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Egypt: Workers impose a new agenda

By Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka

The road from the airport to the hotel shows the story: modern buildings partly conceal dilapidated, crowded structures that seem on the verge of collapse. Ancient jalopies chug along as if by inertia, while the latest luxury models zip past them. Huge billboards advertise multinational corporations. All this goes side by side with centuries-old mosques of breathtaking beauty, witnesses to a time when Egypt was the centre of Islamic culture — not just another third-world country offering the world cheap labour for exploitation. This was my first encounter with Cairo. Love at first sight.

I wasn't there as a tourist. What brought me to Egypt with my colleague, Samia Nassar, was the wave of strikes which, since December 2006, has been shaking the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In 2007 there were 580 strikes, demonstrations and protests, involving between 300,000 and 500,000 workers. The number for 2008 is likely to be more than twice that, reflecting enormous hikes in food prices.

We spent three packed days, talking from early morning to late at night with representatives of political parties and workers' organisations. One name cropped up again and again: Mahalla al-Kubra, the textile city, epicentre of the new labour movement.

With half a million people, Mahalla sits on the Nile Delta 120 kilometres north of Cairo, and includes most of the textile plants. For example, the Misr Weaving and Spinning Company, founded in 1927, employs 27,000, making it one of the largest factories in the world. Its workers — in particular the women — started the first, now famous strike of December 2006. Neither it nor any in the wave that followed were government-approved—all were illegal.

Mahalla, December 9, 2006. The first in the wave of strikes, involving more than 20,000 workers. Photo by Nasser Nouri. (Creative Commons License.)

One of the biggest strikes occurred in September 2007, when the workers at Misr Weaving temporarily took over the plant and established an independent security force to prevent the entry of management forces. They demanded bonuses that had been promised in December but not delivered. They demanded the dismissal of the CEO, who, they said, had defrauded them: the plant had made big profits but had not given them the share agreed on in December. They demanded removal of regime toadies from their Workers' Committee. They made gains on all three counts.

Why does Mubarak yield at all to the demands, despite the illegality of the strikes? He's scared that the effect of the textile strikers might spread to other industries. Egypt's workers are too numerous and desperate. More than 40% of the country's 80 million people live under the UN poverty line of US$2 per day. Consequently, the rise in world food prices is perceived here as a mortal threat. Mahalla's response has led the way. Its textile workers, Egypt's best organised, called for a new strike to take place on April 6.

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People from other cities rallied in support. Using Facebook, SMSs and blogs, a group of 70,000 youngsters ran a campaign called ``Stay home!'' — stay home, that is, from work, university or shopping on April 6. People did stay home. The streets of Cairo were noticeably quiet on April 6. Various political parties attempted to hitchhike on the campaign and proclaim a general strike — even a civil revolt. The workers warded off these premature calls.

The regime's plainclothes police anticipated the disturbances, entering Mahalla three days before. They occupied the troublesome factories, waited for the employees and escorted them to their machines, threatening any who did not work with imprisonment. After the company added a carrot to the stick, promising wage hikes, the workers deferred the strike. Nevertheless, demonstrations began in the late afternoon of April 6, the number of protesters rising to 20,000 or more, including workers, their families, the unemployed and people waiting on bread lines. They chanted against the government's price increases and police brutality. At least three demonstrators were killed by police fire, dozens were wounded and hundreds arrested. Confronting the police, the demonstrators demanded release of the prisoners.


Mahalla, April 7, 2008. Demonstrators outside the police station demand the release of prisoners, including many children, who were arrested during protests the previous day. Photo by Per Bjorklund.

When Samia Nassar and I arrived in Egypt almost three weeks later (April 24), Mahalla was tense, the police were in occupation and we could not get in. We talked with activists in Cairo, who were still mulling over what had happened.

The origin of the workers' strikes may be found in the government's 1991 decision to globalize. After signing agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the regime began to privatise factories, banks, hotels and even those retail chains that until then had been under government ownership. The attempts at privatisation that took place between 1991 and 2002 were inconclusive, however, and from 2002 until 2004 they were frozen. Then Mubarak appointed Ahmad Nazif as prime minister, and he gave the process an energetic push. Already in his first year, Nazif privatised 17 firms. He continues doing so today.

The cotton and textile industries belong mostly to the public sector, an inheritance from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Misr Weaving and Spinning Company has not been privatised yet, although the workers are very concerned about this possibility: they fear that it would lead, as elsewhere, to dismissals. Their protest focuses on other issues too, especially the low wages and the hikes in food prices. Another complaint concerns their official union. The Workers' Committee of Misr Weaving belongs to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which they criticise for its cozy relations with Mubarak's National Democratic Party. There are courageous attempts to create alternative workers' committees within the plants at Mahalla. These committees, though independent, find support among political parties and movements, including some of the people we met.

