Sameh Naguib is a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, in London to speak about ‘Egypt, the Arab Spring and revolution today’ and to research a book he is writing on the Egyptian revolution whose title he thinks may be, ‘Egypt: the Long Revolution’.
Rosemary Bechler: A new cabinet of ministers has just been appointed in Egypt: can you tell me about the make-up of that cabinet? And also the support that it has and whether this represents some kind of liberal democratic ascendency?
Sameh Naguib: It doesn’t. It’s made up mainly of liberal technocrats… technocrats who are linked to some of the newly created liberal parties, of which there are two main examples: Al Dostour, which means the ‘Constitution Party’ was formed by Al Baradei around eighteen months ago. The other political party in a direct translation would be the ‘Egyptian Social Democratic Party’. But again, it’s not social democratic… it is a liberal, a neoliberal party. These two post-revolution political parties, with very little mass base because they are so new, have four ministers in this government. The Prime Minister and his Deputy for Economics are both from that Social Democratic Party. And I think they have two other ministers, who have also been suddenly elevated by the army, directly. There are also a few technocrats from the Mubarak days. These are re-emerging now quite clearly, into the limelight.
RB: Have they been carefully selected as not having too awful a political past?
SN: Not at all. I will give you an example: the Minister of Transport was the minister responsible when we had the most terrible train crash in modern Egyptian history. General El Sisi - the vice prime minister - is the minister of defence and the head of the Army. He basically sits in on all the meetings.
RB: This is no longer an army inclined to go into the background any time soon?
SN: It’s very much in the foreground. Formally, the Army is moving back out: there is a process, there is a president, a constitutional judge and so forth. But actually on the ground it’s very much in the forefront and this is just a civilian front to what is clearly a military set-up. Nothing happens without El Sisi’s approval. He’s really at centre stage, in exactly the same way that the army was when Tantawi was in charge and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was running the country.
RB: In terms of what June 30 more broadly represents, would you agree that it represents some form of liberal ascendency?
SN: Well, the 30th June was a very complicated day. It confuses everybody all over the world; in Egypt and outside of Egypt, because what you have is two processes happening at the same time. You have on the one hand what is clearly a revolutionary wave involving millions and millions of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, the army and the old regime have used that unprecedented upsurge to get themselves back in the saddle and to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So, formally-speaking it is undeniable that you have a coup. Obviously. The military removed the president, who we haven’t seen or heard of since that day. He was the elected president. He was democratically elected, so this is by definition a coup.
But at the same time, you have this massive outburst, even bigger than the 2011 uprising, that is unprecedented. It’s much more geographically widespread, and occurs at the peak of the biggest strike wave we have ever had in Egypt. In the months preceding the 30th June – you may not know this - we had the highest level of strikes anywhere in the world and not just in Egyptian history – a rate of approximately 500 strikes a week, that’s the average.
But to answer your question, the coup, in order to legitimate itself both within Egypt and outside - particularly for the west which is important - has a kind of liberal front. So, all these people who have very good democratic credentials, like El Baradei, have been placed at the forefront as if there were an actual democratic process taking place. And importantly those people, and the financiers behind them, control the media in Egypt. They have big private media at their service, controlled by the billionaires who are supporting these two parties.
RB: And these are the media that have dominated proceedings in a rather one-sided way: they have all been explicitly anti-Morsi?
SN: Extremely anti-Morsi, it has been no less than a kind of anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria. Now, this doesn’t mean that the Muslim Brotherhood don’t deserve the criticism they get: they were really terrible in government, recently using the potential for sectarian division quite unashamedly and also deploying some vicious anti-woman propaganda. And they not only promoted some terrible ideas: but they did not solve any of the long list of problems that they were given power to solve.
However what these private media have been keen to propagate is the idea that ‘we don’t want anything to do with them’ - the whole Muslim Brotherhood - because they are ‘fascists and reactionaries’.
RB: I understand they are being described as ‘terrorists’ now?
