Will Egypt’s Workers Rise Up Again?
By Jess HillFebruary 15, 2012
Why is Egypt’s military regime trying to scare journalists away from the factory town of Mahalla? Because its workers inspired last year’s revolution — and they have the power to start another one.
For Egypt's military rulers, last week's violent demonstrations in Downtown Cairo were nothing out of the ordinary. But plans for a general strike had them in a panic.
On February 11, to mark the first anniversary of President Hosni Mubarak's abdication, activist groups and independent trade unions called for a national strike and acts of "civil disobedience". At the top of a list of demands: immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, followed by presidential elections.
The state went into overdrive. The ruling military council announced it would deploy tanks and soldiers across the country. The military-appointed Prime Minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, said calls for civil disobedience were part of a plot to "overthrow the state". And on the eve of the strike, Egyptian State TV broadcast a statement from Egypt's ruling generals. Invoking the now tedious "foreign hand" bogeyman, they warned of "conspiracies hatched against the homeland … whose aim is to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns and destruction spreads."
State-controlled media maintain enormous influence in Egypt, and these messages had their intended effect. On the day of the strike, an Australian journalist, Austin Mackell, his Egyptian translator, and an American student were mobbed and verbally abused in Mahalla, the heartland of Egypt's labour movement. Local police arrested them and the local activist leader they were meeting with, Kamal el-Fayoumi. Police soon presented witnesses (including one eight-year-old boy) who claimed they had been giving cash bribes to get people to strike, and inciting youths to cause vandalism and chaos.
In the police station, Aliya Alwi, the Egyptian translator, overheard one of the witnesses say, "We finally get to do something for our country."
The group was released from police custody 56 hours later. El-Fayoumi was released without charge, but charges of incitement still stand against the other three, including the Australian. And Egypt's public prosecutor says they are banned from leaving the country until the investigation is completed.
This arrest is the latest play in a cynical campaign, orchestrated by the military, to convince Egyptians that foreign spies are to blame for the country's unrest. Given the whims of Egypt's legal system, it's impossible to predict what will happen next.
But one thing is clear: The army is terrified of the power that an angry, united Egyptian workforce could wield, and they don't want the media to cover it.
Hisham Kassem, former publisher of the influential independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (The Egyptian Today), recently outlined the army's predicament at a public talk in Cairo. A workers' revolution would pose a much greater threat to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), he said, "than people setting buildings on fire."
"The revolutionaries have pretty much lost their leverage over SCAF," he said. But if the workers mounted a truly national strike, "it would bring SCAF to its knees, and they would be forced to negotiate."
In Egypt, violence talks, but money walks.
EGYPT'S WORKERS ALREADY CAN lay claim to one scalp: that of former president, Hosni Mubarak.
At a symposium discussing the general strike at the American University in Cairo on Sunday, renowned journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Hossam el-Hamalawy reminded students what happened in the final days before Mubarak's departure last year.
"While this revolution has been described by many as the Facebook revolution or the youth revolution, I think most people here know better," he said. "It wasn't us in Tahrir who toppled Mubarak."
By the first week of February, says el-Hamalawy, it was clear that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square couldn't succeed on their own. "We were all saying that if the working class doesn't step in, we are all screwed."
Then on February 9, the Public Transport Workers announced they would strike until the demands of the revolution were met. In a city of 20 million people - most of them reliant on public transport - the impact was immediate: Cairo ground to a halt. In the two days that followed, tens of thousands of workers across Egypt walked out on their jobs.
Not all joined the chorus for the President to step down - their rage was largely directed at corrupt managers close to the regime, who take enormous salaries while paying their workers just enough to stay alive. Workers demanded a minimum wage rise from EGP35 (AUD6) per month to EGP1,200 (about AUD200). Their rage was captured in one of Tahrir's key slogans: "Bread, freedom and social justice."
On February 11, with Egypt virtually paralysed, President Hosni Mubarak abdicated. Joel Beinin, an Egypt specialist and professor of Middle Eastern history at Stanford University, agrees with el-Hamalawy. "There's no way to know for sure, but it's very likely the worker's strike played a substantial role in convincing the army generals that it was time to separate themselves from Mubarak."
Seven million Egyptians left Tahrir Square the following day, and haven't returned. But strikes have continued, in factories, hospitals and workplaces around the country. Before the uprising last January, there was only one recognised trade union, which was controlled by the government. Today, there are 240 independent trade unions - the first independent unions to be established since 1957 - and hundreds of thousands of workers have gone on strike during the past 12 months.
