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English Translation of Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy on the Role of Labor/Unions in the Egyptian Revolution
[Below is both the English translation and the video of the interview. The interview was conducted by Bassam Haddad, then translated and transcribed by Christine Cuk. It was also reviewed by Mohamed Aly and Bassam Haddad. Thanks to Christine and Mohamed for volunteering to make this interview available to English readers, per their many requests]
Jadaliyya is hereby presenting the first (deliberately belated) installment in a series called "A Portrait of a Revolutionary," featuring interviews with an Egyptian journalist and activist who was at the forefront of the Egyptian protest movement, Hossam Hamalawy.
Below is the first part of the interview, recorded in Arabic prior to Part 2 (on the role of the Egyptian army) and Part 3 (on the role of the Egyptial political and economic elite). The first part below deals with the role of the Egyptian labor unions in tipping the scale during the last days before Mubrak's resignation. This video was recorded on February 23rd. I opted for featuring the English language parts first.
Hossam addresses herein several themes including what the revolution was about and by whom. He also addresses the split between the more advantaged social groups/classes who are somewhat satisfied with the post-revolution status-quo. This separates them from the less privileged social groups/classes. The principal demands of workers are to end corruption and institute full-time (as opposed to temporary) employment. Hossam also addresses the history of labor unions and their role in both the Egyptian context and in the revolution, including how they differ from the Tunisian labor unions. Finally, he also discusses the views of Egyptian protesters on the spread of demonstrations across the Arab world, as well as the impact of this on the United State and Israel.
English Transcription/Translation of Interview
Bassam [henceforth "B"]: How are you? Congratulations.
Hossam [henceforth "H"]: Great. Thank you!
B: Can you tell us about the post-revolution situation? There's fear, hope, etc. We'd like to hear from you personally, as someone who took part in the battle: What's going on?
H: The war hasn't ended. The first battle of the revolution ended with Mubarak's stepping down from power, but the revolution hasn't been completed. We now say that we entered the stage of the revolution. I would like in the beginning to inform your readers of certain facts so we can be clear about what happened in Egypt. First, all the media now, even the government media, describe what's happened in Egypt as a "youth revolution." Of course, I've never heard of a "seniors' revolution" in any part of the world. And it's well-known that in any revolution of people of the world, those from the ages of 18 to 25 compose the segment of the population that is the most involved. But describing the revolution as a “youth revolution also makes it vague and gives it a certain color something that has become fashionable today, to give revolution a certain color, so there are orange, purple, jasmine revolutions and so on. I believe that some people have tried to call our revolution the "lotus revolution," an attempt that has failed utterly, thank God.
[Discussion as to whether to conduct the interview in Arabic or English. They continue in Arabic.]
H: OK. All social classes in Egypt participated in the uprising from the first stages. Hosni Mubarak's regime succeeded in creating a state of alienation between it and all the social classes, with no exceptions. Even among the Egyptian elite except for those businessmen who surrounded HM, were relieved when he resigned. But what pushed Hosni Mubarak, or what pushed the armed forces to ask Hosni Mubarak to step down and give up power? First, the battle between us and the authority when we were protesting in al- Tahrir began to turn into a battle of nerves, and a battle of waiting, and a battle of attrition: who would wear out first? And at the same time, the government was staging something like a capital strike—not a labor strike—a capital strike. In the first stage of the uprising, buildings were closed, shops, banks…. This was the government's decision; it wasn't our decision. The protesters didn't attack the banks. We didn't attack shops. And in Egypt at that time it was the armed forces that imposed a curfew. What stopped life in Egypt was the army that imposed a curfew. So the situation turned into a battle of waiting. But what pushed matters in our favor and pushed Hosni Mubarak to realize OK, that he had to leave power, were the beginning of labor strikes on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the Friday he stepped down, when 'Umar Sulayman announced that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down. The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that’s what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
We might ask, where were the workers at the beginning of the revolution? The workers participated in the revolution from the beginning. In areas of Suez, in areas like Mahallah, areas like Kafr el-Dawwar…these areas are working-class areas. So when you hear that tens of thousands—and at times there were hundreds of thousands—of people protesting in these cities, I think it's understood that the vast majority of them were workers. But the workers were taking part in these demonstrations as demonstrators, not as workers. They were not acting as a separate force. Number one, because this was an uprising and all of them were there in the street; number two, because the government was staging a capital strike, so the workers weren't congregating in factories because the whole time the workers were either in the street or in the popular committees that were protecting the neighborhoods. But as soon as the government tried to restore "normal life" once again in Egypt in the week prior to the fall of Mubarak, the workers returned to their factories, returned to their companies, and began to talk to each other and discuss the country's affairs. And it was on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday that was the turning point. The strikes began. The workers began to act as a social bloc.