SN: Yes, anybody who supports them or anybody who defends them will be designated ‘terrorists’. And these media are successful in raising the level of hostility to the point of hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood. This is very dangerous because, for example, we have a very large minority of Christians in Egypt :10% of the population, at least. If you are creating this kind of hatred towards the Muslim Brotherhood and if this starts to result in actual attacks on anybody who has a beard, or women wearing the niqab being beaten up – and this is happening now right around the clock, every day – then the idea is that if anyone is killed, it must be the Muslim Brotherhood who killed them. It’s always their fault.
RB: And what position are the Tamarod rebels or any of those leading elements taking on this escalation of hostilities?
SN: Tamarod started off as a simple kind of democratic initiative that spread very rapidly. But it is the army, the intelligence forces and the old regime who have the money and the power, and once Tamarod’s main leaders came out on television alongside the General announcing that the president is no longer the president, that straight away isolates any revolutionary forces.
So, now you are either a supporter of the Army or you’re counted as being one with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s very difficult now, in Egypt, to have any kind of independent line against both.
RB: Compare this with the situation in Turkey, where you have this very interesting horizontalist movement trying to reach out from Taksim Sq. and the other squares, but not reaching the 50% of the electorate that Erdogan is so proud of. So you get this tragic divide, and again, as we have seen resulting from recent events in Tunisia. Which forces would you say are involved in maintaining that division in Egypt?
SN: The army, the intelligence forces and the media, using every method they can. They will pay thugs, for example, to attack a woman and say that this is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, just to stoke up this kind of hatred. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood do not do this kind of thing. They do this kind of thing as well, because they are trapped into vengeful reactions. You can understand it. People have forced them out and into a corner. They were convinced that they were going to go through a democratic process. They renounced all violence; they went to the polls; they won. And now they are on the streets again, as if nothing has happened. So you can imagine the adventurists among them inclined to move more and more towards violence.
It’s like Algeria. There too the Islamists were cornered. They went to the polls and were as democratic as they could be. And then the results weren’t accepted as bona fide.
RB: Is there any attempt to monitor acts of violence by any kind of independent media?
SN: Not really. We don’t have independent media. It doesn’t exist. It’s all anti-Muslim Brotherhood. Again, I must stress what I have said, because unless I am clear about this, this is the sort of point that can come back and bite me - I am not here defending the Muslim Brotherhood.
RB: I understand. But if there is no independent media, in terms of discussion on the streets, what are people saying about this violence? Are they trying to monitor what’s going on? Or are they actually completely locked into these enemy images?
SN: There are serious discussions about the massacre that took place a couple of weeks ago now, when seventy members of the Muslim Brotherhood were shot outside the presidential guard, the officer’s club where Morsi was said to be held.
The media simply alleged that it was the Muslim Brotherhood who launched a violent attack. But the presidential guard club is very heavily defended. It is a fortified army position with tanks. It doesn’t make any sense that Muslim Brotherhood supporters would attempt to mob it. And even if they did, it doesn’t mean you can go shooting people who are in the street. The most up-to-date medical reports from independent doctors who visited the morgue and reported back from there testify to these people having been shot while at prayer. It’s a terrible, terrible massacre. But this is completely denied by the Egyptian media, by the so-called Egyptian liberal press. These are liberals of a bizarre kind. And the doctors who have been bearing witness in this way have begun to pay a very heavy price for it.
RB: This was the point, wasn’t it, at which the press started to describe the Muslim Brotherhood in the local media as ‘terrorists’.
SN: Yes. Yes. After they were shot in the head. So what we say is that we must be consistent in opposing all forms of abuse and repression to which the Islamists are exposed, whether it’s in being killed or arrested or in the closing down of satellite channels and newpapers, because what happens to the Islamists today, may well happen tomorrow to the workers and to the leftists.
RB: So it’s no surprise at all that the Muslim Brotherhood refused to take part in any interim government after June 30, if they were asked, that is.
SN: Do you mean after the coup – how could they? How could they ever have gone to their supporters and said, ‘ we accept the fact that your elected president is no longer president and we are willing to play along with this ’?
