Egypt rocked by class struggle, food crisis
One of the US government’s most important allies in the Middle East was shaken in early April by strikes and demonstrations over rising food prices.
The call by opposition groups in Egypt for an April 6 general strike against the economic policies of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak marked a significant step for the country’s new democratic movement.
Textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra, Arab nationalists, moderate Islamists and socialists joined Kifaya (meaning “Enough!”, the unofficial name of the loose-knit opposition movement, the Egyptian Movement for Change) and others in putting out the call to demand pay raises that could keep up with runaway inflation.
To get around emergency laws that stifle freedom of expression, activists relied heavily on the social network website Facebook and mobile text messages to publicise the call. They asked workers, government employees and students to boycott schools, factories, banks and government agencies.
Despite widespread popular support, the call produced mixed results — due to intensive government propaganda and scare tactics, such as declaring the Mahalla strike illegal, threatening mass arrests and accusing organisers of plotting riots and violence.
On April 6, Egyptians woke up to find that state security forces, riot police and much-hated hoodlums paid by the state had occupied every single major square in cities across the country.
Despite the intimidation, hundreds of thousands of workers and students across Egypt heeded the strike and boycott call by staying home. Many schools and workplaces reported lower-than-usual attendance. Traffic in Cairo, a city notorious for its nightmarish congestion, was almost clear.
But in the city of Mahalla, a historic bastion of working-class resistance in the central Nile Delta, things unfolded in a very different way.
On the morning of the 6th, all eyes were focused on the city, since the call for a general strike had been initiated by the textile workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., who have been battling the government over wages and conditions for over a year.
Despite pressure by pro-government union officials not to participate, many rank-and-file workers were ready to occupy their plant at the morning shift. When workers arrived,
however, they found it surrounded and occupied by hundreds of police.
By midday, government-controlled media and news agencies were boasting that the strike had failed and hailing Egyptian workers for supporting “law and order”.
But at around 4pm, 25,000 workers, students and others poured out of schools and workplaces for a peaceful mass march against government policies. When security forces attempted to block the march, all hell broke loose.
For hours, Mahalla’s streets resembled a scene from the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Thousands of residents battled police, throwing rocks and lobbing tear gas canisters back at them. As efforts at repression intensified, the anger grew deeper. Many burned cars and a rail line connecting Mahalla to the Mediterranean.
The government-run media tried to portray the mini-Intifada in Mahalla as the act of a few “thieves”, but the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Yom carried impressive pictures of mass street battles against state barbarity.
The following day, Al Yom announced the death of Ahmed Ali Mubarak, a 15-year-old student shot by the police as he watched the protests from the window of his home. In the days that followed, four other deaths caused by police shootings were confirmed.
Al Yom also ran interviews with women who explained why they participated in the protests. “How can I feed the children and care for my mother who has a heart condition on her retirement, which is 59 pounds [US$11] a month?” one woman told the paper.
Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world and the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, is experiencing a serious economic and political crisis that threatens the Mubarak regime.
Despite achieving rates of annual economic growth of 7% in the last few years, the government’s neoliberal economic policies of privatisation have left up to 40% of the country’s population of 75 million living under the poverty line.
Recently, severe shortages in bread, the main staple for Egyptians, left millions to stand in lines for hours at a time, only to go home empty-handed. In March alone, 10 people were killed in fights that broke out in bread lines. In addition to bread shortages, ordinary people are struggling to keep up with unprecedented rates of inflation. Prices for most basic foods, such as rice and cooking oil, rose by 50% in the first three months of 2008.
Meanwhile, wealthy Egyptians and their multinational partners continue to amass huge wealth. These multinationals enjoy a skilled work force in Egypt, yet pay starvation wages. Egyptian workers earn $100 per month on average.
This situation is a result of a major transformation that the Egyptian economy has undergone in the past 30 years.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the state nationalised most large industries, guaranteed full employment, free education and health care, and subsidised basic foods. It also launched an ambitious industrialisation campaign, enlisting the help of the former USSR. However, while attempting to ensure a safety net for workers and the poor, the state repressed all aspects of independent political or union activities.
After its crushing defeat suffered at the hands of Israel in the June 1967 war and under pressure from US-led neoliberal economic policies, the government changed course.
Beginning in the 1970s, the government embarked on an open-door investment policy that began to reintegrate Egypt into the world economy under US tutelage. The first act was to lift subsidies on bread and basic foods, as instructed by the International Monetary Fund.
That move was met by a mass uprising, but the government succeeded in crushing the rebellion. In the absence of a strong union movement or a left, a significant number of Egyptian workers hoped that the neoliberal model would improve their lives.
In the last 20 years, the economy has gone from being dominated by a public sector that accounted for 70% of its operation to having an 80% private-sector economy.
After three decades of privatisation and the phasing out of state subsidies, public opinion has shifted dramatically in the other direction. Years of passivity have begun to give way to a new era in which struggle is seen as a means of winning social change.
At first, poor and landless peasants carried out a campaign of resistance against government attempts to roll back gains from Egypt’s modest land reforms and restore the powers of their former landowners. By 2004, the industrial working class took the lead in struggles against neoliberalism. Textile workers, subway and rail workers, tax collectors, university professors and many others all struck for higher wages — and they mostly won.
A courageous democracy movement by lawyers and judges for real reforms and an end to fraudulent elections helped stir public sentiment and emboldened the workers’ movement.
However, due to the success of the Egyptian government in repressing radical Islamist groups such as Jihad in the 1990s and because of the youth and small size of the developing new left, the Association of Muslim Brotherhood has become the Mubarak regime’s main opposition force.
While critical of the government’s pro-US and Israel stances and its repressive measures, the Brotherhood’s economic and social goals differ little from those espoused by the regime — a capitalist free-market system, albeit in more Islamic robes.
Popular anger over the deteriorating economic situation has forced the Brotherhood leadership to adjust its rhetoric recently away from key slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and more towards addressing workers’ demands for pay raises and subsidies.
But while it now pays lip service to workers’ grievances and formally supports popular democratic reforms, the Brotherhood leadership still refuses to mobilise its half a million-strong membership to directly challenge the government in the streets.
Although it supported the idea of a strike, it refused to call on its rank-and-file members to take part in the April 6 general strike, on the basis that the Brotherhood doesn’t support “civil disobedience” that could compromise law and order.
The government has been forced to grant concessions to striking workers in the hope of stemming the tide. These concessions reflect the regime’s vulnerability and are emboldening workers.
Popular anger at social injustices and poverty among Egyptians is compounded by bitter resentment at the US occupation of Iraq and Israel’s slow genocide against the Palestinians.
It would be an exaggeration to describe the events unfolding in Egypt as a storm. Yet they could represent the first stages of one.