An article on recent working-class struggles in Egypt by Sacha Ismail of Workers' Liberty
The class struggle in Egypt, rising since 2006, has reached a new pitch in the last few weeks.
On Sunday 16 February, more than 10,000 workers from the Misr (Egypt) Spinning and Weaving Company textile mill in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kubra, north of Cairo, staged a mass demonstration against prices rices, low wages and the regime of Hosni Mubarak, joined by thousands more working-class people from the town. The Mahalla workers' action was followed by similar, smaller-scale actions and protests by workers across Egypt.
The Mahalla factory, which employs 27,000 people, has been the site of huge workers’ struggles since December 2006, when nearly the entire workforce went on strike over withheld bonuses. In September last year, 15,000 workers were on strike again over profit-sharing, safety and bonuses, leading to a confrontation with riot police; and there have been struggles over issues including services at the company hospital and the provision of free bread to workers.
The difference this time is that the workers’ action has been much more directly political. In previous struggles, there were appeals to Mubarak’s government to intervene; on Sunday, according to California-based journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy (one of the very few sources about strikes in Egypt), workers shouted slogans including "Down, down Hosni Mubarak! Your rule is shit!" and "Gamal Mubarak, tell your dad we hate him!" (a reference to Mubarak’s son and heir apparent).
Hamalawy also reports that the Mahalla workers attempted, before being blocked by police, to organise a demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza: evidence of impressive politicisation, even if, like Hamalawy's blog, such actions are polluted by Arab nationalist chauvinism against Israel.
The target for the workers' action was the convening, in the context of big increases in the price of basic commodities, of the National Council of Wages, which sets Egypt’s minimum wage. The minimum wage has been held at not much more than £3 a month since 1984, despite soaring inflation; the Mahalla workers have demanded £112 a month, while the representatives of Egypt’s official General Federation of Trade Unions on the Council have been calling for £55. Including profit sharing, a Mahalla worker currently makes about £40 a month. The government has now announced that the rate will be raised to about £25, making further protests very likely.
Even on official estimates, a fifth of Egypt's population, 13 million people, lives below the poverty line. As another of the slogans from the Mahalla demonstration put it: "We are sick of eating beans while the rich eat chickens and pigeons".
When protests began in the factory on 16 February, the bosses once again called in riot police, but the workers stormed the gates and drove them off before marching into town.
This inspiring class struggle has enormous significance. The textile workers are in many ways the vanguard of the Egyptian working class. The December 2006 strike was followed by action in many other sectors – including rail workers, nurses, cement workers, binmen and tax collectors. Cairo’s leading independent and broadly liberal newspaper, al-Masri al-Youm, estimates that 226 sit-ins, strikes, hunger strikes and workers’ demonstrations took place in 2006; Hamalawy estimates 387 actions in the first six months of 2007.
This time, the Mahalla struggle has quickly been followed with action by other textile workers, by Suez Canal workers, train drivers, nurses and electricity company lawyers, as well as by working-class protests against housing costs. Meanwhile, doctors are threatening strike action on 15 March if the health ministry does not come up with a better pay offer; and real estate tax collectors, 55,000 of whom went on strike and occupied downtown Cairo last year, have been fighting to establish organisation independent from the official trade unions and discussing the possibility of an independent union.
This is the first time that large-scale workers’ demonstrations have raised clear anti-government slogans since the bread riots against the regime of Anwar Sadat in 1977. And the entry of the working class onto the political stage means that Mubarak is being challenged from the left, and not just by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose activists are also struggling against severe repression.
The Brotherhood remains what it always has been: a deeply reactionary and counter-revolutionary Islamist organisation. Yet it is also the biggest and best organised opposition force in Egypt; it does fight repression by the regime (for instance by mobilising thousands of students to protest against the detention of academics at the end of February) and sometimes gives demagogic support to workers' struggles.
Nonetheless, according to Hamalawy, the Mahalla action was fomented not by Islamists but by left activists inside the factory (which is not to say that the Brotherhood has no influence among the workers, of course).
The growth of mass workers' struggles in Egypt signifies between by far the biggest Arab working class and a deeply oppressive regime which is one of the US’s key allies, receiving $1.3 billion dollars a year in military aid, for instance. It means that both Egypt and Iran, the largest economies in the Middle East, are wracked by class struggle – holding out the prospect, distant but real, of workers’ revolution to sweep away all the region’s ruling classes, whether pro or anti-US.
As Hossam el-Hamalawy put it in September: "During my phone conversations with the strikes leaders and activists inside the company, they always ask me if people in America and the world have heard about the strike." We need to make sure the world knows, and that its labour movements mobilise solidarity.
- Hossam el-Hamalawy's blog: arabist.net/arabawy
- LabourStart coverage of Egypt: www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/show_news.pl?country=Egypt