This is a transcript of a workshop on the strike movement in Egypt that took place at the sixth Cairo antiwar conference, held March 27–30, 2008. The first two presentations were delivered by Egyptian socialists active in the strike movement, and the final presentation was given by a strike leader from the Ghazl el-Mahalla textile mill (see the report earlier in this issue of the ISR on the current struggle in Egypt).
The anger is building
THESE DAYS in Egypt it doesn’t matter whether you see the situation from the left or right of the political spectrum because there is a great deal of anger and frustration over the deteriorating economic situation. Even the apologists for the regime have been frantically trying to justify the actions being taken. And of course there is pressure on the regime to come out with some kind of moderation or reform, not because they care about the issues, but in order to save the regime itself. Many mass actions have taken place in the last year, which are clear examples of the amount of anger building up among the people of Egypt.
This movement is so large and encompasses a cross section of Egyptian society that includes activists from the labor movement, teachers, farmers, doctors, and other professions, and also manifests itself on university campuses. This movement has raised a strong argument for a total uprising in Egypt. We’re using the term intifada, which means “uprising,” to express the popular anger and frustration toward the regime.
The kinds of movement activities taking place today are the result of activities over the last eight years, and we believe that we are on the brink of major change. Between the period of the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a kind of calm and inactivity in the workplaces. But now things are different and there is an increase in the level of protest.
The best example of the rise in activity is the class struggle and solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. As we know, at the end of 2000 the second intifada began in Palestine. Students at a cross section of universities organized a demonstration in support of the resistance expressed by the intifada in Palestine, but it didn’t stay on university campuses and instead spread to the high school level. The solidarity movement was not limited to the students, but also spread to the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities where people demonstrated their support for the resistance. The two major slogans or themes for these demonstrations were: 1) total solidarity with the Palestinian intifada; and 2) condemnation of the Arab regimes, including that of Mubarak, for their lack of action in support of the Palestinians.
We remember what happened in Jenin in 2002 and that really was a sharp turn in the movement to support the resistance in Palestine. There was a great deal of determination and anger about what happened in Jenin. As we know, that year the U.S. administration was beating the drums for war and preparing the illegal war on Iraq. All signals were that war was coming. Almost all political sections, groups, parties, and organizations that banded together in support of the Palestinian resistance also gathered to discuss how to confront the coming war.
In March 2003, the illegal war started against Iraq, which led to the biggest demonstration in Egypt since 1978, when another intifada took place over economic issues. Fifty thousand Egyptians, perhaps more, took over Tahrir Square [Liberation Square] in support of Iraq and in opposition to the war. Activities and mobilizations also centered around another dimension—for political change to the constitution. Brutality from the regime, especially after the massive demonstration at Tahrir Square, continued, but it did not cause any slowdown of the mobilizations. This was a very important turning point for the mobilization that began in solidarity with Palestine, continued against the war, and then turned its attention inward toward the regime in Egypt.
In December 2004, the first public demonstration for the new movement for change happened, which we refer to as Kifaya, which means “enough.” The first slogan of the movement was, “Down, down [with] Mubarak!” Other slogans appeared against Mubarak’s plan to transfer power to his son, Gamal, to be the next president. The slogan of the movement was no to the continuation of the regime and no to the handing over of power to his son Gamal. This led to other demands, including an end to the emergency laws that were in place for more than twenty years, and another was to call for a free, democratic process for political parties and movements.
In Cairo and other Egyptian cities committees were formed based on the previous experience of the movement in support of the Palestinian struggle, which led to a demand to support the Kifaya movement and demands of the opposition. Those committees, in addition to being coordinating committees, also established separate committees such as the Youth Committee for Change, the Lawyers’ Committee for Change, the Doctors’ Committee for Change, the Workers’ Committee for Change, etc. Unfortunately, the success of the Mubarak regime in another mandate [he won the presidential election of 2005] left the movement feeling somewhat defeated and along with some internal squabbles led to a decline of the movement.
Soon after, in late 2006, another determined movement came to the surface, which is now called the popular movement against Mubarak’s regime and in support of democratization of the system. On December 27, 2006, the textile workers of Mahalla went on strike and observers and critics of the political landscape in Egypt refer to this movement as a major event.
The Mahalla strike is the spark that ignited the other strikes and the call for general strikes in other places from late 2006. That was not limited to the workers’ movement, but went out to other sectors of the society—from students to professionals. There were massive demonstrations against the water shortage and also a massive protest by teachers because of the deterioration of educational standards. The public sector workers struck against low wages and working conditions. Other protests and demonstrations took place that somehow led to the belief that every person needed to strike to get their rights.
One of the reports of the strikes of 2007 records more than 500 strikes and public protests in Egypt. This gives you some picture of what led up to the uprisings in Egypt this year.
