Striking workers and youth fought with police. At least two were shot dead.
Striking workers and youth fought with police in the Egyptian city of Mahalla al-Kubra on April 6th and 7th. At least two were shot dead. The largest factory in the Middle East, Misr Spinning and Weaving, was occupied by hundreds of police.
Average household expenditure in Egypt on basic foodstuffs and services has risen by 50 per cent since January, according to the UN World Food Programme. Families are lucky if they eat meat once a month. Bread, the main item in people’s diet, has soared in price despite subsidies, due to the higher cost of imported wheat and corrupt profiteering. In an attempt to reduce prices President Hosni Mubarak cut custom duties on some imports on April 2nd.
The World Bank recently reported on the “satisfactory evolution” of the Egyptian economy with a growth rate of 7%, but pointed out that poverty had gone up since 2000. Life for workers and many of the middle class is not “satisfactory” but a desperate struggle. 20% of Egypt’s population of 78 million lives below the poverty line of US$2 a day, with another 20% hovering just above. Around 4% of Egyptians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said.
After the tremendous victories won by the 26,000 Mahalla workers in their December 2006 and September 2007 strikes, they are seen as the best-organised and most militant workers in Egypt. In late January they drew up a new list of demands. As well as higher wages, bonuses and allowances, significantly it included a rise in the national minimum wage from 35 Egyptian pounds (£E) to £E1200 (US$212) a month. It has not gone up since 1984! They announced a strike on April 6th if their demands were not met.
Several weeks later a group of campaigners against President Hosni Mubarak and his repressive regime called for a general strike on that day. The call was supported by some small opposition parties – Al Karama (Nasserist), Al Wasat (moderate Islamist), Democratic Front (liberal), Socialist Labour (despite its name, Islamist) – and Kefaya (‘Enough’ – a group of intellectuals, some youth and radicals). Tax collectors, 55,000 of whom had been on strike last December and broken from the state-run union, gave their support, as did Grain Mill workers. The general strike call spread rapidly through the Internet and text messages. 65,000 signed up to a Facebook site promoting the strike.
The Ministry of the Interior warned the day before the strike that there could be violence and that people should stay off the streets. Mubarak’s police and security forces have a well-earned reputation for brutality.
Textile Workers’ League
In the event, thousands of workers took strike action but a general strike did not take place. At Mahalla itself some of the workers’ leaders, who had played a leading role in the previous strikes, called the strike off on April 5th after the monthly food allowance was raised from £E43.50 to £E90 (US$16). The official trade union (part of the state’s repressive apparatus) and these former strike leaders called for workers to remain at work. A new organisation, the Textile Workers’ League, which emerged after thousands left the state-run union in March 2007, continued to call for action.
The strike was due to start at 7.30am but at 3am hundreds of plain-clothes security moved in to the factory and arrested anyone who tried to speak out. 150 workers were taken away ahead of the shift change. Despite this many stayed away from work.
Elsewhere, the strike at another large Nile delta textile factory, Kafr el-Dawwar, was called off as union leaders in the factory came under severe pressure from State Security, but hundreds of workers demonstrated before the start of the morning and afternoon shifts. 60% of the workforce did not turn up at Tora Cement. Those who did work took part in a one-hour protest. More than 50% of the workforce at nine grain mills did not show up for work. Nearly 3,000 workers at Samanoud Felt Fabric factory struck, as did some Ministry of Agriculture workers, while 500 river transport workers demonstrated.
Some professional workers, including doctors, lawyers and journalists, demonstrated in Cairo. Demonstrations of between a few hundred and 2000 students took place at several universities. Schools in Cairo were empty as parents kept their children at home. It is unclear whether this was in support of the strike, for fear of violence on the streets or because of a sandstorm. The streets were mostly unusually quite.
Wherever demonstrators tried to gather in Cairo and in universities they were immediately moved on. Riot police were pelted with glass bottles and pieces of wood in one clash with hundreds of intellectuals and activists at the Bar Association building.
