Dazzled by events in Tahrir Square, the media overlooked the role of the workers in Egypt’s revolution, whose 6 April movement was named after the struggles of the workers at the Misr textile factory at Mahallah al-Kubra. Similar protests continue across the country
Youssef Chahine would not have recognised Cairo’s central station, the backdrop to one of his finest films, shot in 1958 (1), which tells of the love of Kanawi, a crippled newspaper seller, for the beautiful Hanuma. The colossal statue of Ramses II that used to stand outside the station was moved to the Giza plateau in 2006, and the newly renovated façade gleams in the sun. But inside there was chaos: to reach the platforms, passengers had to pick their way across a construction site, between scaffolding, heaps of rubble and puddles, without any signs to help them. The train for Mahallah al-Kubra was due to leave at 1:15. People forced their way into sordid carriages, their windows opaque with dirt. Only two, at the back, offered reserved seats and air conditioning although the temperature was close to 40°C.
It took more than two hours to reach Mahallah, just 100km north of Cairo across the Nile delta; nothing could explain why the train had to move so slowly as we crossed some of the world’s most fertile farmland, being nibbled away by urbanisation. With half a million people (two million counting the surrounding province), Mahallah is typical of the middle-sized cities that have absorbed much of Egypt’s population growth since the megacities of Cairo and Alexandria reached saturation. In the early 19th century it had a monopoly in silk. Later it became one of the centres of the Egyptian textile industry, whose reputation was founded on high-quality, long-staple cotton, introduced by the French in 1817. When the American civil war of 1861-65 cut off Europe’s American imports, Egypt became a leading cotton exporter.
The Misr spinning and weaving factory is only a few hundred metres from the station, but you have to find your way along unpaved roads, crowded with traffic, vendors’ carts and young female factory workers in headscarves, all trying to catch a bus, train, shared taxi or motorised rickshaw. The factory operates 24 hours a day, in three shifts, but women work only a day shift that finishes at 4:00 pm.
A sign proclaimed “Welcome to the capital of Egyptian industry”. Misr’s history reflects that of Egypt, and its development policy. The company was established in 1927 by Talaat Harb, the founder of Egypt’s first national bank, who aimed to promote industry, and was floated on the stock market. British investors bought up the shares; though officially independent since 1922, Egypt was then under British occupation. Misr was Egyptianised between 1954 and 1956, then nationalised in 1962 by Gamal Abdel Nasser under a programme of socialist reform and rapid industrialisation supported by the Soviet Union that also led to the building of the Helwan iron and steel works and the Aswan High Dam. Anwar Sadat’s accession to the presidency in 1970 brought infitah (economic opening), which encouraged private sector investment and the privatisation of the public sector. This policy accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s under Hosni Mubarak.
Only a few public enterprises held out, notably the Misr factory. The huge complex, surrounded by fences, contains Misr’s headquarters, offices and workshops, housing for workers and managers and a sports stadium, hospital, theatre and swimming pool, open to all. Cooperative stores offer food, furniture and clothing at low prices. But some of the buildings, including the canteen, have been abandoned – a sign that the government has lost interest.
One is unsure whether Misr was inspired by paternalistic capitalism borrowed from the British or real socialism, descended from Nasserism; it certainly evokes nostalgia throughout Egypt. Besides the establishment of a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($192) (2) there are frequent calls for the renationalisation of factories privatised in the 2000s, often under doubtful circumstances. These demands have already brought reactions from the US; in May the outgoing US ambassador Margaret Scobey said: “A return to nationalisation will be a huge disincentive to investment. … History proves privatisation has been very healthy, helpful and successful in helping many countries transform to democracy” (3).
Scobey seems to have seen and heard nothing during her three-year posting: the press reports daily that the Egyptians have doubts about the benefits of privatisation: the courts have just stopped the privatisation of the Egyptian retail chain Omar Effendi; some 30,000 fishermen on Lake Bourlos, separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow strip of land, are fighting the illegal grant of vast areas of their waters to industrial concerns; the millionaire Saudi prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, who bought 420 sq km of farmland close to the Sudanese border in 1998, has had to agree to “donate” three-quarters of it to the Egyptian people.
Egypt’s prime minister, Issam Sharaf, described this agreement as “an encouragement to Arab and foreign investment through amicable negotiation”. The government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are still pursuing the same liberal economic policy. They have abandoned the idea of a progressive income tax (the rate is currently a uniform 20%) and a tax on corporate earnings. On 5 June they reached agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a loan of $3bn, subject to the usual conditions of macroeconomic and financial “stability”. (Note that in April 2010 the IMF had commended “the authorities’ sound macroeconomic management and the reforms implemented since 2004”.)
