The biggest strike wave for decades has swept across Egypt in the past three months - a country where strikes are illegal and demonstrations of any sort face brutal, bloody repression.
Tens of thousands of textile, cement and poultry workers, as well as railway workers, shipyard, municipal and hospital workers, took action, including factory occupations.
Anger erupted over low pay, poor health and safety, privatisation and management corruption - and over government-run trade unions siding with the employers.
Barely reported in the western media, this strike wave is of major importance for many reasons.
Egypt has one of the biggest and potentially strongest working classes in the Middle East, with a long tradition of struggle.
The fact that this section of the population is taking action, independent of any other sections of society or political parties, represents a new, progressive and hugely significant development.
This is especially the case in a region where discontent and anti-imperialist sentiment was often channeled into parties representing the ideas of the most reactionary sections of political Islam.
Even more significant is the struggle for better wages coincided with an “Egyptian Intifada” against the leaders of the corrupt, state-run ‘unions’. These are hardly different from the so-called ‘unions’ that were organised in the former Stalinist states in Russia and Eastern Europe.
These were little more than transmission belts for these regime’s policies.
The strike movement developed and won, what are by Egyptian standards, important concessions. Unlike other protest movements, it was not been snuffed out by the notorious riot police as soon as the movement broke out.
This shows an important lesson about the potential power of the working class in changing society in the Middle East.
That some of the poorest sections of the working class were involved in the struggles is an indication of the depth of anger and discontent that exists in Egyptian society.
“Revolution of the hungry”
Last December, 27,000 textile workers went on strike at Egypt’s largest public-sector factory, ‘Ghazl El-Mahalla’, in north Cairo.
They demanded the same bonus (two months salary) as other public-sector workers.
Union officials supported management but the strike went ahead.
The workers settled after five days for a bonus of 45 days salary.
Since, 13,000 workers signed a petition calling for the local trade union (syndicate) officials to be impeached.
“Not one single member of our syndicate stood with us during the strike,” said workers’ spokesman, Mohammed El-Attar. “You [‘union leaders’] stood on the side of management.
As our representatives you had an agreement with us, and you broke it...Our strike was home-grown.
We call it ‘the revolution of the hungry’ because we all had a part in it. There are no leaders among us, it is just workers. We are all leaders.”
Activists threatened to form a new union, independent of the government-backed General Federation of Trade Unions.
On 14 February, a ‘compromise’ plan agreed by the official union and the workers’ leaders was rejected by the workforce.
Under the plan, a Works Representative Committee, with over 100 elected members, would sit alongside the official union committee, with whom it would have equal powers. The workforce is adamant the official union must be impeached.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) calls for free trade unions, independent of the state, with all trade union officials elected, subject to recall, and paid in line with their members.
Also in December, 3,000 workers occupied the headquarters of Helwan and Tora cement plants.
They barricaded and denied entry or exit to the factory, using lorries, until the management administration responded to their demands, paying bonus that was three months overdue. Tora WAS recently sold by the government to an Italian company.
On 4 February, 21,000 workers, in three textile factories in the Northern Delta region, went on strike for better pay.
12,000 occupied Kafr al-Dawar, demanding a share of the revenue from the sale of company land, better safety and medical care, an end to the freeze on promotions, and a 45-day bonus, like the Ghazl El-Mahalla workers won.
In this case, management corruption also fuelled workers’ anger.
When state security forces locked workers in the plant, in an attempt to starve them into submission, the workers defiantly promised to stay and not eat until their demands were met:
“Strike until death! Strike until payment!” was their slogan.
The strike ended on 10 February, when Al Behera governor, Major General Mohamed Shaarawi told workers the government had addressed their demands:
The meal allowance was increased from 32 to 45 Egyptian pounds (£E) per day, backdated for seven months, a review of health and safety and provision of a factory ambulance, new buses and a 21-day bonus.
Workers whistled and clapped when the terms were announced, shouting, “God is great. There is no God but God. Mohammed is the prophet of God.” Again, there was fury at the role of the official trade union. “We didn’t choose these reps. The government forced them on us. We have nothing at all to do with these union people,” said one worker.
At Misr Shebin Al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company, 4,200 spontaneously struck and up to 3,000 occupied the state-owned plant, as the Indian company, IndoRama, was about to take Misr Shebin Al-Kom over. It was the first strike in the factory’s 47-year history. Workers were promised a bonus payment of 140 days’ pay, but found they were given a loan of 45 days’ pay. “I only make £E400 a month (70 US dollars),” said Abdel-Hamid Saleh. “Rent costs £E300, so how can I feed my family?”
Incredibly, Spinning and Weaving Syndicate union leader, Said El-Gohary, accused the strikers of being “terrorists who want to sabotage the company.” Workers replied the factory was their livelihood, so they would hardly want to sabotage it.
Many worked in the plant for over 35 years and saw it as their labour that had built up Misr Shebin Al-Kom.
The company was sold for £E125million, but has assets estimated at £E3billion. Workers feared the new owners would cut operators from two or three per machine to only one. The machines are 25meters long.
In early February, 3,000 workers at the Cairo Poultry Company struck for two days over unpaid bonuses and in protest at lack of compensation for the risk from bird ‘flu. On 15 February, 13,000 workers went on strike at Samanoud Textile Factory, demanding an increase in their monthly food allowance to £E43, following the Kafr el-Dawar strike.