Take, for instance, the issue of salary. A senior worker at Misr Weaving earns about $80 per month, including bonuses, fringe benefits and overtime. The United Nations, as said, defines poverty in Egypt at $2 per person per day. Since an Egyptian worker supports, on average, 3.7 persons, a salary of $80 per month means $0.72 per person per day. Faced with the prospect of the April 6 strike, the company agreed to raise the basic monthly pay for workers at all levels, but even if this agreement is fulfilled, the very best-paid workers at Misr Weaving (those with college degrees) will earn — after bonuses — only $180 per month, which is still far below the poverty line ($224).

The textile workers are among the worst paid in the public sector (this sector has 6 million people, in a workforce of 22 million), but the others are also in poverty. We heard about doctors, for instance, who moonlight as taxi drivers. In the private sector, the pay is slightly better, but job insecurity is high and conditions are miserable.

Until December 2006, most public-sector workers refrained from rocking the boat, preferring job security at low pay over the uncertainty of privatised firms. Now they can no longer hold back: the overall cost of food has increased by 26% in the last year. Prices of bread and grains have risen by 48%, fruits and vegetables by 20%, meat by 33% and chicken by 146%, bringing people to the point of explosion.


Mahalla, April 7, 2008. Photo by Nasser Nouri. (Creative Commons License.)

Among the leaders we met were members of the Workers' Coordinating Committee for Trade Union Rights, formed by various leftist organisations. It gives counsel and guidance to striking workers. We also met people from the Tajammu Party, the Nasserist party al-Karama, the Solidarity Committee with the Agrarian Reform Peasantry, Doctors without Rights, Engineers against Oppression and others.

I will not conceal the excitement we felt when we sat opposite the veteran leaders of Egypt's left who patiently and modestly answered our many questions. Ala Kamal, who volunteered to organise the meetings, was astonished to find that people were ready to talk with us. In Egypt this cannot be taken for granted. We were representing, after all, organisations in which Arabs and Jews work together, namely the Organisation for Democratic Action (our political party) and the Workers Advice Center. In the last decade the ``Anti-Normalisation Movement'' in Egypt has cultivated a hostile attitude not merely toward Israel but even toward the Arabs living there, lumping us together with the Zionist camp.

From the very first meeting we could sense hints of this attitude. After we'd made it clear that we'd come to express solidarity with the Egyptian workers, we were told by a veteran leftist who asked to remain anonymous: ``Your task won't be easy. Personally, I'm a communist and an internationalist, and I'll be happy to talk with you, but the violence used by Israel recently, and the dominant national and Islamic discourse, have sown confusion in the ranks of the left. In the past we were more precise. We distinguished between Zionism and Judaism. Today the situation is different.''

Nevertheless, the ice quickly broke at all our meetings. The common interest prevailed. This was no accident. The awakening of the workers has ushered in a new dialogue of solidarity. We found general agreement that the struggles which began in Mahalla, and which are spreading to new sectors, amount to the birth pangs of a labour-union movement.

This movement is spontaneous. It unites around concrete demands for economic rights, such as salary hikes and freedom of organisation. It is not dominated by any of the existing political forces, including the left. Natural leaders are emerging.

A new dialogue

Saber Barakat, a leading figure in the Coordinating Committee, told us: ``The results of the privatisation policy have been devastating for the workers and the poor. Between 1996 and 2006, 750,000 workers were pensioned off, each for a one-time payment of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds [$3700 - $5500]. At the end of the 1990s, the regime even began offering the feudal lords the lands that Nasser had confiscated. Between 2003 and 2005, many of the poor peasants were expelled from their lands because they couldn't keep up various payments. They were left without livelihood. Having no choice, they drifted into the cities, living on the margins, a thing that has added to the unemployment and suffering.''

Cairo, April 2008. Left to right: Samia Nassar and Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka of WAC-Ma'an, with Saber Barakat and Muhammad Abed al-Salam.

Privatisation has turned out to be a boomerang, because as soon as the workers understood they had nothing to lose, the barricade of fear was broken. Hamdi Hussein, one of the labour leaders at Mahalla, met with us in Cairo. He said: ``From 1994 until December 2006 the labour movement was frozen. These years saw no cadres develop with political awareness or with the energies needed to organise a strike. But everything changed in December 2006. A new phenomenon appeared: militant workers, though lacking political background. Many women stood out among them. In general, they belong to no organisation or party. There was a need to start from scratch, to create active committees with the aim of educating the workers, giving lectures and organising leadership courses.''

Saber Barakat added: ``Since the first years of this decade we have thought about building independent labour unions. The Coordinating Committee is to some extent an implementation of this idea. It was founded in 2001, well before the wave of strikes. I myself left the Steelworkers' Union after eight years as its general secretary. I had reached the conclusion that unions like that were hopeless. We raised a cry for building democratic unions that would be independent of the ruling party, indeed of all political parties as well as businessmen. On the other hand, it's clear to us that the union will also need to cope with the problems arising from the lack of free speech.''

