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Egyptian Strikes: More than bread and butter

Feature by Hossam el-Hamalawy, May 2008

What impact has the recent strike wave and protest had on Egyptian society? Egyptian revolutionary socialist Hossam el-Hamalawy argues that the struggles of the working class are central to the growing confidence of the opposition movement to dictator Hosni Mubarrak

The mass demonstrations and strikes that have swept Egypt over the last year have transformed the opposition movement. For decades Egyptians lived in fear of the regime - opposition activists were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured, and strikers gunned down - now this has changed. The two days of rioting in the textile mill town of Mahalla al-Kubra recently have shaken the regime. The Mahalla intifada - as it is now called - is part of a wider phenomenon engulfing the country. We are living in an era of growing militancy.

Today's protests have their roots in the movement in solidarity with the second Palestinian Intifada that erupted in 2000. This triggered the biggest demonstrations in the capital, Cairo, and nationally, since the 1977 bread riots. That rebellion was brutally crushed, but its shadow continues to haunt the US backed regime of Hosni Mubarak. Young students were at the heart of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations. One of the slogans raised during the period was "The road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo." These protests spilled over into protests against the regime. People started to ask, "Why is our government not doing enough to help Palestinians? Why is the regime supplying energy to Israel?" (Egypt is Israel's main gas supplier.)

These small protests then developed into an anti Iraq war movement that resulted in two days of mass protests of up to 50,000 in Cairo during 2003. Protesters burned pictures of Mubarak alongside those of Western flags. The government responded with mass arrests. The anti-war protests broke the taboo surrounding criticisms of the regime. Workers were suffering in the factories, but also seeing television pictures of the protests in downtown Cairo. This has had a revolutionising impact on people's psyche and given them more confidence to move later.

Everything changed on 7 December 2006. Egypt's prime minister Ahmed Nazif - a neoliberal and big supporter of structural adjustment programmes - promised public sector workers a bonus to cover rising prices of basic commodities. When the government stalled payment of these bonuses, workers in Mahalla struck for three days demanding he make good his promise. The majority of garment workers in the company are women. They shamed the men into action and together they occupied the factory. The police attempted to put the factory under siege, but failed to break the strike. The victory in Mahalla triggered the biggest and most sustained wave of strikes in Egypt since the end of the Second World War. Mahalla always sets the tone for working class politics in Egypt. If Mahalla is on the rise the labour movement will be on the rise. If it loses this means a downturn in the movement.

Militancy

Virtually all the textile mills along the Nile Delta in the north went on strike from December through to the spring of 2007. The militancy spilled over to other sectors. The cement workers went on strike, followed by the railway drivers - who blocked the trains by sleeping on the rails. Cairo tube drivers lowered their train speed in solidarity. In all of these struggles the victory in Mahalla always resonated.

Back in the 1990s using the word "strike" was unimaginable; it was considered old fashioned. Now it's on everyone's lips. In Egypt we have a proverb: "If you want to get something from the dog tell him 'you're my master'." Now people say, "If you want to get something from the dog, tell him we're staging a sit-in." This tells you something about the change in political culture.

In the 1990s there was a general fear of organising, and arguments about working class struggles were not welcome. The main pillar of the labour movement, the textile industry, had been decimated by years of neoliberal restructuring. In 1976 the estimated number of blue collar workers in the spinning and weaving sector was roughly half a million. This had dropped to 209,000 by the turn of the century. That's why the left in Egypt are surprised to see the strongest resistance to the regime today coming from textile workers.

Now the working class has proved itself, the impact on the opposition is clear. On 6 April 2008 opposition groups got together to discuss how to make solidarity with a new strike called by Mahalla workers over the national minimum wage. Some called for a general strike, others for small local acts of solidarity. The general strike call was ambitious and unrealistic, but it signalled a big shift, as many inside the opposition have not had faith in working class struggles till now.

