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Egyptians are protesting the fact that, while Hosni Mubarak was convicted of enabling the massacre of protesters who rose up against his rule, all other charges, which included profiteering and economic fraud, were dismissed, allowing key members of Mubarak’s family and security apparatus—including his two sons Gamal and Alaa and several top security officials—to walk free.
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I have argued that the fate of the revolution in Egypt depends not on the “national-development-oriented coalition of businessmen and military entrepreneurs” but on the much larger group of workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside who were the victims of the economic policies of the Mubarak regime.
Sasha Simic makes a similar argument in a recent essay, arguing that, while for the current military rulers the revolution is over, the “the masses on the streets and in the factories and the fields want what free-market dogma has denied them – bread, work, land and a future worth living.”
In order to understand the dynamic of the Egyptian revolution, it is necessary to make sense of what had been happening in that country long before the Arab Spring.
In the countryside peasants resisted the confiscation of their land. The Egyptian-based Land Centre for Human Rights estimates that between 1998 and 2000, 119 were killed, 846 injured and 1,588 arrested in the struggle over land. Peasants slept in their fields to stop the military taking their plots. Sometimes they won and kept the landlords away. As one victorious peasant woman told the Cairo conference in 2008: ‘We are so poor we have nothing but our dignity and our scrap of land. If they come for it we’ll defend it. If you take our bread, we’ll break your neck.’
In the massive textile factories of the Nile Delta, workers repeatedly went on strike for higher pay and bonuses. In the autumn of 2007, for example, 27,000 workers at the giant Ghazl al-Mahalla textile plant north of Cairo walked out and won 130 days back-pay, improved transport to work, the removal of a corrupt official of the state union and the sack for a hated manager.
It is also necessary to include events beyond the protests in Tahrir Square:
Workers have gone on to organise themselves into 25 independent unions in manufacturing and industry; 28 for clerical workers; 15 in transport; four in education; eight in the health sector; and three in post and telecommunications.
In March 2011 a strike wave by textile workers, bus drivers, tube operatives, postal workers and tourist officials involved 85,000 workers. In September 750,000 workers, including airport staff, doctors and irrigation operatives, went on strike. They included 26,000 sugar refinery workers and 40,000 teachers, whose banners read ‘Meet our demands or no school this year’. It is estimated half-a-million Egyptian workers went on strike between late September and mid- October 2011.
Their demands were not just for higher pay – although low pay is endemic. In 2008 junior doctors unsuccessfully campaigned for 1,000 Egyptian pounds (£100 sterling) a month as a professional minimum. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions has demanded a minimum monthly wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds while the government has only agreed – in principle – to 700. But workers have demanded both economic and political changes. They have called for the end to temporary employment contracts ubiquitous throughout Egyptian workplaces. They have demanded a higher tax rate for the wealthy and, in addition to a minimum wage for workers, a maximum wage for their bosses. Workers and students have also begun the process of expelling the ‘little Mubaraks’ from factories, offices, hospitals and schools. The ‘little Mubaraks’ are both the political overseers from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, who were commonplace throughout Egyptian society prior to the revolution, or just obnoxious managers who have abused their authority.
It is the resolution of that tension—between, on one hand, the current military rulers and their allies, and, on the other hand, the broad mass of people who are demanding fundamental economic change—that will determine whether or not Egypt is ultimately able to move beyond what Simic calls “Mubarakism without Mubarak.”