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Economic Revolution vs. Political Reform. The Clash of Classes in Egypt and the USA. ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Mary Lynn Cramer. Axis of Logic Exclusive
Axis of Lgoic
Friday, Feb 25, 2011

Today, February 25, protesters, not satisfied with only ridding Egypt of Mubarak, protested the new cabinet. Tens of thousands rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square, keeping the pressure on Egypt's military rulers to carry out reforms and calling for the dismissal of members of the Mubarak regime who are still in place.  Photo: Khalil Hamra/AP. Comment: Axis of Logic. 

The Nobel Laureate and the Labor Lawyer

Nobel Laureate and 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
Khalid Ali, a labor lawyer for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights likewise advised Democracy Now correspondent Anjali Kamat, 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 a previous article (“Revolution Without Facebook: 3000 Strikes by Egyptian Workers,” Axis of Logic, 2/11/11) 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.” (Democracy Now, 2/18/11)

The attainment of such goals as these does not lend itself to secret, back room deals.

Dr. Mohamed ElBarade in Tahrir Square on January 30, 2011. He is former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, a leading figure in the Egyptian protests and possible presidential candidate.

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 told the BBC 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. ElBaradei sits on the Board of the International Crisis Group, an organization financially backed by George Soros, which no doubt account for his reference to other global projects he could be involved with. Early on, Soros urged the US to take the lead in supporting the pro-democracy protesters and the presidential candidacy of ElBaradei. In his Washington Post essay, Soros promised that his “foundations are prepared to contribute what they can.” (“Why Obama Has to Get Egypt Right” 2/3/11)

Salem Muhammod, an enthusiastic supporter of the Egyptian revolution, is worried about El Baradei's tight relationship with George Soros, “a man experienced in funding revolutions and placing leaders he wants and believes will push for globalization in that country.” (Middle East Newswire, 2/2/11).
Here is the complete piece with this information inserted:

"Ten million Egyptians earn less than $1.00 a day; 40 million, less than $2.00 a day."
On “Victory Day,” Friday, 2/18/11, 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 background 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. Google as I might that same day, I could find not another reference to those strike actions and the workers’ expressed solidarity 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

"Striking workers ... 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'.”
Calling on the insights of Stanford 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 up to the Army Generals to define, as the constitution had been suspended and emergency powers are still in place. Under the Emergency Law, constantly 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 Mubarak, 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: 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.

  1. The resignation of president Mohammed Hosni Mubarak

  2. Canceling the Emergency Law

  3. Dismantling the state secret service

  4. An announcement by Omar Suleiman 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.

  10. Drafting a new constitution

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

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

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

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

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

  16. Canceling the national service in the police force

  17. Ending the security clampdown on telecommunications and the Internet

(Source: Global Voice Online 2/10/11)

According to Esam Al-amin, a contributor to (2/22/11), there may be as many as thirty-five demands from the coalition of parties and groups active in the demonstrations of January 25. The most important demands, the resignation of Mubarak, has “formally” been carried out, although there is much speculation about the role he may continue to play from his Sharm El-Sheikh retreat. The Parliament elected by Mubarak forces in November has been dissolved, and a very few former ministers, as well as a Mubarak party leader, have been arrested and are reportedly being investigated on charges of corruption. Also the the military regime has appointed judges and constitutional scholars to look at possibilities of limited constitutional reform and free presidential/parliamentary elections.

The military rulers have resisted addressing the top demands, like the release of thousands of political prisoners, the end of the Emergency Law permitting the military to arrest whomever they want for any reason they want, as well as the dissolution of the state security apparatus, and termination of Mubarak's ruling party apparatus.

Al-amin in his article, “How Democracy Could Be Hijacked,” (CP 2/22/11) goes on to say that the pro-democracy coalition has added a new demand: that the Generals in charge, “declare a complete break from the previous regime and appoint an honest and capable individual to lead a transitional government until the elections, one that comprises a cabinet of technocrats, who were never part of any past Mubarak government. However, he observes that the military prefers to “bring about a limited reshuffle by replacing the most corrupt ministers, perhaps with some opposition members who were friendly with the previous regime.”

"Top Generals in the Army ... have been enriched by their control over very lucrative companies in a wide range of fields. They will not support any civilian ‘coalition’ that calls into question their economic privileges and power."
              - James Petras
Apart from all the understandable sloganeering that “the Army and the People are One,” I have no doubt that the majority of Egyptians are aware that the military men of the Supreme Council have enormous vested interests in maintaining their privileges in the hierarchical socio-economic system as it has existed for decades under Mubarak. As SUNY professor emeritus, James Petras points out, they have been “enriched by their control over very lucrative companies in a wide range of fields, and you can be sure they will not accept any “civilian 'coalition' that calls into question their economic privileges and power.” (“Sacrificing Dictators to Save the State,” Axis of Logic 2/7/11)

Author and journalist, Jonathan Cook, also underscores the importance “three decades of American money” has had in corrupting the senior ranks of the Egyptian Army. “The army is reported to own about a third of the country's assets” which include electrical goods, constructions companies, olive oil and pharmaceutical production." (“The Price of Peace,” Counterpunch 2/22/11)

As we all know, or should know, the US corporate government is the “genius” behind the neoliberal vision of global privatization (at home and abroad) of the entire world's productive capacity, resources, and every nation's social services and public institutions. Contrast this reality with Demand No. 4 above of the Iron and Steel Workers, insisting that the Egyptian people take back “public sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatized” and reclaim “the public sector which belongs to the people,” along with the nationalization, in the name of the people, of these companies and public services, to be managed by councils of “workers and technicians.” How do you think the Egyptian military buddies of the White House and Pentagon would respond if this were included in the demands of the Youth Movement, Would the pro-democracy coalition and their preferred presidential candidate, Mohamed ElBaradei, have any interest in prioritizing these “economic” demands set forth by the workers?

