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In Greece, as the state collapses, the neighborhoods organize – An interview with a member of the Athenian assembly movement

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Libcom.org has translated (in December 2014) an interview with a participant the Greek assembly movement first published in 2013, providing details concerning the methods employed by the movement and the obstacles that it has encountered since its rise in 2008. (Here is the original in Spanish, published in the Spanish journal, Argelaga, No. 5, Fall 2014). Originally has been published in French, under the title, “L’etat s’effondre, les quartiers s’organisent”. Retour sur le mouvement des assemblées de quartier. La revue Z, No. 7, 2013. Dossier Grèce: Thessalonique dans la dépression européenne. Bricolages quotidiens et résistances insolvables.

In Greece, as the State Collapses, the Neighborhoods Organize – An Interview with a Member of the Assembly Movement

[Introductory note added by the editors of Argelaga: An interview conducted for issue no. 7 [2013] of the French journal, Z, which perfectly illustrates the process of autonomous organization of the population in the face of the decomposition and collapse of the State apparatus. The example is valid for any other European country; the difference is only one of degree. Let us recapitulate some of the difficulties that stand in the way of autonomy: the inertia of a life subject to the commodity, the habit of appealing to the State for help, egoism, the rise of fascism, police repression, weariness in the face of constant sacrifices, etc. A life of freedom is not an easy road, but a life of slavery is not easy, either.]

Where did the neighborhood assembly movement originate?

I must point out that the movement is quite varied, that it has passed through various stages and for that reason it can be described in a thousand different ways. The idea of neighborhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighborhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country. After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centers reached its limit and then shifted to the neighborhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.

Can you tell us about the assembly in your neighborhood?

The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighborhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighborhood during the Resistance, the neighborhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighborhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theater in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theater would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighborhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighborhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participate in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.

What kind of actions are you organizing?

We are involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we are defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we are elaborating projects and ways of life that seem desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighborhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult. The people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—have a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union. Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the pigs attacked the march of the neighborhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma, who almost died, and others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centers of the neighborhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighborhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighborhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also hold a barter market once a month in different squares. We also have a meeting hall with a library that is open to the neighborhood, in which we organize various activities, debates and talks.

All these actions are undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that have seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State is indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we are attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighborhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.

How do you propose to deal with the problem of food?

We had to deal with this problem ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighborhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land. We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly is now responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighborhoods that are cooperating on this project. We are still a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it is a first step. Having said this, the garden is being threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, have multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.

We have heard a lot about the polarization of Greek society. Have you noticed this in your assembly?

Certain people have spoken at the assembly to express their view that there are too many immigrants in the neighborhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighborhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighborhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.

Do you have a lot of run-ins with Golden Dawn?

Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they have received as a result, Golden Dawn has opened offices throughout Greece. Whenever they open a new office, protests and demonstrations are held that often result in confrontations with the police. Without police protection, the fascists would not be able to maintain a presence in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, at least for now, they only have two really active neighborhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighborhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they have a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighborhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighborhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.

You mentioned the first wave of assemblies after December 2008. What other initiatives for common action have taken place in the neighborhoods?

In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighborhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view. A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.

Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It is very dynamic and is actually quite radical: our neighborhoods do not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax or for any other reason. For us, electricity is a vital good.

The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighborhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. Today, we have established neighborhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. At the present time, along with the antifascist struggle, this is the main fight that the assemblies are waging.

Can you tell us about the movements that have influenced you?

The assembly movement owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes, we were inspired by the Argentinian experience, and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighborhood.

One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.

In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.

What is your overall assessment of the four years of existence of your assembly? And what is your assessment of the neighborhood assemblies, generally speaking?

It’s hard to say. After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighborhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevent us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.

One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence have never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighborhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighborhood assemblies do not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.

The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services. I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts, there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.

I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.

2013

 

Constructive anarchism,G.P. Maximov

The development of anarcho-syndicalist ideas on working class organisation and the revolutionary struggle for the libertarian reconstruction of society, from the 1st International to the 1930’s. A defence of anarcho-syndicalism against ‘Platformism’ and ‘Synthetical’ anarchism.