Despite the limited numbers of workers who appear to have taken part, the numbers who did and the workplaces involved despite severe repression shows growing tension throughout society. More workers are prepared to take action. Professional workers, students and middle class youth are showing sympathy with them. Many are showing great bravery confronting Mubarak’s thugs.
The following day, April 7th, saw more battles with the police in Mahalla. A demonstration of 2,000 started at 4pm and grew to several demonstrations with reports of up to 40-50,000 involved. Chants went up for the release of those arrested the previous day and against the government. Police used loudspeakers, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to order people home, finally clearing the streets by10pm. 300 were arrested.
The government must have feared demonstrations in Mahalla would continue to grow, spread to other cities and perhaps escalate. Their worst nightmare would be an Egyptian ‘colour’ revolution, where power moved towards mass movements on the streets, as in Lebanon and a number of former Soviet republics, but this time with the working class playing a dominant role. The very next day Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif went to the factory and announced a bonus of 30 days wages! "We know Mahalla is suffering and you have passed through many crises," he told workers.
Workers in the hall cheered Nazif, but many remained sceptical about his promises. "What Nazif has said, we’ve heard it all before, what’s new? They really have no idea how we suffer here," said one factory worker whose monthly wage of $34 is not enough to feed his four children.
April 8th was also election day for 52,000 council seats, postponed from 2006 to allow a crackdown on any opposition. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) successes in the 2005 election, Mubarak changed the constitution so that future presidential candidates need nominations from 10 councillors in each of 14 provinces. This rigs the next contest in favour of the next NDP candidate, widely expected to be his banker son, Gamal.
A huge campaign of repression was waged against the main (illegal) opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In the run-up to the election 800 MB members were arrested and 10,000 were prevented from standing as candidates. Failing to get their candidates on the ballot paper, the MB called for a boycott of the election.
90% of seats had just one candidate – from Mubarak’s ruling National ‘Democratic’ Party (NDP). Even so, there were widespread reports of ballot rigging. Democratic rights campaigners estimated that only 2% turned out to vote. However, in Mahalla eight NDP candidates withdrew on election day, clearing the way for candidates from other small parties, no doubt to defuse tension.
During the build-up to the 6th April strike, the MB leadership was concentrating on trying to get its candidates onto ballot papers. As in previous strikes, they gave at best luke-warm support and made no attempt to mobilise support for independent working class action. There are reports of criticism from some of its student members at this lack of support.
Since the strike, there have been hundreds of arrests, including Kifaya leader George Ishaq, along with 50 other members of that group. Demonstrations have continued outside Mahalla police station demanding the release of those held.
Kifaya and others have again called for a general strike on May 4th, Mubarak’s 80th birthday. April 6th shows that to build a general strike takes more than text messages and Facebook postings, important though these are in spreading support, especially amongst youth. Meetings and rallies need to be organised in factories and offices, with measures to defend organisers from security forces. Committees of struggle should be formed – if necessary operating clandestinely – to prepare for a general strike and build up the support.
These meetings should build support for a programme of demands: a living wage with increases linked to price rises, jobs, free healthcare and education for all. Linked to these should be demands for the right to organise independent trade unions accountable only to their members and the right to strike; the right to demonstrate and assemble freely, and organise political parties; for free elections to a democratic parliament that could carry out measures in the interests of the working class and poor.
A general strike that brings the country to a halt, even for one day, challenges the capitalists’ right to rule. It potentially poses the question of working class power and how it can emerge victorious in a struggle against the ruling class.
A socialist Egypt
Capitalism means growing poverty for Egyptian workers, millions of whom are literally on the breadline. Meanwhile the ruling class live a life of luxury, paid for from the mouths of workers and their families. The demands for decent living standards and democratic rights must be linked to a socialist programme of public ownership and democratic workers’ control of the big companies and banks, so that the economy can be planned by – and in the interests of – those who create Egypt’s wealth. A socialist Egypt would inspire workers across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond to take similar action.
The task ahead for workers and youth is to analyse the lessons of recent events, draw up a revolutionary programme for socialist change linked to today’s understanding of the mass of workers, build a party to campaign for this programme and win the support of the mighty Egyptian working class.