Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity

by Joel Beinin , Hossam El-Hamalawy | published May 9, 2007

For background on the ongoing strike wave, see Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order,” Middle East Report Online, March 25, 2007.

See also Joel Beinin, “Popular Social Movements and the Future of Egyptian Politics,” Middle East Report Online, March 10, 2005.

For more on Islamist-leftist cooperation, see Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Comrades and Brothers,” Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).

The longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt. In March, the liberal daily al-Masri al-Yawm estimated that no fewer than 222 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations had occurred during 2006. In the first five months of 2007, the paper has reported a new labor action nearly every day. The citizen group Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch documented 56 incidents during the month of April, and another 15 during the first week of May alone. [1]

From their center of gravity in the textile sector, the strikes have spread to mobilize makers of building materials, Cairo subway workers, garbage collectors, bakers, food processing workers and many others. Like almost all strikes in Egypt in the last 40 years, the latest work stoppages are “illegal” -- unauthorized by the state-sponsored General Federation of Trade Unions and its subsidiary bodies in factories and other workplaces. But unlike upsurges of working-class collective action in the 1980s and 1990s, which were confined to state-owned industries, the wave that began in late 2004 has also pushed along employees in the private sector.

Around the same time the first strikes broke out, the most outspoken pro-democracy street protests in years -- including in their ranks leftists and secular nationalists and sometimes Muslim Brothers -- also appeared. Having spent three years trying to contain the pro-democracy ferment, the regime of President Husni Mubarak has now launched a counterattack on the workers’ movement as well. The counterattack comes as many activist workers have shifted their gaze from wages, benefits and working conditions to the explicitly political question of their relation, through the General Federation, to the state.

Workers and Brothers

Notable among the April actions were repeated work stoppages by 284 workers at the Mansura-Spain Company, at which a 75 percent female work force produces quilts and ready-made clothes. They are protesting the sale of their enterprise without a commitment from the prospective new owner, the private sector bank al-Masraf al-Muttahid, to pay supplemental wages and profit shares due them since 1995.

The largest private-sector strike to date occurred in the coastal city of Alexandria at Arab Polvara Spinning and Weaving, a fairly successful enterprise privatized in the first tranche of the public-sector selloff during the mid-1990s. On March 24, and again on April 2, nearly half of the firm’s 12,000 workers struck to protest discrimination between workers and managers in the allocation of shares when the company was sold, failure to pay workers dividends on their shares, and the elimination of paid sick leave and a paid weekend. Workers last received dividends on their shares in 1997, when they were paid 60 Egyptian pounds (about $10.45 at the current exchange rate).

The demands of the Arab Polvara workers indicate that public-sector workers are correct to suspect that, even if privatized firms initially agree to offer pay and benefits similar to those in the public sector (in some cases, the pay is even higher), the requirements of competing in the international market will eventually drive down wages and worsen working conditions. Since there are few trade unions in the private sector, workers lack even the weak institutional mechanism of the state-sponsored union federation to contest the unilateral actions of private capital.

The government has charged the Muslim Brothers with inciting the Arab Polvara strike, but there is no evidence that they played any role in this or any other labor action in the last year. Labor solidarity is an unusual stance for the Brothers, who have never had a strong base in the industrial working class and, in the past, have assisted the government in breaking strikes. While some Muslim Brothers have acted to encourage the present spate of worker activism, it appears there are differences within the organization between the affluent businessmen who dominate the leadership and rank-and-file members from the lower middle classes and working poor.

In February, the Muslim Brother MP ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Husayni announced his backing for the walkout of the Misr Spinning and Weaving workers in Kafr al-Dawwar, south of Alexandria. His parliamentary colleague Sabir Abu al-Futouh, from Alexandria, followed up by issuing several statements supporting the Arab Polvara strike. [2] Earlier, Abu al-Futouh had been coordinator of the Brothers’ campaign to run candidates in the fall 2006 trade union elections. The government disqualified thousands of Muslim Brothers, leftists and independents from running in those elections -- consequently judged “undemocratic and non-transparent” by independent observers. [3] Abu al-Futouh had declared that if the elections were rigged, the Muslim Brothers would establish a trade union independent of the regime, similar to the independent student unions they have founded in cooperation with the Trotskyist-leaning Revolutionary Socialist group at several universities.