Some political observers adamantly believe that the uprising to support the intifada in Palestine and the movement against the war is not strong enough to link to the struggles to take down the Mubarak regime. This is based on a mentality of defeat that was fostered in the period of the 1990s. But the progress of the movement and the organizational developments are living proof against these negative criticisms. The linkages were made between these movements and solidarity abroad to infuse people here with the idea that the regime could really be brought down. Even in this period where all signals point to change, some negative signs persist that this movement is not strong enough to bring down Mubarak. This kind of negative criticism led to problems and squabbles in the movement for change. However, the negative campaign has not succeeded. The popular movement for change keeps moving forward and goes across sectors in the society from factories to schools to other places.
We turn our attention to the movement for change inside the population of Egypt to fight for their basic needs. There are two important factors we have to take into consideration in the movement over the past eight years. The first one is economic and social and the other is political. Even before 2000, the regime was failing to bring a decent living standard to the masses of Egypt. One of the lies was that the transfer of public assets into the private market would lead to more jobs and a better life. Between 1990 and 2000, the Egyptian economic system started facing a major crisis. GDP decreased by 5 percent. Foreign and local investment decreased by a big percentage too. The Egyptian pound lost a good amount of its value in comparison to other currencies. The regime ran out of the surplus that was created by foreign aid and privatization and exposed the failure of its policies.
The societal crisis increased as well. The unemployment rate increased by a very high percentage and there are reports that there are more than seven million Egyptians who are out of work, especially after the globalization drive that led to massive layoffs and job losses. More than 48 percent of Egyptian people live below the poverty line and there is degeneration of public services. These factors led to the uprising.
Another factor is political. Mubarak’s regime governs with oppressive measures: detention, arrest, torture, etc., which place more strains on Egyptian society. It’s ironic because this regime presents itself as the “peace and prosperity” country in the region. And of course it is the guardian of American interests in the region. There is no peace. We know that the Project for a New American Century amounts to American hegemony in the area. Mubarak’s regime was exposed as the loyal agent in service to American interests. These two factors and the mobilizations exposed the regime totally.
The mobilizations in solidarity with the Palestinians and against the war in Iraq should not be separated from the struggles for reform and regime change at home. A wealth of experience and knowledge was gained in this period of mobilization and organization and political coordination between different groups. The first lesson is unity—unity based on common ground and understanding among all oppositional forces against the regime. Throughout the last eight years we became more convinced that in order to succeed and bring down the regime and bring about changes in Egypt we could not succeed without organizing on common ground. The public movement for resistance and change learned the same lesson as well. And the second lesson is that you can’t do anything without the people, the masses. Unity isn’t only based on individuals or a political structure, but unity is based on linking the struggles and organizations to get the public into the streets.
An opposition will not be convinced that they can make change without participation of the masses. Finally, the movement for change could have huge successes by keeping these lessons in mind. We are convinced that a mass movement will succeed and bring about the change we’re looking for.
Revolt against privatization
The recent rise of the labor movement is the result of several things. The success of the Mubarak regime in extending its role for a new term is one. The failure of the movement by judges inspired by activists fighting for judicial independence is another. The regime was successful in extending emergency powers without substantial resistance. The policies of neoliberal reforms took a new turn in Egypt. Privatization of publicly owned companies and the presence of many businessmen in political power accelerated the attack on subsidies. All this led to making the lives of millions of workers miserable.
Those millions have engaged in a movement of resistance over the last several years, not simply the latest episode. The level of industrial struggle since 2003 has been on the rise. Wide sectors of the workers have been affected and moved by the tactics of the democracy movement’s protests. That influence has never resulted in a merger of the workers’ and democracy movements. A separation between the political and economic struggles was due to the variety of demands between them. The political movement focused on political succession and the extension of Mubarak’s rule, while the workers and the social movements in general were focused on bread-and-butter demands.
In the latter part of 2006, a social force emerged on the Egyptian scene capable of winning victories and compelling the capitalist regime to make concessions. For the first time in many years it was an offensive movement demanding a rise in salaries and wages. Then it turned into an attack on privatization. This rising workers’ movement has several characteristics different from previous ones. The only resemblance is to the workers’ movement of the 1940s. The workers’ protests, whether sit-ins or demonstrations or occupations, lasted for several days. This lengthy process allowed for developments within the workers’ movement. Such long protests allowed workers to organize committees for social welfare and security for occupied factories, and forced workers to actually guard the gates of the factories. It was also extended geographically.
After the mass strike by the workers at Mahalla, strikes extended to all sections of the weaving industries, and from the weaving industries to other industries. For a long period workers would sit in instead of striking, but this time workers used the strike weapon. What was stark about earlier protests is that workers would increase their productivity. This recent wave has seen workers totally stopping production. Solidarity was also key. Many forms of solidarity appeared within the workers’ movement. The recent strike by Mahalla workers has inspired solidarity protests at other factories. Workers at other factories sent words of solidarity to the striking workers at Mahalla.