RB: At one point in the negotiations post-June 30, it looked as the Salafi Al Nour party might act as a sort of bridge between the two sides. Could you tell me about their position now in this?
SN: The Salafi parties are very much linked to Saudi Arabia, to the Saudi Arabian King and the Saudi Arabian regime, both historically and in recent times. The Saudi Arabian regime really hated the Muslim Brotherhood, quite simply because they see Mubarak as an ousted monarch, put in jail… and this is what scares them. So, their main support in Egypt goes to the Salafis, particularly the Al Nour party. As a result the Salafis, for example, from 2006 onwards had several television channels that were all heavily financed by the Saudis. And Mubarak let them on the air precisely as a force to help him battle against the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. So there was in fact not much love lost between these two government allies, and that explains why they turned initially towards the liberals and the army. They were Morsi’s ally in government, but there was a lot of tension. The MB did not give them any powerful ministries and there was a lot of tension between those two. They wanted a clear Islamic Sharia’a law to be enshrined in the constitution and Morsi did nothing in that direction, at all. So, they spent their time asking why alcohol was not banned, for example? Why was there no dress code for women? All the simple things that the Muslim Brotherhood had been very vocal about before getting into power. When it came to June 30, what the Army or El Sisi wanted was some kind of Islamic figleaf - one minister, two ministers - in relatively minor ministries, but sufficient to show that this was not a coup against Islam. But of course after the massacre of Muslim Brothers it became quite impossible for the Al Nour leadership to participate in that way and still respond to their young supporters, who could never understand how you lived with a massacre of people praying on the streets.
This party will continue to waiver. They’re a very opportunistic party. They are arguing now that Morsi could have prevented this coup if he had cooperated properly with the army and the intelligence services. But the truth is that Morsi bent over backwards to propitiate the Army. The constitution that coalition produced is much worse than Mubarak’s constitution, in terms of how much power he gives to the army, which is of course why one of the first things the Army announced after June 30 was that they would not be producing a new constitution, only amendments to Morsi’s constitution.
Why? Because they want to keep the part on the army intact. First of all it clearly states that the army’s budget is no-one else’s business but the army. It clearly states that you can continue having military trials of civilians. It contains a national council of security in which the army must have the majority: made up of fourteen people, 8 military and 6 civilians. All those premises became articles of the constitution, which can’t be changed. That they wish to maintain.
RB: So tell me why Morsi’s presidency was so disastrously unsuccessful. There is talk that the problems with shortage of petrol, water cuts and power outages during Morsi’s presidency, have lessened in the wake of his enforced departure. Do people think there has been some kind of sabotage?
SN: Yes. It has started to seem that way. People naturally blamed Morsi, the president, for these problems. He was supposed to be able to solve these kinds of simple things. And now they seem to be much less of a problem. It suggests that the businessmen linked to the old regime and the bureaucracy still retain enough power to be able to put a spanner in the works and sabotage Morsi.
There is a real and ongoing crisis of energy supply - to be sure - but never to the extent there was latterly in the extreme heat. We’ve never seen this before. There was no petrol to talk of. There were electricity cuts all over the country, with food going bad and really terrible consequences for poor people in particular. The problem with petroleum and diesel wasn’t confined to the cars. Farmers, for example, were not able to access the diesel they needed for their water pumps. It was crazy - all kinds of severe day-to-day traumas for people all over the country.
RB: Aside from any sabotage, why did Morsi’s support plummet so markedly?
SN: First of all the Muslim Brotherhood tried to appease the remnants of the old regime and the army, which meant that they couldn’t even deliver in terms of transitional justice, dealing with all these officers and officials who had killed people, who had blood on their hands. They did nothing to them. And that was one of the central demands of the uprising. We have to hold these people accountable for all the young people they killed. That they did nothing about.
They were hoping to make a deal with the security forces to make them less antagonistic towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Exactly that – and they let them off the hook as a result.
