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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007


Challenging neoliberalism

Strikes erupt in Egypt


IN THE last six months, Egypt has been rattled by a wave of workers’ strikes unseen in the country since the end of the Second World War. And for the first time since he came to power in 1981, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is facing a serious opposition movement.

Over the last two years, the number of strikes (which usually take the form of factory sit-ins or occupations since strikes are basically illegal) has been steadily rising. In 2006, there were at least 220 workers’ strikes, walkouts, and street protests.

Millions of Egyptian workers have seen their real wages and benefits plummet after twenty years of the neoliberal policies of structural adjustment and privatization programs pushed on them by the International Monetary Fund and the Egyptian business class. The economy’s shift from a predominantly public sector one, where workers enjoyed a relative degree of job protection, to a privatized, free-market bonanza for the rich and foreign multinationals, has led to rising unemployment (officially estimated at 13 percent), increasing levels of poverty, and simmering anger.

Toward the end of 2006, a strike by textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the industrial city of Mehalla El Kubrah in the central Delta region marked a turning point in the strike wave. Textile workers have been especially hit hard by privatization layoffs and buyouts. Capitalist globalization and its race to the bottom meant that Egyptian textile workers who were once relatively well paid are now making only 60 percent of what even low-wage workers make in India. Egyptian textile workers have a long history of militancy dating back to the 1940s, when their first unionization attempts began.

On December 9, 2006, 24,000 Misr workers struck and occupied their plant due to both fear that the plant might be privatized and end-of-year bonuses previously promised by the Egyptian prime minister would not be paid. A worker at the Al-Mehalla Textile Company told one human rights activist, “We carried on the strike because we couldn’t take it any longer. We produce a lot but get back very little. Our salaries have become so low we cannot even buy the clothes we manufacture.”
The strikers called on the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU, which is the only union recognized by the regime and is under its control) to fire the local union committee, which opposed the strike. As usual, the GFTU refused to support the workers. When the strikers realized that the police might be brought in to break the strike, they called on the local population for help. Thousands of men, women, and children surrounded the factory and protected the strikers. In less than four days, the strikers won their demand and cashed the promised bonuses on their first day back to work.

The victory at Mehalla gave a degree of confidence to workers in other parts of the public sector, but also in the non-union private sector, to take militant action. There has been at least one new strike almost every day since the beginning of the year. Textile, metro, subway, brick, iron, steel, and other workers have either struck over wages or against privatization.

Women workers play an active role in the strike wave. At Mansura-Spain Garment factory, where 75 percent of the employees are women, 284 workers occupied the plant to protest the sale of the company to a private bank without guarantees that wage and benefit levels would be maintained.

The Mubarak government responded with a combination of repression and concessions. It closed two offices for the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, which organizes labor support and stands for an independent trade-union movement. The government also accused the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization, which is the largest opposition group, of inciting the strikes. While it is true that some members of the rank and file of the Brotherhood support the strike, the rich and upper-middle-class leadership remains more cautious. Moreover, one of the big strikes during this wave took place at a factory owned by a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Concessions offered in response to a number of the strikes that took place after Mehalla have given workers more confidence that if they fight, they can win. In an unprecedented move, President Mubarak himself publicly acknowledged the strike wave in his annual May Day speech where he asked workers to avoid strikes and seek legal venues to solve their grievances.

Despite the setbacks over the past few decades suffered by the labor movement in Egypt (the largest and most industrialized country in the Arab world), the recent strikes prove that millions of workers have the energy and also see the urgency of building a new militant movement.

The strikes were fueled by longstanding economic grievances, but they were also inspired by the demonstrations demanding democracy and an end to Mubarak’s twenty-five-year rule that have been taking place in the country for three years, small though they might be. Furthermore, millions of Egyptians are angry at the complicity of the Egyptian government in doing nothing about Israeli and U.S. aggression and arrogance in the Middle East, and are inspired by the examples of resistance in Palestine and Iraq to that arrogance.

So while economic conditions gave impetus to the strike wave, in turn the strikes hold the potential of becoming more political. Egypt lacks a social-democratic reformist tradition that can channel and contain working-class anger, a situation that potentially makes the transition from economic to political strikes easier. A number of strike leaders from across the country are meeting and discussing coordination on a national level. A minority among the leaders is pushing the idea of an independent union federation as well as the necessity of democratic regime change.

In this context, the Left, including revolutionary socialists, is beginning to find opportunities to organize an audience for radical politics. Socialists and other leftists have collected funds for strikers and organized solidarity trips from the capital of Cairo to the strikers’ strongholds in provincial cities.

While the labor movement and the far Left could be starting to recover from decades of retreat, the challenges are serious but not insurmountable. A repressive and vindictive pro-business regime is obviously the main obstacle. However, activists and radicals have to also deal with a Muslim Brotherhood opposition that is pro-business, despite its criticisms of poverty and exploitation, and is also too hesitant to rock the boat by engaging in direct confrontation with the regime.

Yet, the good news coming out of Egypt is that the Washington consensus in this important Arab country could be entering into serious trouble at the hands of the largest working class in the region.

Mostafa Omar is a member of the International Socialist Organization and an activist in the Palestine solidarity movement in New York City.
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