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Interview: bread, freedom and social justice

The authors of Bread, Freedom and Social Justice discuss the lessons of the past few years for the labour movement and political activism in Egypt, so that we can move forward.

Mariam Ali: Can the successful alliance between the political and social ‘souls’ of the revolution be built upon, or do we have to start all over again?

Mostafa Bassiouny: If we’re talking about material links between political/democratic reform and labour movements, then I don’t think there are any, in terms of a real network of mobilisation and coordination. It was more akin to a spontaneous, organic intersection. There were workers active in democratic reform, and political activists trying to link up with the labour movements, but this was not the driving force. Most of the developments were not coordinated.

For example, the workers of Roz Al Youssef magazine, they mobilised and took over the organisation, kicked out the CEO and the editor in chief, and announced their alignment with the revolution. This happened without the intervention of any political powers. At the same time, the Mahalla factory—which was at the forefront of the worker’s movement in the years before the revolution, and which has a long history of workers with political ties and leanings, and links to political cadres—did not take this step. It happened in the Workers University, but not in the Iron and Steel [factory]. So we can’t say that there was a tangible network; it was a brief encounter between the two movements.

MA: And you think this has broken down since then?

MB: In my estimation, yes. It was tied to the moment of mobilisation. But we will never go back to square one, because this experience created awareness in the movements, which will resurface when needed. There was an important lesson, and we won’t be able to judge how well it was learned until the next build-up [to revolution]. But the general attitude towards the labour movement after 11 February led to it losing trust in the political movements and the ruling regime.

The first law issued by SCAF after February 2011 was one criminalising strikes, and the political and revolutionary powers did nothing to stop it, even if some criticised it. I think the political movements will have to work hard to regain the trust of the workers. But I don’t think we can judge anything now, because it’s generally speaking a period of stagnation. The political parties are all in crisis as is the labour movement. I think the next escalation of strikes will test everyone.

MA: So you think the next wave will begin with workers' strikes, that this build-up won’t start with political protests?

MB: It’s impossible to tell—you can see now that there are student protests, for example. It could be that the imprisonment of political activists and the diminishing of the democratic space created by the revolution could provoke a reaction, or the harsh economic measures taken by the government could create pressure. We can’t know what will come first—things could happen at the same time. The role of the researcher or analyst is not to predict. However, without any need for political predictive abilities I can say with certainty that today’s political and economic policies will have serious consequences. How and where and when it’s impossible to know.

The current stagnation among the movements is due to the exploitation of the populist movements on a social and political level in the last period, and the erosion of trust between the parties in the course of popular political engagement. But these factors will not stand up to the pressures of the regime’s policies. Of course the government is aware, like us, that its policies and performance create pressures that can have populist consequences. What we hope to see is the movement learning from the experience and mistakes of the past ten years.

Anne Alexander: I wanted to add something about the relationship with social political bodies: there are several political activists in the labour movements who have taken independent stances on behalf of the workers’ movements on several issues, rather than just mirroring the stance of the political bodies.

But to what extent does the labour movement support democracy, and under what circumstances? And what is its position on the oppression of political activists? Several in the labour movement, from the unions, did come out in opposition to the anti-protest law for example. But between 2011 and 2012 most of the activists in the labour movements were focused on economic and social demands—there was no organic link, as Mostafa said, between the two movements.

It’s not just the issue of democratic rights, but also the stance of the labour movement on sectarianism and the attacks on Copts. From my experience with unions in Britain, it’s very important that there are activists in the labour movement who organise against, for example, racism. This is an important cause for all union members—that we are against racism, against fascism. It also ties in to the experience of daily struggles in the workplace, and is a way of strengthening the labour sector in the broader political movement.

MA: Do you think that political/civil rights can be achieved by first focusing on socio-economic rights, or, as political movements in Egypt seem to see it, that political demands must be met in order to achieve socio-economic rights?