Secondly, they continued with the same economic policies of the Mubarak era. Actually in some ways they moved to the right of Mubarak, in terms of neoliberal policies. Privatization continued apace. They argued that all that was needed was to secure foreign investments, and that this meant going along with the IMF loan. They never actually got the money, but that’s what they wanted to do.
But after such a massive revolutionary upsurge, you can’t just put forward austerity measures and expect to get away with it. People are not going to accept this austerity after all they’ve been through, and making all these sacrifices to hold out for change.
So, nothing at all was accomplished by the Muslim Brotherhood during their time in power. Had they seemed to the majority of the people to be moving in the direction of the revolutionary demands, they could have held onto power.
Because of this compromise that they tried to secure, they couldn’t even put those old regime people, especially those with blood on their hands, on trial. The army generals for example, Tantawi and these people – they were given accolades by Morsi and his government. Yet one of the key demands during the period of SCAF rule was for these people to be put on trial for being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people on the streets.
RB: But only a year later, the millions of Egyptians out on the streets seem quite ready to hear the resurfacing of the slogan, “ the army and the people are one hand” – how do you explain that?
SN: Lots of the people who were mobilised onto the streets on 30th June were politically active for the first time in their lives. They hadn’t had the experience of face-to-face confrontation with the Army, whose leaders played their hand very cleverly and used all sorts of tricks. First of all, they claimed that they are not the same people as Tantawi. This is a new leadership of the army. This is a younger leadership of the army that does not want corruption in the army and that is not connected to the old regime - although El Sisi was appointed by Mubarak, and is one of Mubarak’s generals. Then you saw the antics with the Army airshow over Cairo painting the Egyptian flag in the sky and drawing hearts in the air! So they were doing everything they could in their charm offensive.
But it would be very wrong, I think, to assume that this latest honeymoon between the people and the army will continue. First of all, it does not involve everybody. There are layers and layers of young people who have been involved in the revolution from the beginning and who do know what the army is about. Secondly, people in Egypt learn by experience. The first time they said the army was great was when they removed Mubarak and they refused to shoot the people. It probably took a couple of months for people to start thinking differently, and for main slogans on the streets to start to appear – “down with the army, down with the generals.” I think that is going to happen again.
The reason I think this is because of the nature of the government that has been installed. Again, no change in policies whatsoever. No promise of any change to come.
RB: You’ve written that the Muslim Brotherhood did not implement even one of the demands of the revolution. But in 100 days, whatever Morsi pretended, can you really imagine that there would be some substantial move towards social justice, freedom and human dignity? These don’t exist anywhere in the world…
SN: One simple example, Morsi had the power to introduce a progressive taxation law, but he didn’t. He could have nationalised the assets of Mubarak’s business colleagues and henchmen. He didn’t touch them. Take Ahmed Ezz, a pro-Mubarak billionaire, one of the clan, who still owns his factories, the biggest steel mills in the Middle East not only in Egypt, despite the fact that he is banged up in jail for seven years for money laundering.
Of course there were many strands to the Muslim Brotherhood, and over time, a clear division was emerging between two youth sections – one conservative and demanding ever more strict Islamic rules, but the other demanding an interpretation of Sharia’a law that talks about justice, who were calling for a better distribution of wealth. And of course, all that debate has disappeared without trace since June 30 – now the Muslim Brotherhood are united as one. If your leaders are being put in jail and your people are being shot on the streets, gut loyalty will take precedence over any other consideration.
RB: So what you are saying is that the large section of the Muslim Brotherhood following that could potentially have been in favour of many of the revolutionary demands is now completely cut off from the similar section who have been critical of the Morsi Government?
SN: Yes. This is an attempt at divide and rule, but I think it is a very temporary attempt. People will learn very quickly, as they learnt before, that this government will not change anything. And they will learn that what has started with the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of repression, will spread to workers, will spread to the left, will spread to anybody else who opens his mouth. Once you get these security forces really up and running, things won’t stop at the Brotherhood – not at all.
