The Face(book)less Revolution: A Decade of Strikes by Millions of Egyptian Workers
Last night I attended a large gathering of activists who came together in Arlington Center, Massachusetts, to listen to MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky and Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis discuss how to reinvigorate and expand the Peace Movement. Both speakers emphasized the need for anti-war activists to make links with other groups working for change, and particularly to get involved in supporting the majority of Americans who are overwhelmed by the ongoing economic crisis. Unemployment, cuts in wages and benefits, inflation in the area of fuel, food, and college tuition, have left many working people and youth depleted by everyday survival demands, as well as made them vulnerable to right-wing messages blaming immigrants and other victims of economic depression for their own suffering. They stressed that anti-war issues have to take a back seat to the broader economic issues most people are concerned about, while at the same time helping people to understand the connection between military spending and their daily struggles to make a living. Chomsky especially urged people to support workers who could, with public support, take over closing factories and continue manufacturing useful products themselves. Bennis talked about how little investment it would take to retool such companies so that workers could produce products for the “green economy.” They agreed that problems in the international arena, especially those in Egypt, have their roots in US foreign and military policy, and that is where we need to focus—focus on what's going on right here at home with our own government.
Nevertheless, one of the first questions from the floor went something like this: Since the workers in Egypt had been so slow to get on board with the uprisings in Cairo, why should we think that labor is an important part of any movement for revolutionary change? The questioner was not responding to anything that either Chomsky or Bennis had said. The misinformation referred to is the direct result of the class-biased reporting from Egypt, by both corporate and alternative media, which day in and day out has focused on well-to-do, highly educated Egyptian youth and professionals while ignoring the contribution of millions of Egyptian workers who have waged thousands of strikes over the past decade.
It was only later this week that one could hear a few scattered references to the bloody battles Egyptian workers have waged leading up to the current protests. Finally the media gave token recognition to the fact that what is happening in Tahrir Square Cairo has been built on the backs of millions of Egyptian workers who waged 3000 strikes over the past eight years. And that the April 6 Youth Movement took its name from one of largest coordinated strikes of several factories and work places in Mahalla, right outside of Cairo in 2008. When that strike was put down by secret police and military occupation of the factories, the wives and children of the workers demonstrated in Mahalla, also meeting with brutal repression.
Since the beginning of current events in Cairo, the reporters have rarely mentioned that at the same time as the uprising in Cairo was taking place, larger gatherings of demonstrators in Suez were under violent attack from police and army. Apparently there are fewer affluent, bilingual protesters in Suez, and the revolt there is made up of lower-income, working people. Why hasn't NPR, BBC, Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, and our maverick liberal independent reporters gotten into Suez to interview people participating in these larger, more violently repressed demonstrations of working class protesters?
On Thursday 2/11/10, with the announcement that thousands of workers in Suez were on strike, the liberal media was happy to report this, as though workers have been dormant, and just now decided to give their support to those in Tahrir Square. Of course, no one is reporting from Suez, so the televised attention immediately reverted to the dancing and singing in Tahrir Square, and reporters' delight at seeing 1000's of doctors "in their white coats" and lawyers "in their black robes" joining the festivities. Democracy Now reported that on Friday 2/12/10 professors would march from Cairo University to the square. And what would be happening to the workers of Suez? Who among the corporate media or the so-called "alternative" press would venture out of their "comfort zone" to discuss with the workers of Suez and Alexandria the demands of the workers there for a decent standard of living and adequate wages, and...well, who knows what more they might be demanding, since hardly anyone interviews them. Apparently, they are not sitting around with their laptops or i pods, texting, tweeting, and checking out Facebook.
Reporting on the Suez workers' strike, Evan Rohar of Labor Notes writes that “Egyptian authorities are beefing up security around the canal, claiming that Hamas and Hezbollah plan to dispatch saboteurs to aid the rebellion. Maybe they're acting on real intelligence, or maybe they're afraid of what the workers could do for themselves and for their revolution.” (“Suez Canal Strike Could Rattle Egypt’s Regime” 02/10/2011). Rohar makes the same mistake as many other reporters in stating that the workers demands are “economic” and “not political.” How can any American alive and aware today say that demands for higher wages, increased benefits, better working conditions, social welfare programs, and the right to organize and protest are not “political” demands. It is time for the false distinction between what is economic and what is political to end. The politics of today demand cuts in real wages, elimination of benefits packages, unemployment, and an end to workers organizing and striking. (See The Limits of Liberal Rhetoric: Profits vs. Jobs axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_62124.shtml )
Yesterday, Thursday 2/10/11, for the third time Mubarak announced o the thousands gathered in Tahrir (and one assumes to protesters in the rest of the nation) that he would not resign until September. This morning, Friday 2/11/11) Al Jazeera reports Mubarak has agreed to turn all dictatorial power over to his newly appointed second in command, Omar Sulieman. If Mubarak actually stands down, and if the Genius of Torture (Mubarak's good friend and his "Vice President") takes over, or if the military pulls off the threatened coup, what then???? How will the protesters of in Tahrir Square deal with the changing of the guard? Do you think all these brave, idealistic students and professionals have anything to learn from the millions of workers who have organized 3000 illegal strikes throughout industries and cities of Egypt over the past decade?
One articulate English-speaking Egyptian man interviewed (2/10/11) by the BBC stated his belief that nothing would really change in Egypt as long as the US and Israel continued to arm, train, and support the Egyptian military. When he accused the foreign media in general of being biased and ignoring these facts, he was quickly interrupted by the BBC reporter who made it clear that she and many of her colleagues would not agree with him. I would go further and say that as long as the media focuses on primarily interviewing professionals in Tahrir Square, and does not link up the actions there with reporting directly from Suez, Alexandria, and other areas of Egypt where larger, less jubilant actions have taken place, they are just as complicit in isolating and dividing what should be a successfully coordinated movement, as is Obama in continuing financial support for the Egyptian military while praising “Egypt's young people.” Both are singing the song of "democracy" while avoiding the underlying issues, and ignoring the experience, strength, and knowledge that has been gained through years of activism by unions and working people in Egypt. There is nothing new in this, and the truth remains THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED.
Mary Lynn Cramer, MA, MSW, LICSW has degrees in the history of economic thought and clinical social work , as well as over two decades of experience as a bilingual clinical social worker. For the past five years, she has been deeply involved in “economic field research” among elderly women and men dependent upon social security, Medicare, and food stamps, living in subsidized housing projects. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org