Outrage against soaring inflation, the scarcity of subsidised bread and discontent with the regime of President Hosni Mubarak exploded on 6 April in Mahalla al-Kubra, a major industrial city north of Cairo.
Muhammad al-Attar told Al-Ahram Weekly: “The city is burning. Thousands of demonstrators are out on the street, throwing stones, chanting anti-government slogans and defying the batons of the riot police, tear gas and bullets.”
Al-Attar is a member of the elected strike committee of the 25,000 workers at the gigantic Misr Spinning and Weaving Co, a public-sector textile conglomerate and the largest industrial enterprise in Egypt. In January, the committee announced that the Misr workers would strike on 6 April to force the company to fulfil promises made after successful strikes in December 2006 and September 2007.
This developed into a call for a nationwide strike to protest against the sharp increase in the prices of many basic foods, especially bread, and to demand a rise in the minimum wage from $21 a month, set in 1984, to $222. Between 2005 and 2008, food prices rose by 33% for meat and as much as 146% for chicken, and this March inflation reached 15.8%.
Severe shortages of subsidised bread, the main source of calories for most Egyptians, have made things worse — low-paid government inspectors often sell subsidised flour on the black market. Rows in long bread lines caused injuries and even deaths. The cost of unsubsidised bread has nearly doubled in the past two years.
On 2 April, security forces occupied the city of Mahalla and the Misr mill, and pressed al-Attar, Sayyid Habib and other members of the committee to call off the strike. The company granted several outstanding demands: increases in basic monthly pay to $65 for unskilled workers, $69 for high school and trade school graduates, and $74 for college and university graduates; a doubling of the monthly food allowance; and a commitment to implement a promise of free transport to work. These gains will raise the rates of the best-paid Misr workers to about $185 a month.
Carrot and stick
The National Council on Wages and the state-sponsored Egyptian Trade Union Federation also began discussing raising the national minimum wage. They will certainly recommend far less than the $222 a month proposed by the Misr workers, which is still below the World Bank poverty line of $2 a day for each person in a family of four.
The combination of carrot and stick induced the committee to call off the strike but some workers were not happy. Just after the 3:30pm shift change, a few workers mingled with a crowd of mostly young boys and women in the main square of Mahalla al-Kubra. The leaderless crowd began chanting: “Oh pasha, oh bey, a loaf of [unsubsidised] bread costs a quarter of a pound.” In response, hired thugs threw volleys of rocks to disperse them. Uniformed Central Security forces fired tear gas and prepared to beat the demonstrators with batons.
As the violence escalated, the crowd burned the banners of ruling National Democratic Party candidates for the municipal elections scheduled two days later.
The elections aroused little interest and had no legitimacy: hundreds of Muslim Brothers candidates were arrested in the weeks before the balloting, eliminating the main opposition.
On 7 April, violence continued for a second day when a crowd of several thousand, much larger than the day before, gleefully defaced a large poster of President Mubarak. Security forces arrested 331 people, beat up hundreds, critically wounded nine, and killed 15-year-old Ahmad Ali Mubarak with a bullet to his head as he was standing on the balcony of the family flat.
On 8 April, a delegation of high government officials led by prime minister Ahmad Nazif rushed to Mahalla al-Kubra to restore calm. Nazif announced a bonus of a month’s pay for Misr workers and 15 days for all other textile workers. The minister of investment promised better transport, special bakeries for subsidised bread, and a revival of the cooperative store to provide subsidised rice, oil, sugar and flour.
The city’s general hospital will receive new medical equipment and specialised staff. (Faulty equipment may have caused the deaths of eight patients in Mahalla’s cardiac centre in March.)
As the first Egyptian-owned mechanised textile mill (established in 1927) and the largest industrial enterprise of the public sector nationalised in 1960, Misr has enormous symbolic importance. Events there often set the pace for wages and working conditions for other industrial workers. So the government was willing to pay a high price, as it has in the past, to satisfy its workers.
Call for a general strike
The Mahalla workers’ plan for a national labour strike escalated into a call for a general strike endorsed by the Egyptian Movement for Change — Kifaya (a multi-tendency pro-democracy coalition), the Islamist Labour Party, the Nasserist Karama Party and the Bar Association. A FaceBook group with more than 60,000 members also called on Egyptians to remain at home on 6 April. Some went on strike and there were large demonstrations on the steps of the Bar Association and at several universities.
In downtown Cairo there was less traffic, and reduced activity in poorer districts such as the market area of Imbaba.