And divisions are starting to open up in the opposition, between those who are aligning themselves completely with the Army and with the old regime on the basis that the Muslim Brotherhood is a fascist, reactionary force and that we must ally ourselves with anybody willing to help us crush this enemy – and a rather smaller element of organisations, groups, youth movements that were a central part of the revolution from the beginning and who argue that our main enemy is the state and our main enemy remains the Mubarak regime.
We will not ever be on the same side as the remnants of the Mubarak regime or the Army, despite the fact that we were also in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. We were a central part of the movement to remove Morsi: but we wanted the people to remove Morsi, not the Army. We did not go through all of this for the Army to come back into power and for Mubarak’s henchmen to become ministers again.
RB: But on the other side they have the hearts and the flags of Egyptian nationalism – is that right?
SN: Yes, they are calling on the heritage of Nasser, it’s true – because Nasser too was involved in a coup, but it quickly turned into a series of huge waves of reform, serious reforms that also brought benefit to the lives of peasants.
RB: This was a national liberation… and the army were heroic..
SN: Yes in 1956, it was a national liberation, and if you turn on the television today, you will be assailed with all these old Nasserist songs about the army! “The army of the people, this is the people’s army!” That’s central. This is the kind of discourse they are using. The other part is terrorist chaos. If we don’t take firm control, if we don’t crush the Muslim Brotherhood, we will end up with the same terror as in Algeria, we will end up like Syria.
RB: There was a period, wasn’t there, when it seemed as if the majority in Egypt were fed up with things just being in turmoil. Did the period of multiple strikes play into that sense of chaos as well in the run-up to June 30?
SN: No, no. The 30th June has increased the level of mobilisation, especially in terms of social and economic demands. There’s a new government and people are saying, this government is the government of the revolution, give us our demands! Of course the middle class urbanites are fed up with the chaos, the streets being blocked and so forth, and what the Army are beginning to do is to generalise about this chaos, so that it isn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood who are closing down streets and who should be removed, but any workers who are on strike, and any peasants who cut off a main highway or a railway line or anything else in protest. That’s why it is so important to be consistent in rejecting what is happening to the Muslim Brotherhood. Because if you’re not consistent with that, it will be very difficult to defend others afterwards. But of course, today it is extremely difficult to be consistent.
RB: And what about the crackdown in Sinai?
SN: Sinai, historically, during the Mubarak regime was basically abandoned. So it’s always been extremely difficult for young people in Sinai even to secure Egyptian citizenship. Yet Sinai is one of the richest tourist areas in Egypt, especially the southern part of Sinai. But the Sinai people are not allowed to work there, are not allowed to own land: they have really suffered from serious oppression. Now after years of that, suddenly you enter a revolutionary period, so people in Sinai think that they must benefit from this as well. Maybe, they can become citizens, and they can start owning land in Sinai. But it doesn’t happen.
In the early days of the revolution, arms began filtering into Sinai. The borders were not well secured, and so many of the Bedouin tribes in Sinai are heavily armed, so not surprisingly some of these rebels have become radicalised Islamists. What has happened now is that the Army, with the agreement of Israel, has deployed its forces throughout Sinai basically to crush that allegedly ‘terrorist’ movement. These people are being misrepresented in the media as a terrorist plot designed to put Morsi back in power.
RB: It seems as if this terrorist threat is being deployed in one way or another throughout the Middle East wherever there is any danger of real change.
SN: Yes, yes. And you’ll start getting bombs exploding all over the place. Just recently, policemen were killed by a bomb in Mansoura – they are saying that that was the Muslim Brotherhood who planted that bomb. We don’t know. That’s the Algerian scenario that is so dangerous… in Algeria, nobody ever knew who were the main murderers. Was it the Islamist movement? Was it the very radical elements of the Salafists? Was it the army? Was it the intelligence forces? Everybody was involved but you could never tell, so every operation of the military in Algeria would be blamed on the Islamists. And that’s a serious danger in Egypt. Like Syria, it can become a very, very messy business.
RB: Is there any way that a revolution can protect itself from this?
