the feloul, the remnants of the Mubarak years, once the struggle moves away from protests and more towards traditional politics, the lack of a public face that can galvanise support and hammer simple and coordinated messages into public consciousness is a big disadvantage.

Khalil knows this all too well from his own, long experience. And so he told his fellow activists, “At marches, I hear people talking about demanding power to be handed over to the Parliament or this or that. And to be honest, I find it delusional. Power doesn’t get handed over, Power gets taken over! And having a solid students-worker unions’ joint leadership is the preparation we need for the one step forward.” 

That’s why his main focus was on pushing for the large-scale strikes that helped win the first phase of the revolution. “The revolution so far has over-used the tool of protesting and sit-ins. The [recent] bloody clashes have kept refreshing the revolution. But the tool of strikes is what we need to work on now.”

Strikes have been a feature of Egyptian life for well over a century [EPA]

Cairo and Mahalla

On February 12, it was clear how much momentum had been lost in the previous year, despite almost daily strikes across the country in one sector or another and the fact that strikes did occur in the national telecom company, El-Sokhna harbour in Suez, steel factories and gas companies. But it wasn’t enough. 

The SCAF and the government-controlled media pulled out all the stops to deligitimise the strike beforehand and downplay its impact after, deploying the well-worn accusation that the campaign of civil disobedience and strikes threatened the country’s stability and, of course, public order.

In Mahallah, which local activists boast has largely been a no-go area for government forces since 2008, Kamal El-Fayoumi was arrested on February 11 and held without any charge for two days.

Considering Egyptian workers have always had to deal with powerful states that were simultaneously the biggest employer and the biggest obstacles to workers’ rights, the protest was far from a complete loss even if the strike didn’t seriously disrupt public and economic life.

Indeed, there were positive lessons to be drawn from the attempted national strike. Most important, according to Khalil, was that the students’ movement had “brought us one beautiful birth. It’s stronger than our generation’s in the 70s, and the students are now [100 per cent] back in the game”.

Egyptian football fans in deadly riot

At the same time, it’s important to remember the important victories the labour movement has won in the last year, including the establishment of independent unions, the drafting (although as of yet not issuing) of more worker-friendly laws, court victories against employers and a wave of strikes that is at least as large as, and perhaps larger, than the wave of strikes between 2006 and 2008.

Perhaps because of these gains, the broader activist community missed the labour movement’s potential power during the anniversary protest. Only a few nights after February 11, while walking through downtown, one could find stencils, featuring the profile of a muscular factory worker with a line under that read, “To the workers of Egypt, WHERE ARE YOU?” 

Revolutionary strategy

Yet, not all labour leaders supported the national strike plan. Speaking with Ahmed Kamal, a close associate of Fayoumi, the day the latter was released, he felt such moves were counterproductive at the present time.

“What strike? You mean the civil disobedience that would ruin our country’s economy? We’ve gone on no such strike,” he declared. “Our machines are still turning for our country’s economy, which desperately needs it these days.”

He was not alone in this view. Wedad El-Demerdash, one of the icons of the 2006 strike and a representative of the powerful role of women in the labour movement, was equally unsupportive of a mass strike at the present time.

“All these ‘revolutionaries’ who called for the strike have long forgotten after the revolution about their own people and their much needed role on the ground [in Mahallah]. Workers belong to their factories and among their fellow workers, not in Tahrir, neither in some Cairo meetings almost a 100 kilometres away.”

El-Demerdash went on, “We know exactly when to start a strike, how to put it together and when to put it on hold. But no one, not even us icons of the workers movement, can get workers to go on a strike without a convincing case and demand. And now is just not the time. The average people won’t take our side, and neither can the economy take it. We, the middle class, are the most to get hurt by the economy when it strikes.”

Most important to El-Demerdash was the need to change a crucial element of revolutionary strategy, which had called for creating new and independent unions while the government and National Democratic Party-led unions ran the show, to taking over the still dominant traditional unions.

Asking to make sure her message was spread as widely as possible, she explained, “We need to rescind the concept of free syndicates [and] clean up the existing syndicates.”

Tackling the corruption of the more established syndicates wasn’t her only concern. “Unity is what’s much needed now,” she declared.

“We have to seize the moment and reclaim our workers’ union, otherwise we’ll become the counter-revolution to our own revolution. If we don’t [do this], the opportunists will take over again, perhaps opportunists of a new kind – brotherhood members or revolutionaries who once used to be troopers – but opportunists are all the same.”

Ultra militancy  

It’s clear that leading labour activists are struggling to reach a consensus on the best strategy moving forward. But these internal disagreements are at least partly the result of a concerted effort by the Egyptian elite to put forth an anti-labour messageto the public, which included strong anti-strike rhetoric surrounding the proposed national strike of February 11, 2012.

One year after Egypt’s uprising

The dominance of this discourse in the public sphere has only made it harder for the labour movement to develop the best strategies to continue with the labour militancy that helped win the first round of the revolution, and without which, long term gains for the Egyptian working class – the vast majority of the country’s population – will be impossible.

