In earlier articles (see Unprecedented strike wave of Egyptian workers), we have explained that the working class of Egypt is marching forward. The regime of Hosni Mubarak, and the capitalists, have been defeated time and time again in the recent period.
News about the Egyptian workers' struggle never reaches European media. It is not because the stories don't contain drama, courage, human sacrifice or sharp contrasts and deep-rooted conflicts. It is because the bourgeois media does not want to paint the picture of the working class struggle in the Arab World, the decisive struggle in this part of the world, as elsewhere. Instead, to use the words of veteran Middle-east correspondent Rami G. Khouri: "the U.S. news media have very little appetite for stories about Arabs who don't carry knives, shoot machine guns, launch grenades, or talk on gold-plated cell phones". We are fed reports of small fundamentalist groups that often do not represent anyone but themselves.
Most of the mainstream media have totally ignored the big wave of strikes and workers' unrest that has been sweeping Egypt over the last three years. Most of the strikes have so far been victorious, characterised by a defiant and radical mood on the part of the workers. Demands arise from the intolerable conditions that most of the workers are facing while at the same time there is a booming economy and huge profits are piling up in the capitalists' pockets and there is endemic, widespread corruption amongst the ruling elite and the Mubarak regime. The other side of the picture of the booming economy is one of stagnant salaries and galloping inflation that is officially around 8%, but most of the independent economic researchers estimate is actually above 15%. Price rises hit the poorest sections of the population hard and are particularly high in relation to primary goods such as wheat, bread, meat and fresh vegetables, the prices of which have risen by nearly 50% in the last year.
The most outstanding of these struggles has just ended, after a week-long factory occupation, with an all-out victory of the workers.
Workers' strike and occupy the factory
Sunday 23 September the Misr Spinning and Weaving textile factory in Ghazl el-Mahalla, the largest in Egypt, was once again occupied by the workers. The factory employs 27,000 shift workers. 10,000 workers took the decision on Sunday to lay down tools and occupy the factory in order to respond to the provocations of the management, which was trying to go back on what was previously agreed.
Interesting correspondence published in the Daily Star Egypt on September 27, clearly shows the mood amongst the workers:
Workers in Mahalla complain of low wages which leave them subject to grinding poverty, abuse by management, corruption, and above all a host of unfulfilled government promises made after a similarly large strike last December.
Workers throughout the company insist that they want nothing more than what is rightfully theirs, and accuse their managers of widespread corruption and violating past agreements.
"We just want them to treat us like human beings," said one man, who like most of the strikers preferred to remain anonymous for fear of possible reprisals by management or its allies in state security.
"There is corruption in this company," alleged another man "They treat us badly. There is mismanagement and they are bad at planning for the future."
"If the chairman gave us the price of one of the iftar meals that he eats, it would be enough to pay us what is rightfully ours," shouted a third.
According to a previous deal the workers were to receive a 10% share of all profits if the total amount of profits exceeded the 60 million Egyptian Pounds mark. Profits reached five times the agreed target, but the workers hardly saw any benefit. They demanded that the corrupt director and his stooges should be sacked, that workers should be paid a part of the annual profits equal to 150 days of salary, better working and safety conditions and larger bonuses.
Police sent in to besiege the factory
A few hours after the decision to strike was made, thousands more workers arrived at the factory. Meanwhile the police were sent to surround and besiege the factory, which is located in an important industrial area in the Nile Delta region. As soon as the workers occupied the premises, the factory management declared the factory to be closed for a one week "holiday". All workers were therefore to leave the premises, under the threat of being thrown out by force and prosecuted for the illegal seizure of the plant. The workers replied strengthening the occupation.
Throughout the whole struggle the workers have shown a fierce determination and unity. Many attempts to split the workers were made by the regime and the police. They resorted to repression on the one hand and delivered cheap promises on the other hand. Every attempt to derail the strike was firmly rejected by the workers. The police was not able to hinder hundreds and thousands of workers from entering or leaving the premises through the police lines, thus making the siege ineffective. At night time, 10-15,000 workers slept at the factory premises. During the day, more than 20,000 workers were present at the factory for demonstrations and the celebration of Ramadan.