SN: Yes, I think so. First of all the level of political consciousness in Egypt because of so many people participating in these mass demonstrations and strikes and so on has developed very rapidly… it’s a high level of political consciousness. Does the media propaganda prompted by the Army, affect them? Yes it does. But not for long. And that’s really what we have learned so far during these two and a half years of revolution. People do learn from experience.
Egypt’s labour movement and the development of political consciousness
RB: So let us dig down a little into the nature of the sort of political consciousness you are talking about. What are the lessons that were learnt through the labour movement in the run-up to 2011, and then afterwards on this extraordinary rollercoaster of an uprising?
SN: The first thing to say about what emerges when you have mass movements on this scale is that people begin to have ideas of direct democracy, rather than being confined to waiting every four years to choose between different sections of the elite.
RB: By direct democracy do you mean the sheer numbers out in the squares?
SN: It involves sheer numbers in the squares, but many people have the idea that these are a leaderless kind of process. There’s always a leadership in these revolutions. There’s always a method of taking decisions. It’s extremely democratic and people who take part learn about direct democracy, about being involved directly. Where will the demonstration go to? Will we use violence or not? How will we defend a demonstration? All these questions are up for democratic debate and decision. Again, it is a similar thing with the strike movement. What do we do with the owner if he closes down the factory? Should we occupy the factory? Should we run the factory instead? There are all sorts of decisions that people learn how to take. In the process they develop a kind of democratic engagement that goes far beyond the very limited framework for democracy that we have worldwide.
Also just one other thing. The people did not wait for the four years of Morsi to end and then go to the ballot boxes. They decided collectively that they’d remove him after one year. This breaking of the democratic conventions encourages ideas about direct democracy. “We can have something that is different - that involves decisions being taken on the streets, in the workplaces, in mass gatherings, rather than in this very strongly policed system”.
RB: From afar, one might assume that this direct democracy you are talking about can only say, ‘No’ – no to two successive presidents for example, but the process you describe is very different.
SN: Yes, because people don’t just go down there and say, “OK now we’ve removed him…”. No, they discuss, “OK, what now? What are we going to do now? How are we going to organize this? What position do we take towards the army? The army is very popular at this moment. But what are they actually going to do? What kind of government is going to come out of this? Who’s choosing these people that are entering the government? How come people from Mubarak’s time are coming back into the government now?”
All these discussions are taking place in coffee shops, in workplaces, on the streets… it is people being directly involved.
RB: Taking a closer look at the independent trade union movement that was a precursor to these sorts of processes in Egypt, I’ve seen this movement described, not in terms of the gradual formation of a coherent umbrella movement, but according to a more ‘interactive dynamic’ – which makes me think of the Occupy movement?
SN: You have to see these kinds of Occupy movements in terms of a learning process. People who have participated in a big occupy movement don’t go back home as they came in. They go back home with the experience and inspiration that these kinds of gathering provide. And that translates eventually into other forms of activism and direct democracy. It’s not just Occupy. People will continue to be politically active. And they will continue to demonstrate when they’re angry, because they’ve gained this feeling of empowerment that comes from being part of a movement. And if you can see that this is true in the Wall Street Occupy, consider the situation throughout Egypt, amplified hundreds and thousands of times. Everybody knows somebody who’s been at a protest. Everybody including army conscripts, which I think will be an important factor in the future of this revolution.
RB: I have not seen many accounts in the press of the role of the labour movement in the entire revolutionary process. There are academics studying this – but then of course one rarely hears a trade union organiser talking about what they do on the British media. So I was intrigued to read that the Tamarod leaders asked the trade union leaders not to be visibly organised under their trade union banners when it came to the 30th-June demonstrations.
SN: I think that had to do with the Army contingent. The Army did not want a clear visible role for the working class: they wanted this to be a nationalist moment of unity, the Egyptian flag and that’s it, all together - the remnants of the old regime, revolutionaries, leftists, right-wing, the big businessmen - everybody together. There were restrictions, not only on the trade unions, but on all the diverse political groupings. We had the same problem; so the Revolutionary Socialists made these huge red Turkish-style banners with the grafitti pictures of the martyrs on them, so that nobody could tell us not to do that, and we had our red flags.
