The mass democratic revolt which began in Tunisia and is now spreading through North Africa and the Middle East has panicked, surprised and inspired. The panic is not limited to those with hard currency bank accounts searching for a safe haven for their cash, politicians scrambling for a comfortable exile and embassies and foreign offices undoubtedly burning and shredding the evidence of their complicity. It extends to all who profited – in the region and abroad – from their multiple links with a system of plunder nourished on violence and oppression.
The extraordinary determination, discipline, capacity for organization and generous optimism of the massive crowds rallying for freedom in Cairo and other Egyptian cities has inspired all those around the globe who identify with their struggle and find their belief confirmed and reinforced that whatever the immediate outcome in Egypt, people make their own history and no police regime can last forever.
The proclamation of an independent Egyptian trade union center at the end of January is a major democratic advance. It should surprise only those who subscribe to the police conception of history (which only recognizes conspiracies), for recent years have seen the emergence in Egypt of massive struggles by textile workers and other private and public sector workers whose struggle for bread and for dignity in the face of daily oppression brought them into immediate conflict with the regime.
Throughout the region, workers are in motion; carrying that movement forward requires independent trade unions. In Tunisia, communities in revolt turned to the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) for coordination and organization as the movement gathered force. Elsewhere, unions associated with despotic regimes may be reclaimed as instruments for expressing workers’ interests – or they may simply be swept aside.
We cannot know today what organizations will ultimately arise from the workers’ struggle, but we know their struggle is ours.