Workers at the Ghazl el-Mahalla textile mill in Egypt staged a mass demonstration last Sunday, calling for the end of the US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak.
The textile mill is the biggest in the Middle East. Its 27,000-strong workforce has been instrumental in forcing the regime into making economic concessions.
The workers stormed out of their factory chanting, “Down, down Hosni Mubarak! Your rule is shit!” As they spilled out into the Nile Delta town they were joined by up to 10,000 local people.
The protest inside the factory began by demanding a rise in the national minimum wage. The demonstration was called the day before the National Council for Wages – the government body in charge of setting the minimum wage – was due to convene for the first time since the mid-1980s.
The minimum wage in Egypt has been held at £3.26 a month since 1984 – while inflation has rocketed. The workers are demanding the government raise the minimum wage to £112 a month.
The protest was organised in secret by left wing activists in the factory. Bosses called in police in riot gear. At this point the workers stormed the gates and drove them away.
They marched through the streets waving loaves of bread and chanting, “We are sick of eating beans while the rich eat chicken and pigeons.” Others chanted against Mubarak’s son and heir, “Gamal Mubarak, tell your dad we hate him!”
Kamal al-Fayoumi, a union organiser and activist in the unofficial textile workers’ union, told the crowds, “We are demanding social justice for all workers in Egypt. We want all the resources shared equally between workers and peasants, and not for this government of businessmen.”
Hosni Mubarak’s regime is a key US ally in the region. Last month hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip poured into Egypt after demolishing the border fence built by Israel. Mubarak had sealed the border as part of a US-Israeli siege on the Palestinian territory intended to destroy Hamas – the resistance movement that won the 2006 elections.
Attempts by Egyptian security forces to ailed after they were confronted by Palestinians and resistance fighters.
Images of Egyptian riot police beating Palestinians were beamed across the Egypt, fuelling angry protests in the capital Cairo. Mubarak was forced to back down and begin negotiations with Hamas.
Now the struggle has shifted back into the Egyptian working class.
Sunday’s demonstration marks a deepening of the wave of industrial struggle that began in Ghazl el-Mahalla in December 2006.
That strike over bonuses set the standard for a wave of similar disputes, including those of rail workers, nurses, cement workers and tax collectors.
The Sunday protest also marks a shift in the tempo of the struggle. In previous disputes Mahalla workers fought over local economic demands and made appeals to Mubarak to intervene against factory bosses.
The chants against Mubarak and his family indicate a political crystallisation of the current movement. This demonstration was the first time since bread riots in 1977 that national demands have been raised in mass street demonstrations.
This current wave of struggle began with the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in 2000, which metamorphosed into 30,000 strong anti-war protests in Cairo on 20-21 March 2003.
The demonstration, known as the “Tahrir Intifada” after the square in the heart of the capital, broke Mubarak’s regime of fear.
The resistance to war and neoliberalism is transforming the movement for change inside the Middle East.
Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist. Go to » arabist.net/arabawy