The strike on 6 April was a watershed. The government panicked and flooded Mahalla with state security forces. Across the country opposition activists were rounded up and solidarity action was crushed. The planned strike was abandoned, leaving the government to crow about how they won the day. But at 4pm that day a spontaneous demonstration broke out in the centre of Mahalla. Egyptian police opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas, but the demonstrations grew to over 40,000. Many of the Mahalla kids were chanting "Palestine style" as they threw rocks: "The revolution has come. The revolution has come." The police went berserk, killed at least two people and rounded up hundreds.

These political and economic protests are now being fuelled by the rising price of food. Egyptians today have turned to bread when they once ate things like macaroni and rice. This has driven the price of bread even higher. Fights have broken out among those queuing for bread - with at least 15 killings in queues in the last two months. This shortage is feeding a growing sense of desperation. When the police announced last month in Giza that they had discovered a stash of Molotov cocktails and weapons, they thought it belonged to a terrorist group. They then discovered it was just ordinary citizens arming themselves to get bread. The regime is panicking. Mubarak has sent in the army to start baking bread and open new bakeries. People have come out on the streets. They have nothing to lose any more if they can't find anything to eat.

I have been a socialist for ten years. I remember in 1998, when we would be voted off coordinating meetings for pro-Palestinian protests for talking about Mubarak too much. If you chanted "Down with Mubarak!" you would not necessarily find many people with the courage to repeat it after you. Now you find ordinary citizens, not political activists, chanting "Down with Mubarak!" and setting his pictures alight.

The Muslim Brotherhood was originally blamed by the regime for the strikes, which was ludicrous because historically it has never enjoyed support among the working class. The Brotherhood is the largest opposition force in the country but its base of influence is the professional middle classes and the lower middle classes as well as some sections of the elite.

However, it has expressed support and solidarity with the working class. There are increasingly factions within the Brotherhood who would prefer a more militant confrontation with the regime, and more coordination with the secular opposition. But they do not have a clear economic agenda that can address the problems of neoliberalism, privatisation and low wages - they have little to say to the striking workers. Nevertheless some of them are being drawn to the left.

It has become clear that small protests in downtown Cairo are not the place to be any more. If you want to be taken seriously about bringing down the regime you have to look at ongoing strike waves in the provinces.

These strikes will continue because the economic conditions that sparked them still exist. And the strikes are not just about bread and butter issues. They include a great level of political sophistication. When you strike in a dictatorship, against state owned management, you know you will be confronted by state backed trade unions, that your factory will be surrounded by state security troops who might kill or kidnap you afterwards, and torture you or abuse your family. So to strike at all is a political decision. But you can see the economic consciousness turning into political consciousness. Mahalla strikers carried banners saying "Down with the government", while chanting against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Now they call for a rise in the minimum wage, chant against the president, his son and heir, Gamal Mubarak, and the police. This is what German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote about in her classic 1905 book, The Mass Strike. The situation in Egypt today is a classic application of how economic demands spill over into political demands which in turn feed economic demands. Workers and strike leaders in those factories have put forward demands for independent legal unions.

The accumulation of all of these factors means Mubarak faces a big challenge to keep the insurgent working class down. In the 1980s and 1990s he got away with shooting down striking workers because we were going through an industrial downturn then and people were afraid. But now, when one factory goes on strike, you find other factories, if not striking in solidarity, issuing statements of support. Our independent media has been reporting on the events, so workers in the textile sector know what happened to their brothers and sisters in Mahalla and elsewhere.

Those who fought the police during the Mahalla uprising were mainly the urban poor, but because of the way capitalism has evolved in Egypt, class structures are sometimes elusive. This means that in one family you can have one industrial worker, his brother may be working in the informal sector, and their third brother could be the owner of a small plot of land that he farms with his wife and kids. So if the rioting was done mainly by the poor they will have relatives in the factories all over Mahalla and they are all angry.

The Mahalla workers have settled down for now, but people are still angry, and their demands have not yet been met. This struggle is not over.


For updates on the Egyptian struggle go to Hossam's website

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