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Source: libcom.org

Greece: government orders civil mobilization against striking teachers

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Via: libcom.org

The Greek government has issued orders for teachers to halt a planned strike over working conditions this week.

This weekend the Greek government ordered striking teachers back to work. The union of secondary school teachers(OLME) had voted on strike action to take place starting this week. In an attempt to stifle the strike before it could begin the government issued civil mobilisation orders. Under such an order a worker must return to work or face arrest.

The decision to take strike action was prompted by new measures against teacher’s working conditions. Recently the government pushed further austerity measures through parliament which included making teachers work an extra two hours each week in the next academic year. For a teacher two hours extra in class can easily mean another two hours extra preparation work they have to do outside of school hours. So the increased hours, coming at a time of decreasing pay, are not insubstantial.

The government’s reasoning is that by forcing current teachers to work more they will save money by employing fewer teachers. This reason disregards the still rising 27% unemployment rate(64% for young people) and the effect that burdening teachers with extra work will have on the quality of education. This will further damage the education system in Greece which has been repeatedly hit by austerity measures over the last three years.

The strike action is planned to start this week and continue next week but has not yet begun. Despite the action not yet being under way the conservative government has already ordered civil mobilisation of the teachers. Mobilisation orders will be issued on Monday to over 80,000 teachers who face arrest should they not return to work. Civil mobilisation is a practice which was meant to be used for natural disasters and emergencies but is quickly becoming this government’s default method of dealing with strikes. So far this year two mobilisation orders have been issued against dock and public transport workers, both orders being enforced by the deployment of riot police.

The government justified it’s decision by labelling the teachers of the nation’s children a ‘threat to society‘ with the strike planned to begin on the first day of the Panhellenic exams. These exams are taken by Greek students to determine their ability to enter university and are taken very seriously. This in turn leads to extraordinary pressure being put on students as they are told their whole life depends on the results.

With the strike yet to begin it’s outcome is unknown. Previously the threat of mass arrest has forced other striking sectors to back down and no doubt the government and the media will roll out anguished and distressed parents and students in order to pressure the teachers to back down. On the other hand the teaching sector is far larger than the others which have been previously issued orders. The reaction of the students will also be key. OLME have called for a demonstration on Monday afternoon and are asking other unions to declare a general strike later on in the week.

The issuing of the mobilisation orders pre-emptively, the labelling of striking workers as a ‘threat to society’ and the looming possibility of riot police being deployed to schools all point to an increasing authoritarian trend from the Greek state.

Czech Republic: Union demo in Prague

Report by Libcom.org – 21-4-2012: Over 80,000 people marched and rallied in Prague today in a union-organised demonstration against the government and its austerity program. It took place under the banner of «stop vládě» – «stop the government».

The Czech right-wing coalition government headed by Petr Necas has joined others around Europe in implementing an increasingly harsh program of austerity. The stated objective is to reduce the state deficit from 3.5% to 3%. The Austerity program until now has been praised by global ratings agencies despite hitting domestic consumption and growth. As elsewhere, the social wage has been attacked and benefits programs regressively «reformed».

The official demands of the protest were an end to the austerity measures (at least in their current form, the dissolution of the government and new elections. Recent corruption scandals have also led to demands to «clean up» politics. The demand for elections may materialise, as the coalition teeters on the brink of collapse following the disintegration of the Public Affairs party. The Social Democrats would stand to benefit, followed by the Communist Party who currently are standing second in opinion polls.

However, the composition of attendees, and the numbers (double what was expected by the organisers) show a current of anger over an erosion of day-to-day living standards. AFP quoted a pensioner, Jana Sizlingova on her reasons for attending: «I’m upset with corruption, non-transparent procurement, the health system, the social system — simply, there’s nothing good about this government,»

The protest numbers among the largest since those which brought down the Stalinist government in conjunction with a general strike in 1989. Until a similar protest last year, large-scale demonstrations of this kind have been rare in the Czech Republic.

Below are photos I took on the demonstration today, which began in the historically working class district of Žižkov and culminated in a rally in the packed out Wenceslas square (so packed, in fact, that I was caught in a nasty crush on one side of the square). Police presence was low (perhaps because they’d underestimated numbers in the same way as the organisers), and the demonstration was incredibly noisy but not especially boisterous.