AA: I think it’s problematic to think of change in terms of stages, whether the first stage is social or political. Both ends must be worked on concurrently, because all socio-economic demands have an important political dimension. Strikes are political even if their demands are specific to wage raises—they play a very important political role. On the other hand, many political demands have an important social dimension. We have to unpack the supposed contradiction between political and social demands—it creates division between the movements and the activists working on different areas. What do you think Mostafa?

MB: I agree, you can’t separate social and economic demands from political demands. Right after the revolution, when the political forces saw an opportunity to gain and share power, they saw the labour movement as an obstacle to this. However, in their strikes at the time the workers were demanding the reform of government bodies and that corrupt management and civil servants be brought to justice, not just an improvement in their working conditions.

It’s also about the mechanics of protest. If there are ten thousand workers organising a strike or a sit in or any form of protest, this is democracy in practice. For example, if I as an activist exercise my right to run for election, this is an individual political practice, but when ten thousand workers engage in the mechanics of resistance, this is a higher level of democracy.

When political forces rejected the labour movement, they did not realise that they were narrowing the democratic space that had been opened up by the revolution. They deprived these sectors of their right to protest just because they saw it as “not the time”, even though there were hundreds of thousands who thought that this was exactly the time to purge the institutions of corruption, implement the minimum wage and issue a law for independent unions. The political groups were in a hurry for the constitution and the parliamentary elections because this would affect their own access to power, and they lost their democratic foundation as a result.

In my opinion, any talk of social/economic demands being separate from political demands goes against democracy in its populist meaning. During the Mubarak era, strikes openly challenged the emergency law. At the Iron and Steel [factory], the workers staged a sit in, and got shot at, and afterwards the leader of the sit in won the parliamentary elections in the people’s assembly. The practice of democracy is closely tied to people’s ability to defend their social interests. Not tied to the political ability to take part in elections and wield power. Otherwise elections become like deals/trade offs, and this happened after the revolution. When it began to be separated from its social dimension, the constitution and the elections and the committees became deals between the state and political powers such as the Muslim Brotherhood or some of the liberal or even leftist parties: “take this and shut up.”

MA: Has this lesson been learned by the political opposition?

MB: If they haven’t learned that their enmity towards the labour movement will lead to them losing any ability for political action or for facing repression, then that’s a choice they’re willing to make. If the political powers don’t already see that the working class has a central role to play in liberating society and continuing the revolution, they never will. I’m not concerned though—I think what’s more important is that the working class see their role.

MA: And has this happened in Egypt?

MB: I think to a great extent it has, since 2006. If there is another revolution, will it start from scratch? Or will we draw on experience to move quickly? Instead of burning down the police station, we might take it over, and the political committee take over the administrative, security and political leadership of the neighbourhood, coordinating with other committees. Will the revolution return to Tahrir? Or will it be horizontal and tied to communities and workplaces? We cannot gauge the impact of the experience gained on mass consciousness until then.

MA: Were there any links or exchange of experience between the Egyptian and international labour movements?

MB: Not in a structured way. When independent unions started appearing in Egypt in 2008, they were illegal, and there was a great need for them to be acknowledged by international unions. So they had to make efforts to create closer links with international trade unions, with the ILO and other labour organisations. But as a result there was no natural, proportionate development of the independent union movement’s national capabilities.

AA: There were also many problems that resulted from the interaction between union bureaucracy abroad and the independent union leadership. We covered this in the book: the independent unions followed the bureaucratic model of international unions to negative effect. There’s a difference between exchanging experiences of what ordinary rank and file workers do in the workplace, and the kind of exchanges that happen between trade union officials, which are quite distorting. Here, as in Egypt, being a trade union official and being a worker in the workplace is actually a very different thing.

I was and still am quite involved with efforts to try to exchange experiences between rank and file workers through a trade union solidarity campaign. We took delegations of workers to Egypt and met people from the independent trade unions. We had really interesting discussions, because the union reps we took were involved directly in organising strike action or organising their workplaces, and they were much closer in experience to the independent unions in Egypt. We did that a lot through MENA Solidarity, but the possibility of doing that now is zero. It would put people in danger.

