It began in Egypt’s biggest factory in December with a strike of 27,000 textile workers. Then it spread to other textile mills across the Nile Delta.
Egypt’s biggest strike wave in decades is spreading like wildfire. A new generation of workers, many in their 20s and 30s, have taken the lead.
Now this movement is challenging the state-backed unions, and raising political demands about democracy, corruption and repression.
Often the strikes are short, winning victories after occupations, hunger strikes and confrontations with the hated state security forces.
No sooner is one strike settled than another breaks out.
This is Egypt’s winter of discontent. In the words of one strike leader it is the beginning of the “revolution of the hungry”.
This strike wave hits at the heart of the dictator Hosni Mubarak’s new economic policies.
Since the early 1990s Mubarak, one of the US’s major allies in the Middle East, has implemented neoliberal economic policies backed by the strong arm of the state.
Far from turning Egypt into an economic powerhouse, the price hikes, wage cuts and attacks on social welfare are driving an already poor population into greater misery.
The Egyptian currency has lost half its value, while the privatisation programme is leading to the closure of factories.
Undeterred by economic failure, Mubarak told the nation on 26 December that he was recommending 34 changes in the constitution that would unravel gains made by Egyptian workers in the 1950 and 1960s.
Mubarak announced the changes would “not only aim to rid Egypt of socialist principles launched in the 1960s, but also seek to create a more favourable atmosphere for foreign investment”.
The economic policies would be coupled with limited democratic reforms, but as with the benefits of the neoliberal programme, these reforms were an illusion. Mubarak conceded limited changes while he concentrated more power into his own hands.
After the speech Egyptian bosses sought to test the resolve of their workers. The first battle in this war had already taken place in the town of Mahal el-Kubra, north of Cairo.
In early December textile workers at the Ghazl el-Mahal factory arrived at work to discover that their annual two month public sector wage bonus – that supplements their meagre £22 a month wage – had been cut.
Shocked, they approached management and the official union factory committee and were told that the bonus would only be paid to government employees.
A group of young militants on the morning shift walked out. As each shift arrived at the factory gates they voted to join the action. A huge rally of 20,000 workers took over the centre of the town, and after a brief confrontation drove out the security forces.
For five days mass rallies and defiant speeches broke the state of fear in the town, and by the time news of the strike reached Cairo, factory bosses had backed down, offering a 45 day bonus. The workers accepted the compromise and returned to work.
News of the Ghazl el-Mahal victory began to slowly filter around the mills and factories across the Nile Delta.
On Tuesday 30 January, 11,700 textile workers at the Kafr el-Dawwar factory walked out demanding a similar deal. By the Sunday the strike became an occupation.
Kafr el-Dawwar strikes a deep chord for generations of Egyptian workers. This was the factory that was at the heart of the revolution in the 1940s and 1950s.
The elite that rule Egypt fear the symbolism of the factory. In 1984 and 1994 security forces swamped the town to crush strikes, opening fire on workers and their families.
This latest strike would test the nerve of the government and the resolve of the new movement.
That Sunday night the security director at the company attempted to negotiate with the workers, but was turned away. The next morning state security thugs took control of three factory gates trapping over 8,000 workers inside.
Outside, 2,000 mainly women workers faced down the security forces and attempted to get food into the factory. The confrontation turned into a major demonstration.
Soon the strike spread to two other factories in the town. Management at the nearby Artificial Silk factory caved in immediately, while the el-Beda factory bosses offered a 21 day bonus. Some workers accepted and returned to work. Others remained on strike.
As the demonstration in Kafr el-Dawwar grew news began to filter through that a similar strike in Zefta near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria had won. Jubilant workers marched from factory to factory to celebrate the victory.
A statement from the Workers’ Coordination committee in the town said, “The workers broadcast an obituary of the management and trade union committee and chanted slogans demanding the 45 days bonus.
“Receiving the news of their colleagues in Zefta they celebrated the victory, chanting, ‘Strike until death. Strike until payment.’”
The workers in Zefta struck as soon as they were told they would only receive a 21 day bonus. Management ordered factory security guards to run the machines, but they were forced to back down after the workers threatened “to escalate the protest”.
Worse was to come for the bosses. On their return to work, Zefta workers told management they had until the end of the week to extend the deal to the sister factory in the city of Tanta or they would reoccupy the factory.
Workers at Ghazl Shebben el-Kom saw their chance to challenge a deal to privatise their factory. Three thousand out of 4,000 textile workers occupied their plant the day the new Indian owners were due to take over.
They had been promised a 140 day bonus for hitting production targets set in the run up to privatisation.
The new owners announced that they were not bound by the old deal and offered a 45 day bonus “as a loan”. Furious workers took control of the plant, refusing to allow the new engineers in to inspect the machinery. One hundred workers launched a hunger strike.
