Spring wave of strikes and protests

Up to 5,000 angry demonstrators protested in Alexandria on Friday 25 June, after the brutal murder of a 28-year old man, 19 days earlier. Khaled Saeed was sitting in an internet café. His family said he was posting a video online showing police corruption, when two plain-clothes police dragged him out and beat him in an alley. He was declared dead at the scene.

The authorities tried a cover-up, claiming that Khaled had choked on a plastic bag of cannabis hidden in his mouth. They attempted to smear him as a drug dealer. This did not explain the smashed jawbone and bruising of his face and convinced no one. As protests grew, a second autopsy was ordered, which concluded that he had died “resisting arrest.” This also failed to stop the growing wave of protest.

After 29 years of ‘emergency laws’, allowing the security forces to do as they please in Egypt, anger is starting to boil over. One woman on the protest said that even if Khaled had been a murderer, the police should not be allowed to carry out capital punishment without a fair trial.

Khaled’s murder has parallels to the shooting of a 15-year old boy in Athens in December 2008, which sparked a huge wave of protests. Journalists noted that many on the Alexandria demonstration were people with no known record of political activism. Smaller demonstrations have also been held in many other cities. In Cairo, demonstrators were violently attacked by security forces.

Sit down protests

Two million workers have taken part in over 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations or other forms of protest since 2004. Throughout this spring a wave of strikes, sit-down protests and demonstrations swept across Egypt. Barely a day went by without reports of a new group of workers taking action over their grievances. For weeks, several separate sit-down protests were taking place outside government offices or the Shura Council (Parliament) building in Cairo. Textile and engineering workers, government office employees and people with disabilities were some of the groups involved.

Many had already been on strike and were protesting against their employers breaking settlements. One protesting worker told a journalist, “Can you imagine 20 months without pay? We also lack health insurance. Our situation is like the siege of Gaza."

The largest group were from the Amonsito textile factories in 10th of Ramadan City, where 1,700 workers had not been paid for two years since the Syrian owner of the company fled the country. After repeatedly failing to get the government or the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation to compensate them, the workers camped on the pavements around the Shura building for over two months. They organized lively rallies, were joined by their families and demanded that the government either nationalize the factories or pay them compensation.

Tanta Oil and Flax workers also called on the government to either pay them LE 45,000 (US $8,000) in early retirement pensions or renationalize the plant to put them back to work.

After a few weeks of the Amonsito workers’ sit-down, the government conceded, promising a LE 170million (US $30 million) compensation package - about three months’ salary for each worker for every year of service. But the money did not appear and the protest resumed.

In late April, the government caved in to the Information Centres workers’ demands and allotted LE100million (US$20 million) in back pay, bonuses and social and medical security benefits in the new budget.

On May 23, after two weeks on the pavement, frustrated Amonsito workers attempted to get into the parliament building. They failed to break through police barricades, so they regrouped and began to march on the federal bank a few blocks away to demand that the bank issue all LE170million that was initially promised to them. Police attacked the marching workers, forcefully breaking up the march and arrested seven. The next day, fearing that the movement was becoming too dangerous, security forces violently removed all other campers and closed the street.

Solidarity and donations from the public kept the striking campers going. Working people, despite their own hardship, donated food, blankets and tea. Taxi drivers, nurses, and textile workers, in different provinces, have also protested and been on strike over the past months, over pay and broken agreements.

Women have played an important role in these strikes and sit-ins, as nurses, textile workers, Information Centres workers, and as wives, daughters and sisters of strikers. Women now make up almost 40% of all employed workers. They have shown increasing militancy and confidence.

The government attempted to calm business anxiety that these strikes and protests threatened their profits. "It is not really part of a trend. Workers have their own demands and when some sort of solution for employer and worker is reached these protests do not develop further," said the Investment Minister.

But as the number of strikes and protests grows, more generalised action - mass protests and widespread strikes – could develop. Holding this back is the role of the official trade unions, which are part of the state machine. The leaders almost invariably side with the bosses.

