EGYPTIAN POLICE cracked down in early April on the Nile Delta town of Mahalla—home to the biggest textile mill in the Middle East with its labor force of 27,000—aborting a strike, as the town erupted in two bloody days of street uprisings that left at least two young men killed by President Hosni Mubarak’s U.S.-backed regime. Solidarity protests in Cairo and the other provinces were also squashed by the security services, which rounded up hundreds of ordinary citizens and dissidents, including bloggers and organizers.
A strike had been called by the left-leaning Textile Workers’ League in the Ghazl el-Mahalla textile mill for April 6, to pressure the government into raising the national minimum wage that has not moved from a pathetic $6.40 per month since 1984. The workers were demanding an increase to $222 per month, as well as other demands related to food allowances, industrial safety, and work conditions.
Ghazl el-Mahalla is at the heart of the ongoing strike wave, the biggest to engulf Egypt since the end of the Second World War. The textile mill went on strike in December 2006, over promised government bonuses. Three thousand women garment workers struck and marched into the company compound demanding their male colleagues join their strike. The factory was brought to a complete halt, and for three days the area was the scene of marches and demonstrations. The victory achieved soon spilled over, not only to the rest of the troubled textile sector, but also to other sectors in the economy and to civil servants.
Over the following ten months, virtually all sectors witnessed strikes or sit-ins. From December 7, 2006 to September 23, 2007, according to a report by the Giza-based Center for Socialist Studies, more than 650 workers’ protests took place across the country, a large proportion of which were strikes. This period saw 198,400 workers take strike action, and an even higher number staged sit-ins and street protests, from civil servants, drivers and cashiers of metros and subways, cement factory workers, garbage collectors, fishermen, and even real estate tax collectors. The tax collectors who struck for three months, bringing tax collection down by 90 percent and winning a victory after they set up a camp in front of the ministerial cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo.
Though the strikes started over economic demands and working conditions, the strike leaders in the major industrial urban centers started pushing forward political demands, related to impeachment of government-backed union officials and corrupt state managers as well as freedom of association. As Ghazl el-Mahalla went on strike again in September 2007, demanding a greater share of the company’s annual profits and impeachment of company management, workers raised banners that read “Down with the government.” Videos of the strikers chanting against the “IMF and colonialism” circulated on the Web by bloggers on the scene. The strike ended in victory once more, with the government succumbing to the workers’ demands after six days. The head of the local union resigned after he was hospitalized by the strikers while trying to persuade them to disband the strike, and the CEO was impeached a month later.
In February 2008, leftist organizers in Ghazl el-Mahalla mobilized the biggest anti-Mubarak labor protest since he ascended to power in 1981, with ten thousand factory workers taking to the streets, joined by a similar number of the local citizens, demanding a raise in the national minimum wage, and chanting against Mubarak and his son Gamal, whom he’s been grooming for succession.
Mahalla’s militancy increased the appetite of the Egyptian working class for more industrial action, and also increased the militancy of middle-class professionals. Doctors voted to go on a national strike for the first time since 1951. The strike was scheduled for March 15, but was aborted by the pro-government Doctors’ Syndicate board. University professors followed suit, launching a national strike on March 23, demanding that the campuses and classrooms be freed from the interference of state security along with salary raises.
As leftist organizers on the factory floor in Ghazl el-Mahalla announced their intention to go on their third strike in less than two years, opposition groups and bloggers launched a call for a general strike, asking the public to stay home.
On the April 6, thousands of police troops occupied the town of Mahalla, and security took control of the factory, thus preempting the strike. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in the town, however, including thousands of the urban poor, the young employed, and workers chanting against the president, corruption, and price increases. The demonstrators were met with police tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, which left at least two young men, ages 15 and 20, dead. For two days the city turned into a scene similar to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, where demonstrators hurled stones at Mubarak’s police force and armored vehicles, while shouting “the revolution has arrived!” according to eyewitnesses. Posters of the dictator Mubarak were defaced and destroyed by the rioters in Mahalla’s public squares.
Hundreds were arrested and dozens were critically injured in the ensuing crackdown. The police also cut power to the city, which sank into darkness for two successive nights, interrupted by sporadic rioting. Activists’ homes were also raided in Cairo and the Nile Delta following the dispersal of Mahalla solidarity protests. Egyptian rights lawyers are still struggling to locate the detainees and get accurate arrest figures. Released detainees spoke of abuse. Children as young as eight were among those detained in Mahalla’s First Police Station, together with local and foreign journalists and media personnel who tried to interview the families of the detainees.
The Egyptian activists have issued an international call for solidarity, requesting support from labor unions, community associations, and student unions. The Mubarak regime is a close ally of U.S. imperialism, and the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel (roughly $2 billion, of which $1.3 billion is military aid). Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with more than 76 million people, and it also has the largest working class, with a long tradition of militancy. An overthrow of this U.S.-backed dictatorship could produce a domino effect throughout the region, emboldening the struggles of other Arab workers against similar dictators.