Egypt: Mahalla workers’ victory a sign of future struggles

Independent workers’ organisation and socialist programme needed

Twenty three thousand workers at Egypt’s largest factory, Misr Spinning, in Mahalla al-Kubra, went on strike on 9 October. They demanded payment of their bonuses that were withheld by management of the state-owned company. Twelve thousand workers occupied the factory during the day, with 4,000 during the night. After three days, management caved in and workers returned to work with pay for the strike days.

The state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation misrepresented the workers’ demands as being for their monthly salary, when they are demanding the quarterly bonus agreed earlier this year. They were paid the second instalment in August, only after management backed down just eight hours into a strike and sit-in. The workers have demanded the dissolution of this union and dismissal of the company chairman.

Mahalla workers have a reputation throughout Egypt for militancy, since the great 2006 strike and the 2008 uprising in the city, the first major workers’ movements against former dictator Mubarak.

Strikers attacked

They are not the only workers to have taken strike action since Morsi was ousted and the military-backed government took power three months ago. A number of strikes broke out in August but were met with severe repression by the security forces.

Two strike leaders at Suez Steel were arrested after armoured cars surrounded the factory and security forces violently broke up a sit-in. The leaders were released after an intervention from the new Minister of Labour, Kamal Abu-Eita, former president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. But a further four strike leaders had their homes searched by police a week later. A strike at Scimitar Petroleum was also forcefully ended and a number of strikers briefly arrested, charged with breaking laws and threatened with the sack.

An arrested steel worker said, “In our earlier protests, [the employer and security forces] had claimed that we were feloul [Mubarak loyalists], then they claimed we were communists seeking to destroy the company and destabilise the Egyptian economy. In reality we are non-affiliated workers. We are not feloul, communists, or members of the Brotherhood. Prior to these clashes, we were chanting for [Armed Forces General Commander Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi so as to show the security forces that we are not political opponents of the regime.” (Mada Masr 27.8.13) Experience is teaching workers the reality of the new regime, behind which big business continues to rule.

Generals and former union leader condemn strikes

When massive demonstrations against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government rocked the country for days after June 30th, Sisi and other army generals used them to install their own government. The generals were supported by some leading trade unionists, such as Abu-Eita, Nasserists and activists including from the Tamarod movement. The millions of workers who demonstrated were not organised together as a class, acting for itself and reaching out to all other poor and oppressed layers in society. Crucially the lack of an independent mass workers’ party, with a socialist programme, was absent from the situation.

Now in power, Sisi has linked workers’ protests with the Muslim Brotherhood. “Don’t give anyone the chance to interrupt your work,” he said. “Let’s all work, let’s build our country and let’s move forward. This is what we need to do…Tell those neighbours, please no more. If we can do this, we will effectively contribute to avoiding bloodshed and casualties. Moreover, we will help quell this sedition. And again, don’t let anybody interrupt production because this is another means of tearing the country down.”

The union leader, Abu Eita, said, “Workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production.” He said this when still president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, days before his appointment as a government minister. However, some EFITU council members denounced his statement, made without consulting them.

There were few strikes in September, after the military and security forces’ repression of August’s strikes, Sisi’s warnings and Abu Eita’s exhortations. There is a yearning among many Egyptians for stability and security after almost three years of upheaval. Continuing bloody repression of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, while seemingly supported by many, are also intimidating for workers and their families who want to protest.

Muslim Brotherhood crushed today – workers’ movement threatened tomorrow

Nevertheless, the government has been wary of pushing workers too far at this stage, concentrating first on crushing the Brotherhood. Eleven privatisations made under Morsi have been reversed and an increase of the minimum wage from LE700 ($101 US dollars) to LE1200 a month in 2014 announced, although only for public sector workers. LE1200 was the demand in 2008. Price rises since then mean it should now be at least LE1500 for all workers.

While attacks on the Brotherhood continue, with demonstrations fired on, leaders imprisoned and the organisation banned, an outright attack on workers’ organisations and rights has not yet been launched. Nevertheless, journalists have been attacked and one labour lawyer, a prominent member of the Revolutionary Socialists, was arrested in September but later released.

The government is preparing to a resist a new wave of strikes and protests in support of workers’ justified demands. The security forces’ ruthless and bloody methods used on Morsi supporters will be used on workers and youth in the future.

Mubarak-era repression returning

A new law instructs protest organisers to ask permission from the police 24 hours in advance. Requests must include the location, route, start and end times, the protest issue, its demands and the organisers’ names. The law also forbids sit-ins, road blocking or “negatively affecting the life of other citizens”, including “obstructing their interests”. This obviously includes factory and business owners!

Governors in each governorate should decide a buffer zone of 50-100 metres between protests and presidential headquarters, government buildings, courts, police stations and foreign embassies. Demonstrators are banned from entry to these places to sit-in or set up platforms.

Breaking this law would be punished by imprisonment and/or fines between LE50,000-100,000, while holding a protest without permission would be fined by LE1,000-5,000. This is a return to Mubarak’s repression.

On 30th September, dozens of sacked trade union activists occupied Abu Eita’s Ministry of Labour office after they were attacked by members of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Ironically, Abu Eita led a long sit-down protest of property tax collectors outside the same office that led to the establishment of the first independent trade union.

An unelected ‘committee of 50’, supposedly representing many sectors of Egyptian society, is currently preparing the draft constitution that will eventually be put to a referendum. The draft constitution empowers legislators to regulate industrial action, as did the Muslim Brotherhood’s constitution. Although the Egyptian Trade Union Federation is represented in this committee, the newly formed independent trade unions, now over two and a half million strong, are not. Between 2006 and 2012 an estimated three million workers took part in three thousand strikes. The ETUF only supported one strike in the past 15 years!

Egyptian capitalism in crisis – socialist revolution needed

The generals and big business understand that workers will move into action again. Inflation doubled to 10% in the eight months from December 2012 to August 2013. The total number of nights spent by tourists in Egypt decreased 40% in the year to July 2013, causing many job losses. Many factories have closed – more than 4,500 according to the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services. Middle Eastern economies continue to be hit by sluggish recovery in Europe and continuing instability at home.

Having seen their power in removing Mubarak and Morsi, workers and youth will increasingly ask why they still have a government that is continuing the economic policies of these ousted leaders, despite giving a few crumbs to workers at this stage. Life remains unbearably hard for millions while a tiny elite grow ever richer.

Although many still support General Sisi, he will prove as staunch a defender of the ruling class as his predecessors. As this becomes clearer to workers and middle class people, small farmers, students and the urban poor there will be renewed searching for an alternative. After the failure of right-wing political Islam, there is great potential for socialists to build support for an independent working class party and link this to the need for a socialist programme. The independent trade unions and the workers’ committees linking trade unionists in different factories that have emerged in Sadat City and 10th Ramadan City near Suez, are the base from which this could develop. But if the opportunity is not taken to advance a clear socialist programme, political Islam may re-emerge in a new more populist form.

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