If the negotiating process between opposition groups and the ruling military government is as labor lawyer, Khalid Ali, suspects—closed door meetings with select individuals in order to buy off sectors of the opposition—which of the above list of demands do you think the generals will choose to cherry pick their deal-making possibilities? A local long-time human rights activist and friend 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.

ElBaradei in his BBC interview last week was clearly frustrated by the regime's lack of transparency and unresponsiveness to the demands of the coalition of anti-Mubarak groups. The workings of the ruling Generals are like a “black box;” he has no idea how they will deal with the unmet demands. Nevertheless, he is respecting the military's request that all strikes and demonstrations cease, except for the agreed upon gatherings each Friday in Tahrir Square. Consequently, he did not join the opposition groups who rallied in the square on Tuesday, February 22, 2011. While thousands felt it necessary that day to demonstrate and keep the pressure on the military government to meet demands, the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was busy swearing in several new ministers. Important Mubarak loyalists will maintain significant cabinet positions, namely, the Ministers of Justice, Foreign, Finance, Interior and Defense. Some have referred to this as simply a “cabinet reshuffle” that leaves Mubarak's "cronies" in control of Egypt.

Egypt's Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) complained bitterly about the appointment of Ismail Ibrahim Fahmy (former treasurer of the General Union for Workers” Syndicates) to the position of Labor Minister. The CTUWS stated that this was clear evidence of the military government's intent to "co-opt formal labor unions and the labor ministry."

"We warn of the dire consequences of defying the will of the workers and their legitimate right to enjoy union rights," CTUWS said.(“Egypt Swears in New Ministers” 2/22/11 Al Jazeera).

On Friday, February 25, 2011, tens of thousands of protesters turned out in cities across Egypt, in Ismailia, Arish, Suez, and Port Said. And, as promised, thousands of men, women, and children returned to Cairo's Tahrir Square, calling again for the ouster of Mubarak appointees still in power. In particular, they want to see Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq removed from office. Late into the evening, hundreds continued their protests around the cabinet building, chanting that they would not leave until until Shafiq goes. (“Egyptians Pack Tahrir for Protest and Celebration,” Reuters, 2/25/11)

"The striking workers in Wisconsin, and the Egyptian Iron and Steel workers know that real political change means real economic change, and visa versa."
It is possible that the youthful protesters believe there is a significant difference between “economic” change and “political” change. Here, they are in the good company of many well-intentioned middle class professionals. Even labor activists like Evan Rohar of Labor Notes, as I noted in an earlier article, can make the mistake of dismissing workers' demands as “economic” and “not political.” (“Revolution Without Facebook” 2/11/11). More recently another enthusiastic supporter of labor struggles, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez, referring to the recent union strikes ongoing in Madison, Wisconsin, stated that the governor's interfering with unionized workers' collective bargaining rights has nothing to do with economics. Even though Juan knows that the Governor Walker's intentions are to make the unions ineffective, if not to destroy them entirely, he says this has nothing to do with economics! You can bet Governor Walker and others anticipate the economic gains and lower costs possible from the exploitation of workers without bargaining rights. How about larger classroom size, longer school days, shorter vacations, more hours and fewer workers (known as “increasing productivity” in the private sector). Other state governors are also talking about “contracting out” public services, and “privatizing” not only those jobs but employee benefits.

The corporate CEO s as well as the politicians know that this is about “economics.” The striking workers in Wisconsin, and the Egyptian Iron and Steel workers know that real political change means real economic change, and visa versa. It is often the good-hearted, well-educated liberals, comfortable with their own economic status, who cling to the myth that Capitalism (our “economic” system) can provide for everyone, if only the “good guys” get elected to political office. Hence the model of political reform without significant economic consequences for the classes. (For deeper analysis of this myth and model see my article “The Limits of Liberal Rhetoric: Profits vs. Jobs,” Axis of Logic 1/29/11).

I will stick my neck out even further, and bet you that the Egyptian Generals in charge know that an Economic Revolution---one that radically changes the social relations of production and distribution---would also turn their lives upside down. Political reforms that leave the class structure in place are also what our own large landowning elite sought to preserve when they drafted the first Constitution of the United States of America. Originally, only those white males with considerable property and sufficient wealth had the right to rule and vote. Those who objected, were violently repressed.

In Egypt today, as in the USA, a political “changing of the guard” or a “reshuffling of the cabinet” will not result in necessary economic changes for the better in the daily lives of most working people. In his recent article (“Post-Mubarak Revolutionary Chances,” (Al Jazeera 2/21/11), Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, and former UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, states plainly:

“The plight of the Egyptian poor must be placed on the top of the new political agenda, which will require not only control of food and fuel prices - but the construction of an equitable economy that gives as much attention to the distribution of the benefits of growth as to GNP aggregate figures. Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich, whether Egyptian or foreign."


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