Despite this, Hossam el-Hamalawy says Egypt's revolutionaries are yet to embrace the workers' movement as a key flank of their movement. "There is a division in the activist and political community over the workers. They say these strikes are just over bread and butter issues, and even describe the workers as greedy, selfish and non-political."
El-Hamalawy says that reading is wrong. "If you are living in a country that bans the assembly of five people, and then you get 27,000 workers going on strike, you are breaking the emergency law. That's a political act."
In fact, says former newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem, if there is to be another revolution in Egypt, it will come from its labor force. "The poverty belt is a ticking timebomb," he says, pointing out that more than 40 per cent of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less. "If people begin to realise that the revolution hasn't made any difference to their wages, there will be a second uprising, and this time, Egypt's economy won't be able to absorb it."
And if Kassem is right about a second uprising, the factory town of Mahalla al-Kubra, home to Egypt's most rebellious workers, is a place to watch.
MAHALLA AL-KUBRA is located in the centre of the Nile Delta region, 110 kilometres north of Cairo. The Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, with 27,000 workers, is the biggest employer in town - and the biggest textile mill in the entire Middle East. Some 470 other textile mills employ a further 225,000 workers. According to Joel Beinin, the average textile worker in Mahalla earns a base salary of EGP400 per month (AUD62).
For decades, the workers of Mahalla have been standing up to the rulers of Egypt; many have been imprisoned, tortured, and some even executed. But it was a strike planned for April 6, 2008, that made Mahalla workers legends, and changed the course of Egyptian history.
Ahmed Maher is one of Egypt's most famous activists, and a co-founder of the April 6 Movement that started as a Facebook page supporting the strike in Mahalla. "We considered what happened in Mahalla a rehearsal for the revolution," said Maher, at the group's third anniversary celebration in Cairo last April. "We learned how to make a political event after that." The April 6 Movement is one of the key groups credited with getting Egyptians into Tahrir Square on January 25 last year.
Ironically, the famous April 6 strike didn't even happen. State Security Investigation officers entered the factory before the strike was to begin and pressured the workers' committee to cancel it. In response, the factory city erupted into two days of violent protest. Demonstrators set the then-ruling National Democratic Party headquarters on fire, and chanted slogans against then-President Hosni Mubarak - actions that were taboo back in 2008. In the protests, police killed three people, including a 15-year-old boy. Forty-nine of the strike leaders were tried before military courts, including Kamal el-Fayoumi (who was recently detained by police in Mahalla, and released). Twenty-two were convicted, and imprisoned for three to five years.
When Egyptians took to the streets in January last year, tens of thousands of Mahalla residents did too, defacing pictures of Mubarak in the public square and chanting, "We don't want him! Down with Mubarak!"
One year later, after a series of strikes, Mahalla's workers are still waiting for conditions to improve. "We are coordinating with others to establish a nationwide minimum wage of EGP1,200 [about AUD200] per month, to establish trade unions independent of state control, and to improve working conditions in all companies and factories," Mahalla activist Kamal el-Fayoumi told the Egypt Independent last year.
Longtime labor activist Hatim Tallima says it's just a matter of time before workers there strike again. "And if Mahalla says it will strike," he says, "it could act like a domino effect."
REGIME CHANGE IS SLOW IN EGYPT. When I applied last month for official documentation at Mugamma, Egypt's central government building in Tahrir Square, a framed portrait of Hosni Mubarak was propped up against the wall behind the press officer's desk. When I returned three days ago, the portrait had moved six inches to the right. Yesterday, it was gone.
"You don't just get rid of Mubarak one day, and wake up with a democracy the next - and certainly not a social democracy," says Stanford University's Joel Beinin.
Some small gains have been made. In June 2011, the government agreed to raise the minimum wage in the public sector to EGP700 per month. However, many workers say that wage rise is yet to be implemented, and is still well below the EGP1,200 that Egypt's workers are demanding.
If the military council cedes power to a civilian government in June as planned, Egypt's labor activists may be dealing with a new adversary. The Muslim Brotherhood advocates a free-market system, which is anathema to Egypt's labour activists, who say workers in the private sector are subjected to even worse conditions than those in the public sector.
"We believe in a very, very big role for the private sector," Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, told Bloomberg in July 2011.
"We are in a boiling situation in Egypt now," says Tallima. "These workers - specifically the most militant of them - they feel very much outraged. If the revolution's demands stop with the instalment of democracy, without changing the economic and social situation in Egypt, the workers will not accept it."