Socialist Worker

Egypt's workers defy repression in Mahalla

by Simon Assaf
Issue No. 2096

Workers in Mahalla rip up the image of Egypt

Workers in Mahalla rip up the image of Egypt's dictator Mubarak (Pic: Nasser Nouri)


Tens of thousands of Egyptians faced down murderous repression on Sunday and Monday in a historic show of defiance.

Egypt's ruling regime is one of the US's key allies in the Middle East. But it has been severely shaken by a movement from below the like of which has not been seen in the country in decades.

The clashes started on Sunday when security forces attempted to drown a popular strike movement in blood in what was soon dubbed Egypt's Bloody Sunday.

But crowds tens of thousands strong stood firm against the repression and ripped down massive portraits of Egypt's US-backed tyrant Hosni Mubarak.

The movement began with a call for a protest strike against inflation and low wages by textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla el-Kubra. Mahalla's strike was due to start at the change of shifts at 7.30am. Sunday is a normal working day in Egypt.

Mobile phone messages circulated around the country calling on people to stay at home, wear black and hang Egyptian flags from their homes.

The regime panicked and flooded the Nile Delta city with riot police, state security forces and thugs from the ruling party.

Armed with shotguns, tear gas, rubber bullets and electric cattle prods, they surrounded the mill on Saturday and began welding shut the factory gates.

Intimidation

Later that evening workers' representatives attempted to call off the action. They said that bosses and the state-controlled union had offered negotiations. But workers were set on facing down the intimidation.

At 3am on Sunday the police stormed into the factory and seized 150 workers ahead of the shift change. Security agents dispersed any group of workers who gathered inside the plant.

The intimidation stifled the attempted walkout, and a tense stand off began to develop at the factory gates. But sometime after 3pm a demonstration broke out in the town square. Up to 7,000 workers and supporters began chanting against price increases.

Mubarak's police opened fire killing four, including a 20 year old man and a nine year boy. Over 90 people were wounded.

The crowd responded by attacking police trucks. The police then fired on a bus full of workers setting it ablaze.

The street battles continued throughout the afternoon and evening. Workers withdrew into their neighbourhoods, showering the state security forces with rocks and bottles.

People set fire to barricades in the streets and chanted insults at Mubarak's son and heir, Gamal.

The police beat children. Hundreds of opposition activists and bystanders were arrested, including two key strike organisers, Kamal el-Fayoumi and Tarek Amin el-Senoussi. Lawyers who asked about the arrested were threatened by police wielding swords.

Other workplaces across Egypt attempted to stage similar strikes. A strike by textile workers in Kafr el-Dawwar was aborted following police raids.

But one witness said that while production was not brought to a complete halt, 'hundreds of workers demonstrated twice that day – before the start of the morning shift, followed by another one that was staged before the afternoon shift started'.

In central Cairo, Egypt's capital, security forces turned on a small crowd who were chanting, 'The strike is legitimate against poverty and starvation.'

As they surrounded the demonstration, residents showered the police with wood and bottles.

A strike and occupation by the Mahalla workers in December 2006 triggered a rash of strikes, protests and factory occupations across Egypt.

This year local demands have been transformed into a national call for a rise in the minimum wage. A one-day protest strike was called for last Sunday.

Tense

A democracy activist told Socialist Worker, 'Cairo is very tense. People are nervous as news of the ferocity of the police assault on Mahalla is seeping through.

'The government is claiming it thwarted a general strike. Although there were many calls for a general strike, this was not one of the demands from the textile workers.

'The government is claiming a victory. But far from it, tens of thousands stayed away from work and the demands of the workers still stand.'

The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition in the country, said that it would boycott local elections set for Tuesday.

Another mass demonstration took place in Mahalla on Monday. A socialist activist in the city reported that at 4pm 2,000 people began chanting against the government, price increases and police brutality.

The crowds grew to 50,000 and chanted, 'Gamal, tell your father we will fuck him.'

Some are calling it the beginning of the revolution, others the start of the Egyptian Intifada, or uprising. It is unclear where these demonstrations will lead, how long they will last, and if they will spread.

But on Sunday 6 April something changed in the Arab world's most important country.


Eyewitnesses to the intifada

'Mahalla has been witnessing an intifada. It's an intifada in the true sense of the word. You are talking about a war in the streets everywhere.' – Socialist activist

'Try to imagine the pictures you see of Palestinian towns under occupation. Mahalla is similar to that now. Soldiers, armoured vehicles, fire engines. The clashes ended last night. But everything may change in a second.' – Eyewitness

'You can feel there were support for the demonstrators among the citizens. Whenever police attacked the crowds, you found residents opening up their homes for those trying to escape.' – Journalist

'Children are throwing rocks, in a scene similar to the Palestinian intifada, against central security forces officers and soldiers, while chanting 'The revolution has come!'' – Eyewitness Gehan Sha'aban

For all the latest news go to » www.arabist.net/arabawy. For background on the situation in Egypt see the new International Socialism Journal, issue 118, out now – go to » www.isj.org.uk


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Article information

International
Tue 8 Apr 2008, 19:57 BST
Issue No. 2096
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