The workers' movement imposed a new political agenda. The struggle for power until now has been between the Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, the discourse has been national or Islamic. We heard about the suppression of liberal writers and about disturbances concerning the veil. Now, however, something new has happened. Ever since the workers raised their heads, there is no ignoring them. They have put themselves on the map.

The importance of the new labour movement consists in its independence from all the existing political forces, including the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and the left in its various branches. The working class has raised a new social agenda, which it has moved to the center of public discussion.

Until now the political arena could be summed up thus: the regime versus the Muslim Brothers. This equation tied the hands of the traditional left, such as the Tajammu. Not wanting to be associated with the Muslim Brothers, they often found themselves lining up with Mubarak.

The liberal Kifaya (``Enough!'') movement challenged this bipolar politics in 2004, when it went out to demonstrate against Mubarak's one-man rule. But Kifaya lost momentum in tandem with the lessening of American pressure to democratise. Kifaya reflected petit-bourgeois and intellectual strata that demanded, basically, political rights. The social-economic issue was not on its agenda. Kifaya was not conjoined with the day-to-day hardships of the population, although today it does support the new labour movement.

The advantage of this movement, in contrast, is that the demands for fair wages, for the right to organise, and for freedom of speech have the ability to unite all social levels — and not on the basis of religion, rather on that of a broad democratic agenda. This agenda suits textile workers, clerks, doctors and engineers — in short, all walks of life.

That is what frightens the Mubarak regime. It is why he has mobilised all his forces to put down the new labour movement. He understands that Mahalla al-Kubra has become a symbol for Egypt as a whole. Nevertheless, in the interest of his own political survival he cannot ignore what is happening. He has been forced to return again and again to the economic situation. On May 1, accordingly, he promised to raise salaries in the public sector by about 30%. Fulfillment may be another story.

The Muslim Brothers too have been surprised by the force of the labour movement. After trying to downplay the events of April 6, even announcing they would not take part in the strike, they have had to backtrack. Now they claim to be leading the movement!

The workers see globalisation as an economic and political problem, while the Muslim Brothers view it, through their ideological prism, as a cultural one. Globalisation is bad, in their eyes, not because it privatises firms and impoverishes workers, but because it represents the West, infidel values and permissiveness.

Precisely for this reason, the regime prefers the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose religious worldview doesn't threaten the foundations of the economic order and cannot unite the whole people behind it. Moreover, the Brotherhood is radically anti-democratic. It presents no alternative to the capitalist regime and privatisation. Further, the regime uses it to frighten people about Western values, democracy among them.

Because the Muslim Brotherhood approves the existing economic order, the workers see it as part of the problem. We heard the following from Bashir Saker, a representative of the Solidarity Committee with the Agrarian Reform Peasantry: ``They are with the bosses against the workers, they are with the feudal lords against the peasants, and their propaganda plays a role that causes demoralisation in the farmers' resistance movement.''

A chance for the left

The awakening of labour has surprised not just the regime but also the various leftist movements. The Egyptian left includes a broad spectrum of national Nasserites and socialist organisations. They have acted behind the scenes, but never as an organised force. Of the many leftist groups we met, none denied this fact. On the contrary, they readily agreed.

The Communist Party is outlawed, but 30 years ago Anwar Sadat established a party called Tajammu and announced to the leftists that it would be theirs. Legality had its price, however. The Tajammu became ever less attractive and less relevant in the public eye. This showed, for example, in its electoral decline from five seats in the year 2000 to just two in 2005. (The ruling regime has 311 seats and the Muslim Brotherhood 88.) The party newspaper, al-Ahali, dropped in circulation from 120,000 to 30,000. But the latest events on the labour front have opened new horizons. The Tajammu will continue as a legal party, but some of its members, with this new field to work in, have gone underground and re-organised as the outlawed Communist Party.

More important are socialist organisations that have chosen to remain outside the Tajammu because of the latter's closeness to the regime. They are active today in the Coordinating Committee, and they are trying to build leftist parties with legal status.

There is another encouraging sign as well. Until now, in the absence of a workers' movement, the section of the left that sought to distance itself from Mubarak had no population to work with, so it limited its activity to supporting the Palestinian national movement. In the year 2000 it backed the Intifada, and especially Hamas, which it saw as leading the resistance. Now, however, the workers' struggle has made a new approach possible, neither national nor Islamic. It is opening a third, internationalist alternative. Since the start of the awakening, the labour movement has provided the left with its natural environment, and there is the feeling that leftist forces are again on their feet.

The new labour movement in Egypt has put the working class on the map, both locally and in the wider Arab world, which suffers from similar economic, social and political conditions. The echoes from Mahalla have penetrated the world as a whole. That is the movement's most important achievement to date. It has shown that the choices in the Arab world need not be confined to Islamic fundamentalism or secular dictatorship.

[This article first appeared in Challenge magazine <>.]

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