Again the Daily Star Egypt reports the militant mood of the workers:
Each time soldiers approach the factory, workers say they have outnumbered and intimidated them, but the threat of future violence against the Mahalla strikers and their families is real.
"We have to stay here no matter what," [Strike leader] El Attar told the mostly-male crowd on Wednesday. "Even if a worker, or two or 20 are killed. If you leave your places inside this strike, then you are running away from your blood and your manhood."
Many in the crowd agreed with El Attar.
"We are ready to die to get what is ours," said one. "We don't want anything more than that."
"We just want our rights," insisted another. "We are ready to die for our rights."
Role of official "unions"
At the beginning of the strike, the police sent representatives from the "union" into the factory. These people are not elected by anyone but the regime itself, and the union itself is one of the regime's organizations the aim of which is to control the working class.
The attitude of the workers on this issue was clear:
After December's strike, the Mahalla workers movement began a campaign to impeach their local union leaders and abolish the country's national union body, the General Federation of Trade Unions.
They claim that the General Federation has been co-opted by the Mubarak regime, and is more interested in keeping the regime in power than it is in helping the country's workers. According to them, what Egypt needs is an independent labor movement.
"We want a change in the structure and hierarchy of the union system in this country," said Mohamed El Attar, one of the leaders of the workers' movement. "The way unions in this country are organized is completely wrong, from top to bottom. It is organized to make it look like our representatives have been elected, when really they are appointed by the government."
These "representatives" came to the workers to persuade them to end the strike and go back to work. When the workers met these "union men" they did not welcome them - on the contrary, they responded in a rather heavy-handed manner. An eyewitness account, reported on the blog of the Cairo based journalist Issandr El Amrani (http://arabist.net/) described the situation like this:
"The government has started to present some compromises via the head of the Factory Union Committee Seddiq Siyam, in exchange for disbanding the strike. But the stupid forgot he was asking this (strike suspension) while the workers' emotions and zeal are running at the highest peak you can imagine. The inevitable happened. The dude was screwed. The workers almost killed him, seriously I'm not joking. But he was saved at the last moment by the strike leaders."
During demonstrations the Mahalla workers have repeated what seems to have become a tradition for the workers at this textile factory. They have strung up an effigy of factory director and carried out a symbolic funeral for the factory management amidst cheers from thousands of workers. Videos, unfortunately of poor quality, can be seen here:
The workers at the Ghazl el-Mahalla have been at the forefront of the working class during the last period with strikes and factory occupations.
This time as well, the occupation of Ghazl el-Mahalla has signalled an explosion of industrial actions in Egypt - a country where strikes and independent labour organisations are prohibited by law. The workers at the textile factory Kafr el-Dawwar held an hours-long demonstration during working hours in solidarity with Mahalla and made it clear that if the demands from Mahalla are not met they will strike as well. Besides, the workers at Kafr el-Dawwar have made a series of demands regarding conditions at their own factory. Among the demands are the sacking of the factory board chairman, the sacking of the union chairman, that wages should follow increases in food prices and the pay of a part of the company profits that the workers have the right to, according to an earlier agreement.
The Grain Mill Workers have staged a demonstration in solidarity with the Mahalla workers, and all over Egypt workers have been raising money for the strikers. There are reports of collections in Mahalla, Tanta, Helwan, Shoubra, Tenth of Ramadan City, Suez, Beheira, Mansoura and Port Said.
Attempted repression: workers' leaders arrested
The regime was initially taken aback by the strength of the struggle, but soon answered with repression. This was on a more limited scale, aimed mainly at testing the strength of the workers. Five workers who are leading the struggle were arrested. They were charged with absurd accusations such as sabotage, incitement to insurgency and the loss of 10 million Egyptian Pounds in corporate profits. As if the strike broke out because of "radical agitators"! Of course it is important that good leaders be at the work place. Every worker knows that. But strikes break out because of accumulated frustration, anger and humiliations, which has been brewing under the surface. Even the most skilled orator and organizer will never be able to "create" a strike, a factory occupation or a revolution if the workers are not willing to fight.
