Did Egypt's general strike really fail?
Although calls for a three-day strike by political and student movements were ineffective, some believe the effort was not in vain
Dina Samak, Wednesday 15 Feb 2012
Faisal Abdel Aziz, a banker in his early thirties was still optimistic as he went to work Monday morning. "The revolution continues,” he says, "even if one action fails. We still have to try and learn from our mistakes."
Abdel Aziz is not a member of any revolutionary group or political party but still sees himself as part of the revolution. "I've been to most of the protests in Tahrir Square since the beginning of the18-day uprising. This year, on the anniversary of January 25, I marched all the way from Maadi to Tahrir Square to call on the ruling military council to handover power to a civil authority."
The banker, however, chose not to heed calls for a nationwide general strike planned for Saturday, 11 February. Calls for a general strike aimed at pressuring the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to handover power to a civil authority were triggered by a number of university student unions and adopted by a handful of leftist and liberal parties as well as revolutionary groups.
"I don't work on Saturday anyway, and all I could do Sunday is take a sick leave," explains Abdel Aziz. It would have been very hard for him to announce his plan to strike, he added, as the call to action did not draw much sympathy in his work place.
In the days running up to the strike, the Egyptian media engrossed itself in talk of the looming unionist action, antagonising its organisers and calling for stability. But on the first day of the planned three-day strike, it became clear to supporters and detractors alike that the strike was to be grounded before it could even pick up pace.
However, a new debate was soon sparked, as supporters of the call questioned whether the less than stellar participation should be read as a major setback.
"I am not depressed at all,” says Gihan Shaban, one of the founders of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, a political backer of the strike action. "I never expected the strike to succeed anyway; rather our support for these calls was rooted in our belief that collective action – in the form of work stoppage – is a legitimate protest tool. We also wanted to declare our support for the demands raised by the student unions who called for the strike."
For Shaban, current economic conditions in Egypt are ripe for a major strike wave, but it is yet-unclear when this could happen. In fact a number of workers strikes did take place before or during the three days of the so-called general strike. The workers, however, who participated in these actions were very cautious not to link what happened on the shop floor with what was happening on the political scene.
Ain Al-Sokhna port workers, who had announced plans to begin an open strike 9 February against Dubai port operator DP World, decided instead to return to negotiations sponsored by the Suez governor and a number of MPs. When negotiations failed, the port workers decided to start their strike on 12 February, making it clear that their action had nothing to do with the call for a general strike.
"We have nothing against the call," said Hamada Kamel the head of the port's workers union, "The problem is that most of the workers were worried their demands would get lost amongst the general demands of the national strike." Kamel told Ahram Online that on many occasions many port workers would participate in Suez's political protests individually but most are reluctant to take their political beliefs to work.
"This is exactly the reason why the general strike failed to happen," says Shaban, clarifying that "many of the workers who are actually a part of the revolution do not link their economic demands to political demands; and the political movement for its part has so far failed to bridge the gap between both."
The socialist activist, who was herself involved in solidarity campaigns with workers strikes under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, thinks that Saturday's ineffective strike action could send a good message to Egypt's revolutionary forces: "Tahrir is not the revolution, and they (the revolutionary forces) need to approach the working class that is already trying to organise itself."
Shaban's message was well received by university students, according to Mahmoud Nawar, a student at Helwan University as well as a political activist. "Strikes at universities have attracted a large number of students who have become aware that they cannot fight alone," he said, as he marched on campus with dozens of other students. The slogans used by the students reflected Nawar's sentiment. "We the students together with workers unite against the capitalist gang" was one of the many economic and socially charged slogans widely used in the march.
"Many students were not politicised prior to the revolution and others only came around when they found their colleagues getting killed in protests. Now the students movement is reviving, and those who called for the strike on 11 February are now aware that they need the workers. The student movement like the whole political movement in Egypt learns from its experience."
According to Nawar some students are now trying to create a national committee for students to collectively organise future student action around the country as well as facilitate coordination with trade unions. This kind of coordination was only present in Egypt in 1946 when workers and students established what was known as the Higher Committee for Students and Workers against British Occupation.
Nawar, like many young political activists, believes that Egypt's protest movement needs to do more to further its demands than simply demonstrating in Tahrir Square. "The protests are important of course, and the marches against military rule on the revolution's anniversary were proof that the revolutionary spirit still exists and is growing," he explains. "But after the Port Said massacre that left more than 70 dead and the ensuing clashes that saw police leaving at least 15 dead outside the interior ministry, it became clear that we have to do more than just confront the police until we are killed or injured."
The call for a general strike, according to Nawar, revealed a new direction the movement could take. However, the lack of organisation cited by both Nawar and Shaban as the reason behind the political movement's failure to effectively organise industrial action, is not the real reason according to other parties that refused to rally around the strike.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), snubbed the call from the beginning and called on people to not participate. The FJP's position was the subject of criticism by those who called for the strike, who reminded the Brotherhood that they had a totally different position towards the calls for a general strike in 2008. In 6 April that year the response to the call by anti-Mubarak movement Kefaya and other political groups in solidarity with Mahalla Textile workers was not big either. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, defended the call as a peaceful means of anti-regime expression.
Brotherhood students at Cairo University issued a statement on the first day of the strike saying that they agree with the student movement's demands, declaring their respect of strikes as a peaceful tool for political expression. They too did not call on students to participate and did not go on strike themselves.
Member of Parliament Mohamed Beltagy, who is also a member of the Executive Office of the FJP, stated on Sunday that what happened Saturday was a protest, not a general strike or civil disobedience.
"We succeeded in electing a People’s Assembly that truly represents us all. It is only appropriate for us now to turn to that elected body with our demands which it shall meet," said the MB Secretary-General. "We have to be patient, though. There are many demands, and the new parliament has to effect reforms of thirty years of rampant corruption, which cannot be done in one day."
For Beltagy and other MB leaders, Egypt is still in need of protests and sit-ins to pressure government to enact reforms and to achieve the demands of the revolution, however a general strike is not needed and that is why the Egyptian people did not respond to the calls.
Abdel Aziz thinks that the media played a role in making his colleagues at the bank look suspiciously towards the call for a general strike. "Many of my friends who are pro-revolution did not understand what is meant by a general strike in the first place, and others believed that it would negatively affect the country's security and economy as the main stream media propagated," he says.
"There were no strikes in work places, at least not as far as I know, but the calls for one were really successful, because at least people now know what it means."