Three Days in Cairo: Egyptian Workers Impose a New Agenda


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 center of Islamic culture — not just another third-world country offering the world cheap labor 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’ organizations.  One name cropped up again and again: Mahalla al-Kubra, the textile city, epicenter of the new labor movement.

With half a million people, Mahalla sits on the Nile Delta 120 km 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.  One of the biggest 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 profits of 200 million but had not given them the share agreed on in December.  They demanded removal of regime toadies from their Workers’ Committee.  They won on all three counts.  The only thing they could not get was the right to create a labor union independent of the government.

Why does Mubarak yield so readily to the demands, despite the illegality of the strikes?  He’s scared to death. The workers are too numerous, organized, and desperate.  Other groups, such as the journalists or the political opposition, cannot quickly mobilize tens of thousands, as the textile workers can.

More than 40% of Egypt’s 80 million people live near or under the UN poverty line of $2 per day, so the general 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 organized, called for a new strike to take place on April 6.

The regime’s plainclothes police anticipated the disturbances, entering the city 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.  Hundreds were arrested.  Despite this systematic clampdown, demonstrations began in the late afternoon of April 6, the number of protestors rising to 20,000 or more (some claim twice that).  People chanted against the government’s price increases and police brutality.  Confronting the police, they demanded release of their prisoners.  At least two demonstrators were killed and dozens wounded.

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 eerily quiet on April 6.

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 privatize factories, banks, hotels, and even those retail chains that till then had been under government ownership.  The attempts at privatization 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 privatized 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 privatized 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 criticize 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 are supported by the political parties and movements whose members we met.

Take, for instance, the issue of salary.  A worker on the high end of the pay scale at Misr Weaving makes $180 per month after overtime pay and fringe benefits are figured in.  The UN defines poverty in Egypt at $2 per person per day.  Since an Egyptian worker supports, on average, 3.7 persons, he would have to make $224 to surmount the poverty line.  The public sector includes 28% of the country’s workforce (6 million out of 22 million), and the incomes here (as in much of the private sector too) are far below $224.

We also heard about doctors who moonlight as taxi drivers.  Until December 2006, most public-sector workers refrained from rocking the boat, preferring job security at low pay over the uncertainty of privatized 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.

Among the leaders we met were members of the Workers’ Coordinating Committee for Trade Union Rights, formed by various leftist organizations.  It gives counsel and guidance to striking workers.  We also met people from the Tajammu Party, the Nasserist party al-Karama, the Farm Workers’ Solidarity Committee, 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 organize 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, organizations in which Arabs and Jews work together, namely the Organization for Democratic Action (our political party) and the Workers Advice Center.  In the last decade the “Anti-Normalization 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 labor-union movement.

This movement is spontaneous.  It unites around concrete demands for economic rights, such as salary hikes and freedom of organization.  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 privatization 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 to 30 thousand 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 their margins, a thing that has added to the unemployment and suffering.”

عتصام عمال المنصورة-اسبانيا للملابس

Privatization 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 labor leaders at Mahalla, met with us in Cairo.  He said: “From 1994 until December 2006 the labor movement was frozen.  These years saw no cadres develop with political awareness or with the energies needed to organize 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 organization or party.  There was a need to start from scratch, to create active committees with the aim of educating the workers, giving lectures and organizing leadership courses.”

Saber Barakat added: “Since the first years of this decade we have thought about building independent labor 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 till 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 labor movement consists in its freedom 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 vs. 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 democratize.  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 labor movement.

The advantage of this movement, in contrast, is that the demands for fair wages, for the right to organize, 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 mobilized all his forces to put down the new labor 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 the First of May, 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 labor 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 globalization as an economic and political problem, while the Muslim Brothers view it, through their ideological prism, as a cultural one.  Globalization is bad, in their eyes, not because it privatizes 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 privatization.  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 a representative of the Farm Workers’ Solidarity Committee: “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 demoralization in the farmers’ resistance movement.”

A Chance for the Left

The awakening of labor has surprised not just the regime but also the various leftist movements.  The Egyptian Left includes a broad spectrum of national Nasserites and socialist organizations.  They have acted behind the scenes, but never as an organized 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 leftists, including “closet” communists, were permitted to establish a legal party called the Tajammu.  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 5 seats in the year 2000 to just 2 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 labor 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-organized as the outlawed Communist Party.

In addition, a wide range of socialist organizations have chosen to remain outside the Tajammu because of its 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 labor movement has provided the Left with its natural environment, and there is the feeling that leftist forces are again on their feet.

The new labor 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.

Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, a socialist that announced recently her campaign for the mayor of Tel Aviv, challenges the current Labour Party mayor Ron Huldai, who made the city a haven for the rich and pushed the poor workers and the Arab city of Jaffa to the margins. 

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