The privatisations of the 2000s were also hard on the workers, made redundant in tens of thousands or forced to accept ever harsher working conditions. In the Mahallah region, 225,000 people work in the textile industry, but only 25,000 of these in the public sector. Some 23,000 are employed by Misr, the rest by hundreds of smaller companies, of which only 36 have more than 1,000 workers. In the public sector the working day is eight hours; in the private sector it is 12 hours, without holidays or profit-sharing, and most of the pay consists of bonuses. Children under 16 are paid a pittance.
’All eyes on Mahallah’
Afak Ishtiraki (Socialist Horizons), an organisation with links to the Egyptian Communist Party, has offices in a working-class area of Mahallah. These serve as a gathering place for trade unionists in the city, where leftwing politics are still strong. On the day I visited, a dozen militant workers, including two women, were meeting. The room was decorated with Palestinian flags and portraits of Nasser, Khaled Mohieddin (one of Nasser’s Free Officers) and Nabil al-Hilali, a lawyer who fights for workers’ rights. A slogan on the wall voiced anxiety over inflation: “Prices are on fire! Take our wages and give us food!”
Some of the militants had been fired in recent years for taking strike action or trying to establish an independent trade union (the Egyptian Trade Union Federation is allied to the regime). Widdad Dimirdash has worked for Misr since 1984. Despite frequent interruptions from the men, she explained her difficulties in reconciling the demands of work, family life and her union campaigning. Her first campaign was in 2006, to persuade her employers to pay profit-sharing bonuses. The men were hesitant, she said, but “we [the women] went down into the yard and challenged them: ‘Where are the men? The women are here!’ And they joined us. Since then, all eyes are on Mahallah. Everyone believes the future rests on our shoulders.”
During the past five years, Misr – the workers’ stronghold – seemed to embody hope for the future. But the media (national and international), dazzled by the events in Tahrir Square, lost sight of the working-class origins of the revolution (4). “They stole 6 April from us!” said Dimirdash. On 6 April 2008 the people of Mahallah had rioted in protest at the cost of living (5). The movement that called for the 25 January 2011 demonstration adopted the name “6 April”, but forgot its origins.
Mohammed Attar, 45, had taken part in the workers’ struggles and had suffered violence at the hands of the state security service, which interfered in union elections and daily life in the factory – a practice that extended to all companies and the lives of all Egyptians. “All the protest tactics people have copied elsewhere were invented here in Mahallah: occupying the space in front of the factory gates and pitching tents there; calling on everybody, including the people in the high-rises in Cairo; forming broad alliances with all opposition forces, from the left to the Muslim Brotherhood.” It was here too, in April 2008, that portraits of Mubarak were slashed for the first time. To break the movement, the authorities cut off access to the internet throughout the region. In October 2010 they conducted an exercise that simulated shutting down the net across the whole of Egypt. All the telecommunications companies (including Mobinil, an Orange subsidiary) obligingly took part (6).
Perhaps the workers are the real heroes. In the Cairo offices of the daily Al-Tahrir, Mustafa Bassiouni, an expert on union and workers’ affairs, asked: “Why is it that the uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain have not yet succeeded? In Tunisia, it was the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)’s call for a general strike that struck the fatal blow to the government. In Egypt, the country was at a standstill; public transport was no longer running. In the last few days there were calls for political strikes, and these mobilised the population. In Suez, a strike at a fertiliser factory where workers had already been out in January 2009, to prevent exports to Israel during Operation Cast Lead, triggered a political strike” (7).
Does this mean there are two Egypts: the middle-class Egypt of Tahrir Square, and the rest? “No, three,” said Alaa al-Din Arafat (8), a researcher at the French centre for legal studies and documentation (Cedej) who has been travelling the country for two years. “First you have Cairo, Alexandria and the big cities, where most of the slogans were about democracy and liberty. Then you have the middle-sized cities and the countryside, especially the Delta, where the emphasis was on unemployment, education and prices, and where there was criticism of the US and Israel. And finally you have the ‘peripheral’ regions (Sinai, parts of Upper Egypt, Marsa Matrouh), where the questions focused on the status of those regions, which are neglected, and on the identity of their populations, which are often ignored by central government.” Had anything changed since the revolution? “The uprising got rid of the top tier of politicians,” said Arafat. “But the second and third tiers are still in place, and they still have the same culture.”
