The Egyptian cotton city of Mahallah hides its political lessons well.
A place of 24-hour-a-day Stalinist factories, ruined 19th-century townhouses buried between concrete blocks and a shambling railway system of filthy rolling stock, only the appearance of a startlingly huge cockroach scuttling across the floor of the municipality office prompts the council workers to sit up. That and the arrival of a stranger creature: your sweat-soaked correspondent, inquiring about an industrial strike that began and ended five years ago.
Every time I asked about the strike, the officials asked me if I'd seen Mubarak in his Cairo court cage. They thought I was talking about the battles in Tahrir Square last January. Only when one of the heroines of the Battle of Mahallah, Widdad Dimirdash, a scarved woman of super-energy, loud voice and a great sense of pride, walks into the room do they understand. Mrs Dimirdash helped to lead one of the first great strikes against the government-owned (that is, Mubarak-owned) Misr Cotton Company in 2006. "It wasn't really political," she says – I'm not sure I believe her here – "but we had no choice. Our wages had become so low and the cost of food so high that we could no more afford to eat and live."
Of the 30,000 cotton workers in Mahallah – women and men labour in separate factories – 6,000 are female. They stopped work along with the men, living in their separate factories and refusing to leave until they received a "massive" pay increase; from £60 a month to £100, making them – still – among the lowest-paid industrial workers in Egypt. But the Mubarak government agreed the new salaries within three days.
It had no option. Mahallah, the centre of Egypt's export trade, was too big to fight. "The First Cotton Town in the Delta", a rusting sign informs me as I drive past broken pavements, garbage and "toc-tocs", the puttering petrol-shrouded rickshaws that cluster round the old level crossing. The city wears its history lightly but it floats, nevertheless, around those decrepit ruins. Originally introduced by the French in 1817, cotton from Mahallah flourished when the American civil war cut Europe off from its transatlantic imports in the 1860s. Goodbye Deep South. Welcome Nile Delta.
On 6 April 2008, however, the people of Mahallah added yet another footnote to their history. This time they marched in the streets, negotiating with a Mubarak government minister for better working conditions and salaries, and withstanding the violence of the police. Mrs Dimirdash was one of two women in the seven-strong workers' negotiating team. "The people set up camps in the main boulevard, the 'Street of the President'," local journalist Adel Dora recalled for me. "The baltagi [pro-government street thugs armed with crowbars] attacked us terribly and the police used tear gas, but we got people to come in and support us from the countryside by using Facebook." Only two Arab satellite television channels covered the Mahallah battle. The Egyptian press, Dora says, "simply lied about us – they printed everything the Mubarak government wanted". The men and women of the city held out for a week.
In 2009, they tried again, but this time – and here Dora lowered his head – the people were frightened. "They were afraid of the police, of being killed, of more violence, of what the government might do to them." Dora told his story with great anger but, oddly, with little sense of the precedent his city had set. Here in dingy Mahallah in 2006 and in 2008 was a miniature, if premature, version of the very revolution that would overwhelm the Egyptian government this February and send Hosni Mubarak to his prison cage stretcher-bed in Cairo this week. The unity of ordinary men and women, the use of Facebook, the city-centre encampment, the baltagi and the tear-gas-firing cops; it all reappeared before our eyes in Tahrir Square. And in that square we found – though we did not understand their presence – men and women from Mahallah. Yes, they knew how to overthrow a dictator.
The French journalist Alain Gresh was among the first to grasp the full significance of this; that these workers were "the forgotten actors" of the Egyptian revolution. He has recorded how one Egyptian industrial reporter responded to his questions in Cairo by asking: "Why, up till now, have the rebellions in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain failed?" He might have added Syria to the list. But it was in Tunisia, whose unions were strong, that the Tunisian general workers' syndicate finally brought down the Ben Ali dictatorship. In his final days, its call for a general strike was devastating. Nor were the men and women of Mahallah the only industrial workers to crush Mubarak's power. The Suez cement factory complex workers – who had staged their own miniature "revolution" in 2009 to protest at the company's cement sales to Israel – began another political strike in February of this year.
As for the workers of Syria, Libya, Yemen, they had long ago been co-opted, Baathised, Green Booked or tribalised, socialism being an unhappy inspiration to most dictators despite their expressions of friendship for the old Soviet Union. So does it take a strong trade union or workers' movement to bring revolutions in the Middle East to successful fruition? Mahallah is a grubby city – but its place in history is growing by the year.