We’ve all grown so used to the “Muslim terror” narratives of our favourite dictators – I’m talking about Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and now, of course, Field Marshal-President al-Sissi of Egypt – that we’re in danger of believing them. The Muslim Brotherhood and its campaign of “terror” (in fact, Egypt’s violence has nothing to do with the Brotherhood) has allowed al-Sissi’s thugs to beat up, lock up, torture, murder and otherwise execute thousands of his people who object to his outrageous police state behaviour.
But the real danger to his regime – indeed, to the Egyptian governments under British rule, to Sadat and finally to Mubarak – always came from the secular, socialist opposition, symbolised by the country’s immensely brave, tough and independent trade union movements.
Secularism and real socialism, not “Muslim terror”, was always the enemy of Egyptian dictators. A few weeks ago, a young PhD student wrote presciently that “the [Egyptian] unions’ defiance of the state of emergency and the regime’s appeal for stability and social order – justified by the ‘war on terror’ – signifies… a bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence and its repression of civil society”.
The Cambridge University student who wrote these words was Giulio Regeni, whose brutally tortured body – so mutilated that his mother could only recognise him by his nose – was found dumped close to the Cairo-Alexandria motorway in February. Over the previous nine days he had been beaten, tortured with electricity, stabbed and suffered a severe brain haemorrhage.
Al-Sissi’s cops variously announced that Regeni had been the victim of a traffic accident, kidnapped and murdered by “a criminal gang”, even killed in a lover’s argument. Italy, exploding in anger at Regeni’s death – the British Foreign Office only clip-clopped into complaining about the Cambridge student’s murder after it received 10,000 signatures of protest from within the UK – believed that the ‘criminal gang’ were al-Sissi’s own state security police.
The creepy excuses of the Egyptian govrnment need not detain us here. Al-Sissi blames a “conspiracy” (of course) by “people of evil” (naturally) and the shortcomings of journalists who believe in social media – as opposed to the officially sanctioned Egyptian newspapers and television, which largely continues to fawn over the field marshal and the coup d’etat he staged against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government it once supported.
Far more attention, however, needs to be paid to the institutions which Regeni was studying in Cairo: the independent trade unions which represent, in the long term, a far more dangerous enemy of the al-Sissi government – a PhD investigation which may have led directly to his murder.
Even under the British, Egyptian industrial workers protested their appalling conditions and poverty-line wages. Tobacco and printing workers, railway and tramway employees went on strike. The big cotton factories repeatedly closed down during the 1920s.
It became almost a national tradition; one of Nasser’s first acts – before creating the inevitable ‘official’ union, which still exists – was to execute two leading strikers, Mustafa Khamees and Abdel Rahman al-Baqary, from the Kafr al-Dawar spinning factories. Under Mubarak, police killed striking steel workers in 1989.
But the real source of fear for Mubarak’s regime, and one of the principal reasons he was eventually overthrown, came from the cotton workers and spinners of Mahala, a grubby town north of Cairo in the Nile Delta.
A French colleague first pointed out to me the importance of Mahala, whose great cotton factories provided millions of dollars of exports for Egypt. The independent trade unions there staged an attempted coup against Mubarak in 2006 – seven years before the Cairo Tahrir Square revolution.
Cotton workers, led by women, occupied the centre of Mahala (also called Tahrir Square) and held off riot police and plain-clothes cops for up to a week, calling in the country ‘fellahin’ to support them by using mobile phones and social media. Trade unionists were released from detention, they got pay rises – but did not destroy Mubarak. They tried again in 2008, and were savagely suppressed.
But the lessons were learned. When Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the million in 2011, the first industrial workers to join them were the cotton factory employees of Mahala – which is one reason why the Mubarak regime immediately halted all railway traffic between the capital and the Nile Delta.
When I visited Mahala after the 2011 revolution, the workers were flushed with their success. They felt safe. No-one could ever accuse them of being pussy cats for the Brotherhood. It was one thing to use the Egyptian army and police to shoot down bearded Islamists, quite another to open fire at the workers.
But the official trade union has tried to destroy the independent unions; striking under the military regime was now ‘treason’, according to its leadership – you can see how this fits into the al-Sissi story of plots and treachery against the state. Secular socialists were more dangerous than the Brotherhood; they could close Egypt down, destroy its economy, even overthrow its military leadership – unless they were suppressed.
Enter Regeni, whose last anonymous report for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto has been reprinted by the British socialist magazine Red Pepper. Regeni wrote about the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services – “a beacon of independent Egyptian trade unionists,” he called it – and of how al-Sissi’s attack on trade union freedoms had caused “widespread discontent among workers”.
He remarked on the large participation of women. He wrote about recent, unreported industrial strikes. He said that “in an authoritarian and repressive context under General [sic] Sissi”, these events would “break the wall of fear...” Regeni must have had many contacts – with trade union ‘traitors’, of course, who wished to ‘destroy’ Egypt.
You can see how the cops work in Cairo. Who were Regeni’s contacts, they must have asked? And in a country where foreign-funded organisations, even students, are now regarded as spies, who was Regeni ‘really’ working for?
Italian and other European newspapers have named the Egyptian police general, Khaled Shalabi – who was given a suspended sentence in Alexandria in 2003 for torturing and killing a detainee – as the man in charge of the CID in Gaza governorate where Regeni’s body was found. It was Shalabi who stated the student had been killed in a road accident – surely the first traffic violation whose victim appeared to have been tortured with electricity.
But this is not the point. Regeni, like every good student and journalist, had spotted the greatest threat to a dictatorship – and almost certainly paid the price.