OK, Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Friday. Afterwards, the question arose: "What next?" Now there is a split within the ranks of the revolutionaries between the youth of the middle classes and their youth organizations, who announced their confidence in the armed forces, their opposition to the continuing rallies in al-Tahrir Square and announced that they were against the strikes, and called it class-based strikes, on the basis that those who are taking part in them were classes with limited interests that primarily concerned them and weren't of concern to the rest of the classes in society, from their point of view. There was a situation of hostility between the workers and middle class youth.
And this state of hostility is repeated by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, which issued more than one statement prohibiting protesters, and its forces in Suez two days earlier arrested a group of workers and killed by mistake a number of protesters who were the relatives of workers, which led to an outbreak of clashes. The military police were used in some of the ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture today, for example, so as to disperse the masses of protesters on the pretext of protecting the ministries from being stormed by angry workers. The army so far has not opened fire on the demonstrators and it hasn't opened fire on striking workers. But we are all holding our breath: When will it happen? None of us doubt the loyalty to the revolution of the soldiers and officers—the young officers. However, the generals who rule Egypt right now, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are Hosni Mubarak's generals- he appointed them. They are the generals who have provided support and have been the spine of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship during his rule for the last thirty years. The military institution is the institution that has ruled Egypt since '52, so I don't have any reason to trust the generals of the military council. But the younger officers and soldiers and conscripts—they, in my opinion, are allies, not enemies.
Currently, the strikes, and after the fall of Mubarak, the social strikes are continuing. There is no day in which you can open a newspaper and not find news about a sit-in or a strike or a labor demonstration, or about employees demonstrating somewhere. The common demand in all of these strikes is first of all the prosecution of corruption and the dismissal of corrupt managers. The second demand that is also common to all of these strikes is to make temporary workers permanent. Egypt is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of labor rights and the government plays its games here the whole time in that most of the workers that we have here in Egypt don't have contracts, all these work with temporary contract or on daily basis for many long years. They have no social security. That is the second demand.
Another demand you see in most strikes is the formation of independent trade unions, because in Egypt we don't have independent trade unions; we have something called the "Egyptian Trade Union Federation," which is a governmental entity established by 'Abd al-Nasser in '57, and its job is to exert control over the working class, not to defend the labor movement. In fact, the members of the Union are against strikes and always fight them, for the sake of the government. It's run by Hussein Migawar, one of the lords of corruption in the National Party.
But in Egypt, from the moment strikes broke out in 2006 some trade union successes. There were some achievements during the wave of strikes of the past five years. Property tax collectors succeeded in establishing the first independent trade union in the history of the country in half a century in December 2008.
[Sound cuts out] …health technicians, who work on hospital machines here in Egypt, succeeded in establishing an independent trade union two months ago, and pensioners formed a union. Those are the three independent labor associations that we've just gotten here in Egypt. But we don't have the kind of labor entity they have in Tunisia, like the Tunisian General Union of Labor, a trade union which was quasi-independent under the dictatorship of Ben Ali. As soon as the revolution took place, the revolution provided the opportunity for bases for coordinated action. And they were able to mobilize the working class and to act in a unified way. Here in Egypt we don't have this kind of entity or anything like it, but it's something that I and my colleagues on the left and a large number of labor organizations are now trying to build.
B: You talk about the workers at the time coming in and demonstrating and striking on the Wednesday and Thursday before the fall of the regime. Are there people who say, no, that's merely an addition to what was already there, it didn't itself lead to the fall of the regime?
H: No, I mean, first, I am not trying to dishonor the efforts that were there in Tahrir. I was one of those who was there in Tahrir. This doesn't mean that I'm saying that the intervention of workers on the political scene with the general strikes that they staged on Wednesday and Thursday before the Friday that Mubarak stepped down…when I say that I don't mean that that was the sole factor. The entry of the workers onto the battlefield was really an addition, but in my opinion, it was a decisive addition. The whole time we were in Tahrir we could exert control over Tahrir, but we didn't control the rest of the country. Hosni Mubarak and his entourage were perhaps really complete and steadfast and they still held the battle-axe. We couldn't bend them. But the general strikes on Wednesday and Thursday [sound breaks up]. Look, students could hold demonstrations for a full year and occupy their universities. The government can close them down. Judges could demonstrate in the streets and hold heroic demonstrations. The government can close them—it has military courts. If the journalists demonstrate, the government can shut down the newspapers. But the workers, if they strike, it's "game over." The game is over. It's finished, because the machine won't work. There's no money coming in. No trains are moving. No buses are moving. No factories are working. No ships are moving. No ports are operating. It's "game over"—finished. The subject's over.So, the intervention of labor was the decisive factor. Of course, it wasn't the only factor.