Fighting Continues in Libya and Egypt, 4 dead in Yemen

[1]Four Protesters Die in Yemen

Protests are occurring across the Middle East following Friday prayers. In Yemen, soldiers killed at least four protesters and wounded seven others during demonstrations in the northern province of Amran.

[1]LIBYA:

Fighting Continues in Libya; Checkpoints Expand in Tripoli

In Libya, fighting between Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rebels has broken out in the eastern oil export port of Ras Lanuf and the town of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. Mass protests against Gaddafi’s rule were scheduled to begin after noon prayers across the country, but in Tripoli, Gaddafi supporters have set up checkpoints throughout the city to prevent protesters from moving about. Foreign journalists were ordered not to leave their hotels, and internet service has reportedly been cut off in Tripoli and Benghazi. But some protesters in Tripoli have defied the crackdown. Some 1,000 protesters reportedly streamed out of the Murad Agha mosque in the Tajura district of Tripoli, chanting, «The people want to bring the regime down.»

Obama Orders U.S. Military to be Prepared to Act in Libya

Speaking in Washington, D.C., President Obama has publicly said for the first time that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi must leave office. During a news conference Thursday, Obama said he has ordered the U.S. military to be prepared to take action in Libya if needed. […]

The United Nations is reporting the number of people trying to flee Libya has fallen as heavily armed government forces intensified their presence on the Tunisian border and on roads leading up to it. Roughly 15,000 people had been crossing the border every day, but on Thursday that number plunged to 2,000.

Thousands of Iraqis Protest in «Day of Regret»

In Iraq, thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand economic progress and an end to corruption. Protests are reported in Baghdad, Basra, Nineveh, Anbar and Salaheddin. In an attempt to limit the size of the protests, the Iraqi government has banned the movement of vehicles in Baghdad and other major cities, forcing protesters to walk to the demonstrations. Today has been described as the «Day of Regret,» to mark one year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections.

Listen!

Listen!

 

[2]The Qadaffi regime is prepared to fight to the last drop of blood to crush the revolution. This isn’t new. He and his Free Officer allies have always hammered opposition with ruthless efficiency–the public execution has been a centerpiece of the regime’s repertoire since serious challenges first emerged in the 1980s. What is new is the level of escalation demanded of the dictatorship. When they couldn’t rely on the police and army to crush the protesters, they turned to mercenaries to butcher them in their hundreds. The massacres have continued, just enough to keep the regime entrenched in the capital, even as large swathes of Libya are declared liberated. To deal with those liberated and nearly-liberated populations, the regime ordered the army to carry out air strikes.

The divisions in the state have been sufficient to send soldiers and police to the protesters’ side, and a number of soldiers who refused to carry out air strikes have taken their planes to Malta and sought refuge. The army has abandoned the border, leaving it to the control of People’s Committees.

Benghazi, where the regime had been totally defeated and sent packing, was set to be the target of vengeful air strikes on February 21–except that two of the planes ordered to attack reportedly landed in the city, the pilots refusing to drop their payload. The city has been declared safe for now. Even at the Libyan embassy in London, staff joined anti-Qadaffi protests.

The surreal atmosphere in the presidential palace is communicated in dispatches from defecting officers. «I am the one who created Libya,» Qadaffi reportedly said, «and I will be the one to destroy it.» On February 20, one of Qadaffi’s thuggish sons–an alumnus of the London School of Economics, as well as a close friend of Prince Andrew and Lord Mandelson–threatened civil war if people didn’t go home and stop protesting. They’ve cut off the Internet and the landlines–and banned foreign journalists–in order to be able to carry out massacres under the cover of secrecy. This is a catastrophic lashing out by a regime in mortal freefall. It is seeking, in effect, a blood tribute in compensation for its lost authority.

 

Even at his late hour, it would be foolish to underestimate Qadaffi’s ability to just hang on, to clench Libya in a rigor mortis grip. As crazed as he manifestly is, he has demonstrated considerable shrewdness in his time. For example, as soon as the Islamist opposition started to become a real threat to his regime in the late 1990s, he started to look for ways to be accepted by the U.S.-led caste of «good guys.» The collapse of the USSR as a supplier of military hardware, trade, and ideological and moral leadership for Third Worldist states would also have had something to do with this.

