A Wobbly Perspective from Egypt

Wednesday 7 December 2011, by Reimann John

A Wobbly Perspective from Egypt

By John Reimann

I spent five days in Cairo in July, partly as a representative of the International Solidarity Commission (ISC) of the IWW. Most of that time was spent in Tahrir Square. The second day I went to the square, as soon as I entered the occupation area, a guy came up to me and said, “You are American? Welcome!” We started to talk. Within five minutes, there was a crowd of some 20 people, mostly young, standing around, peppering me with comments and questions.

One of the first things they wanted to know was about Israel. They were not against the Jewish people, but Zionism was a different matter. There was one guy who was a strict Muslim-maybe a fundamentalist to an extent. This guy and a friend of his gave me a long lecture about how Zionists control Wall Street and control the U.S. government, how the U.N. Security Council veto rule was set up for Israel.

My position was that there is nothing that the U.S. government has done in the Middle East that it hasn’t done elsewhere. I pointed to the series of coups it helped organize in Latin America. Look at its history: from defending the enslavement of Africans, the slaughter of the Indians, the machine gunning of striking U.S. workers. In the end, he told me that I had “entered into his mind” and that he hoped one day I would read the Koran. I thanked him and also told him that I hoped one day he would read the “Communist Manifesto.” We took a picture together.

Even with their great friendliness, many people wondered whether I was some sort of agent of the United States and/or Israel. This came out in various ways. Sometimes they came right out and ask. One guy quizzed me on what different languages I speak: German? French? Italian? Then he asked, with a slightly cynical smile on his face, “Hebrew?” They are cautious for good reason. For instance, one guy came into the square posing as an American reporter. He caused some sort of problems. Then it turned out that he was, in fact, an Israeli. Then there was the attack some weeks earlier against the Coptic community. Several people I asked about it said that they think Mossad was behind that attack. I think they’re probably right. (I met quite a few Christians in Tahrir Square and one of the tents there was a Coptic Christian group. It’s also interesting to note that I was told that many Christians celebrate Ramadan with their Muslim friends). Unfortunately, I did not get to meet with the new, independent unions. I went one day to the office of their new federation, but there was nobody there who spoke English and in the short time I was there I didn’t have a chance to return with a translator.

People asked me about Obama. I think when he came here and said “Salaam Aleikum,” that made a big impression and people liked him a lot. But my position is that the difference between him and Bush is like that between a pickpocket and a mugger. In this connection, we talked a lot about conditions in the United States-the unemployment, the homelessness, the health care situation. Now, with Obama’s obvious support for Israel, there are far fewer illusions about him.

I also met some slightly older workers and they were telling me about the strikes against privatization, beginning in 2004. These strikes were really the spark of the present revolution, and it was a general strike on Feb. 9, 2011 that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. However, that wasn’t all. I was told that there had been no original plan to occupy Tahrir Square, but the different neighborhood protests in Cairo just somehow-as if called together by an unconscious force- all ended up there. The U.S. media showed the thugs who attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square on camels on Feb. 4. What they didn’t show was that this attack- known as the “Battle of the Camels”-was combined with a general sniper assault that lasted through the night. The snipers were holed up on rooftops of buildings surrounding the square, armed with rifles equipped with laser sights. The protesters would see somebody next to them suddenly have a laser spot on them and then, boom!, they would be shot. Most of the buildings housing the snipers were guarded by the police so the protesters could not get to them, but they did manage to get to one sniper. He will not be killing anybody else. I was told that up to 500 people were killed that night. Several days later, there was a general strike in Cairo and within a week, Mubarak was gone.

The snipers must have been from a select group in the Egyptian military since I personally met two young men amongst the protesters who were also soldiers. In other words, the general rank and file of the military was not to be relied upon by the military brass.

At one point, a general who evidently is pretty popular-a member of the ruling military council-tried to speak from one of the stages. It seems opinions were divided, with the most vocal elements shouting him down. He went from stage to stage, trying to speak.

Egypt is so crucial to the politics of the entire region. That’s why it’s impossible to resolve the crisis in Egypt purely on a national basis. But it’s impossible to really unite the region on the basis of capitalism. Nasser tried to do this and he was unable. Therefore, I believe that to resolve the crisis, the overthrow of capitalism and the coming to power of the working class in Egypt and regionally is necessary.

This makes the role of the council that organized the community in Tahrir Square all the more important. Unfortunately (in my opinion), it was agreed that this council would not take up political tasks in order to cut down on conflict between the different groups of protesters. However, the working class’s coming to power cannot take place without internal debate and conflict as workers test out different ideas and the organizations that represent those ideas.

Since I was in Egypt, I saw reports of a huge rally in Tahrir Square in which the Islamic fundamentalists (or semifundamentalists) dominated. I think this shows that if the different views aren’t clearly brought forward, and if the working class is not able through this process to find the road to power, then the danger of reactionary ideas, such as religious fundamentalism, taking root is real.

Also, since then, the military cleared Tahrir Square. This is a temporary setback, but overall the revolution there will take many twists and turns.

Industrial Worker, November 2011, p. 15.