The arrest of their leaders only served to double the anger of the Mahalla workers and provoke a massive wave of solidarity on the part of workers and students all over the country and internationally. Mohamed el-Attar, Faisal Laqousha, Wael Habib, Magdi Sherif and Gamal el-Saadawi were released a couple of days later and finally all charges were dropped. The aim behind the arrest of these leaders was very clear: the regime wished to send a signal to all workers in Egypt to keep calm and keep their heads down, or else torture awaits in the notorious prisons of the Mubarak regime. The sudden capitulation of the regime shows to what extent the ruling clique and the capitalists are divided on how to confront the rising class struggle in the country and to what extent they are lacking mass support in Egyptian society nowadays.
The problem for the regime is just that the workers have not been cowed. In the past, the regime's tactic was to partially meet the demands of the workers and at the same time to behead the movement, hitting hard against any attempt to build an independent leadership of the movement. This tactic of concessions and repression put a damper on working class activity and the demands put forward for a long period in the past. But during the present upsurge in the class struggle it has had the opposite effect. The repression strengthened the workers and made them even more indignant and clear in their struggle.
The most remarkable feature of this struggle, and one of its fundamental points of strength, has been the thoroughly democratic way in which the workers organised themselves. All important decisions were taken in massive assemblies. The provocations by the official union representatives were rejected in mass meetings where all workers could experience the corrupt nature of these "leaders" for themselves.
The strike leaders gained a massive authority with the rest of the workers over a long period, but they had to be accountable to the workers too. That workers' democracy has to be considered a fundamental element of any workers' struggle is clearly shown by the following example reported on 3arabwy:
The five detained Ghazl el-Mahalla labor leaders were released Tuesday night sometime between 11pm and midnight from State Security Police custody.
The leaders rushed to the factory, where they were given a heroes' welcome by their fellow workers..
What happened next was more interesting...
According to a Socialist activist present in the factory, the labor leaders addressed the strikers in a mass meeting, where "it seemed they wanted to calm down the situation. It looks like they were pressured by State Security to reach a quick settlement. They said, in exchange for disbanding the strike, they were promised by the government 40 days worth of annual profit shares to be paid immediately, and wait for the General Assembly of the Company to be held (without a specific date announced) to look into the rest of the profit shares. As for the rest of the demands, the labor leaders were not coherent about how they'll be implemented, and kept on saying they were ‘promised' this and ‘promised' that.. For the workers, it seemed these were ‘promises' like the ones they heard before.
"And that was it. The workers started whistling and shouting ‘No! No!' They forced the labor leaders into continuing the strike. The mood on the ground is more militant than that of those who are leading the action."
In the course of any struggle like this even the most experienced and honest leadership is subject to vacillation under huge pressure from the class enemy. The only possible counterbalance to this kind of pressure is workers' democracy.
To the credit of the Mahalla strike leaders we should say that, unlike other so-called leaders, they had the courage to defend their position in front of the whole workforce, and to recognize their mistake, applying the collective decision to go on with the strike.
The regime had no alternative other than to meet the demands of the workers in order to prevent the further generalisation and radicalisation of the struggle. After a week of occupation, the government delegation led by the head of the General Federation of Trade Unions Hussein Meghawer, the head of the General Union of Textile Workers, Said el-Gohary, and the head of the Textile Holding Company, Mohssen el-Gilani, met with 20 strike leaders at the City Council.
The negotiations were significantly brief and can be described as a real capitulation of the government faced with the demands of the workers. This is the agreement as reported by the Egyptian blog 3arabwy (http://arabist.net/arabawy/), which gave an outstanding day to day account of the strike:
1- Ninety days of the annual profit shares will be paid immediately to the workers. The rest will be determined by the General Assembly of the company, on condition that it will be no less than 130 days, and no ceiling was agreed up on. The workers had already received 20 days, so another 70 will be decreed (so from the initial 40 days offered by the management, the strikers raised it to 90 days instead.)
