When future historians attempt to analyse the reasons why Hosni Mubarak was finally despatched as Egyptian president they will very probably record that it was not the mass occupation of Tahrir Square that ultimately forced his departure. Neither were the mobilisations leading to his downfall necessarily a direct consequence of the downfall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia. The Tunisian events merely brought forward what was likely to have happened anyway. Rather it was the simultaneous wave of strikes taking place throughout Egypt and the fear of the ruling elite that such actions could take on an increasingly political form.
Certainly demands for a general strike in the final days of the Mubarak regime were coming increasingly to the fore. Since 2004 Egypt has in fact seen an unprecedented level of industrial struggle. In excess of one million Egyptian workers are estimated to have participated in over two thousand strikes from 2004 through to the mobilisations that brought down Mubarak.
All this was achieved in a country where strikers were often subject to severe state repression and taking any form of industrial action was all but illegal. It also happened in the face of more or less total opposition from the country’s official trade union body the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). A highly bureaucratised and corrupt body, the ETUF and its affiliates functioned in practise as little more than an arm of the Egyptian state.
It is little wonder therefore that in post Mubarak Egypt new independent unions are now being formed outside of and in opposition to the ETUF which is facing calls to disband. Even under the Mubarak regime an independent union of tax collectors was formed in 2007, formed and led by workers who staged a sit-down outside Egypt’s Ministry of Finance for thirteen days. The newly formed Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions (EFIU) recently held a preparatory conference at the beginning of March. Although currently existing in embryonic form the EFIU has the support of the tax collectors and a number of other independent unions emerging.
The coming to power of military populist regimes in 1952 led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and in 1969 by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya clearly did lead to some limited social gains for the masses during their formative years. Many industries were nationalised and the revenues from these as well as oil revenues created the economic space for such reforms. At the same time though they maintained highly authoritarian regimes and suppressed all genuine forms of working class organisation.
All this changed over the last two decades with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the neoliberal offensive of the imperialist powers. Both Egypt in the 1990s and more recently Tunisia and Libya succumbed to the demands of the World Bank and IMF. Many state owned industries were privatised and state subsidies on items such as basic foodstuffs were reduced or abolished. All this led to greater unemployment and economic hardship for the masses whilst foreign investors and the indigenous capitalists and elites (including most crucially the families and close associates of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi) enriched themselves.
In Libya at the time of writing there appears to be a stalemate between the Gaddafi regime and the democratic opposition. If Gaddafi has not yet fallen in the way that Ben Ali and Mubarak did it is largely because the Libyan working class and indeed all of Libyan society had become atomised to a much greater extent than either Tunisia or Egypt.
Libya did however have a workers’ movement before Gaddafi albeit in a small, weak and embryonic form. During the 1967 Six Days War for example Libyan dockers refused to service oil tankers destined for Western imperialist countries that supported Israel.
If any lesson is to be learned from recent events in North Africa and the Middle East it is that the role of the working class is likely to be the major factor in determining whether any particular regime stands or falls.