But the independent trade union movement, with which we have been very involved for years – started in 2006/7. You will find detailed studies of everything that’s ever happened to this movement on our website and there’s a lot of information. We’ve produced several pamphlets analysing the movement’s strike statistics, the demands, noting when the demands are political and when they are economic and how that relates to the waves of the revolution. Because what happens is that each time you have a political wave of the revolutionary process, that translates into a surge of economic demands and workers’ strikes.
RB: In the early days such calls for economic and social rights, when very few could have believed they would result in anything tangible, must have been courageous acts of defiance. I have a quote here from the Mahalla strike, by one of the strike leaders, Kamal al Fayoumi, who says: “the 2006 Mahalla strike was the candle that lit the way for workers all over the country showing them that a peaceful strike is possible, that we can stand in the face of injustice and against corruption.” So how important do you think these sparks were to this history of the uprising?
SN: This was central. What was central was to build up confidence that you could have peaceful demonstrations. And collective action: a new sense of being able to change things through collective action. You would not have had the 2011 revolution if the workers of Mahalla hadn’t started this process in 2006/7 with mass occupations of the factories that were 100% peaceful. Men and women together. Christians and Muslims together, breaking all kinds of taboos. Actually, lots of women got divorced as a result, because they refused to go back home!
The first major strike in Mahalla in December 2006 was led by women. The Mahalla textile factory is the biggest in the Middle East and Africa and used to be the biggest in the world, of course before the Chinese came along – the kind of concentration of workers you might have seen in nineteenth century England. It used to have 40,000 workers. Now it still has 27,000 workers. It’s still massive and has been at the centre of the workers’ movement since the 1940’s. So when they went on strike and actually won – simple trade union demands but including the removal of a corrupt management, that sent shockwaves throughout the Egyptian working class so that industry after industry began joining this movement. It triggered the biggest strike wave in Egyptian history during 2007 and 2008, and the outcome of this was the creation of new, independent trade unions. By the way Kamal al Fayoumi is a member of our party – a good guy.
There are two independent trade unions. The first was set up after a huge tax collectors’ strike - a large, underpaid section of the workforce who were earning maybe 300 Egyptian Pounds a month at the time, and this strike was led by the man who has just been appointed the Minister of Manpower in the new cabinet. The movement was spreading slowly before the revolution, but took off very rapidly after the revolution so that now you have over two million members in the biggest of the independent unions.
RB: What do you think of this appointment – you must be pleased?
SN: Well, of course some sections of the workers are saying, “OK - now we have our man in the ministry, so give us our demands: we want the minimum wage, we want the maximum wage, we want…. And so on.” But the truth is his hands are tied because it’s a neoliberal government that is all about austerity, and that will not give into these demands. Already, other ministers are warning him, “if we increase the wages too much, we’ll have inflation. And if inflation increases…”. And they are the guys who are going to decide about the Egyptian economy, not him. So, I think it was a major mistake for him to take the job. Workers should put as much pressure on him as possible. But I hope he resigns soon. I know the man very well: we’ve worked with him very closely.
RB: Why do you think he said yes?
SN: He is a Nasserist and Nasserists have all kinds of confused ideas about the Army: they really do believe that the Army can become a force for good.
RB: What are the differences between the two independent trade unions? Is the labour movement divided over Morsi’s presidency.
SN: Not at all. There are two unions due to trivial problems over a contested leadership: but both are anti-Morsi, of course. Morsi was very hostile to independent trade unions. His government was once again doing its best to appease the old regime’s former trade union bureaucracy and he tried to play them off against the independent trade unions. The 2012 constitution did give trade unions the right to organise. But crucially, there were court cases over privatisation where the company was found to be corrupt and the courts demanded that they be renationalised, but Morsi never carried those judgments out.
And at the same time a trade union bureaucracy was developed that came out against the strikes, and wanted to cultivate a smooth path between the capitalists on the one hand and the workers on the other. This was rapidly developed through the same confederation of independent trade unions. This bureaucracy is well represented by the man who has become the new Minister of Manpower. This is the logic of his accepting the job.
