Egypt: After Mubarak – Strikes and protests-Part1

Week of escalating worker’s actions

Following the removal of Hosni Mubarak, strikes and workers’ protests have spiralled across Egypt. This weekend, in a series of postings on, CWI members in Cairo give eyewitness reports of strikes and the demands of workers and opposition activists.

This morning, before sending this report to the CWI website on workers struggles in Egypt, news came of more than 20,000 workers of El Mahallah Spinning Company starting an open strike. They are seeking mainly the dismissal of the commissioner-general, the board’s chairman, the head of legal affairs and the head of security department at the company, accusing them for making the company lose 270LE million (Egyptian pounds = $46 million) during the last two years. The workers are also demanding the formation of an appointed board of directors to run the company until they elect a new board of directors, and for a “fair” (representative) trade union committee. They are calling for the settling of workers’ wages with degrees according to their qualifications. They are demanding the establishing of a new department for marketing and development. They are calling for the dismissal of counsellors and giving the chance for highly qualified young workers to be appointed into leadership positions; an increase in bonuses to 300%, for a meal allowance, for the implementation of a minimum wage at 1200LE ($203), for equality in distributing development incentive and retirement rewards, and for the return of all labour leaders from the company that have been dismissed or transferred during the previous years.

Also this morning, 3,500 Helwan Coke Company workers went on strike again, demanding mainly for changing the basic wage of newly appointed workers, equal to that of Iron and Steel workers, and rising retirement reward. Last week the workers went on strike seeking the same demands but they ended their strike after the chairman of board directors has promised to fulfil these demands. However, nothing had been happened, thus the open strike this morning.

The following report tries to cover the developments which have taken place and which have had a role in the outcome so far of the Egyptian revolution, focusing on the decisive role of the working class in their strikes and protests which have been flaring up all across the country. They have mainly been spontaneous actions by workers, many of which have been isolated making it hard for solidarity action to be planned. This report covers three strikes and discussions with workers’ leaders who appreciated the support of the CWI to their ongoing fight in defence of their class demands and for the continuation of the revolution.

No to the “transitional” government appointed by the army

New ministers “who enjoy the approval of society and represent all spectrums of political life” will be appointed for the now-vacant seats in the ministries of education, tourism, culture, and information. These will be announced in the next days after interviews with prime minister Shafiq. Shafiq, who in meetings over the last two days, has spoken about a “need to restore discipline to the streets through the full return of police forces”. He also said that would “tackle the necessity of providing basic commodities for citizens and the resumption of economic activities”.

The Supreme Military Council had commissioned Shafiq to lead a transitional period of six months during which the army will remain in power until presidential elections are held in September. Al-Beshry, a “moderate” Islamist thinker has been chosen by to head a panel commissioned to consider the constitutional amendments, one of the promises made by the army to protesters and opposition groups. Al-Beshry’s last occupation was vice president of the State Council, the body which was responsible for managing the administrative affairs of the judicial system under Mubarak’s rule. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood said that one of their former MP’s, Saleh, will be among the members of the panel. Saleh was formerly a member of the Egyptian parliament’s constitutional and legislative committees. The rest of the members of the panel will be judges from the Supreme Constitutional Court and other courts, as well as a number of law professors. The panel was reported to start its activities on February 16 at the Ministry of Justice headquarters, and up till the national referendum to be held in two months.

Opposition movement conquered by traditional and pro-capitalist parties

Different political groups have been demanding constitutional changes to safeguard fair presidential elections and for limited presidency terms of office. They also call for independent oversight over the electoral process. Over 70 activists have been detained and / or are still missing, with one release, that of Wael Ghonim who set up the original Facebook page calling for protests. He had been arrested on 28 January and was released before the stepping down of Mubarak and after being held blindfolded by the Egyptian security service for 12 days.