MA: Has the crackdown been as harsh on trade union activity as it has been on political activism?

AA: No it hasn’t, although there has been quite severe repression of workers since the military took over in 2013. The levels of repression of workers strikes had also increased during 2012 under Morsi, and this is the reason many of the trade unions were very angry with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s just that after Morsi, the level of political repression went through the roof.

We also have to put this in context: large parts of the union leadership were supportive of the government to an extent and signed up to a 'no strike' agreement. However, this was not very effective because they couldn’t stop people from going on strike. Around 150-200 thousand workers took strike action under Beblawi’s government and that was one of the reasons it collapsed, despite the fact that most union leadership at federation level was officially supportive of it, saying they didn’t want to stop the ‘wheel of production’ and to give the military a chance.

In this country, if the union officially says to a group of workers ‘you can’t do this,’ then it’s quite hard for workers to defy that at a local level, because they’d worry about not getting the support of the union, or being repudiated. Our level of organisation in the workplace is less strong, less built up from the grassroots. In Egypt people build their own forms of democratic organisation in the workplace, which is quite resistant to that. So national officials can go and try to persuade people not to go on strike, but they often do not succeed—the ability of the officials at the top of union structures to intervene in what happens in the workplace is often quite weak.

The flip side of this however, is that union leadership is often most active politically, so the connections between workplaces and the political movements is affected by this. Take what happened in November 2011 in the Mohamed Mahmoud street uprising; the leadership of the trade union federation were supportive of the protests, issuing various statements calling on workers to join the demonstrations, which didn’t happen. The argument for taking strike action at the time, with those goals, of challenging the military council was not won in the workplaces. Likewise in February 2012, the national leaderships of the independent union federation and of the democratic labour congress announced a general strike, which also never happened.

A small number of places took strike action, but it was very symbolic. The huge propaganda campaign that the military and the MB led at the time, saying if you go on strike the country will collapse, had a big impact on people. Those experiences then make political activists think, ‘why bother with workers' movements’ and vice versa, which comes back to the original point about real organic connections between the two sides of the struggle.

MA: Was there any focus on targeting the neoliberal policies of the state?

AA: The courts ruled in favour of renationalising many privatised companies, and it was workers who led those campaigns. They were supported by the independent unions, but in many cases predated them. We publicised this a great dealt to workers here as great successes, because the idea that you could reverse privatisation was unthinkable as far as people here were concerned.

Whenever I spoke to people from the unions in Egypt, much of the time they were saying, ‘oh we want to learn from your unions, you’re more organised, and have more resources and political weight,’ but I would say no, actually I want our union to learn from you, because you have achieved much more and taken greater and more impressive steps challenging neoliberalism than our union has ever managed.

In terms of union organisation it’s enormously inspiring to people here, to hear about how with almost no resources and enormous pressure form the state, people built unions up from nothing. It’s an enormous achievement. I think it’s very important for that not to be obscured, at the same time as we provide a critique of some of the leaders of those unions.

About the authors

Anne Alexander is a research fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. She has published widely on Middle Eastern politics, social movements and digital media, and is the author of a biography of Gamal Abdel-Nasser (Haus, 2005).

Mostafa Bassiouny has more than a decade's experience as a reporter and editor in the Egyptian and regional press. He was industrial correspondent for Al-Dustour newspaper between 2005 and 2010, reporting on the mass strikes by textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra in 2006 and 2007, and the uprising in 2008. He reported on the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia in January 2011 before returning to Egypt to participate in the uprising against Mubarak. Between 2011 and 2014 he was Head of News for liberal daily Al-Tahrir and is currently Egypt correspondent for the Lebanese daily Al-Safir.

Mariam Ali is an editor for Arab Awakening.

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