Over the weekend the Egyptian working class was about to embark on a major general strike. This is the culmination of a rising tide of working class militancy in the country, where life has become unbearable for ordinary workers. The planned strike was in protest against huge prices increases in food and inadequate wages to meet these ever-rising prices.
|Misr Spinning and Weaver workers
in the Delta Nile city of Mahala
The threat of such widespread action pushed the interior ministry to threaten prison sentences for anyone taking part in the strike or organising for others to take part, and added that no demonstrations would be allowed either. Formally strikes are illegal in Egypt, but that hasn't stopped a whole spate of very successful and victorious strikes over the past 18 months.
This reaction on the part of the government authorities is not an indication of their strength, but one of desperation of an ever-unstable regime. Tomorrow, Tuesday, the first local elections since last year's constitutional amendments are taking place, and this must also be a factor in explaining the desperate reaction of the government.
The call for a general strike came from the workers at the big state-owned textile mill in Mahalla al-Kubra. A major strike there in December 2006 was the spark that set in motion a nationwide protest that forced the government to make important concessions.
That was the first indication of weakness on the part of the regime, which clearly encouraged the Egyptian workers to move on to a higher plain. The government in fact is zig-zagging between "carrot and stick", on the one hand coming down heavily on this strike and at the same promising to increase wages and extending its food subsidy programme to include a further 15 million poor.
Close to 40% of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty line, considered to be $2 per day. And in spite of economic growth at 7 % a year, the increase in poverty and the gap between rich and poor has widened since the year 2000. Not a day passes by without a new price increase. Inflation now officially stands at 12.3%. In reality it is much higher.
|Bread is also affected by speculation and corruption
Bread, the basic staple food since the era of the pharaohs, is also affected by speculation and corruption, especially subsidised flour is smuggled onto the black market by venal bureaucrats to be sold at 10 to 12 times the original price. As shortages are hitting public bakeries bread queues have turned violent, sometimes leading to deaths over the last weeks.
The bread riots of 1977 haunt the present regime. Political combustible material is accumulating in Egypt. The combination of price hikes, shortages of basic staple foods, a generalised upsurge of the workers' movement and the exhaustion of the regime is an ideal combination for revolutionary explosions. Something similar happened exactly ten years ago in Indonesia. As a result the old and bloody dictator Suharto was overthrown.
On the day of the planned strike, yesterday, Sunday, April 6, Egyptian security forces intervened heavily at the Mahalla al-Kobra textile plant. The strike was planned to start at the change of shift at 7.30am, but the workers were faced with hundreds of security men who took over the plant at 3am.
Mustafa Foda, a 25-year veteran activist at the company explained what happened, "From 3am they took control of the inside of the company with plainclothes security. Anyone who tried to talk was taken." He added that the police stopped him and other workers from entering the plant and also took the preventive measure of arresting around 150 workers before the change of shift.
By using these brutal measures the factory was at least partially working yesterday. But the popular support for the workers' protest was shown by the fact that shops in the neighbourhood around the plant were closed in solidarity and displayed notes of support for the textile workers in their windows. There was also a noticeably lower amount of traffic on the roads, indicating that an important part of the population had responded to the workers' call.
Later in the day thousands of demonstrators angry about rising prices and stagnant salaries torched buildings, looted shops and hurled bricks at police who responded with tear gas. Some 80 people were wounded by the police repression.
Workers and young people stormed the city hall, burned tires in the streets, smashed chairs through shop windows. At least two schools were set ablaze and facades of banks were vandalized. In scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian intifada children were throwing rocks at the security forces while chanting ‘Revolution has come! Revolution has come!'
Hossam el-Hamalawy from the ‘3arabawy' blog gives further reports:
"The solidarity strike at Kafr el-Dawwar was aborted. But I've learned, from a Socialist source that while production was not brought to a complete halt, still hundreds of workers demonstrated twice that day: Before the start of the morning shift, followed by another one that was staged before the afternoon shift started... The strike was called off as labour leaders in the factory came under severe pressure from State Security in the previous days.
"Elsewhere, production was disrupted in Tora Cement, as 60% of the workforce did not show up. Those who turned up for work, however, also took part in a one hour protest from 12 noon to 1pm. The labour leaders in the factory issued a statement denouncing the police violence against the Mahalla protesters and supporting the Mahalla-led demand for raising the national minimum wage to LE1200 a month. While the planned protest at the South Cairo Grain Mills was aborted, production in its seven mills was brought to a semi-halt, together with two other mills in Sayyed Zeinab, as more than 50% of the labour force did not show up for work."
There were also smaller demonstrations in the universities organised by students. The planned demonstration in the centre of Cairo was made impossible by the heavy police presence. Nevertheless 2000 people gathered in front of the lawyers' syndicate building surrounded by a large number of policemen.
Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) admitted that it had had no role in organising the strike, although it added that it "supports workers' right to strike". But in Cairo, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahmoud Ezzat, denied in an interview on the group's Arabic official website his group's support for the general strike, while the most senior MB lawyer Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud assserted they were not planning to mobilize in Ghazl el-Mahalla.
The Brotherhood has very little support in the factories where it is a marginal force. The MB is a bourgeois reactionary islamist movement which has gained support thanks to its extensive network of charity, its social demagogy and its opposition to president Mubarak. However, serious analysts suspect that the MB has made secret deals with the very regime it pretends to combat, and of course also with the USA who sees in it a ‘safe' alternative solution in case of a revolutionary explosion.
Therefore it is vital that the left forces and the workers' movement understand the real treacherous role of the MB and remain independent from it. Parading as reform minded democrats, as anti-imperialists and as friends of the poor they are as afraid, or even more afraid, of an independent working class movement than the Mubarak regime.
