John Rees looks at the ongoing revolutions in Egypt and Libya and their significance for people fighting for a fundamental system change.

Egyptian workers


There have been two marked processes in the Egyptian revolution since the fall of Mubarak just over a month ago.

The first is the persistence of the workers struggle at an historically high level. Section after section of the Egyptian working class has been involved in strikes and protests on a continuous basis. These struggles began in earnest two days before the fall of Mubarak and were one of the two straws that finally broke the back of the dictatorship (the other was the emerging splits in the army).

The fall of Mubarak was then the signal for the workers struggle to spread and deepen. Al Ahram noted in late February:
‘In one day, in downtown Cairo, a passersby could cross a group of workers of Nile Enterprise for Cotton staging a sit-in in front of the prosecutor-general’s office, a group of teachers outside the ministry of education and employees of the recently privatized chain Omar Effendi protesting at the company’s headquarter.

Three main demands emerged in most of the protests. The first is for better wages, usually consisting of a minimum wage of LE1200 or in some cases asking for a maximum wage to be determined in function of the minimum wage within the same institution.

Fighting corruption was another prominent demand and one which, in most of cases, targeted the chairman of the company or head of a ministerial authority or syndicate.
The protesters also demanded the hiring of temporary workers as well as addressing the lack of job opportunities….
On the ground, the momentum is rampant.

Ghazl El-Mahalla, the largest spinning and textile company, led a successful three-day strike which lead to all their demands being met. Neither workers nor employers paid much attention to these calls for the protests to stop.
A group of workers and activists published a statement defending their right to protest and declaring their solidarity with all the demands of the revolution.’

The second important process has been the continuation of the democratic revolution in itself. The recent fall Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, the state apparatus’s chosen candidate, under the pressure of continuing mass demonstrations was a defeat for the Mubarak old guard. But then, within 24 hours of Shafiq’s departure, the old regime suffered an even greater reverse: the storming of the State Security (Amn Dawla) buildings first in Alexandria and then in Nasr City, Cairo. Protestors ran through the buildings arresting State Security officers and handing them over to the army, freeing prisoners from the warren of secret torture cells and seizing secret files. These files, often the files of the protestors themselves, are now being posted on the Amn Dawla Leaks facebook site.

In addition to this there continuing ferment around the proposed Constitutional Amendments that will be voted on in a referendum on 19th March. The Army want to rush through a set of minimal changes as fast as possible. The left, many in the unions, many democracy activists and the Youth Coalition are for a ‘no’ vote because the changes are not radical enough.

This process of destroying the old regime after the initial revolutionary thrust is both essential and common to the Portuguese, South African, and Indonesian revolutions to mention only some recent examples. This process is continuing in Tunisia where the old ruling party, the RCD, has been outlawed. But the old order in Egypt struck back in the week following the storming of State Security. The Army, acting in its own name and with its own forces, cleared Tahrir Square of protestors, continues arrests, and promoted and initiated violence between Coptic and Muslim citizens in one of the outlying suburbs of Cairo. The mass funerals of those killed chanted ‘It was the army that shot us, we don’t want the army’.

This marks the first significant rift between a section of the population and the Army regime that replaced Mubarak. The left has always, and rightly, warned that the Army high command were part of, and would act to defend, the old order. But this was, until now, at variance with the lived experience of many who made the revolution. They have known for some weeks that Mubarak ordered the jets that buzzed Tahrir Square on the last day of January to open fire on the protestors. But the orders were ignored. They know that the Army made an official TV announcement that same evening ensuring protestors that they would defend their right to demonstrate. They know of many acts by lower ranking officers and troops which protected them from regime thugs or remained benignly neutral during the fighting.

This discrepancy between the left’s structural analysis of the Army’s position and the lived experience of its role in the revolution points to a deeper truth: the Army is not a monolithic body anymore. Its top commanders are utterly integrated into the regime. In fact the term ‘military-industrial complex’ fits nowhere as completely as it does in Egypt. The Army owns vast swathes of the economy, including bottled water plants, petrol stations and factories manufacturing white goods. It is both the armed wing of the state and a capitalist producer in its own right. But the ordinary soldiers are conscripts, close to the poor and the peasantry. It was, in part, the corrosive effect that the revolution was having on the Army that got the Generals to push Mubarak aside at the last.

Now that the actions of the Army are educating the mass of the population about its role in society, the left needs to readdress the rank and file of the army. There will be no further fundamental revolutionary change in Egypt, just as there was no revolution in the first place, without divisions in the army. In fact it is almost the definition of a successful revolution that it splits or neutralizes the armed forces. In Egypt the first phase of the revolution could succeed by defeating and destroying the police and the Central Security Police, the first line of defence for the regime, and by neutralizing the Army as an effective replacement in the short term. But further progress will depend both on wider sections of the revolution understanding the role of the high command of the army, and the continued attempts to win over sections of the rank and file to the revolution.

Nor is the Army the only force acting to limit the revolution. The right, the remnants of the old order and their thugs are all active. The most well-rooted of the opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, are only intermittently and partially effective as a bulwark against the Army and the right. Their youth played an impressive role in the fighting in Tahrir, but the upper echelons of the Brotherhood are often the quickest to compromise with the establishment. For the Western media the problem with the Brotherhood is Islamic extremism. But in reality the problem with the Brotherhood is its political conservatism.