Thirty young lawyers were picketing the Court of Cassation in Cairo. Among their slogans was “We have got rid of Gamal [Mubarak’s son] but there are a thousand Gamals among the judges” – a reference to nepotism among the magistrates. Not a day goes by without a group calling for the firing of a corrupt company boss or the resignation of a university president. In June, for the first time in recent history, Cairo University’s arts faculty elected a new dean without interference from the state security service. Neither the al-Azhar hierarchy nor the Coptic Church, which both worked closely with the Mubarak regime, have gone unchallenged. At Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, workers in an aluminium factory organised a sit-in, demanding bonuses and jobs for their children. In June, workers of a number of subsidiaries of the Suez Canal Authority struck, calling for existing agreements to be honoured and the director appointed by Mubarak to be removed. A demonstration by hundreds of doctors recently called for health spending to rise from 3.5% of the budget to 15%.
These countless protests reflect the magnitude of Egypt’s problems, as do the subjects discussed by the SCAF, the government, the political parties and the media. The list is enough to dissuade any rational person from aspiring to lead the country: the organisation of the elections; a new law on places of worship; the future of the state media; the trials of senior figures from the former regime; the regeneration of the economy; the reorganisation of the police and the state security service; the dissolution and re-election of hundreds of municipal councils; the role of the armed forces in a democratic Egypt; the status of the universities; the establishment of a minimum wage; the replacement of all senior officials; a law on trade unions. The scale of the changes needed suggests that struggles will go on for years.
A divided left
Egypt’s left, weakened by years of repression, has yet to organise itself. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions (FIU) occupies a modest apartment on Qasr al-Aini Street, which leads to Tahrir Square. The rooms were filled with people talking earnestly; mobile phones rang. The walls were decorated with posters showing a fist grasping a wrench. Galal Shukri found a free corner in which we could talk: “I was first elected as a trade union rep in 1979, in a public sector telecoms company. In 1987 I joined the board. We used public service regulations to secure improvements, but the company was privatised in 2006, the year I retired. The workforce had already been reduced to 700, compared with the 2,800 we’d had 20 years earlier.”
Shukri got involved with pensioners who had been watching their pensions stagnate since 2004 and had nobody to defend their rights. In 2008 he founded an independent trade union, which the government only recognised after 25 January 2011 and which now claims to have 200,000 members. He is a co-founder of the FIU, which also includes a telecommunications union, a union of tax authority employees, and the teachers’ union. Their greatest challenge has been organising the millions who work in the private sector: “We go into new towns, into free zones. We set up local organisations and train their militants. We want to hold a congress between now and October. We are trying to get recognition for these independent unions, but we are encountering resistance from local government, although the Ministry of Labour supports us.”
Two days earlier he had attended a meeting with businessmen to discuss raising the minimum wage. The businessmen had attacked Shukri, accusing him of mistaking Egypt for Switzerland and threatening their profits at a time when, amidst general instability, “investors need a 50% return on their investment”. Egypt’s minister of labour and immigration Ahmed Borai, one of Egypt’s few experts on employment law – he has worked for the International Labour Organisation and taught at the Sorbonne in Paris – replied: “Do you know what will happen if we fail to set a minimum wage? People will go back to Tahrir Square and they will burn everything.”
Borai wants to change the wage structure, in which fixed pay accounts for only 20% and the rest is bonuses. “We want to invert the proportions, restore unemployment benefit, which was abolished in 1991, and reduce the range of wages.” The figure of EGP 700 ($112) that he is proposing as a minimum wage in the public sector – wages in the private sector are to be decided by a tripartite commission – is well below the inflation-linked EGP 1,200 ($192) demanded by the trade unions. “Seven hundred pounds is reasonable. We have economic constraints too.”
In June the SCAF announced that it would go ahead with the decision, taken soon after it acceded to power, to ban strikes, and several have been harshly repressed. Yet these movements are of limited scope and have not contributed to Egypt’s economic problems, which are due to the decline in tourism, the return of 500,000 expatriate workers from Libya and the neoliberal policies pursued in Egypt for decades. What the military, some of the Islamists and the “neoliberal” forces want is a return to order.
Khaled Khamissi, author of Taxi (9), which describes imaginary conversations in this popular forum for the exchange of world views, said: “We are seeing the clash of two opposing forces: on one side the army, which ‘speaks in the name of the revolution, the better to kill it off’; on the other, the revolution.” In spite of the pessimism of the small minority who are disappointed (10) because they believed the revolution would be “as smooth as the pavement of Newski Prospect” (Lenin, quoting Chernyshevski) and had forgotten that revolutions take years, hope is not dead in Egypt. In the words of a placard in Tahrir Square: “If we stop dreaming, it will be better to die, die, die.”