While activists were planning for the February 11 strike, the night of February 2 brought, tragically, a new player to the forefront of the revolution – the Ultras, the so-called “fanatical” football fans. Their experience, fighting against riot police at football matches had already given them a crucial role in taking on the police and security forces in the first week of the previous year’s protests, and equally in fighting back against government forces during the Muhammad Mahmoud mini-war that began in mid-November 2011 on the edges of Tahrir.

The 74 deaths of soccer fans at the “riot” in Port Said have been blamed on the Ultras by the SCAF and much of the media. But the Ultras and most of the activists consider themselves to be victims of a concerted plot by the government to instigate such violence in order to discredit and weaken the movement.

Even if at the height of the Muhammad Mahmoud violence, the Ultras – who controlled Tahrir – refused to define their actions as political (“No politics!” was the response we would get whenever we tried to raise the subject), the Port Said violence had the effect of both uniting the often fiercely rival groups and leading them explicitly to define themselves as part of the revolution.

“Watch out for the rage of Ultras!” read many graffitis across the town. For the first time, the Ultras officially joined marches and subsequently camped in front of the People’s Assembly in mid-March.

Within a day of starting their encampment, the Ultras wrote a song, “Ya Magles Ya Ibn El-Haram” (“Oh SCAF, You Son of a B*tch”), for the Port Said martyrs, in which they offered direct support for the revolution and cursed the SCAF.

Workers were even directly mentioned in the song’s lyrics, “And they’ve killed the finest of youth, some were engineers, some were factory workers and also youngsters”.

Ramy Essam’s song “Irhal” became one of the anthems of the first round of the revolution. It was sang innumerable times a day during the sit-ins in an effort to ingrain it into the consciousness of whoever passed by.

New leaders 

The Ultras are not the likeliest candidates to join a mass labour movement, since few have the kinds of factory or other organised jobs that have traditionally been at the heart of union organisation. But most of the Ultras come from working class families and well understand the plight of workers, even if the rather closed social and economic universe they’ve created has been – at least till now – a step removed from traditional labour politics. With this song, for the first time, the Ultras have acknowledged workers as an icon in the Ultras’ culture.

Symbolising their willingness to be more explicitly part of the larger revolutionary movements, the Ultras even started permitting non-members to wear previously “secret” t-shirt designs, allowing others, young and old, to share in their militant – and now increasingly popular – spirit.

“I’ve almost given up hope to see Egyptian youth discuss things like this,” said an old man as he witnessed a late-night Ultras’ meeting at the sit-in. “God bless you, kids.”

If the revolution has largely refused to name a leader or group of core leaders, the dynamic is changing as Ultras stake their ground within the revolutionary tent. Specifically, the top leadership of both the Ultras Ahlawy (UA) and Ultras White Knights (UWK) are asserting a direct leadership role in the politicisation of the once rival groups, which was highlighted by an historic meeting three weeks ago with over 3,000 Ultra members attending.

Egyptian activists in information war

Many street level members of the two groups were clamouring for a virtual declaration of war against the government rather than a declaration of unity they felt had already occurred without anyone needing to declare it. Indeed, some could be heard calling for “a revolution inside our own Ultras group and get a revolutionary [leadership].” 

Instead, the leaders’, or “capos”, self-discipline and call for a sit-in rather than violence, won the day despite provocations by the police and the SCAF. This strategy has enhanced the group’s political position.

On the night of April 8, the capos ordered everyone to take down their tents and suspend the sit-in in response to the decision by the courts and Parliament to investigate the Port Said massacre, and to consider the Port Said victims as martyrs of the revolution. At the same time, however, the capos announced that the Ultras would participate in future revolutionary protests.

Old guard taking note

Kamal Khalil, for one, is not afraid of this new blood taking a more forceful role as the militant protesters dig in for the long haul.

“We should stop talking about ourselves, the elder generation, as being the ones who should plan and plot for the revolution. The past months have shown us that the revolution lies only in the hands of these youngsters. The generations of Muhammad Mahmoud street battles has been breast-fed by tear gas and chemical warfare. It’s a fighting generation and it has [its own] perspective. It has the energy to free a whole world.”

Seeming to agree with his colleagues in Mahallah who have been at times critical of the removal of some of the labour leaders in Cairo, Khalil reiterated this thought as he ended a discussion during a recent march, “Away from all the meetings and big speeches, our revolution will be successful only in the hands of these amazing young people. And we, workers, need to pull ourselves together to be there for these kids when they need us.”

The summer of 2012 could well witness the beginnings of a long term battle for the future of Egypt between two new coalitions: the SCAF-led deep state and its increasingly elite Brotherhood partners – representing the political order – and a revolutionary coalition in which the liberal facebookers – who helped open the door to Revolution on January 25, 2011 – give way to an even tougher and more militant combination of seasoned labour activists and the Ultras who never shy from a fight.

One thing is certain, if these groups can work together to develop a coherent battle plan against the emerging political elite, the hope for transition to a new constitutional order will be anything but smooth, or to the liking of the Egyptian elite. As Wedad El-Demerdash told us, “I know these Ultras are not going to let go of the martyrs’ blood. And that’s good enough of an essence to keep this revolution alive.”

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and a 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.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

Amor Eletrebi is a 23-year-old poet and activist who was has participated in protests at Tahrir Square in both the January 25 revolution and current protests.