In reality what the Islamic fundamentalists have been trying to do is claim that the Muslim workers are treated worse than the Christian workers. What they want is to divide the workers. So while claiming to support them they actually want to divide them and weaken them. The workers have firmly rejected these divisive tactics and have stated that all workers, irrespective of religion, stand together.
This little detail is an indication that the protest comes from within the heart of the Egyptian working class and has nothing whatsoever to do with Islamic fundamentalists of any kind, an eloquent answer to all those faint-hearts on the left who have written off the Arab working class, complaining about a generalised "black reaction" dominated by Islamic fundamentalism. Once the working class moves in a serious way it has little time for such reactionaries.
Since Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif took office in July 2004 the level of strike activity in Egypt has risen sharply. The government began a serious drive to privatize public-sector industrial and financial enterprises. The 2004 annual report of the Land Center for Human Rights, revealed that there were over 1,000 workers' collective actions between 1998 and 2004. More than one quarter of these actions were concentrated in the year 2004 when there was a 200 percent increase over 2003.
Since then the level of strike activity has intensified. The liberal Egyptian daily newspaper al-Misri al-Yawm reported that a total of 222 strikes, demonstrations and protests took place in 2006 and more than double that, 580, took place in 2007. This is the biggest strike wave in Egypt since 1945. The Workers and Trade Union Watch website, listed 27 collective actions in the first week of January of this year alone. In 2007 the strikes spread from "the textile industry to the building workers, transport workers, the Cairo subway workers, food processing workers, bakers, sanitation workers, oil workers in Suez and many others". Significantly, the movement spread from the state-owned sector to the private-sector. Then it started to spread further to other sectors including white-collar employees, civil servants and professionals.
Most interestingly, there was a strike movement last December of around 55,000 real estate municipal tax collectors. The elected strike committee of that group of workers then became a de facto independent trade union. The same thing happened at the Misr Spinning and Weaving factory in Mahalla al-Kobra.
The latter have become the best organized and most political group of workers in Egypt. In November of last year they began building links with other sectors with the aim of establishing a trade union independent of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, which is not a real union but an arm of the state.
|Clash in Mahalla City
The movement of the working class is beginning to have an effect on other layers. Middle class layers are now showing clear sympathy for the cause of the workers. These layers too are affected by rising prices and therefore are easily won to the cause that workers are fighting for. University professors and doctors have also protested as have dentists, all because of low wages.
The same al-Misri al-Yawm has provided figures that confirm that between 2005 and 2008 the price of basic foodstuffs has risen quite sharply. Meat has gone up by 33 percent and chicken by 146 percent from. The Mahalla workers have also been in the forefront in calling for a national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month to make up for inflation.
Significantly, as we have reported in other articles, the women workers have played a key role in pushing this movement forward. At the Mahalla plant it was the women who started the strike, and now they have also played an important role in coordinating the call for the April 6 strike.
Although the state has intervened heavily, this recent protest is the broadest alliance of protest against the Mubarak regime so far. Although a real general strike did not materialise yesterday, Sunday, April 6 will be remembered as the first attempt to organise a nationwide protest of that type in recent Egyptian history. This in itself is a remarkable turning point.
The will for radical change is there. Nevertheless it needs to be better organised. For the moment no national workers' network worth the name, exists or has sufficient capacity to mobilise the masses yet. This is clearly a weakness to be worked on in the next months. Other opposition groups like the ‘Kifaya' movement (Enough!) appeal mainly to the limited circle of urban middle class professionals. It is mainly a bourgeois opposition movement. Their links with the wider layer of poor masses or the workers are either very weak or non existent. Up until recently their demands did not take up the concerns of the workers. The Labour Party who called for the strike is also quite small and has few roots in the working class. Its organisational capacities do not extend very far. The Revolutionary Socialists, although very active and dedicated, also have to sink deeper roots in the industrial working class. April 6 is clearly not a defeat. It was more like a dress rehearsal for future events. Weaknesses and strengths have to be evaluated. The need for a united workers' opposition leadership rooted in all the factories and mills is urgent.
The Mubarak regime is facing its most severe crisis ever. The most significant thing is that the workers have lost their fear of the regime. Yesterday's clampdown is a desperate attempt to re-establish the authority of the state, but it will fail in its aim. The workers of Egypt are on the move. The protest movement is spreading ever wider and involving even layers that go beyond the borders of the working class.
All the conditions are maturing for revolution. The workers are on the move and are prepared to struggle and the middle classes are swinging towards the working class. This will open up splits at the top of the regime. These are the conditions that Lenin listed as indicating the beginning of a revolutionary situation opening up. What is needed now is a leadership that the Egyptian workers deserve, a revolutionary leadership. This can be forged out of those advanced workers and youth that have been on the move for several years now.
We ask our sympathisers and readers to declare their solidarity with the striking workers in Egypt and to support their protest against repression! Read the international solidarity appeal.
- Egypt Strikes Update: Wave of action continues by Ian Aylett (February 28, 2008)
- Why does the Egyptian ruling class fear the crisis in Gaza? by David Markovitz (January 28, 2008)
- The Crisis in Gaza and Sderot: break with Zionism, Imperialism and Islamism! by David Markovitz (January 21, 2008)
- Egyptian workers the key by Ian Aylett (January 8, 2008)
- The Middle East, Annapolis and the Palestine problem: More talks about talks by Alan Woods (December 6, 2007)
- Egypt: The victory of Mahalla workers exposes the weakness of Mubarak’s regime by Frederik Ohsten and Francesco Merli (October 4, 2007)
- Unprecedented strike wave of Egyptian workers by Jorge Martin (April 23, 2007)