A new strike wave has the military regime in Egypt worried that the spirit of rebellion that gripped the nation is not yet snuffed out. Judith Orr and Anne Alexander report on a minimum wage fight with big implications
Military repression in Egypt has forced popular protest off the streets as the government tries to restore the old dictatorial regime.
The revolution is in retreat. But a recent outbreak of strikes by tens of thousands of workers shows that people can still resist even in the most difficult circumstances.
Up to 20,000 textile workers in Mahalla are taking action. Many earn as little as £45 a month. They are demanding the government keep its promise of a minimum wage of £105.
Thousands of Mahalla workers started sit-ins last week demanding the minimum wage and the sacking of Fouad Abdel-Alim, chair of the state?run holding company.
He promised them a bonus of two months’ pay in February but didn’t pay up. Government officials announced that they would pay the bonus just a few hours after the strike began.
Wael Habib, a workers’ leader in the factory and one of the founders of the independent union there, said this concession was not enough. “Since 2006 we’ve been organising successive strikes to demand our rights and improve our conditions,” he said.
“We changed regimes and governments and triggered revolutions. But every strike ended with official promises which were never met. This time we have to win our demands. We are waiting for real decisions—not promises they can ignore later.”
Kamal Abu Aita, former president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, made one of these promises. Abu Aita was appointed minister of labour last year. In July last year he toured TV stations offering concessions to workers’ demands for social justice, including a rise in the minimum wage.
These promises played an important role in winning support for the military after huge popular protests overthrew Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi. They helped to calm workers’ anger while the military set about crushing the Brotherhood.
Now workers are finding Abu-Aita’s promises were empty. Many hoped the new minimum wage would apply to all public sector workers.
Yet exemptions have whittled down the numbers who benefit. And private sector workers, who make up the vast majority of Egypt’s impoverished workforce, are excluded.
Kamal el-Fayoumi is another founder of the independent union of Mahalla workers. “Workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving sense the real danger to their future and the future of the company,” he said.
“The delay in responding to workers’ demands increases that sense of danger. What is the company trying to hide from us? We went on strike many times to change this situation and we will continue to exercise our right to strike until our demands are met.
“The bonus is not enough for workers to feel secure.”
Workers from the nearby Tanta Flax and Shibin al-Kom Spinning are fighting for the return of their company to the public sector. They organised a sit-in outside the Cabinet offices last week and plan to escalate their action next week. In a statement they added, “We expected the Cabinet to intervene and look urgently for ways to meet our demands after we began our sit-in yesterday.
“But this government turned out to be not much different to its predecessors, following the same policies favouring big business at the expense of the poor.”
The chants of Mahalla workers have been echoed in a rash of other strikes reported at other smaller textile factories across Egypt. After just two days the action forced the government to invest £516 million in the textile industry to improve wages.
But it isn’t only textile workers who are challenging the bosses and the military regime over the minimum wage. Over 800 drivers, conductors and other bus workers held a sit-in at Al-Agami garage in the west of Alexandria for the second day running on Thursday of last week.
One maintenance worker said their central demand was the implementation of the minimum wage. But they also want improvements in the bus fleet and spare parts. Another demand is for contracts for fixed-term workers who had not been given permanent jobs, as the law stipulates, after three years’ service.
Said Adel Gaber is president of the bus workers’ independent union. He said that the government allocated £1.6 billion to apply the minimum wage for six million workers, but in the end only 400,000 benefited.
Even some low ranking police officers have taken action demanding the minimum wage in the last week, though in some areas the demand was also for arms for all police.
Doctors, pharmacists and vets have taken part in a series of strike since the New Year over pay, conditions and the health care budget.
The government has been trying to dismiss these as having little support, but the doctors’ union said 50 percent of doctors took part in the action.
Nurses unions didn’t officially back the doctors’ strikes but 400 struck on Tuesday of last week Sidi Salem Central Hospital in Kafr al-Sheikh in the Nile Delta. They demanded the reinstatement of a promised 40 percent bonus that had been cancelled.
The outbreak of strikes has got the government worried. That’s why it pledged money to pay Mahalla workers’ bonuses so quickly.
But workers are angry at their treatment and at how little their pay and conditions have improved since the revolution began. The government’s offer wasn’t enough and they stayed out on strike.
Mostafa Bassiouny is a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt. He told Socialist Worker, “The fact that workers in Mahalla and elsewhere are on strike despite the security crackdown sends an important message to the regime.
“The Mahalla workers played a key role in previous struggles. While many other groups of workers focused on local issues, the Mahalla workers took up general demands.
“This helped to pave the way for the 25 January uprising by bringing together political and social opposition to the regime.”
Egypt has a massive working class with enormous potential collective power. It is this that continues to strike fear into Egypt’s ruling class.
Mahalla is an industrial city based on the Nile Delta. Its tens of thousands of textile workers have been the vanguard of the struggle in Egypt.
Their militant strikes from 2006 showed the possibility of defiance against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
When president Mohamed Mursi put his pro-military and
pro-business constitution to the vote in 2012, Mahalla was one of the cities that rejected it.
Today one of the strikers’ demands is the sacking of Fouad Abdel-Alim, the boss of the holding company that controls all the textile companies.
Workers have come up against him before. He was put in that post after a 2007 strike by Mahalla workers demanded and won his removal as chair of the Mahalla Spinning and Weaving Company.
Defend those who face repression
An international campaign to organise solidarity with Egyptian activists facing repression was launched last week.
Egypt Solidarity published its founding statement on Tuesday of last week to coincide with the third anniversary of the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
An estimated 1,000 people have been arrested since 25 January this year.
Khaled al-Sayyed witnessed brutality in police stations—and was himself tortured.
When he was brought to court he tried to show the judge his injuries. But the judge said he would only decide “whether to remand the suspect in custody”.
This state-sponsored crackdown has inspired leading trade unionists, academics, activists and human rights bodies internationally to launch Egypt Solidarity.
It calls for:
- The immediate release of those imprisoned for exercising rights to freedom of expression and assembly
- The repeal of Law 107 of 2013, which restricts rights to public assembly
- An independent investigation into state violence and criminality, including assaults on those exercising any of the rights and freedoms above
- An immediate end to trials of civilians in military and state security courts
- It also calls on governments internationally to stop support for the military regime
For more information or to sign the statement see egyptsolidarityinitiative.org