This raises the wider question of how the left and the labour movement can now influence the revolutionary process. Strengthening its own organisations is of course vital. The founding of an independent trade union federation has been one important step. The founding of a broad Democratic Labour Party by sections the left is also essential in projecting the arguments of the left to the widest possible audience. But the revolution in Egypt will not leave ‘democratic’ issues behind simply because the left and the workers movement raise their voices more powerfully within it. And it would be a mistake to counter pose the demands of the workers to continuing demands form democratic change. Workers and the left must simultaneously raise their own class demands and vigorously pursue a wider democratic agenda. That is they must seek to hegemonise the democratic revolution as well as insist on class demands being met. It is precisely for this reason that Lenin in June 1917 was demanding ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers’ as well as insisting that power should be transferred to the workers, peasants and soldiers councils.

What does this mean concretely? Let’s take the events of last week. A woman’s demonstration was attacked on International Women’s Day in Tahrir Square by regime thugs. On the same day the events in Moqattam saw the Army attack and Copts. So, as Egypt moves towards the vote on the new Constitution and as the Presidential candidates are declared, the question that presents itself is this: is the new democracy only going to be for the politicians, the rich and the parties…or is it going to be for all those who fought in Tahrir? Is it going to be for women, and Copts, and workers? In short, are we going to see a transition to a democracy of the rich and the establishment, or is there going to be a revolution that continues until it includes all the exploited and oppressed?


In Libya everything now hangs in the balance of the civil war. Yet, in a way, the Libyan revolution has provided a model of how the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia might move forward.

In a revolution that is fought as a civil war, like the English revolution of the 17th Century or the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s, the revolution both goes further as a result of, and is frozen by, military conflict. It goes further because in the liberated areas, like London in the 1640s, Barcelona in 1936 or Benghazi today, the debate is no longer ‘how far should the state be reformed and reconstructed’ (as it is in Cairo and Tunis now) because the whole of the old state has collapsed and been replaced with popular power.

In a recent interview opposition leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil describes how the Transitional National Council in Benghazi works:

‘The council derives its legitimacy from the local councils that were organized by the local revolutionaries in every village and city, political councils organized to administer the local people’s affairs like providing services, food, law and order. Each locality nominated representatives to be members in the National Transitional Council, according to their population ratio of the total Libyan population. The main role of the council is to represent the interest of the Libyan people locally and internationally. Members of the council were chosen with no regard to the political views or leaning.’

But if the Libyan revolution has produced a model of popular power that reaches beyond the bourgeois forms emerging in Cairo and Tunis, it is of course frozen in its tasks by the overwhelming need to maintain itself in the face of Gaddafi’s onslaught. And although the form of the revolution may extend beyond the bourgeois frame, the policy of the administration is, as yet, still caught in the this frame of reference. Political and social differentiation will only emerge now over questions of what is necessary to win the war and only later, if the revolutionaries are victorious, will they fully emerge over class programmes for the future of the revolution.

It is in order to protect this popular power, and its potential future progressive development, that the left in the West must act. Keeping the West out of Libya is vital for this reason as well as many others. When the Libyan revolution was advancing the slogans all over Benghazi were for no intervention. Now that Gadaffi’s forces are advancing the calls for intervention are louder, more out of desperation than pro-western ideology. This mood can turn again if the West is kept out. But once the West is let in the influence of the imperialists over the future of the revolution will become entrenched.

Yet again we see the dynamic of international revolution at work here. Just as Tunis inspired Cairo, just as he swift return of the Cairo protestors to Tahrir on the first Friday after Mubarak fell then inspired a second phase of the Tunisian revolution to get rid of Ben Ali’s replacement Gannouchi, so the ongoing struggle in Libya, Saudi, Yemen, Iraq, and now Palestine, can encourage those who were first into the line.

On the 14th March this report came from Oman:

‘Labor unrest spread across Oman Monday, a day after violent demonstrations, authorities said. Protesters, including striking hotel workers, blocked roads in the capital, Muscat, as well as Sohar and Dhank, Gulf News reported. The demonstrations in the northwestern town of Ibri turned violent Saturday when protesters took Manpower Ministry staff hostage. On Sunday, “vandals” set a Housing Ministry building, a house and cars on fire, police said.’

The fundamental issue of parliamentary government versus popular power, of two very different forms of democracy, is only now opening up. In Egypt especially, the issue of what the working class and the oppressed will get from the revolution has only begun to be addressed.

Results and prospects

Democratic revolutions can be more or less thorough going. Some of the ‘colour revolutions’ of recent years have merely given a thin democratic veneer, if that, to old corrupt elites. Others, like the South African dismantling of Apartheid, have led to a more fundamental political change, although the underlying relations of exploitation remained untouched. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are heading towards a more, not less, complete dismantling of the old political structure. This momentum means that a second ‘revolution within the revolution’ which challenges the economic relations of exploitation is easier to contemplate.

But for this to happen will require more than the strengthening of trade union and left organization, important though that is. It will require the development of popular organisations exercising power of the kind that have emerged under the extraordinary circumstances of civil war in Libya. Left parties that emerge into a Western-style parliamentary landscape congenial to the old elites will find progress towards a second revolution difficult to make. Lenin rightly insisted in 1917 that it was the workers councils, not the Bolshevik party, that was to take power in October because he understood that only through such institutions could revolutionaries and the working class win hegemony over all the other sections of the oppressed and exploited and therefore amass the force necessary to challenge capitalism.

We cannot know what challenges and opportunities the Arab revolutions will throw up next. But we can say that revolutionaries will best meet them if the step forward as the champions of all the oppressed and exploited, if they argue that workers must fight to show they are a universal class, as Marx called them, fighting for liberation of all, not simply a caste fighting for its place in the sun. Most of all such opportunities that exist for the creation of organisations of popular democratic power, rather than the old business of parliamentary trickery masking economic exploitation, must be seized on as the living thread that connects the masses who fought in Tahrir Square to a permanent liberation.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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