Unprecedented Strike Wave by Egyptian Workers

By Jorge Martin

For the last three years Egypt has experienced a wave of strikes, mainly in order to fight against a new wave of privatization of state owned companies promoted by the Mubarak government. All of these strikes are illegal and most of them involve militant methods and sit-in occupations. The movement started amongst textile workers but has now spread to other sectors, encouraged by the fact that most of the strikes have ended up in victories.

As usual, the government is trying to find a scapegoat and has now taken measures against the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services in a number of towns and an article appeared in the weekly English language paperAl-Ahramwith allegations that a “Communist plot” is behind the current wave of strikes.

Government bureaucrats, police officers and secret service torturers all subscribe to the conspiracy theory view of history. For them it is not conceivable that the workers might have genuine grievances and that their conditions might have pushed them into taking action. There must always be some secret conspirator, Communist or Islamist agitator behind any such movement.

However, the roots of the present movement of Egyptian workers are clear for anybody to see. During the 1990s, the Mubarak government, following the “advice” of the International Monetary Fund, carried out a program of wholesale privatization of Egyptian industry. By 1999 more than 100 public sector companies had been sold off and one of the worst hit sectors was the textile industry, where the private sector went from 8 to 58 percent of the market in cotton spinning.

Now a second wave of privatizations has been pushed by the government and this is the direct cause of the current wave of strikes. The workers are afraid of losing their status as public sector workers (most of industry was nationalized in Egypt under Nasser in the 1960s) with all the associated benefits and job security this carries. A very interesting report by Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy in Middle East Report Online describes the situation as “an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes, which, since late 2004, have been centered in the textile sector, but have spread to other industries as well. In late 2006 and 2007, the strike wave has reached a particularly high crest.”

The report, which we recommend all readers to study in detail, centers on a strike which took place in December 2006 at the massive Misr Spinning and Weaving company at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta. The strike was sparked when the 24,000 textile workers realized that a bonus promised by the prime minister was not going to be paid. The strike lasted for four days and included the occupation of the complex. When the police tried to intervene on the second day of the movement, the workers called on other workers and the local population to come out in support, and 20,000 people surrounded the premises in defense of the workers. The police were unable to do anything and the strikers were victorious.

It is interesting to note how women played a key role in the strike and in fact were more militant than their male colleagues. The strike actually started when 3,000 women workers left their jobs and marched to the other sections of the factory. According to the report in MERIP they chanted: “Where are the men? Here are the women!” pushing the men to join the strike.

When the company tried to buy off the workers with an offer “the women [workers] almost tore apart every representative from the management who came to negotiate.” Two of the strike leaders interviewed by Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy describe the general attitude of women workers: “As night fell, said Sayyid Habib, the men found it ‘very difficult to convince the women to go home. They wanted to stay and sleep over. It took us hours to convince them to go home to their families, and return the following day.’ ‘Grinning broadly’, Attar added, ‘The women were more militant than the men. They were subject to security intimidation and threats, but they held out.’” When a movement mobilizes the most oppressed and previously passive layers, this is a sure sign of its revolutionary and deep-rooted character.

The victory of the Mahalla strikers encouraged other workers to come out and in the following months tens of thousands of textile workers took action in the Nile Delta and Alexandria.

The MERIP report describes this:

“The Misr Spinning and Weaving strike has also found echoes in workers’ struggles outside the textile sector, though there has been no active coordination. In December, cement factories in Helwan and Tura went on strike. At the same time, autoworkers in Mahalla al-Kubra staged a strike and sit-in.

“In January, railway engineers went on strike, blocking the first-class Turbini train from Cairo to Alexandria that primarily transports businessmen and professionals. They later threatened a national work stoppage, until the government agreed to most of their demands and promised to acquiesce in more. During the railway strike, the Cairo subway drivers slowed the speed of their trains from 55 to 20 miles per hour in solidarity. Railway strikers spoke of how ‘encouraged they were by the victory at Mahalla.’ There were also wildcat strikes by truck and microbus drivers, poultry farmers, garbage collectors, and public gardeners and sanitation workers.”

A report in el-Hamalawy’s blog describes the strike of thousands of workers at the Kafr el-Dawwar Textile Company, which also ended in a victory in February 2007.

Another common feature of these reports is their rebuttal of government claims that Islamist forces are behind the strikes. The workers at Kafr el-Dawwar factory “vehemently denied any involvement from the Muslim Brotherhood” according to el-Hamalawy’s report. An earlier report by Joel Beinin in MERIP describes a strike by 287 workers at the Asbestos Products Company where the owner is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But probably the most interesting feature of this strike movement is that the workers are becoming aware that they are not just fighting over issues which affect them in their workplaces, but rather that their struggle challenges the government’s policies as a whole. It is probably because of this that in several places (including at Mahalla) the workers are trying to build their own independent organizations challenging the state sponsored “unions,” and acquiring a basic level of coordination.

This is reported in the article in MERIP: “There are signs that militant textile workers are pushing for a mechanism of national cooperation. One month after the victory of the strike in Kafr al-Dawwar, a statement signed by “Workers for Change in Kafr al-Dawwar” was distributed in the factory, calling for “expanding coordination between workers in companies that went on strike with us, to create the necessary solidarity links and exchange experiences.”

But even more significant is the report by el-Hamalawy in his blog, of a meeting that took place in early February at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, attended by “dozens of labor activists, including some of the leaders of the recent wave of strikes”.

“The labor leaders came from 12 provinces, including: Cairo, Qalyoubiya, Giza, Alexandria, Beheira, Gharbeya, Sharqiya, Suez, Ismailia, Fayyoum, Bani Soweif. Most of those attended were from the major industrial urban centers, like el-Mahalla el-Kobra, Meit Ghamr, Tenth of Ramadan, Helwan, Shoubra, Kafr el-Dawwar, Zefta.

“They belonged to different sectors: Textile, Steel & Iron Mills, Engineering and electronics, Mining, Tobacco, Railways, Petroleum, Construction, naval and land transportation, wood, food and beverages companies, Suez Canal.

“The activists took the floor, one after the other, speaking about their strikes, detailing the problems they face and the challenges. The government’s General Federation of Trade Unions and the Ministry of Labor were sliced, and workers spoke of their attempts to launch an independent labor union, to replace the current incompetent, corrupt, pro-government federation.”

This is what is really worrying the government and why, despite its current tactics of making concessions to workers who take action, they are launching attacks on any bodies or organizations that might facilitate the workers’ attempts to coordinate their actions.

The offices of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services in Najaa Hamadi and Mahala Kobra have been closed down and the repressive forces have clamped down on worker activists throughout the country.

The picture that emerges from these reports is one of a working class on the move, gaining confidence and drawing more advanced political conclusions. At the meeting of labor activists described before, one of them spoke clearly:

“Saber Barakat, of the Workers’ Coordination Committee, gave a powerful speech, where he saluted the workers’ struggles, and said ‘Egypt is about to enter a revolutionary situation. The regime is in trouble. Mubarak is busy trying to arrange for the succession of his son Gamal, but for the first time in a long period we can say with confidence a workers’ revolution is looming in the horizon.’”

In Defense of Marxism, April 23,2007