Workers' politics and the elite politics of 'Mahmoud Bey'

Wael Gamal , Monday 23 Jul 2012

Recent polls show most Egyptians share the demands of Egypt's striking workers for job creation and better wages. Yet Egypt's so-called 'democratic elite' has done little to bring about real reform

“Mahmoud Bey”, parliamentarian and businessman, is talking to a group that includes senior officers in the security apparatus, at what appears to be a party just before the January 1977 bread riots. To the sound of background music more befitting a cabaret, Bey speaks about the need to privatize Alexandria's beaches and all public sector factories.

In a scene from celebrated director Mahmoud Khan's1987 film Zawgat Ragul Mohem  (Wife of anImportant Man), fictitious character “Mahmoud Bey” speaks about the chaos and mayhem sweeping the country, which can only be resolved by private companies instead of the public sector and the state.

“Mahmoud Bey” objects to outsiders invading a world he monopolises, linking them to the ongoing havoc: "Now the workers are talking politics… perhaps politicians should now become workers… It’s all upside down."

In 2012, the situationis being repeated. The same logic still applies to the political elite’s view of attempts by Egypt’s workers, employees and civil servants to protect their interests through industrial action. Even after the revolution that erupted against Mahmoud Bey’s prescription, which h einsisted in the film (produced in 1987) that he will not stay silent until it is implemented, and almost was, our political elite continue to view workers as a class that must work with dedication and patience in horrible circumstances, while others have exclusive rights to determine their lives.

Who actually understands politics better?

The sweeping majority of our politicians, experts and analysts adopt one of two viewpoints regarding continued strikes and labourp rotests. The first, repeating what Mubarak’s regime and state security suggested during the Mahalla protests in 2006 and 2008: that the Muslim Brotherhood is agitating workers for its own gains.

Today, some members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) describe the strikes which began after the grace period workers gave politicians to choose a president as incitement by security and remnant elements to overthrow and embarrass President Mohamed Morsi. According to this view, workers are always manipulated to serve subversive agitator politicians.

The second perception is that they are “factional actions from those who do not care about national interests” but serve “narrow selfish” interests and approach the worsening economic climate from the position of stupidity or greed.

This accusationis never ascribed to businessmen, who accrue the highest profit margins through monopolising steel, cement and other sectors while failing to fulfil their duty towards the state and society. It is not applied to those same business leaders whose export subsidies are not subject to the austerity budget.

One political strategy expert at Al-Ahram Studies Centre even tells us that the wave of strikes sweeping across Egypt will not only destroy the president’s 100-day plan, but also could hold back the entire democratic process.

Battles continue over mandates, constitutions, legislation,dilemmas of a civil vs religious state, the share of various political forces in the constituent assembly, and who will participate in the proposed presidential committees to resolve the problems of the country and the citizenry.

Against this backdrop, a Gallup opinion poll published Monday informed us that the basic demand of the Egyptian people make of their elected president and his government is to provide job opportunities for the youth.

Resolving the economic crisis, raising wages and restoring security come next.

Gallup tells us that these grievances came in the same order, irrespective of party affiliation or political views. “Supporters of FJP, the Nour Party, and the Free Egyptians Party agreed on these demands, and in the same order, with negligible mention of any other demands that party leaders in Egypt are interested in.”

These results decimate the political elite’s arguments sinceworkers (who number hundreds of thousands) seem to be more expressive of democratic tendencies of Egyptian.

What more precise, comprehensive or worthy policiesshould be pursued than the ones that the people demand? The unanimous demand of strikers to raise wages and increase employment – otherwise  known as social justice, which was at the core of the revolution – is a demand of all Egyptians irrespective of their political views, according to the Gallup poll.

It is the consensual demand that has been long sought in the face of a polarisation of another kind that is politically manufactured between Islamists and secularists . How can a democratic system that does not represent this unanimous demand succeed?

Alternative polarisation

It appears that the actual polarisation according tothis formula is between “Mahmoud Bey 2012” – whether he is a leftist, an Islamist or a liberal – of an elite class whose interests are united against the majority of Egyptians who aspire for justice and liberty in dignity and livelihood.

It is a polarity of strategic interests between those who inherited the kingdom and possessions from the pre-revolution regime (representing many who work in politics and attempt to monopolise its realm),and those who revolted and dug a channel to enter the world of politics for the first time, to defend other interests which require changing the balance of power.

As we saw over the 18 months since Mubarak’s ouster, the more heavily-guarded barricades of the old system are those protecting the economic interests of the minority. Not a single move was taken on this regard,not even limited reform. Instead, they undercut any move towards the reforms that were demanded by the revolutionaries: obstruction of minimum and maximum wage; aborting any amendment of the tax system that benefits the wealthy, and so on.

Workers represent the structural continuity of revolutionaries, and through industrial action are capable of reversing the upside-down political world, and standing it upright on its own two feet, without illusions. Therefore, the majority of the elite representing thei nterests of the old balance of forces have refrained from denouncing the law banning strikes and sit-ins and have stood still while the government withdrew the right to free plural union organization.

This same “democratic” elite is now promoting the cancellation of the 50 per cent quota of parliamentary seats for farmers and workers, instead of putting in place guarantees that it would genuinely be away of democratically representing a strata that constitutes more than half of Egyptians. Enforcing the quota in the right way could be a tool for confrontingthe influence of money, business and the hegemony of those controlling the media and spokesmen for military rule.

Striking workers have two characteristics which make them the true the true embryo of the political vanguard of our revolution: they unequivocally, without middlemen or pretence,represent the majority and its interests, and are effectively organising themselves in the political realm, the world of conflicting interests, as the largest homogenous popular force determined to continue the revolution until it accomplishes its goals.

Thank you, Mahmoud Bey. We will not need you or the havoc your policies have wreaked. The workers live, practice and understand our politics well, and will reverse the situation.

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