But the general strike was aborted by the arrest of nearly 100 political activists on the eve of 6 April. Khalid Ali Umar, a lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, criticised the call as a “premature act on behalf of the leaders of ineffective political parties and groupings”. He regarded organising through text messages, emails, and FaceBook as “political opportunism.”
The 11 December 2004 demonstration organised by Kifaya began political ferment in Egypt. Breaking a taboo, demonstrators personally criticised Mubarak and demanded that he should not run for re-election in 2005 (he did), that his son Gamal should not succeed him in the presidency (most Egyptians expect he will) and that the powers of the presidency should be reduced (the constitutional amendments of March 2007 expanded them).
Although Kifaya initially showed much promise, it lost steam after the 2006 Lebanon war. The Communist Party, the newly established Social Democratic Party and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists have made some gains among workers since 2004. But Kifaya has not been a big factor in the labour movement.
Kifaya’s support for a general strike on 6 April was considered so threatening that on 9 April George Ishak, a founding member of Kifaya, was arrested followed by 50 others. The charges against Ishak were typical of the spurious accusations the Mubarak regime directs against opponents: “Organisation of a gathering in collaboration with others with the aim to commit crimes of aggression against individuals, treasury and public property; the use of force and violence with the aim of affecting the performance of public authorities.”
Twenty-five academics organised by Kifaya travelled to Mahalla on 11 April to visit families of the injured. They were detained 20km from the city and prevented from entering. This suggests that the Mubarak regime is escalating repressive measures against its secular opponents besides repressing the Muslim Brothers.
Their successful strikes projected the Mahalla workers into the leadership of a massive upsurge of working class collective action, in which as many as 400,000 have occupied factories, gone on strike, demonstrated or taken other collective action since 2004. Industrial workers have inspired strikes or strike threats by professionals such as doctors, university professors and dentists. It is the largest and most sustained social movement in Egypt since the campaign to oust the British after 1945.
The main cause is the neo-liberal agenda that is creating a new Egypt for 10% of the population while disenfranchising industrial workers and white collar employees, especially those in the diminishing public sector.
Following Egypt’s Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme agreements with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Law 203 of 1991 stipulated that 314 public sector enterprises were eligible for privatisation. By mid-2002, 190 had been privatised. Then, in July 2004, a new government headed by Ahmad Nazif took office.
The economic portfolios were entrusted to western-educated PhDs or businessmen close to Gamal Mubarak. The government of Gamal Mubarak’s entourage initiated more sell-offs: A record 17 firms were sold in its first fiscal year in office.
This provoked fears about the loss of jobs and unwillingness of new private investors to pay long overdue social benefits, such as dividends in shares of firms owned by workers or contributions to retirement funds, which some public sector managers had neglected for as long as a decade.
Real wages have declined sharply, and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. A common estimate is that 40% of Egyptians live below the poverty line.
These conditions have impelled the unprecedented strikes and collective action since 2004. There were 74 collective actions in the first half of 2004 and 191 after the installation of the Nazif government in July.
Some 25% were in the private sector, more than before. On 2 March 2008, the liberal daily Al-Misri al-Yawm reported 222 strikes, factory occupations and protests during 2006. Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch reported more than 580 episodes of industrial action in 2007.
During 2007, strikes spread from the textile and clothing industry to workers in building materials, transport, the Cairo metro, food processing, bakeries, sanitation, telecommunications, oil workers in Suez, the Helwan Iron and Steel Mills, the National Cement Company in Helwan and many others. Private sector industrial workers were a significant part of the labour movement for the first time in many decades.
In summer 2007, the movement broadened to white-collar employees, civil servants and professionals. The single largest collective action was the December 2007 strike of 55,000 real estate tax collectors employed by local authorities. After months of demonstrations, they went on strike for 10 days and won their demand for wage parity with their counterparts employed directly by the ministry of finance.
The workers’ movement — even more than the demonstrations of the intelligentsia organised by Kifaya — has popularised a culture of protest and is contributing to consciousness of citizenship and rights far more successfully than the moribund secular opposition political parties or the most active NGOs.
Addressing a rally after his release from jail during the September 2007 strike at Misr, Muhammad al-Attar said: “I want the whole government to resign — I want the Mubarak regime to come to an end. Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable. Work is politics. What we are witnessing here — this is as democratic as it gets.”
This strike ended after the workers forced the government to negotiate with their elected strike committee; the tax collectors’ strike was ended likewise. These are significant political defeats for the state-sponsored trade union federation, which many hope are steps towards establishing an independent trade union. While there is not yet an adequate organisational vehicle to express this new culture of protest, it has radically undermined the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime.
— Joel Beinin is professor of history at Stanford University and at the American University in Cairo, where he is also director of Middle East studies.