Textile workers are among the lowest paid in Egypt, earning, on average, £E250-400 a month. There is increasing competition from China, forcing living standards even lower. The currency was devalued in 2001 and then floated in 2004, increasing prices on imported goods.
Free trade zones were established, where factories are exempt from custom duty, putting pressure on companies outside the zones to also cut costs.
While workers have paid the price for these changes, profits roll in for the bosses.
An American Chamber of Commerce 2004 study showed the average wage of an Egyptian textile worker stood at $110 per month.
This is just 19% of the comparable wage in Turkey, and 8% of that in Israel. But even this is not tempting enough for foreign capitalists to invest in Egyptian textiles.
The American Chamber of Commerce report was concerned “Certain features of the Egyptian labour market need to be modified if economic reform and growth is to be attained.” It called for the abolition or ‘reform’ of job security provisions for employees and the end of wage-setting rules for public enterprise workers, adding “a flexible labour market attracts investors.”
On 26 December 2006, Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, announced the government intended to carry out 34 changes to the constitution. He said these amendments “Not only aim to rid Egypt of socialist principles launched in the 1960s, but also seek to create a more favourable atmosphere for foreign investments.”
The chairman of the Egyptian parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee, Mustafa El-Said, commented “Although the socialist policies of the 1960s were scrapped very early in the 1990s, they were not followed by a change in the constitution to reflect the government’s official embrace of economic liberalism.” He added it was time “to rid the constitution of these socialist foundations and make it more harmonious with the new market economy and liberal policies.”
Although Egypt’s constitution describes the state as a “Democratic Socialist Republic”, Nasser’s regime had very little to do with genuine socialism. It is true important reforms were granted under Nasser and the nationalisations carried out by the regime were a blow to imperialist interests. However, nationalised industries were not run under democratic workers’ control and management.
The state-run industries became a means by which sections of the bureaucratic elite could siphon off wealth through corruption.
Trade unions were tied in with the state-machine.
A genuine socialist programme would now include the nationalisation of all the major companies, banks and land, with democratic workers’ control. Egypt’s resources could then be planned to meet the needs of working and poor people, including decent pay, proper health and education facilities. It would also include democratic rights, such as free elections, free speech, free press, and the right to organise independent trade unions.
At present, there is no political party arguing for such a programme.
The main opposition party, the illegal ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, has had almost nothing to say about the strike wave.
One spokesman supported the right of workers to take legal and legitimate protest.
Since strikes and occupations are illegal, this doesn’t mean much!
The government has accused the Brotherhood of organising the strikes, but there is no evidence the organisation did so.
As many of the Brotherhood’s leading members come from business and the middle class, they are caught between wanting to oppose the regime, while also fearing the spontaneous mass movement of workers.
However, if the movement continues to grow, it is not ruled out some Muslim Brotherhood leaders could change their position and start to use more radical rhetoric about the strike.
The pro-democracy protest movement, Kifaya (‘Enough’), which organised demonstrations in the teeth of security force repression, in 2004 and 2005, was unable to reach out to the recent workers’ movements. Kifaya continues to hold protests but the numbers participating are rarely over 1,000 (often much less), mainly because they are not taking up demands that hit the working class. Last December, several leading Kifaya members resigned.
At the end of January, their co-ordinator, George Ishak, also resigned, and was replaced by 64-year old academic, Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri.
Kifaya’s new strategy, according to one of its spokes people, “Will be focussing more on rejuvenating Egypt and increasing political activism. This includes new educational training sessions aimed at increasing political awareness among Kifaya members.”
This more passive approach was criticised by other Kifaya members:
“The general coordinator position needs someone who can reach out to simple Egyptians on the street, since the movement mainly interacts with ordinary citizens rather than intellectuals," argued Mohamed El-Domiatti. "Our protesting style is what distinguishes us. We will lose by changing this into panel discussions or training sessions."
Among Mubarak’s amendments to the constitution is ‘Article 88’, which stipulates judicial oversight of elections. The proposed amendment will reduce the supervisory role currently played by judges, replacing it with an oversight role for the powerful State Security police. “Mubarak is paving the way for his son to inherit the throne, by using state security and other executive bodies to eliminate rivals,” said Judge Hisham Bastawisi, a leader of last spring’s ‘Judges Movement’ (which protested over rigged elections).
Sections of the ruling class can see the dangers for their system from the explosive anger stored up among Egypt’s workers and poor. Speaking in January, Ibrahim Eissa, the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘independent’ newspaper, ‘El Destour’, said: “When 27,000 workers in Mahalla go on strike under the banner ‘We are real men,’ that is a sign of change to come. We are floating on a sea of corruption here in Egypt, and we have two choices - chaos and change. Nothing will remain as it is now for much longer.
“If there is chaos it will destroy everything in its path, including us,” he told an audience of mainly upper middle class liberal activists and foreign diplomats.
“If you remember the level of destruction and chaos that accompanied the two days of bread riots, in 1977, you have an idea of the danger we face if we do not organize efforts to turn the potential chaos into productive change.”
This member of the elite is quite rightly warning of the danger of revolutionary explosions in the near future in Egypt.
There is growing confidence amongst the Egyptian working class, who saw concessions forced from the Government by bold and united workers’ action.
The Egyptian working class is the biggest in the Middle East and their victories give an example to workers throughout the Arabic-speaking world, and beyond. What is needed in Egypt is a revolutionary workers’ party that can link these struggles with a programme for a democratic socialist society. Building such a class alternative is the key task of Egyptian workers and the poor.
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