The transition was made easier after 2001, and completed in 2004, partially at the behest of Anglo-American oil. Qadaffi went so far in his attempts to win over his erstwhile opponents as to participate in anti-Islamist counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines with international support, lavish intelligence on U.S. agencies and even compensate the victims of Lockerbie for a crime that Libya had not committed. The Bush administration might still have resisted such serenading were it not for the eager rush of European capital into Tripoli. So, Bush and Blair turned it into a story of Qadaffi seeing the light and giving up his non-existent WMD programs, which charade Qadaffi duly participated in.

This whole sequence of events was bizarre and improbable, but it worked: the subsequent oil contracts, amid a global oil price spike produced by Bush’s wars, made him and his regime very wealthy. He was also able to hang opponents in public under the pretext of a fight against ‘radical Islamists’. Joining the camp of American client dictatorships enabled Qadaffi to survive until this moment. It has also ensured that the big guns are on his side now that he faces this potentially fatal challenge to his regime. Because the trouble for the U.S. and UK governments in this revolt is that they really, really don’t want Qadaffi to fall. Qadaffi is someone with whom they can do business.

By contrast, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, long a leading element in the resistance, is less likely to be so pliable. The U.S. and UK invested too much in Qadaffi to lose him now, not least the military hardware they’ve given him, the very weapons of repression which they knew full well would be used for the primary goal of keeping him in power. That is why the phrases on the lips of U.S. and European ambassadors and statespersons are so mealy-mouthed. Hillary Clinton’s berating of Libya’s government for «unacceptable» levels of violence has approximately the same passion and conviction as a school marm telling off a child for running with scissors.

These people–the caretakers, intellectuals, politicos and lackeys of empire–have spent more than two decades telling us that they were outraged by every drop of blood spilled by dictatorships, that they were if anything overly eager in their solicitations for democracy and human rights, messianic to a fault. This never had a moment’s plausibility, but it has never looked as vile and sinister as it does now, amid a genuinely heroic revolutionary democratic struggle.

EGYPT: [3] According to a government fact-finding committee tasked with investigating oppression during recent protests, the committee has heard testimony that police snipers shot protesters from tops of buildings in Tahrir Square.

The committee’s statement, announced on state TV Thursday, noted that personnel affiliated with the former regime injured, killed and intimidated protesters. Some of the police snipers stood on top of the Mugamma, Ramses Hilton hotel, American University of Cairo and Interior Ministry buildings and shot protesters. The committee clarified that when asked about authorization, two former senior policemen said snipers would not fire on protesters without permission from the government.

Around 120 eyewitnesses of the clashes in Cairo and Giza on 28 January said police shot protesters with live ammunition, killing some and injuring others. Some eyewitnesses added that Mubarak thugs, not protesters, had set the National Democratic Party  headquarters on fire.

The statement also reported the committee had viewed a video of two armored police vehicles–one mowing over protesters while the other reversed to hit others–during the investigation.

Below: Essam Sharaf addresses thousands of pro-democracy campaigners who have gathered in centre of Cairo after Friday prayers (from Al Jazeera)

Joel Beinin’s analysis of the contribution of workers to the anti-Mubarak uprising and the possible consequences for both the social movement generally and the Egyptian working class specifically.

“Egyptian Workers Join the Revolution,” proclaimed the headline of Al-Ahram, the government-owned daily, the day before ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Tens of thousands of workers—in textiles, military production, transportation, petroleum, cement, iron and steel, hospitals, universities, telecommunications and the Suez Canal—participated in strikes or protests in the three days before Mubarak’s departure. Although it is too soon to render a definitive judgment, the demographic and economic weight of workers in the popular uprising was likely one of the factors that persuaded Egypt’s military chiefs to ask Mubarak to step aside.

From the start, workers participated in the demonstrations as individuals. It was only toward the end that they registered their presence as organized workers. This is partly because the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal union in Egypt, functions as an arm of the state. Unlike the General Union of Tunisian Workers, neither ETUF nor any of its affiliated unions joined the insurgent forces. As they have for more than a decade, Egyptian workers who sought to engage in collective action had to do so in the face of concerted opposition from the official union apparatus.

