The Egyptian regime has unleashed a wave of repression on the industrial city of Mahalla el-Kubra following four days of riots and demonstrations.
The Nile Delta town rose in rebellion on Sunday 6 April in protest at rampant inflation, food price hikes and low wages.
For days locals battled security forces and riot police around the textile mill that has been at the heart of a wave of strikes that have lasted over a year.
Now the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a key US ally in the region, has sent in thousands of troops, police and state security forces to suppress the Mahalla Intifada – or uprising.
Police halted a solidarity caravan organised by academics from the capital Cairo. They were attempting to deliver medical supplies, blankets and food for the Mahalla detainees and their families.
The police have arrested hundreds of workers and their representatives, bystanders, and opposition figures from the left and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Among those seized in the sweeps are journalists who were covering the riots and George Ishaq, one of the founders of Kifaya (Enough) movement.
Ishaq was arrested in Cairo on Thursday of last week. Police raided his home, seizing files and a copy of The Butterfly’s Flutter, a book that charts the rise of the democracy movement.
Ishaq was released on bail, but hundreds of others have been given 15 day incarceration orders, or are still trapped in Mubarak’s jail system. Many of them are children.
The repression has succeeded in snuffing out the mass demonstrations at the moment, but the government is in a panic.
On the third day of protests Egypt’s prime minister Ahmed Nazif rushed to Mahalla to promise factory workers a wage bonus.
He told them, “We know Mahalla is suffering and you have passed through many crises, but it is through crises that men prove their mettle.”
Nazif announced that they would receive a bonus of 30 days’ pay and pledged to address their demands for better healthcare and higher wages.
But his promises were treated with caution. According to the Associated Press, one factory worker said, “We’ve heard it all before. What’s new? They really have no idea how we uffer here.”
Another added, “I understand why people are so angry. These are just our kids and they are rioting because they are depressed and frustrated.”
The concessions however have spurred other textile towns to up their pay demands.
Workers at the Kafr Dawwar textile mill are now demanding parity with the Mahalla workers. The workers, who have also been part of the wave of strikes over the past year, have rejected an offer of 15 days’ paid bonus.
Over the past year the price of cereals and bread has leapt by 48 percent in Egypt, fruit prices by 20 percent and oils and fats by 45 percent – leaving millions of Egyptians hungry.
Fearing that bread shortages could trigger more protests, the government has suspended all exports of wheat – Egypt is the world’s fourth largest producer – and dropped tariffs on imported food.
At the same time as the government faced riots in Mahalla, Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement, raised the spectre of another mass breakout of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip – creating a new political crisis for the regime.
Fearing that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would once again storm the Gaza-Egyptian border, the government stopped all food shipments to the Sinai towns and sent thousands of troops to guard the border.
Last January Palestinians broke the siege of Gaza when they demolished the border fence erected by Israel, which is policed by Egyptian troops.
The blockade was part of an attempt by the US and its allies to crush Hamas.
Mubarak fears that a combination of political and economic grievances could seriously undermine his regime.
Last week the Egyptian government raised concerns about the proliferation of political slogans that are being written on bank notes, while a campaign by the families of those arrested during the riots is gaining widespread support.
Meanwhile thousands of students at Alexandria university staged a protest last Sunday in protest at food price rises and the impact of inflation on academic books.
Students are also unhappy about the university’s decision to withhold exam results in lieu of unpaid fees.
Now campaigners have earmarked 4 May, the day of Mubarak’s 80th birthday, as a new day of protest. Egyptians have been asked to wear black to mourn the victims of Mahalla and show their disgust at Mubarak’s regime.
Egyptian socialists have issued a statement calling for global solidarity with their struggle. To read it go to » Solidarity statement of Egypt's Centre for Socialist Studies
To add your name to the statement, send an email message to [email protected]