The rising class struggle

June 8, 2010

This year has seen a dramatic increase in political dissent and workers' protests in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. In the second installment of this three-part series, Mostafa Ali describes Egyptian workers' new sense of confidence--and new tactics.

Part 2

EGYPT IS a country with a long history of workers' struggles--a history that stretches from the 1919 anti-colonial revolution, to the great anti-colonial movements and workers strikes of the mid-1940s, to the more recent workers' upheaval against the IMF neoliberal regime in 1977.

Unfortunately, though, Egyptian workers have taken beating for the last 30-some years. Neoliberal attacks, privatization and political repression have worn down workers and disoriented them for many years. Therefore, the class struggle remained relatively quiet and on the defensive for most of the 1980s and 1990s.

But a dire economic situation, especially since the onset of the world economic crisis two years ago, has taken an unbearable toll on poor people.

According to the Workers Liberty Web site, Egypt's official unemployment rate stood at 9 percent at the start of 2008, but began to rise with the impact of the global economic crisis. Actual unemployment is between 20-30 percent and is compounded by chronic underemployment for large numbers.

Workers from the Tanta Flax & Oil factory demonstrate outside an Egyptian government ministry building
Workers from the Tanta Flax & Oil factory demonstrate outside an Egyptian government ministry building

Today, 44 percent of all Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Over 2 million don't have enough income to pay for food, let alone other expenses. Egypt's minimum wage has been 35 Egyptian pounds ($6.17) per month since 1984.

So it wasn't surprising that the last few years witnessed a massive increase in the level of strikes and protests--something that has been building six years.

In 2009 alone, according to a report released by Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and Children of Earth Foundation for Human Rights, there were a total of 478 industrial actions by workers, including 184 sit-ins, 123 strikes, 79 demonstrations and 27 rallies.

In previous years, two important strikes--by Mahalla textile workers and by real-estate tax collectors--galvanized millions of other workers.

Twice, in 2006 and 2007, the textile workers, located in the central Delta region and historically a radical group, struck successfully, putting themselves at the center of national politics.

And in 2008, a 10,000-person sit-in of real-estate tax collectors caused the government to give in to demands for a 300 percent wage increase. Then in April 2009, thousands of tax collectors gathered at the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, forcing Minister Aisha Abdel Hady to recognize their independent union, the first in Egypt since 1957.

THIS YEAR has brought with it a new sense of confidence and new sets of tactics in struggle that showed the creativity and combativity of Egyptian workers.

Shari Maglis El-Shaab--or the People's Assembly Street in Arabic--is a very busy short road in midtown Cairo that runs for less than one mile. It connects the Tahrir Square area (Cairo's largest square) and the working class neighborhood of Sayda Zainab.

The street is named as it is because the Egyptian Parliament--dominated today by Mubarak's own party--stands on it. The Interior Ministry--a citadel of repression and torture--is a five-minute walk. The headquarters of the Cabinet of Ministers is not too far away. Major foreign banks, foreign embassies, an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the old American University in Cairo--all symbols of foreign domination--are also within walking distance.

In the past three months, the People's Assembly Street has been transformed into a protest zone for ever-increasing numbers of workers and the poor.

Strikers who previously occupied workplaces in their own cities over wages and benefits (some for weeks and months to no avail) decided to take trains to the capital to confront the "people's representatives." Dozens of workers and the poor from every corner of the country camped out on the People's Assembly Street sidewalks between January and May of this year. They brought with them their pain and frustrations from years of suffering under neoliberalism.

Thousands of other poor Egyptians walk by every day and cheer the strikers on. Neighborhood residents (many poor and struggling themselves) donate basic food supplies--and, of course, tea.

Those who arrived in January and February battled a cold winter, huddling in blankets on the sidewalks. Every Friday, they hold the Islamic weekly prayer on the spot and find verses from the Koran that denounce greed, poverty and corruption.

Three groups of workers have stood out among those participating in the sidewalk protests: Tanta Flax & Oil workers from the city of Tanta in the central Nile Delta region, workers from the Information Center for Local Development, and Amonsito textile workers from the 10th of Ramadan City outside Cairo.

TANTA IS a working class city in the central Delta region, only about a half-hour drive from the militant industrial bastion of Mahalla Al-Kubra. For months now, dozens of strikes, workplace occupations and protests have rocked the city and the larger governorate of Gharbia, of which Tanta is the capital.

Tanta nurses--all of them women--have been protesting and striking for wage increases for the past few months in a number of different hospitals. Also, 1,500 railway mechanics struck in late March and shut down all train operations in the governorate for 24 hours to demand reinstatement of cost-of-living bonuses.

Tanta Flax & Oil workers have grievances that are similar to thousands of other workers. In 2005, the government privatized the former public-sector company by selling it to a Saudi foreign investor in a sweetheart deal. In 2009, the investor shut the company and fled the country. So suddenly, workers, many of whom had been at this job for 10 or 20 years, found themselves unemployed and penniless.

The Flax & Oil workers started protesting in their own city to demand that the government pursue the Saudi investor or compensate them. But the government did nothing. So in January 2010, the workers got on the trains and took their message to the cabinet and parliament in the capital city.

Once in Cairo, they set up tents outside the cabinet headquarters. When police tried to disperse them, they held their ground. "We're calling on President Mubarak to intervene," worker Gamal Othman told the online paper Daily News on the eve of the sit-in. "We've been on the streets now for nine months."

