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Student Corner: Soldiers versus Workers

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Taher El Moataz Bellah

Taher El Moataz Bellah

By Taher El Moataz Bellah

Milko Milkonian, an American electrical engineer, was an active member of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), the most cohesive and largest communist group of Egypt’s surging, yet highly divided leftist movement. For two years from 1950 to 1952, his mission was to deliver parcels from communist affiliated print shops to a young Egyptian, who waited for him every week in a black Citroen at the Nile bank of Manial El Roda. The man’s code name was Maurice, and he was the same man responsible for the arrest of the whole group. Milkonian did not know that Maurice was actually Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser was never a communist, but he exploited the DMNL for his own interests before the 1952 coup.According to Ahmed Hamroush, head of the DMNL military branch, he printed all the free officers’ leaflets at their print shops to avoid being prosecuted by military tribunals.

After the coup, Nasser used the same tactics he was avoiding to persecute others. The Revolutionary Command Council held military tribunals  for striking workers at Kafr Al-Dawar’s Egypt spinning and weaving factory less than three weeks after the popularly backed coup. In a move that shocked communists, who saw the regime as a progressive, clean alternative to monarchy, the tribunals charged two young workers with treason, accusing them of instigating violence between the impoverished workers and unleashed soldiers, and sentenced them to death. Once the officers felt threatened by a group of workers, they clamped down harshly. They did not accept mass confrontation and had zero tolerance for any act of defiance, even if, like a strike for a pay raise or the removal of a corrupt administrator, it was not politically driven. The Kafr Al-Dawar incident provides a serious lesson on how soldiers deal with workers.

The first seven weeks of 2014 have witnessed more than 54 strikes – an alarming number even compared to post revolution statistics, according to the Egyptian Center for Human Rights. Current strikers, which include pharmacists, medics, postal workers and public transport drivers, among others, have three basic demands. The first is to reform their salary structure and implement the highly advertised minimum wage that proved to be one of the greatest governmental hoaxes in Egyptian modern history. The second is to remove corrupt personnel who harm their companies through their nepotism, mismanagement and lack of talent. The third is granting annual raises to compensate for ever rising inflation. All these non-politicised demands seem legitimate and deserve the government’s careful inspection. However, as has been the case over the past three years, whenever workers start to make noise, their pleas fall on deaf ears. This time, though, it’s a totally different game.

Three years ago the politically naïve youth were painting pavements, the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing for elections, and only the heavily impoverished workers took to the streets. Facing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces alone, the workers did not stand a chance, were attacked vigorously by the media and were charged with disrupting the sacred production cycle. Authorities forgot that, if the people had been incited to revolution, the cycle must have already stopped long ago. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is on the streets, the politically disfranchised and heavily disappointed youth are fed up with the endless repression, and the workers are occupying factories.

So what will Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the “new Nasser”, do? It looks like he will follow the same guidebook as his charismatic, yet stubborn and heavy handed, ancestor. For example, after the public transport drivers’ strike brought the capital to a halt over the past couple of days, the army decided to do what it does best, ignoring the strikers and the problem altogether by sending its own buses in as a substitute.

The cabinet change was an attempt to contain growing dissent. Maybe the new government will continue to ignore the workers under the inexhaustible excuse of fighting terror. But even though we can’t accurately predict the future, we can safely state that a revolution with unfulfilled demands is a revolution that is destined to reoccur and reproduce itself in different forms until the initial demands are fulfilled. And even though generals might be at ease with the latter option, and even though they might be tempted to use the same tactics used at Kafr Al-Dawar, they should be know that now is a different time, with different people. For Al-Sisi to win the upcoming elections (and the next one, if he wishes), he must be aware that the more he ignores the noise, the louder it will grow. The workers are resorting to direct action in scenes similar to what happened in Mahala in 2006, going down the same old road means that we are destined to witness another 2011, where an army of soldiers will not be unrivalled. An army of workers has already started to rise.

Taher El Moataz Bellah is a student at the American University in Cairo.

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