Much of the attention of the media and think-tank analysts has focused on the grievances of youth and their use of Facebook and other social media to mobilize the insurgent movement. The high unemployment rate of educated Egyptians under 30 and their facility with web technologies were undoubtedly major factors in launching the uprising. However, the events of January–February followed a decade of escalating mobilizations among many different sectors of Egyptian society—committees in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq; the Kifaya (Enough) movement for democracy; doctors, judges, professors; and, above all, industrial and white-collar workers.

Since 1998 well more than 2 million workers have participated in some 3,500 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest. There have been major strikes in nearly every sector of the Egyptian economy, including one in December 2006 and another in September 2007 at the mammoth Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra and a five-month struggle at the newly privatized Tanta Linen Company in 2009. The April 6 Youth Movement takes its name from a call for a general strike on that date in 2008; it did not occur because of severe repression.

Workers’ collective actions over the past decade have usually targeted bread-and-butter issues—the failure of owners of newly privatized enterprises to abide by the terms of the contracts in force before privatization, as the law requires; failure to pay long-overdue bonuses, incentives and other wage supplements; failure of public enterprises to pay workers their share of profits; fear of large-scale firings before or after privatization; and low wages. Many observers wondered if or when workers might raise “political” demands, failing to understand that in an autocracy, organizing large numbers of people outside state strictures is in itself a political act.

At the appropriate moment, workers did not hesitate to fuse economic and political demands. On February 9, Cairo transport workers went on strike and announced that they would be forming an independent union. According to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a well-informed blogger and labor journalist, their statement also called for abolishing the emergency law in force for decades, removing the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from state institutions, dissolving Parliament (fraudulently elected in 2010), drafting a new Constitution, forming a national unity government, prosecuting corrupt officials and establishing a basic national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month (about $215).

The call for a 1,200-pound minimum wage is the one nationwide demand that emerged out of the decade-long Egyptian workers’ movement. Last year the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO recently established to support the workers’ movement, took the issue to court. It won a partial victory when the government responded to the court’s order and raised the monthly minimum wage from 106 pounds (less than $20) to 400 pounds (about $73).

This would still leave a typical family of five with two breadwinners under or close to the poverty line of $2 a day, even with bonuses and other wage supplements. Although inadequate, this is one of many instances when workers won significant economic gains through striking and collective action. In the 2000s, unlike in the 1980s and ’90s, the government did not routinely repress workers’ protests by massive violence, including shooting strikers dead. The cumulative effect of the workers’ movement taught millions of Egyptians that it was possible to win something through struggle and that the regime, perhaps because it feared scaring away foreign capital, would likely respond with only limited repression.

The workers’ movement has been sustained in the face of fierce opposition from ETUF leaders, many of whom are also officials in the NDP. Egyptian law requires that all trade unions affiliate with the ETUF. Nonetheless, two independent unions were established in the course of the past decade’s labor struggles—real estate tax authority workers in 2008 and healthcare technicians in 2010. One of the less noted aspects of the popular uprising was a press release on January 30 in which these two independent unions and representatives of workers from a dozen factory towns declared their intention to form a new union federation independent of the ETUF. This was the first attempt to establish a new institution based on the popular upsurge—a revolutionary act, since, of course, it is illegal. By the day of Mubarak’s resignation there were banners in Tahrir Square proclaiming, The Independent Trade Union Federation Demands an End to the Regime.

The generals now ruling Egypt have banned meetings of trade unions and called for calm. Nonetheless, thousands of public sector workers, including ambulance drivers, airport and public transport workers and even police, took to the streets, demanding higher pay, three days after Mubarak’s resignation. Since their unions do not represent them adequately, and they are not a party to the negotiations with the generals over Egypt’s political future, this is the only vehicle workers have for asserting their demands. The army seems resolved to implement minimalist reforms and leave the essential character of the Mubarak regime unchanged. The extent to which workers and others remain mobilized and willing to take to the streets may determine the extent to which popular aspirations for democracy and social justice are realized.

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[1] Democracy now, Headlines for March 04, 2011
[2] Richard Seymour, The West’s fear of Qaddafi’s fall
[3] Gov’t report: police snipers shot Tahrir Square protesters
[4] [4] Libcom.org, Egypt’s workers rise up – Joel Beinin

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