Yet on November 21, after the first rounds of voting were over and their undemocratic character was apparent, the Brothers’ Deputy General Guide Muhammad Habib sounded more reserved. In an interview at the American University of Cairo, Habib said: “Establishing an independent labor union requires a long period of consistent organizing. Workers are different than students because they have family responsibilities and will not lightly risk their livelihoods.”

The Alexandrian Brothers are generally considered more militant, more confrontational toward the regime and closer to the popular classes than the organization’s other branches. Even if Abu al-Futouh was serious in his initiative, however, it was spurned by the Nasserists and the so-called legal left National Progressive Democratic Union Party (Tagammu‘), who rejected an alliance with the Islamist opposition. [4] There is no indication that the Muslim Brothers are involved anywhere in setting up trade union structures on the ground.

Ideas of Independence

The fresh momentum for the idea of an independent trade union federation has come from among the striking workers themselves, particularly those in the mills of Nile Delta towns. In December 2006, the local union committee at the Misr Spinning and Weaving facility in Mahalla al-Kubra declined to back the rank and file when they halted production -- eventually resulting in the single most militant (and successful) action of the strike wave. Angered, the Mahalla strikers demanded that federation bosses in Cairo remove the union committee and, when this demand was ignored, protested by handing in their resignations from the General Federation of Trade Unions. In early February, strikers at the Shibin al-Kum Spinning and Weaving Company echoed the Mahalla workers’ call for mass resignations from the federation. [5] Workers in other localities also adopted the idea of an independent network of trade unions, most prominently in Kafr al-Dawwar. [6]

The idea of an autonomous national union to supplant the state-sponsored General Federation has circulated among trade unionists for over a decade and is supported in principle by many progressives. Among them are the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) and its general director, Kamal ‘Abbas, veteran trade union organizers like Sabir Barakat and labor lawyer Khalid ‘Ali ‘Umar of the Workers’ Coordinating Committee for Trade Union Rights, ‘Abd al-Ghaffar Shukr, a leader of the Socialist Alliance, which seeks to forge a coalition among all the Egyptian socialist forces, Socialist Horizons, the labor studies center affiliated with the Communist Party of Egypt, and Workers for Change, an offshoot of the Kifaya movement for democracy. Yet government repression and internal divisions over tactics and strategy have produced great uncertainty among the opposition forces over whether they have the organizational capacity to launch a parallel trade union.

While the Revolutionary Socialists back an independent national trade union in principle, they have been more cautious than the other political forces involved. Fearing elitism and recognizing that grassroots support for such a project does not yet exist, they have focused on the preparatory steps of supporting the demands of Nile Delta activists to impeach their factory-level union committee officials and establishing channels of communication between strike leaders.

Notably, Tagammu‘ appears not to support the establishment of an independent trade union federation, though it used such rhetoric during the labor union elections in an attempt to deter the government from mass vote rigging. ‘Abd al-Rahman Khayr, a Tagammu‘ representative in the upper house of Parliament and president of the General Union of Military Industries, is the only non-ruling party member who won a seat on the state-affiliated federation’s executive committee. In February, Khayr assembled General Federation bureaucrats to disrupt a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate called by the CTUWS and other trade unionists to denounce government attacks against labor activists. Many believe he has made a deal with the regime.

Legacy of Leftist Retreat

In the weeks leading up to May 1, encouraged by liberal intellectuals and the extensive strike coverage in al-Masri al-Yawm, a former textile worker named ‘Ali al-Badri and other trade unionists hatched plans to establish a “Free Union of Egyptian Workers” on the international day of labor. The plan was to hold simultaneous demonstrations in Cairo and 15 provincial cities, followed by elections for an executive committee. State Security prevented the few individuals who showed up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on May 1 from demonstrating. But the project was foredoomed by its proponents’ serious miscalculation of how many people would heed the call. The liberals who encouraged al-Badri and his companions have little experience in organizing workers and little to lose by encouraging them to act without adequate preparation. The putative organizers themselves suffered from political isolation and lack of mass support.

Al-Badri began working in the textile mills of Shubra al-Khayma in 1977. By 1979 he was elected to his local trade union committee, and he eventually became secretary of the regional textile federation. He was fired from his job and blacklisted from the industry as a result of participating in a wildcat strike at the ESCO textile mill in 1986. About 10,000 workers occupied the mill in January, followed by a smaller sit-in several months later, to demand implementation of a 1981 law and a court ruling awarding them one paid day off per week. [7] The ESCO strikes were partially victorious and among the salient labor actions of the mid-1980s.