B: When you say "decisive," what is the thing that decided matters? When you say "decisive," did the army do something in particular that put pressure on Mubarak? Decisive with respect to whom?
H: Decisive for the Egyptian Revolution with the logic….
B: Who made the decision that had the decisive reaction?
H: In our situation, the army leadership intervened and asked Hosni Mubarak to step down and disappear from the political scene, because the army leadership, which was already beginning to control the country at that time, saw the regime crumbling. And this was something Hosni Mubarak who was sitting holed up in his palace with Gamal Mubarak and his clique, this was something clearly that could not reach his sons at all, in addition to his great madness, as well as his pride and his hotheadedness. But the army, which was more in touch with the scene on the street and how things were going, simply saw that Hosni Mubarak had to disappear or the regime was going to crumble. That's it, the country was no longer working.
B: I'd like to talk about what happened afterward later. But Hosni Mubarak was in the position that he would have to disappear. Are you avoiding any talk about accountability….any type of accountability? It's as though he was put aside, and that was that.
H: The chants in Tahrir, which began with "the people want the departure of the president" and "the people want the fall of the regime," in the last days the people were shouting, "the people want the trial of the president," "the people want the trials of the butcher" and "the people want the execution of the butcher."
They were shouted together. We need to be clear about this. These were the slogans that came up again and again. In the view of the vast majority of the Egyptian people, we don't want Hosni Mubarak to leave the country. We really want Hosni Mubarak to stay in the country. We want him to answer for what he's done over the last thirty years, and at the same time, to return the wealth that was looted and stolen from us. The current estimates of Hosni Mubarak's wealth range from 5 billion up to 70 billion dollars (according to varying figures). We need to get this money back. The Public Prosecutor, who we have to understand that he is also a part of the old regime, he's a Public Prosecutor who was chosen by Hosni Mubarak, is under pressure now and waging a campaign to combat corruption. This "fight against corruption" involves arresting former ministers, taking custody of their property, and arresting certain businessmen with close connections to Hosni Mubarak and the former regime in order to assuage public opinion, and at the same time to freeze their bank accounts and conduct investigations around them. The family of the president have begun to come under scrutiny, and that's under extreme pressure from the masses.
But we also have to understand that it will not do for the friends of Hosni Mubarak to try Hosni Mubarak. That Public Prosecutor was put there by Hosni Mubarak. The generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who are currently running the country—the situation is a part of the machinery of corruption present in Egypt. Why should we think that the armed forces are the only arm of the state that is pure and has not been touched by any corruption during the last 30 years of Mubarak’s rule? ? They are part of the machinery.
They are part of the regime. I personally want to know how much money and wealth and financial assets Tantawi's and the rest of the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It's my right as an Egyptian citizen to know this—it shouldn't be a secret. So I am not optimistic that the Egyptian people's wealth will be returned so long as the current regime remains in power.
B: What is your overall opinion, as an activist, journalist, writer, analyst, an Arab, an Egyptian, of what is going on in Bahrain, Yemen, and especially Libya? Wednesday, 23rd February.
H: Firstly, I am very, very proud that the efforts we made in Egypt on the way to toppling Hosni Mubarak inspired and was the source of the campaign of our brothers in neighboring Arab countries. And the domino effect has even reached China. I read a Reuters report that talks about arrests among the ranks of activists in China inspired the Arab revolution and the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution and their fighting spirit and now they want there to be a "Day of Rage" in China.
The revolution that's underway right now in Libya and Bahrain and the demonstrations in Algeria and the demonstrations in Morocco calling for reform, and the demonstrations of our brothers in Yemen and the demonstrations in Jordan…all of these, in our opinion are demonstrations that give us hope. The success of our revolution in Egypt, which is not yet finished, will be contingent upon the spread of this uprising, or the spread of this uprising through the region. Every corrupt or client Arab regime in the region that fell, that, in our opinion, that was a step and a push forward. Every defeat of any Arab revolution in the region, that is, in our opinion, is a defeat that pushes us backwards, for us in Egypt. The Egyptian revolution in the condition of completeness will have the effect of an earthquake in the region. America will lose its biggest ally, or the biggest client, to put it more accurately, in the Arab world: The regime of Hosni Mubarak—and the post-Hosni Mubarak regime—which is the second-biggest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, after Israel. The army gets $1.3 billion every year from American taxpayers, and there's $200,000 that used to go to the government under the rubric of economic aid.
