A historian of the Middle East from Stanford University discusses Egypt’s new interim government and the labour movement.
Giuseppe Acconcia: Professor Beinin, we are told that the Muslim Brothers have been abandoned by the armed forces to foster a government more engaged in the defense of social justice, as requested by millions of protesters, is this true?
Joel Beinin: To be sure the army is aware that with this economic crisis, with rising prices and the fall in the import of wheat, the Egyptian people’s social rights have to be addressed. I would not say that the new government looks likely to follow this path. The prime minister Hazim Beblawi is a man of the centre and his government arises out of an agreement between the youth movements, the liberal party al-Dostour, led by Mohammed el-Baradei, and the Nasserists, supporting Hamdin Sabbahi: it is not a leftist coalition.
GA: In terms of political direction, what does the Minister of Manpower, Kamal Abu Eita, president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, lend the government?
JB: Eita is a Nasserist, not a socialist. It is enough to read his first commentary after the offer: “Workers should become the heroes of production”. According to the Nasserists, strikes should never take place: the national economy must ameliorate to the point that all salaried workers can live properly. For this reason, Eita has been criticized by the left, for instance by Fatma Ramada, representative of the Independent Syndicates’ board, who harshly opposed his appointment.
GA: Have the Muslim Brothers lost their support among the Egyptian workers?
JB: They never had any such support. The workers in the industrial sectors showed their clear opposition towards the Brotherhood; for instance, by rejecting the Constitution in the Nile Delta region and Cairo, the biggest industrial areas of the country.
GA: During this year, did the many leftist parties that supported the rebel campaign swell their ranks before the 3 July military coup?
JB: The true leftist parties, such as the Revolutionary Socialist party, do not have a significant constituency. They are not able to mobilize the workers. They had some political space before and after Mubarak: but the economic crisis alienated their support in the workers movement. The Tamarrod (rebels) always described itself as a big coalition. Among the signatures collected, a fifth come from the left. But this component is rather lost in nationalist discourses. The campaign which led to Morsi’s fall speaks to and for the nation, without expressing the demands of any one class.
GA: This secular change has been helped by the Nasserist component within the army?
JB: The true Nasserists were eliminated within the top posts of command inside the military, years ago. In the political arena, the army has always fought against both Nasserists and Islamists, which explains why Marshal Hussein Tantawi needed a week to admit that Morsi won the elections against Ahmed Shafiq last year.
GA: Why has the law on independent syndicates, approved after the revolts, never been enforced?
JB: At the last syndicate elections in 2006, the Muslim Brothers and leftist movements did not participate, because the activists of those groups had already been identified, removed or rounded up and put under arrest by state security. The military junta did not permit the governments, after 2011, to apply a law that could revitalize the Egyptian trade union movements.
The parliament elected in 2012 had been discussing the new syndicate law, and three different versions were proposed. However, the process was abruptly terminated by the Parliament’s dissolution. Last August 2011, members of the Brotherhood, remnants of the old regime (feloul) and leftist independents entered the Central Committee of the Egyptian syndicate’s federation. At that stage, the Islamists began to work with the feloul. Last year, the syndicate elections were postponed and the same will happen again this year. In the meantime, the Muslim Brothers and the National Democratic Party’s former members still control the trade unions.
GA: Is it correct that the Mahalla al-Kubra’s workers were active in these latest revolts?
JB: At the moment, nobody knows who represents whom. The workers in Mahalla are a force that could lead the movement, but up till now none of the political parties have been able to organize it. The real socialist parties are very far from power; while social-democrats, already active in the previous regime, have been co-opted within the new government. This means they have become party to a nationalist ideology that for years has categorically rebuffed the workers’ requests.