These working-class struggles erupted without any politically organized leadership. Tagammu‘, which was much more closely connected to workers then than it is now, publicized and offered material support to such struggles. It began to issue a workers’ magazine and to cover labor affairs regularly in the pages of its weekly al-Ahali. In addition, several independent workers’ newspapers based on industrial regions or sectors were established. [8] Tagammu‘ was unable to strike deep roots among insurgent workers, however. During the 1990s the party lost most of its popular base, amidst a general retreat of leftist politics, because of the party’s strategic decision to support the Mubarak regime in its battle against the Islamist insurgency based in southern Egypt and the urban slums of Cairo and Alexandria, and eventually against the non-violent Muslim Brothers as well. This strategy was the brainchild of Tagammu‘ chief and former Communist Party of Egypt member Rif‘at al-Sa‘id. It was embraced by the underground Communist Party, the remnants of which work actively inside Tagammu‘.

Since neither Tagammu‘ nor the Communist Party was deeply engaged with workers’ struggles by the 1990s, ‘Ali al-Badri ended up finding political shelter as general secretary for labor affairs in the utterly insignificant Democratic Generation Party. This party has no discernible public activity and a total national membership that likely numbers in the dozens. 

Clampdown

Despite the retreat of the “legal” and much of the underground left from engagement with industrial workers in the 1990s, the career of CTUWS director Kamal ‘Abbas was marked with relative success. ‘Abbas got his start as a leader in the upsurge of labor activism in the 1980s, culminating in two fierce strikes at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989. Like al-Badri, ‘Abbas was fired for participating in an “illegal” strike that had no support from the official trade union. In 1990, ‘Abbas founded CTUWS with advice and support from the late Yusuf Darwish, a veteran communist and labor lawyer who had represented many trade unions in Shubra al-Khayma and Cairo from the 1930s through the 1950s. Darwish had also recruited many union leaders into the Workers’ Vanguard organization, one of the three main trends in the communist movement that eventually united in the Communist Party of Egypt in 1958. At one point, ‘Abbas joined Darwish and another veteran communist militant, the late Nabil al-Hilali, in the leadership of the People’s Socialist Party, a small group that left the Communist Party objecting to Rif‘at al-Sa‘id’s iron grip on party affairs and the strategy of supporting the Mubarak regime against the Islamists.

Despite ‘Abbas’ early association with underground Marxist politics, in recent years his center has abandoned overt political demands to focus on bread-and-butter issues. This strategy has not saved CTUWS from the attacks of the Mubarak regime.

On April 25, the Ministry of Social Solidarity ordered the closure of the CTUWS headquarters in the industrial suburb of Helwan, south of Cairo. The center’s two regional offices in southern and northern Egypt had already been shut down, on March 29 and April 11, respectively. ‘Adil Zakariyya, editor of the CTUWS magazine Workers’ Talk, told a reporter, “The authorities are clamping down on the center now because they don’t know how to deal with the waves of strikes that have rocked the country over the past six months. They need a scapegoat, so they are accusing us of inciting the workers to strike. But how can they accuse us of inciting all 220 of the strikes estimated to have occurred in 2006?” [9]

The closure of CTUWS was the climax to a month of escalating aggressiveness by security forces in attempting to break up strikes and other forms of collective action. On April 15, a delegation of 100 workers from Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla al-Kubra, including 36 year-old CTUWS activist and December strike leader Muhammad al-‘Attar, was prevented from traveling to Cairo to protest at the headquarters of the General Federation of Trade Unions. Police first confiscated the license of the driver of the bus they had hired, and then physically blocked the workers from boarding a Cairo-bound train. The intended demonstration was a further step in the Mahalla workers’ campaign to resign en masse from the General Federation. On May 6, at the behest of State Security, Misr Spinning and Weaving management ordered al-‘Attar’s summary transfer to the company’s branch in Alexandria.

Many Egyptian non-governmental organizations could be shuttered on the same pretext that the regime used to close CTUWS -- that they are not properly registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity in accordance with the extremely restrictive regulatory legislation. The ministry refused to grant CTUWS recognition as an NGO, so it registered as a civil company. Because the closure of CTUWS is perceived as a potential assault upon all advocacy NGOs, the center received strong support from 30 NGOs in a statement released at a press conference on April 24. Representatives of over a dozen NGOs occupied the CTUWS office the next day. Hundreds of riot police gathered outside and eventually implemented the closure decision. CTUWS has reopened as a legal office of its legal counsel and program director, Rahma Rif‘at, but the regime has sent its message.