If we succeed in removing the regime that is dependent on American aid, then we will start talking about: One, a strong defense of the Palestinian revolution and our brothers in the Occupied Territories when they begin to rise up. Secondly: strong defense of our brothers in the rest of the Arab world that are also asking for an end to the dictatorships that are assisted by America. If the countries that ring the Zionist entity were to fall into the hands of revolutions—I'm talking about Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and Lebanon of course—these countries, if revolutions were to break out in them, if Israel was surrounded by countries in revolution, Israel will fall without a single shot fired. People have to understand this. American hegemony over the region that has been an impediment to development and growth in the region and an impediment to gaining our freedom, that hegemony will disappear. For this reason, I shout in solidarity with all the Arab peoples that are rising up today, and wish them success. They also are in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution; we share the same destiny.
B: What is your opinion of what is going on in Libya, with respect to the use of airplanes to attack civilians and demonstrators. Of course, I know your opinion, but what is your reaction as….
H: A crime! What's happening in Libya is a crime! All our lives we've made fun of Qaddafi and have said he's crazy, he's stupid, but what's been going on there lately is a crime; there's no other way to describe it. And I don't think that any one of us thought that his madness and bloodthirstiness would reach the point where he would be attacking people with heavy weapons and airplanes. At the same time, though, something that gives me hope is the disobedience seen now in the Libyan army. There are airplanes going to Malta, refusing to fire on demonstrators. Today another one of its planes was brought down because it refused to unleash bombs on the demonstrators. All of these things give hope. I really hope the Libyan revolutionaries are successful, and here in Egypt there is an activist campaign to show solidarity with the revolution in Libya and the rest of the Arab countries.
B: How? With Libya specifically?
H: Egyptian activists have organized some demonstrations right now in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo and in front of the Consulate in Alexandria. There has also been a campaign to collect donations of food and medical supplies and to transport them to Salloum and bring them in from there. There are now videos on YouTube of this assistance entering Libyan territory and being received by revolutionaries. Right now Eastern Libyan is not under Qaddafi's control; it's under the control of the Libyan opposition. The Libyan brothers, between them and me a blood connection. We're neighbors. There were more than a million Egyptians residing and living in Libya. And at the same time, we have common concerns, oppression, and dictatorship, so there's nothing that will help us more than the action of Arab brothers.
B: Thank you very much. Do you think an end to American hegemony and the "domino effect" that will affect American hegemony and affect Israel—do you think this is something automatic, or is there a role that can be played by activists like yourself in Arab countries to drive these developments to this outcome? Not just thinking that surrounding the dictators or the state of Israel or American hegemony will settle the matter, without action, of course serious action, but without deliberate action available with every means of oppression. I'm asking about this because there is great optimism among at least those of us those of us who've been around for 40 years, when we think about this with respect to dictatorships, with respect to the apartheid system in Israel with American hegemony…but is the optimism automatic…?
H: No, nothing is automatic, and nothing is inevitable. If the revolution had been inevitable, or if success were assured, we would have gone home these last few years and waited in bed sleeping and not bothered to make a revolution, but no, the whole we've been organizing ourselves and have been staging interventions in the political sphere, the whole time, the activists' role has been to agitate the masses to act, and to raise awareness among them. I always say that if any truly democratic government comes to Egypt or any Arab country, the result will not be one that will please America or Israel. The general feeling among most Arabs from the Ocean to the Gulf, are feelings that, number one, are hostile to America and its role in the region supporting dictatorships and around the world, its military presence in the region and its occupation of an Islamic country like Afghanistan or an Arab country like Iraq. Second, the viewpoint toward Israel. The great majority of the Arab people hate Israel. They hate Israel, not out of hatred toward Jews, but out of hatred of its imperialist history and its atrocious crimes against the Palestinians. So if we get a democratic, elected government, in a manner that is transparent, fair, and without any interference of any kind here in Egypt, this government will surely be hostile to Israel and hostile to America, or, more precisely, hostile to American imperialism and hostile to Zionism. But the rise of the new revolutionary regime that we aspire to, this is not automatic. First, if we are not well-organized; if we don't know how to organize workers in factories into nation-wide networks, becoming trade unions capable of coordinating strikes; if we don't know how to coordinate the workers' and students' movements; if we don't know how to connect the political demands of the revolutionaries in Tahrir with the economic and social liberation demands of the workers and fellaheen in Cairo and the countryside; if we have a role in making these connections and we fail in that, the revolution will fail. True, the revolution was spontaneous, but the organization and the activists' role in it can't be done away with. This is what will differentiate us in the coming stage, the second stage of the revolution.
B: Thank you very much Hossam, and we hope that you and your colleagues will succeed, especially since what's happening is a dream. I'd like to thank you for your time; maybe I took up a lot of your time, but we'll speak again. Good night, and I hope you wake up to revolution tomorrow!
H: You too, in America!
Click here for Part 2: The Role of the Egyptian Army
Click here for Part 3: The Egyptian Elite and the Egyptian Revolution
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