The 25 January uprising, though ongoing, has accomplished one intangible and perhaps irreversible gain: giving a voice to the voiceless. A close look at the formation of one of the many political parties established in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Workers Democratic Party (WDP), demonstrates this achievement. Although the WDP has only just begun to coalesce, it has already established itself as a party for Egypt’s workers, who have historically been silenced during past attempts at societal restructuring.
In its initial proposal, the WDP has called for an egalitarian state with gender and religious equality, the freedom to organize, strike and demonstrate “without permission,” a living minimum wage pegged to price rises, and full trade union rights. While this platform is in line with basic, universal principles of human and labor rights, it fails to set the leftist WDP apart from many of Egypt’s so-called moderate political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. By contrast, the party’s demands for the renationalization of health, education and industry and “an end to privatization and liberalization policies” demonstrate the party’s socialist roots. The question remains, however, whether the WDP’s vision fundamentally differs from that of Egypt’s Nasserist past.
The WDP & Nasserism
In its demand for an increase in several governmental department budgets, the state’s resumption of a central role in development and investment, and for state redistribution of agricultural land, the WDP inspires comparisons to late 1950′s Egypt and the government of then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the hope of distinguishing the WDP’s agenda, Kamal Khalil, the WDP’s spokesperson, stresses that in Nasser’s time the government appointed army officers as CEOs, while the WDP is “asking for a more democratic management of nationalized companies,” with more elected members and less appointed ones. As an example of efforts to give Egypt’s workers more of a say in management decisions, the veteran political activist referred to strikes by Mahalla textile workers (who have a long history of successfully striking for their rights) following the 25 January uprising, which ousted their government-appointed CEO.
While the party calls for drastic increases in education, health and agricultural budgets, Hisham Fouad, socialist activist and founding member of the WDP, focuses on how its calls for a living minimum wage – including a wage floor and ceiling – along with a system of progressive taxation, which would target higher income groups, could go a long way towards fiscally supporting these budget expansion proposals.
Fouad has also indicated that the government transparency that would necessarily accompany a dismantling and replacement of the current regime would apply to the distribution of public funds. As a part of such transparency, a re-evaluation of certain international agreements, such as Egypt’s gas deal with Israel, would become essential. If accomplished, the latter two objectives would free up billions of pounds of funds for the Egyptian economy, Fouad suggested.
A Socialist Revolution?
In presenting these explanations of the party’s agenda, the WDP appears interested in showing that its aim is not to institute a socialist revolution. Though the WDP platform espouses tenets of socialist revolution, party officials admit that this is not feasible in the current political environment, citing to Egyptian worker’s lack of political experience and the underdevelopment of the labor movement. As Khalil has stated, “this is not a socialist revolution. The workers are not in a position to take over the government. Given the balance of power in society it is ill-advised for workers to take over their factories. We want to re-nationalize while giving the workers more say in running their companies. This is a transitional period to achieve specific goals. We want to protect the workers and returning the ownership to the state can achieve that.”
As such, the WDP’s calls for the renationalization of certain private companies actually seems opposed to its primary goal of empowering workers and giving them a greater role in the management of industry. While renationalization may not be the most progressive demand in the WDP’s proposal, the party’s calls for an independent voice for the working class, which “despite its crucial role in the [25 January] revolution, does not have a political party that could represent its interests and lead it through the struggle for power,” may resonate with those looking for real change. In fact, the party’s platform for change may appeals to a large swath of Egypt’s marginalized groups, a reality captured by WDP calls for “national independence,” and its challenging of all capitalist policies that contribute to impoverishment and “the policy of serving America and the Zionists.” As Khalil emphasizes, “we do not want to replace a group of business men with another…we do not want to replace an American agent with another American agent.”
As part of this philosophy, the WDP seeks to end all forms of normalization with Israel, including the export of gas and what it calls the “humiliating” Qualified Industrial Zones agreement, which gave Egyptians and Jordanians the ability to export products to the United States duty free so long as they contained a certain amount of production input from Israeli manufacturers. Most strikingly, the WDP proposes terminating the Camp David agreement, which brought an end to armed conflict between Egypt and Israel, the opening of the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, an end to all joint training with the U.S. military and a prohibition upon all U.S. and Israeli ships crossing the Suez Canal.
These demands take a much stronger line than those of other more centrist and conservative groups. “Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, who declare their respect [for] all international treaties, we say there are some unfair secret agreements that we want to reconsider. We call on all parties to declare that they will reconsider all agreements reached under Mubarak,” asserts Khalil.
The WDP’s hard-line stance risks appearing too overarching, premature, and unattainable. Fouad believes, however, that now is the time to test public consensus and to “see what people think or if they agree.” In general, he believes “[i]t’s a chain; economics, politics, alliances and agreements are all connected; domestic politics reflect on foreign policies…you can’t break one away from the other.”
“If those outside see you moving in a different economic direction, with social reforms…they will reassess their relations with you,” states Fouad. This perspective was echoed by Khalil who believes that “Israel might abolish the Camp David accord in response to regional shifts. In my opinion the confrontation between us and [Israel] is inevitable.”
While the WDP support for worker’s rights, an egalitarian society and a move away from capitalism, its manifesto makes seemingly retrogressive calls, stepping away from certain revolutionary socialist ideals by highlighting the working classes’ relative political immaturity. Consequently, it is a platform that makes its democratic intentions clear, but leaves us asking how progressive Egypt’s working class truly is. In the past, nationalization has proven detrimental to the country’s economic progress and the idea of re-embarking upon similar societal projects leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, Egyptian society has lacked a vibrant political arena for decades, leaving many shackled to the “old” socialist rhetoric of the 1950s.
But as Khalil stated: “One day in the life of a nation is worth a hundred years. [After 25 January] people are more politicized… it all depends on the democratic environment, the stronger it is the better the chances [for success].” As such, to say that the Mubarak regime has fallen would belie this ongoing and continuous struggle against 60 years of military rule, monarchical rule before that, and against the root cause of authoritarian rule in Egypt – a deeply hierarchical society that has resulted in the almost complete marginalization of most Egyptians.
*Yassin Gaber is a journalist based in Cairo, who has taken a special interest in Egyptian labor movements. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations appearing in this piece are from interviews conducted by the author.