Long Way to Go

Though the Mubarak regime is showing signs of desperation, internal division and weakness, lashing out at Muslim Brothers, bloggers, journalists, striking workers and NGO activists alike, the opposition is even weaker and more divided. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force, is embattled by a full-scale security crackdown. With its senior members facing trial in military courts, the Brotherhood has decided to avoid a direct confrontation with the regime. While the relationship between the Brothers’ leaders and the secular opposition is fraught with contention and mistrust, on the ground there are signs of gradual rapprochement among the youth who make up their respective bases. A common strategy, however, has yet to be established. Kifaya, which showed so much promise from late 2004 through mid-2005, has been unable to mobilize effectively since the end of the Lebanon war in August 2006. Primarily a movement of students, intellectuals and middle-class professionals, Kifaya has only tenuous relations with the insurgent workers’ movement. The few candidates from its labor affiliate Workers for Change who were not banned by the security forces from running in the fall 2006 union elections performed poorly.

While Kifaya and the rest of the oppositional intelligentsia remain incapable of providing the technical and logistical support required to launch an independent trade union federation in the face of fierce opposition from the regime, the strike wave has opened a channel of communication for radical activists in Cairo with those in the provinces. Since the December strike in Mahalla al-Kubra, leftist elements in Kifaya have worked to establish links with the industrial centers in the Nile Delta by organizing solidarity trips, mobilizing media support and raising strike funds. The Misr Spinning and Weaving workers’ planned trip to Cairo on April 15, though aborted by security forces, was nonetheless a landmark. Some of the strike leaders contacted leftist Kifaya activists in Cairo to ask for their support on that day, suggesting that they are beginning to consider political issues beyond their immediate economic demands, perhaps including regime change.

The organized oppositional intelligentsia still has a long way to go before it establishes the necessary credibility and grassroots support to provide political leadership. The Egyptian left has long been dominated by a perspective that treated the “national question” and the “social question” as mutually exclusive arenas, even as leftists paid lip service to the organic link between the two. The result was the subjugation of the demands of labor and other social justice movements to the nationalist agenda of opposition to Western colonialism and Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians. There is a link between US domination of the Middle East in alliance with Israel and the current strike wave, which is in great measure a response to the US-sponsored neoliberal program for Egypt. But few opposition intellectuals have been able to translate their general opposition to Zionism and imperialism into concrete support for the one social movement in Egypt that has a mass base and a track record of measurable victories. Under these circumstances, the mere fact that a workers’ movement has persisted and achieved as much as it has is eloquent testimony that the struggle between labor and capital is alive and well -- and likely to intensify as the neoliberal project in Egypt advances.

Endnotes


[1] The Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch report for the month of April (in Arabic) is available at http://arabist.net/arabawy/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/aprilreport.pdf. The report for the first week of May (in Arabic) is available at: http://arabist.net/arabawy/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/1stmay.pdf.
[2] See the statements of March 20 and April 3, 2007 at http://www.ikhwanweb.com/Home.asp?zPage=Systems&System=PressR&Press=Show&Lang=E&ID=6687 and http://www.ikhwanweb.com/Home.asp?zPage=Systems&System=PressR&Press=Show&Lang=E&ID=6836
[3] Interview with Jano Charbel posted at http://arabist.net/arabawy/2006/11/29/ndp-abducts-the-egyptian-trade-union-federation/
[4] Al-Masri al-Yawm, November 12, 2006.
[5] Mohamed El-Sayed Said, “Silent No More,” al-Ahram Weekly, February 8-14, 2007.
[6] See the Kafr al-Dawwar Workers for Change statement, posted at http://arabist.net/arabawy/2007/04/18/kafr_dawwar_workers_for_change_mahlla/
[7] Marsha Pripstein Posusney, “Collective Action and Workers’ Consciousness in Contemporary Egypt” in Zachary Lockman, ed., Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 230-231.
[8] Joel Beinin, “Will the Real Egyptian Working Class Please Stand Up?” in Lockman, Workers and Working Classes, pp. 262-266.
[9] Faiza Rady, “Workers Remain Undaunted,” al-Ahram Weekly, May 3-9, 2007.

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