As the largely discredited formal opposition of the old era seeks to reposition itself as populist movements, and as the previously outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it will form a legal political party, younger groups are trying to build on their momentum by forming their own political vehicles. Many non-organised activists and Left groups, being naturally excluded from this process, are confused about what to do next. They have made various attempts to form their own fronts with latest being a “United Youth Front” alongside numerous other groups and coalitions, with every meeting involving many of them. Some activists have expressed that there is a sense of disorganization and divisions, although the discussions have been exclusive in some cases, but more open and democratic in others. Clearly lessons are being learned and ideas are being tested, although in most cases behind closed doors, and so far without involving the newly emerged youth and workers’ leaders from the magnificent revolutionary movement.

Many activists today, as concrete details of the generals’ “democratic” transition period are revealed, are seeing the military government negotiating with the traditional opposition forces and a few self-appointed activists like Ghonim, and feel that the revolution is at danger of being hijacked by the army, with the consensus of a section of the opposition who are implementing changes on their own. The current speakers in the name of the opposition do not represent even a fraction of those who participated in this revolution and engaged with Tahrir and other protests sites, let alone the mighty strike wave. There is already discontent that the forming of the Cabinet is led by the army, and is likely to involve the Muslim Brotherhood and other traditional opposition forces, which is described as lacking “public consensus”.

Activists increasingly complain about the army holding high-profile meetings with individuals such as Wael Ghonim and the 6 April youth movement founder Ahmed Maher. But this conscious step by the military is to appear receptive to “alternative” views, while trying to block any genuine revolutionary leaders and workers from playing an independent role in their political reform.

Many are now seeing the very well thought-out plan unfolding step by step from the military tops, who of course have done very well out of the political and economic status quo, with the help of some elements of the old regime and some small elements of the co-opted opposition. Clearly, the illusions which existed among a layer at the resignation of Mubarak and taking over by the army are now diminishing, as youth activists and workers are seeing remnants of the old regime re-establish themselves and guarding their privileges.

Military approved constitutional amendments are not enough for this revolutionary movement because most people want a completely new constitution that limits the power of the presidency. The elections to take place in a few months will involve appointed candidates representing the interests of the ruling class, unless activists and the Left turn towards workers in struggle today and help build a movement of the working class, small farmers, youth and poor. It has become increasingly evident that the working class is the only force to fully carry out the revolution, get rid of corruptions and start the transformation of society in the interests of the majority.

This development is scaring the regime, its representatives and its defenders, including the pro-capitalist liberals, as they try to lap together a government and make some minor concessions to avoid workers struggles linking up, forming their own alternative and continuing the revolution. Megawer, head of the corrupt pro-government Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), requested heads of unions to put a stop to any workers’ demonstrations at this stage. He also instructed them to immediately resolve any problems that workers face. A trade union head, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Megawer gave instructions to provide hourly updates about workers’ conditions and notify the Federation of any development of workers activity.

Reactionary role of the army tops

The military forces are taking a hard line on the recent wave of strikes. The ruling military council has called on "noble Egyptians" to end all strikes immediately. Workers are taking strike action all over the country to improve wages and conditions and cleanse institutions from corrupt bosses all of which are aligned to the old regime. Workers in the workplaces want to continue the revolution, to push out regime cronies and reclaim sold off companies and governmental institutions that have long been seized by the corrupt dictating state.

The industrial working class towns of Helwan and Hawamdiya, where workers have taken action against corruption and for better wages and conditions, the army has been guarding gates of factories in order to isolate the workers in struggle. They have been closing in workers and not allowing the media and others who have come to stand in solidarity to enter the factories. In the mean time, the masses of that town had been openly complaining that the traffic has become chaotic and unbearable, with state forces nowhere to be seen where they are needed.

The Class Struggle

In the last few days only, hundreds of thousands of workers in Egypt have carried out strike action or protests, showing the deepening of the revolution and raising class demands, which are in many cases being met by the regime with the aim of settling down the struggles which are spreading quickly. But these temporary measures will not be enough for many workers who have a long way still in their fight for better pay and conditions.

