Well, it happened. The people of Egypt managed to overthrow the U.S. backed Mubarak regime after thirty years of despotic rule. And with celebrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, there was a sense of finality. But not so fast...
Despite the weird impression fostered by Western media that this was some sort of "middle class revolution" led by wired youth and peace activists from abroad, the central part of the mass of people who actually shut down the government, and the country, were the workers. It was good to see all the people in the streets, and have Nobel-winning peace activist ElBaradei return, but it wasn't until government workers, and factory workers, and in particular the workers of the Suez Canal Company went on strike that Mubarak finally departed.
And there's no reason to think that without these measures he wouldn't still be sitting in the presidential palace in Cairo chewing on rotten dates and planning his comeback.
Revolutions don't really come about because the middle class decides it's time. They come about when ordinary working people do the one thing that all the government authority, and police, and thugs, and even all the brute military might in the world are no match against: they refuse to work.
And that's what many working class people in Egypt are refusing to do--still. The Canal workers, some of them, have gone back to work. But regular people in the banking, government, manufacturing, and transportation sectors are all still out. Why? Because this was never about just getting rid of Hosni Mubarak.
This was about the very real economic grievances that pushed people over the brink. This was about food prices increasing by 100% and more, and fuel prices tripling, and rents skyrocketing, and city and transport services deteriorating or ceasing to exist. This was about land being stolen after centuries from native populations like the Bedouin (who probably had a hand in blowing up a natural gas pipeline that feeds energy to Israel). This was about gentrification, and "touristification," and class warfare. Mubarak's departure does NOTHING---read it, NOTHING---to change these things. As president Obama said, "It's just a beginning." But unlike Obama, who meant it's just the beginning of a transfer to yet another form of bourgeois rule, it seems that the working people of Egypt may have other interpretations in mind.
Now that the military has taken control, they're trying to work with a self-appointed coalition of students, peace activists, and other more acceptable types to Western middle class tastes. The objective is to "smooth out" the transition process. But evidently what many working people are hearing is that the government wants approval to "smooth over" any possibility that the movement to oust Mubarak might become a genuinely revolutionary push to transform Egyptian society along more egalitarian class lines. Strikes are a beginning, and maybe more than that, in a country where the government has just been overthrown and civil society broke down a long time ago. These are truly revolutionary conditions---there's nothing academic about it.
All the talk about inequity during the protests got a lot of investors, and a lot of people in European governments, very upset. The White House wasn't too crazy about it either, seeing as how they just helped to pass one of the biggest windfalls for millionaires and billionaires in history at home. This may explain, at least in part, their reluctance to let go of Mubarak, a point not lost on many of the protestors, especially those who walked out of their places of work shouting not only slogans like, "Mubarak must go," but also things like, "Equality now" and "Down with the rich." And they're not talking about traditional bourgeois definitions of equality under a rule of law that's skewed to begin with to favor the wealthy and powerful. And they're not just referring to equal representation under a political system that even in America, the "home of democracy," has become a joke. You know, people in other parts of the world notice little things like that.
Of course, it's still possible that the coalition that the military has chosen to work with on constitutional reforms and other political issues---let's call it the "coalition of the acceptable"---will side with workers and refuse to go along with any attempt to quell the strikes. With Wall Street watching, and the flow of oil in the Suez on the line (even with most oil workers busy, it's doubtful the Canal can be maintained for long if the heart of the country's workforce remains out), there will be a great deal of pressure on the new military regime to end the labor action as soon as possible. To this end they will try to use the students and other protestors against the working class by offering political and other concessions, anything that doesn't touch upon the central issues of economic inequality and the distribution of private property.
Since much of the property of the old regime was stolen from the people, there will be some gestures towards "cleaning up corruption" and restoring the plundered wealth to public hands. But that's not good enough---as a matter of facts, under these conditions, and with a global depression continuing to hammer those at the bottom in every country, moves to prosecute and confiscate the bank accounts of Mubarak and his cronies should be seen as little more than a distraction. Good work, but not substantial, certainly not structural.
It is of the utmost importance that the working class form their own organizations and elect their own leaders to respresent them in negotiations with the new government. Relying on Western mouthpieces like ElBaradei and Amr Moussa will only lead right back in the direction of dictatorship under a different name: indebtedness. Already there are plans to loan Egypt huge sums for the "transition process" being worked out at the IMF and other organizations. The most disastrous outcome of Mubarak's overthrow would be for Egypt to end up as the new Greece. For now, the workers seem to know this, and they remain cautious about heading back to work or accepting the empty promises of a regime that continues to be backed by the U.S., a country that treats its own workers like shit, and the workers in other countries like slaves.
And for those who think that the military taking over the country is the end of the matter, or the beginning of some merely political reform process, here's something to keep in mind: it's hard to rule a country that refuses to work. It's like, well, ruling a desert.
(Above: Suez Canal Company workers go on strike...and scare the hell out of the White House.)