Workers’ rights in Egypt are harshly repressed under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal regime. There have been very few strikes in recent years. Workplace activists have been jailed, where torture is widely used. However, two large strikes in the past three months show workers beginning to take on their employers again.
Two thousand Alexandria workers went on strike in July at Lord for Industry and Trade, a company making razor blades and tools. The immediate issue was June’s wages being substantially lower than expected. The workers demanded a pay rise in line with the new national minimum wage of LE2400 a month (US$153), due to come into force in January 2022. They also demanded permanent contracts after years of rolling temporary contracts. Increased pay grades for specific tasks, a minimum profit share of LE2,000, and no victimisation of strikers were other key demands. The employer agreed to the wage rise, but 84 workers were fired after the strike.
On 19th September, over 2000 workers went on strike and started a sit-in at Universal Home Appliances Company, an electrical goods manufacturer in October 6th City, near Cairo. The workers had not been paid their basic wage for two months, bonuses were unpaid for five months and extra payments for poor safety conditions were unpaid for thirty months. Fifteen workers died in the previous three months and some lost fingers and had other injuries.
After starting the strike, the workers called on the government to intervene and uphold their rights to be paid for the work they had done. Instead, the army surrounded the factory. Three leading workers were seized in dawn raids on their homes on September 29th. They were referred to the Emergency Supreme State Security Prosecution, which ordered their detention on charges of “joining a terrorist group and spreading its ideas.” No government or privately owned legal newspapers have covered the dispute (as of October 8th).
Although the national minimum wage was increased in July, this was only for the private sector. Public sector workers have to wait until January for this rise. But the National Wages Council that sets the minimum wage is “taking into account the economic conditions of establishments that are currently unable to comply with it, and excluding them from that.” Many workers will find their employers blaming ‘economic conditions’ and continuing to pay poverty wages.
Since 2015 workers taking action to win decent pay and work conditions have been branded as ‘terrorists’, a crime for which penalties are very harsh. In 2020, the law was tightened further. The United Nations Human Rights Commission denounced “increasing practices of arbitrary detention with the heightened risk of torture, the absence of judicial oversight and procedural safeguards, restrictions on freedom of expression, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”
It was the growing workers’ movement in the years before the January 25th 2011 uprising that prepared the ground for the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Two million workers took part in 3000 strikes and industrial actions between 2004-10, the largest Middle East working-class movement for decades. Fearful of a workers’ movement rebuilding, the Sisi regime has recently tightened the law even further than that condemned by the United Nations.
Following five rail crashes in March and April this year, in which over 30 people were killed and 270 injured, the minister of transport and former army general Kamel al-Wazir blamed “sabotage” on terrorist groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Egypt’s railways have about five times as many serious accidents as Europe. Years of under-investment, lack of maintenance, management corruption and low-paid poorly trained workers are all factors. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned since 2013 but is a useful scapegoat for the regime to divert attention from its own failure to make the railways safe.
Last May, a new law was put forward which Sisi ratified in August. This allows any public sector worker to be dismissed if a member of a banned organisation. Article 1 allows all public employees who have “failed to meet their duties, as part of a bid to harm public services or the economic interests of the state” to be sacked.
“This article represents a trap for employees. It paves the way for any public servant to be punished for calling for or participating in a strike or in any independent trade union activities. According to this law, they would be failing in their duties and hindering production or the functioning of state services,” said Wael Tawfik, a member of the workers’ committee at the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP).
The Egyptian working class showed in the decade before Mubarak’s ousting that repressive laws, massive security forces, prisons and torture could not crush its growing strength as a class. Despite the chains with which Sisi’s regime tries to bind the working class, it will inevitably rise again. The lessons of 2011 show the need to build independent trade unions and a workers’ party. A socialist programme is needed to guarantee democratic rights by ending capitalist and senior armed forces officers’ rule. Public ownership and democratic workers’ control of all the major industries and banks must be the basis of socialist change, leading to transformation throughout the region.
Discussion of the programme and tasks involved at this stage will be restricted to small circles of activists working in dangerous conditions but is necessary to prepare for mighty movements to come.