The Ministry of Transportation, in a big concession to workers, decided to tenure all temporary employees in the Egyptian Company for the Metro Management & Operation (ECMMO) and settle cases of staff members who received higher qualification while in service. This concession includes contract workers for more than one year, with those contracted less than a year ago receiving permanent appointments after passing employee training programs and tests. Privileges will apply to both temporary and permanent employees, according to the labour law.

On February 14, strikes were flaring up all across Cairo, a day after the Egyptian Trade Unions Federation (ETUF) had said (on the Sunday 13th) that it would schedule a meeting with PM Shafiq to “discuss labour problems and the future of syndicate activity in Egypt”. The ETUF board members agreed in their emergency meeting following "political developments in the country" that “trade union heads would compile a list of their demands and present it to the ETUF’s board, which will, in turn, present it to Shafiq”. But workers have since continued their protests and strikes with action spreading all across Egypt demanding better wages and an end to corruption.

Megawer, head of ETUF, is accused by workers of corruption and restricting syndicate activity due to his close ties with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. He had been exploiting his position as president of ETUF and chairman of the manpower committee in parliament, and has been combining his post as president of ETUF with his post as a member of the Board of Directors of Suez Cement Company.

The independent Trade Union for Real Estate Tax Workers, the first independent union in Egypt, organised a protest in front of the ETUF, demanding the resignation of Megawer along with the Federation’s board. The head union Kamal Abu Eita said: “The federation has become a center for fighting the activities of trade unionists. Now we are demanding an investigation into its corruption and demanding the resignation of its board and allowing workers to form their independent unions freely.

In the last couple of days, tens of thousands of workers who have protested or gone on strike have won their demands for pay rise and bonuses, but they have been too many to mention. Those victories on the one hand have shown the determination of the working class in getting organised as part of this revolution, and on the other hand, the fear by the regime that workers might want a bigger share of the their cake. The following struggles are only to mention a few:

•1,500 hospital workers in Kafr El Zayat who broke up their sit-in after their demands have been met and being: the removal of director of health, the dismissal of the hospital director, obtaining their financial dues, installing temporary employment.

•In Cairo, tens of workers at the Egyptian Company for Agricultural and Rural Development and Forestation workers gathered in front of the Ministry of Agriculture demanding the appointment of staff on temporary contracts. Workers said their wages range between LE 40 and LE 259 and some of them work on four-month renewable contracts.

•Workers at the General Authority for Veterinary Services protested in front of the ministry demanding the resignation of newly-appointed manager, Mona Mehrez, accusing her of corruption. She had been discharged from the Animal Health Research Institute after workers there complained about her corruption but she was shortly appointed as the head of the authority.

Helwan Textile Equipment Company

In Helwan, around 400 workers from the Textile Equipment Company went on strike on the 13th February. As a CWI member, I was there and spoke to the workers who welcomed the solidarity greetings and insisted on taking the website address. Their demands were all met on the same day and included an increase of incentives, annual profit shares, and the implementation of delayed promotions.

The workers had formed their own committee which wanted to speak to me in private inside an office, but the workers refused that I would be taken into a room and wanted to speak to me out in the open in front of the workforce. When asked about the revolution, many workers shouted simultaneously that they can now “breathe after the Facebook revolution”. When asked more about their role in it, they expressed their will to carry out their own fight inside the company and for their own independent trade union. They also told me in private and as individuals that they would like the whole regime to be toppled and not just Mubarak. They said that they target with their demands, the Minister of Industry and Trade, the ETUF, and the Textile Equipment Company with all its branches.

I left them discussing with their own committee about sending representatives for negotiations and the response from the workers standing around was “we will stay on strike until all our demands are met”. Later on that day, I was told over the phone that the board of directors in the company promised that all their demands would be met.

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February 2011