2- The strike days will be considered paid holidays, whose costs will be incurred by the Holding Company
3- Instead of giving the management the right to determine the incentives, the latter will be a function of the basic monthly salary, with an annual increase of 7% of the basic salary.
4- A cooperative society is to be established, funded by the Holding Company, to provide for the transportation of workers. Labor leader Mostafa Fouda has been assigned to direct it
5- No striker will be victimized for taking part in the industrial action. A committee from the strike leaders has been formed to continue negotiating with the Holding Company over increasing the allowances for food and industrial safety.
6- The strike leaders were promised that Mahmoud el-Gebaly, the corrupt company board chairman will be impeached, together with his assistants
7-Work is to resume on Sunday
Consciousness develops through experience of struggle
The strike was not just about economic and security demands, even though the Egyptian textile workers are among the lowest paid in the world. After 10 years working at the Mahalla's textile plant a worker could earn a wage around 40 US $ per month. The average wage for an Egyptian textile worker amounts to 85 percent of the wage in Pakistan and 60 percent of the wage in India.
It is clear that the experience of the struggle has developed a high level of consciousness among the Mahalla workers. During the demonstrations they had slogans such as "We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!" Also, many of the slogans on the placards were against the Mubarak dictatorship.
It is perfectly natural that strikes in Egypt are not only economic by nature. In a country where strikes are illegal, the workers know very well that they are struggling against the state security police and all the entire apparatus of state repression. Every Egyptian worker knows the stories about the atrocities taking place in the regime's torture chambers and that the families of the imprisoned could be assaulted by the police. The division between "economic" and "political" strikes, so to say, are virtually non-existent in an ex-colonial capitalist dictatorship like the present regime in Egypt.
An important and noticeable element in the class struggle in Egypt is the very active role played by female workers. In December last year, it was the 3,000 female workers in the spinning department of Ghazl el-Mahalla that took the initiative to strike and marched through the factory calling the men to support the strike chanting "Where are the men? Here are the women!". This struggle was won and gave a mighty impulse to industrial strikes all over Egypt. Most of these strikes led to resounding victories by the workers.
This summer, the workers at the textile factory Mansoura-Espana won their struggle, as they stopped the plans to close the factory. This was achieved after the almost 300 workers - about 75 percent of them women - occupied the factory and lived inside the production centre for two months. It is remarkable that the women - the most downtrodden section of the proletariat - in this way has played an important and leading role for their fellow working men.
During the month of August alone, 100 industrial actions in 88 companies were reported in Egypt. The level of industrial actions is considerably higher this year than in 2006. A report (September 26 - 3arabwy - http://arabist.net/arabawy/)states that during the first six months of 2007, 386 industrial actions took place (100 Sit-ins, 109 Strikes, 33 Demonstrations, 126 illegal assemblies accompanied by short-period work stoppages). In 2006, the Land Centre for Human Rights documented 222 industrial actions, so already this summer, we were well ahead of that.
What is really crucial for the consciousness of the workers is that the workers have not suffered any important defeat in the recent period. The workers have gained a colossal amount of self-confidence as a class, and they are more and more heading towards a confrontation with the pro-imperialist regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Despite the fact that Egypt is the number two recipient of economic assistance from the USA (number one is Israel), the regime has not been able to control the massive protests, strikes and factory occupations on the part of the workers. When it is students demanding democratic rights or petty-bourgeois supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, it has been no big deal for the regime to clamp down on the protesters. Only the working class has shown itself capable of taking up the struggle with the regime.
The struggle in Egypt is not at all over yet. It is not at all concluded. The Mahalla workers have shown the real face of the Egyptian working class. Stormy events lie ahead; they will end either with the biggest defeat or the workers' overthrow of a strategic outpost of imperialism in the Middle East - and thereby opening of the gates for socialist revolution from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf and beyond.
- Unprecedented strike wave of Egyptian workers by Jorge Martin (April 23, 2007)
- The Egyptian workers are not alone! Solidarity needed (April 23, 2007)
- Egyptian elections: "The Three-Minute Freedom" by Nadim al-Mahjoub (September 2005)
- Imperialist style elections in Egypt by Yossi Schwartz (September 2005)