The government allows the bosses to break agreements, pay poverty wages, and deprive their workers of medical insurance and holiday pay. Many state-owned industries have been privatised over the past few years. The new owners try to squeeze the maximum amount of labour from their workers for the smallest amount of pay. "I was happy working with the company when it was government-owned. But ever since it was taken over they’ve destroyed the company and made our lives hell," said one Tanta Oil and Flax worker.

Prices Rocket

The government forecasts economic growth of 5.2% this year, compared with 4.7% last year. Growth in the construction industry is expected to accelerate to 13.2% in the next year from 12.5% in 2010, while agriculture is forecast to expand 3.4% in both years. These figures could change if the world economy dips back into recession.

But growth does not mean better living standards for workers and the poor. The average government worker earns about LE 400 (US $70) a month. Around 40 % of all workers earn less than US $2 a day. A campaign has been launched for a LE 1200 (US $220) a month minimum wage by independent trade unionists and left-wing political activists.

Food and drink prices have reached record levels, shooting up by 21.2% in cities between March 2009 and March 2010. This March alone, meat and poultry prices increased by a record 3.1%, while water, electricity and fuels increased by an average of 1.3% and education went up 9.4%.

Egypt is facing mounting problems funding its healthcare system. The government is doubling monthly medical insurance fees to LE 8 (US $1.45). Hundreds of thousands of poor Egyptians are denied healthcare because hospitals refused to treat patients sent by the Health Ministry after it stopped paying treatment costs in December.

Mubarak challenged?

Against this background, the presidency of 82-year old Hosni Mubarak is finding it harder to stem the growing anger and frustration of workers and the poor. The protests over Khaled Saeed shows that fear of the regime is starting to lift. Workers who have been hit by police batons identify with other victims of the security forces.

Presidential elections are due in 2011, and it still seems likely that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, will stand. But even if he won a rigged election - and the regime has plenty of practice of running these - there is no guarantee that this former banker could deliver a strong government for big business. On the contrary, his election would probably spark a wave of protests against the ‘inheritance’ of the presidency. A mass movement could quickly develop, as exploded on to the streets after the 2009 election in Iran.

Like Iran, a new potential candidate for the presidency has emerged out of the establishment in the past few months. Mohammed El-Baradei is the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in which capacity he was seen to have stood up to the Bush Administration over the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He also has the advantage of having been out of Egypt for the past thirty years and so is untainted by the smell of corruption surrounding the Mubarak’s and their clique.

When El-Baradei returned to Egypt in February, having retired from his UN post, he was greeted at the airport by an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000. The National Association for Change (NAC) was then formed by a coalition of opposition movements from across the political spectrum agitating for political change in Egypt.

Since then El-Baradei has met leaders of the legal political parties, professional associations, some workers’ leaders and Muslim Brotherhood MPs (who in an unprecedented move have given him some support). He has travelled around the country, but also extensively abroad, to the frustration of some of his supporters. One leader of the April 6th Youth Movement said, “We can’t have an opposition in the transit lounge.”

In early June, differences emerged between some of the leading members of the NAC and El-Baradei. These were partly because of his strategy until then of meeting prominent leaders of existing organisations rather than trying to build support on the streets. Two weeks later he attended the Alexandria protest against the killing of Khaled Saeed, although he only stayed 20 minutes.

Democracy and Socialism

El-Baradei’s call "Together we will change" echoes Obama’s pre-election speeches, although without the oratory. He has supported the minimum wage campaign, but he is mainly talking about democratic change. This is vital for workers to help struggle for a living wage, health care, education and housing. But capitalism will not concede genuine free elections, the right to freely organise independent trade unions and workers’ parties, the right to strike and to demonstrate, without a massive struggle. The ruling class would quickly try to take these rights back again as a mass movement died down.

Workers will of course use any democratic rights won to step up their fight for decent living standards. The bosses were not prepared to allow reforms when the world and Egyptian economies were booming. They are even less likely to concede them now.

The battles for democratic rights and for socialist change are linked. Only when the major industries, banks and land are nationalised and democratically controlled and managed by workers and the poor, will real democracy be achieved in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

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