As time went on, the protesters became more radicalized and their demands became sharper. They are calling on the government to either pay them $8,000 in early retirement pensions or renationalize the plant to put them back to work.

Meanwhile, hundreds of workers at a government agency called the Information Centers for Local Development--who have been living on $20 a month salaries for nine years--took their families to camp out on the People's Assembly Street in March. For weeks, they slept on the sidewalk, organized rallies and were joined by their supporters.

The sheer poverty that these workers have had to endure drew tremendous public support, which forced even the head of the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation to call on the government to pay them a living wage.

On more than one occasion, Information Centers workers called off their sit-ins after the government promised to resolve their cases. But they returned to the People's Assembly Street again and again after the government reneged on its promises.

Finally, in late April, the government caved to the Information Centers workers' demands and allotted them retroactive salary increases, bonuses, and social and medical security benefits in the new fiscal budget.

At the same time, some 1,700 workers at the Amonsito textile factories in 10th of Ramadan City have been without an income for two years since the Syrian owner of the company fled the country.

After repeatedly failing to get the government or the Egyptian Trade Union Federation to compensate them for years of services--some had worked at the company for 25 years--the workers headed to the People's Assembly Street in early March, camping on the sidewalks for days. They organized lively rallies and were joined by their families and children. Like the Tanta Flax & Oil workers, the Amonsito workers demanded that the government either nationalize the idled plants or compensate them monetarily.

A few weeks into the sit-in, the government caved and promised a $30 million compensation package--about three months' salary for each worker for every year of service. At this point, the Amonsito workers declared victory and went home. But their plight had struck a deep chord with the public, with many residents of the area donating bread, falafel, water and cheese to help them avoid hunger.

THE TENACITY of Tanta's Flax & Oil workers and other campers in the face of government neglect and repression certainly encouraged more and more groups to head to the People's Assembly Street--to camp, to have their own one-day protest, or to show supporter for others. Since February, the area has come to resemble a mini-Tiananmen Square rebellion site.

For example, in late April, dozens of residents from outside Alexandria, about 100 miles north of Cairo, set up tents outside the cabinet headquarters to protest arbitrary house demolition orders by the governor of the area. A few days later, they decided to form an all workers and farmers political party. The next day, they visited strikers in front of the parliament building and petitioned for the new party.

Unemployed handicapped men and women--a group that lacks basic human rights in Egypt--were inspired by the protests of Tanta Flax & Oil workers. They joined the sidewalk sit-ins in February, simply pushing their wheelchairs to Shari Maglis El-Shaab. They battled the cold and still have not left yet. Their demands: implementation of a law that secures 5 percent of all jobs to handicapped people and guarantees government housing.

Meanwhile, numerous individuals with their own personal economic and social grievances have poured in to People's Assembly Street. A father whose daughter was denied admission to a first grade spot--to make room for a rich man's daughter--brought all three of his daughters to the street. The four hung nooses around their necks to declare that they would commit suicide if their demands are not met. A man diagnosed with cancer blocked traffic by sleeping in the middle of the street to demand medical treatment.

The list goes on and on. Plus, lawyers--a traditionally radical group in Egypt--have been protesting and occupying their union's headquarters to demand an end to police assaults.

The gathering of so many diverse groups of workers with varying, yet generally similar, grievances has led to ever-greater number of them drawing the conclusion that struggle and solidarity are necessary to improve their lives.

Heartening acts of solidarity and donations from the public have kept the striking campers alive--literally--on the sidewalk of the People's Assembly Street. Ordinary people, despite their own struggles to get by, donate food, blankets and tea. Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that one group of campers survived for days on bread and feta cheese donated by a local resident. Another poor elderly woman who couldn't pay her own bills showed up with seven pounds of tangerines.

The role played by women in these strikes and sit-ins has been pivotal in sustaining them. From nurses, to textile workers, to Information Centers workers, to wives, daughters and sisters of strikers, women have shown a great deal of militancy and confidence.

Today, Egyptian women make up almost 40 percent of all employed workers. They have to shoulder the double burden of a job and maintaining homes, managing on an ever-shrinking household budget. Their role in the recent struggles opens the door to changing men's attitudes about women's place in society.

As the strikes and sits-in on People's Assembly Street continue, workers are becoming more radical. People began the movement by appealing to Mubarak and his wife for help. By May, they were planning marches on the presidential palace to challenge the president.

Some groups of workers have decided to take direct action, which has meant confronting the police. For example, in early May, Amonsito workers became furious when they found out the government unilaterally decreased the compensation amount promised to them, from $30 million to $11 million. So they decided to return to the People's Assembly Street and begin a new sit-in.

On May 23, after two weeks on the sidewalk in 100-degree heat, as they waited for the government to honor the original agreement, fed-up Amonsito campers attempted to break into the parliament building to representatives. They failed to break through police barricades, so they regrouped and began to march on the federal bank a few blocks away to demand that the bank issue all $30 million that was initially promised to them.

Police attacked the marching workers, violently breaking up the march and arrested seven workers. The next day, fearing that the movement was becoming too dangerous, security forces violently removed all other campers and shut down the People's Assembly Street.

Despite the crackdown on the sidewalk campers, however, more groups of workers are continuing to strike, march and protest. 2010 promises to end with more labor actions than all previous six years together.

Further Reading

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