RB: In March 2011, there was the declaration of trade union freedoms that insisted on freedom of association, the right to organise and collective bargaining? What sort of demands were put forward?
SN: There were demands that all factories that are shut down at the decision of the factory owners should be taken over by the workers. There have been several attempts at this in different industries. It’s not easy.
The strikes in the medical sector are a very good example of what was going on: the removal of hierarchies, especially in the professions. It is not a class division, we are talking about, because the doctors don’t get paid that much in Egypt. But it’s a kind of hierarchy. This old hierarchy within the medical institutions was broken down so that the doctors, with the nurses, with the technicians, with the cleaners all became part of one kind of trade union and began to use the methods of classical workers’ movements: strikes, demonstrations, occupations. The same thing began to happen in education, amongst lawyers. In a sense they were becoming part of the workers’ movement. What was interesting about the doctors for example, was that their first demand was to increase the health budget from what it is now - 4% of GDP - to 15%. So it is not simply a demand for them to get better wages. It’s also a demand that touches on improvements to the lives of all the people who use the service, and all who want a proper service.
So this becomes a huge battle. On the one hand, you get the Government saying that these doctors are killing people with their strikes: so many people will die - I think you have the heard the same argument in the UK. And so the doctors and nurses have their reply, “No… we are doing this for these people. These people are dying every day because there is not enough money to buy the equipment and the medicine. There’s not enough beds… there are not enough people in the health service.” There were also experiments in several hospitals to run it freely, outside the control of the old system. That worked in a couple of places for a while. And all the time people were gaining know-how.
RB: But at the same time in early 2011, a law was passed banning the right to strike?
SN: That was the military. But that was completely meaningless, because they announced the law in the middle of a big strike wave and the strikes just continued. They couldn’t arrest or shoot workers at a time when confidence in the revolution was so high: it would be too dangerous for them.
RB: That was quite an achievement for the revolutionary process.
SN: Yes. It is very difficult for the military to row back from that. Workers were very active in the Tamarod campaign, not just collecting hundreds and thousands of signatures, but organising themselves in operational centres, coordinating activities in direct communication with the Tamarod headquarters, and preparing acts of civil disobedience which could shut down local government institutions. If the army had not intervened and removed Morsi in a coup, this could have developed into a general strike very rapidly.
That is why they will try now to create a fear of terrorism, a false sense of nationalism – to create all sorts of fears that they can use against the workers.
RB: According to the Egyptian Centre for Economic & Social Rights report to the UN in 2013, there has been increasing violence in dealing with worker demands?
SN: Yes, the police are returning to action since 30th-June, but in the long period of their abeyance, both owners of private businesses and the government did resort to violence in dealing with workers. The factory owners would rent these thugs.
Then of course, sectarianism is also a useful tool for creating violence. It was a tool used by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was also used by the Army. Historically the Mubarak regime used the sectarian divide very effectively in Egypt. But one of the most positive aspects of the recent revolutionary mobilisation is that it consciously broke with that. One of the things that pushed people out on the streets on June 30 was Morsi’s idiotic attempt to go in that direction for example in his speech about Syria, when he let some very reactionary preachers spout nonsense about Shias not being Muslims and that they should be killed, because they shouldn’t be part of our community and so on; and so of course the next thing that happens is that you get a massacre of a group of Shias in Giza. But that really backfired on them, because there was a huge reaction against this: people really hated that. So, for example, on June 30 I saw women wearing the niqab, just because they spotted a Coptic priest who wasn’t even on the demonstration, they raised him up and carried him shoulder high.
RB: Isn’t it interesting, that if people have learnt so much about sectarian division they can still allow themselves to be so bitterly divided from the Muslim Brotherhood masses?
SN: The revolution involves millions of people but it doesn’t involve all the people. There are always other sections of people who have not been politicised yet, that are not part of the process yet and so on. So you will always have different levels of participation. Some Egyptians are still very much influenced by sectarianism, and very vulnerable to the forces that divide.