By Thursday of last week the strikes at Ghazl Shebben el-Kom and Kafr el-Dawwar had won.
As word of the strikes spread across the country other groups of workers joined the fight. Workers at the Cairo poultry company struck demanding improvements in wages and conditions, with and danger money because of the risk of Avian flu.
When the company refused their demands, their colleagues in the agricultural sector and the fodder factory, both in el-Saff outside Cairo, went on strike.
The next day truck drivers blockaded tollgates after learning that the government had quadrupled the toll. Quarry workers joined the truck drivers when news came that riot police were on their way. By the afternoon the increase in toll charges were reversed.
The truck drivers’ action comes on the heels of a near nationwide strike by rail workers, Tora cement workers and a major strike at a hospital in Cairo.
A victory in one strike fed the confidence of another group of workers as the militancy crossed from public sector workers to private sector workers.
The strikes have openly challenged the regime. The limited economic demands are growing over into political demands.
Struggle for democracy
Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since 1981, crushing all opposition under military laws implemented since the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat.
But his reign has been challenged over the last few years by a growing democracy movement. The movement has survived severe attacks, and determined resistance has met each wave of repression.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 over 50,000 people occupied the main square in Cairo. The Tahrir Intifada, as it was called, broke the climate of fear pervasive in Egypt and gave birth to the Kifaya movement.
Kifaya (Enough in Arabic) drew in people from across the political spectrum into a united movement against the regime.
The campaigns against the war, US imperialism and for the liberation of Palestine grew into demands for change at home.
Their defiance gradually corroded Mubarak’s rule of fear. In one of the most brazen incidents, a group of women were sexually assaulted on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate by state security thugs, during a protest over an amendment to the constitution.
The outrage at this attack spread across the country. Over the next few months more groups began to openly defy the government.
Other opposition groups, such as the popular Muslim Brotherhood, would take the brunt of the repression.
Its members faced continuous harassment and jail. This and vote rigging robbed the movement of a chance to win a majority in the parliamentary elections.
Senior judges revealed the extent of this and openly defied the interior ministry. Late last year Egyptian bloggers broadcast horrific footage of a policemen sexually assaulting a suspect.
These political campaigns began to seep into the streets and the factories.
In 2005 workers at an asbestos plant occupied their factory over working conditions. Many of the workers had contracted life-threatening diseases and they no longer feared the state security. Their occupation was popular.
Peasants of the Nile Delta rose against plans to reverse land redistribution. Daily battles with landlords quickly spread to become major confrontations with the state. The generation radicalised by earlier struggles re-emerged in the villages. Although now much older, they were no less militant.
The fight for land rights galvanised political opposition against the regime. The defiance in one part of the country would embolden another section.
The political struggle spurred on economic struggles, and the economic struggles pushed the political struggle.
The movement breaking out across Egypt has many echoes of the 1905 mass strikes in Russia studied by the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.
These strikes began because of economic reasons, but they soon began to take on a political form and challenged the Tsarist dictatorship.
Luxemburg wrote, “The economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle.”
Any fundamental challenge to the regime in Egypt has great significance for the Middle East as a whole. Egypt is the most powerful Arab country, with the biggest and most militant working class.
They have a power that terrifies Egypt’s rulers, who have helped prop up the current imperialist set-up in the region.
One of the Egyptian strike leaders in Mahalla said, “We carried out a very civilised strike, similar to any democratic struggle happening anywhere in the world.”
A revolution that sweeps away the Mubarak regime, will also bring huge change across the region.
A fight for the union
As the strike wave spread across Egypt, workers from Mahalla converged on the government run General Union for Textile Workers in Cairo to confront union officials.
That morning the state security warned workers that they would face “trouble” if they attended the meeting.
Around 200 workers defied the threats and boarded buses for the capital, only to find government supporters attempting to block their entrance. But the intimidation failed.
Once inside, the workers confronted shocked officials.
Said Mohammed el-Attar, one of the strike leaders presented a petition signed by 13,000 Mahalla workers demanding the impeachment of the factory committee.
Attar declared, “We gave our management three days notice before the strike began and we did not accept any salary for those three days as a form of protest.
“It was a successful sit-in, but we never saw you there. You were sitting with management in their offices, and we didn’t see you once.
“In fact, we didn’t see a single person from our supposedly elected union for three days.”
To cheers he pointed at the officials and said, “We workers put our faith in you and you tried to sell us out by siding with our enemies. Now we are taking back that trust.”
The militants gave union bosses an ultimatum, “Our union is illegitimate. If the leaders are not impeached we will all leave the union and form our own independent union.”
Hossam El-Hamalawy is a socialist activist in Egypt. Go to www.arabist.net/arabawy
The organisers of the Fifth Cairo Conference are calling for delegates from unions and Stop the War groups to participate in the event from 29 March to 1 April 2007. For more information go to www.stopwar.org.uk email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7278 6694.