The recent workers’ movement started through a confrontation with a state-controlled trade union. The wave of protests started two months after the election. The election involved massive intervention by state police to prevent a genuine workers’ opposition from standing for election. One major demand by workers was for the trade union committees to step down. In the case of the Mahalla workers it resulted in an action involving 14,000 signatures demanding the state-controlled union committees step down. When the state refused the demand, about 4,000 workers resigned from the trade union.
The highest point of confrontation between the workers and the state was the protest by tax collectors. They built a strike committee and it is now playing the role of a trade union. These are the main characteristics of the current workers’ movement.
There are two main demands. Advanced sections of the movement have concentrated on raising the minimum wage. For the first time since the 1940s, workers of the Mahalla factory demonstrated in support of this demand. For the first time their demand is not specific to their own factory or conditions, but extends to all workers in Egypt. The other demand is for independent trade unions. Despite the major difficulties of establishing independent trade unions under a dictatorship, there is a strong political movement demanding democracy and the workers are taking major steps.
There are two good examples. The League of Mahalla Workers formed as a result of the recent strike is playing a central role in the workers’ struggles at the factory and in defending demands. The other example is the strike committee of tax workers and the growing tendency to transform it into an independent trade union. In fact, the workers are repeating what took place here in the 1940s. They are forming underground independent unions demanding that the laws be amended to accommodate them legally. In addition to the demand for a minimum wage, we’ve also seen the emergence of solidarity between workers and anti-imperialist forces such as the pro-Palestine groups. With the recent invasion of the Zionist forces into Gaza there was a movement in Egypt. More than four factories contributed to aid heading to Rafah to provide relief. The Egyptian authorities blocked the aid convoys. If those convoys were actually allowed to reach Palestine, they would have been even larger.
During its recent struggle the workers’ movement has achieved a few gains. The right to strike, effectively banned by labor law, has been established in reality, if not legally. Workers won the right to protest in the streets, which had been monopolized by politicians and the professional unions. The state has also been forced to concede that the strike days would be paid days. Now perhaps other countries can achieve this. Another thing is that the workers’ movement has managed to halt privatization in the weaving industry. The state had stopped investing in the weaving industry in 1990. The main plan was to liquidate all the weaving companies, but the recent movement forced the state to pump more money into it.
Also we’ve seen more advanced forms of struggle with workers putting themselves forward as managers of the factories. During the recent strike at Mahalla, the workers raised issues about how the factory is managed. There are examples of this in Ramadan City, a new industrial area.
There are some major tasks that all those interested in the workers’ movement must accomplish. The first thing is to unify the movement around a single demand—to raise the minimum wage to 1,200 Egyptian pounds [$240 per month]. The other is to offer critical analysis to the workers’ movement without trying to impose any agendas on it. We must organize the workers into different societies, leagues, and trade unions depending on the level of development of the movement. There must be a coordination committee between the workers, regardless of the political groups they belong to. This tendency is easier in the workplace due to the common goals that workers’ share.
One final thing that I’ve observed in the workers’ movement is that the political reality of Egypt places major tasks on the workers. Its development will allow it to achieve democracy by forcing all political forces that don’t take the workers seriously to pay attention. Through struggle, workers will be able to create a new socialist society.
We need greater solidarity
I WOULD like to relate the situation at Mahalla from the beginning of the strike there in 2006 when 27,000 workers went out on strike. After years of attacks by the capitalist government and businessmen the workers at Mahalla felt they had nothing to lose and began to organize.
In 2006 the protest began with a specific demand for two months’ worth of bonus money that was guaranteed previously to all public sector workers. Thousands of workers came together to discuss raising wages generally, despite the fact that the government never recognized the initial demand to pay bonuses. But the occupation of the factory and persistence of workers forced the state to concede and we workers won our bonuses and were told we could achieve our other demands, including profit sharing, in a few months.
As usual the Egyptian government lied. Through the efforts of several organizations and rising consciousness, the workers set a date for another strike in 2007. Among the workers’ first demands was to get the existing board and CEO to step down from office for corruption and lying to the workers, as well reiterating their earlier demands from 2006. It was the first time workers demanded the unseating of an existing board of directors.
We workers at Mahalla were skeptical of any promises to grant our demands, but when we were promised that the board would be unseated the majority of workers saw it as an unprecedented victory. But again, the Egyptian government didn’t follow through on all its promises.
I don’t just want to tell the story of the strikes because there is a development among the workers in Mahalla who are generalizing from one specific demand to bigger demands. We are calling on all workers of Egypt and the world to show solidarity for our demands and the need to establish political structures. Up until now we have withstood state intervention in our strikes in 2006 and 2007. We have achieved the democratic right to strike and to remove a board and CEO, and now we aim to unseat the existing regime—but greater solidarity is needed to achieve that. Local and international assistance is needed and workers need their own political organization in order to move beyond the existing structures.