Egypt’s spreading strikes

February 18, 2011

Mostafa Ali reports from Egypt on the workers' rebellion shaping the struggle ahead.

STRIKES AND workers' actions are continuing across Egypt in defiance of attempts by the military chiefs who took over after Hosni Mubarak to stop the revolution from going further than the downfall of one tyrant.

This Friday, those strikes will be the backdrop for another demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where all the main forces that participated in the revolution are calling for a mobilization to honor the martyrs killed by Mubarak's security forces and thugs--and to demand that the army lift the repressive emergency laws, free political prisoners and grant other democratic reforms.

One week since Mubarak's vice president Omar Suleiman announced the dictator was stepping down, Egypt is anything but "back to normal," as its military rulers and their supporters in Egypt and in Washington, D.C., hoped. On Wednesday and Thursday, for example, the army-backed cabinet--which stayed on from Mubarak's final days--closed all banks, in anticipation of the resumption of strikes by state bank workers, who are demanding higher salaries and dismissal of corrupt management.

Striking public transit workers rally for their demands
Striking public transit workers rally for their demands (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has called on striking workers to go back to work, claiming that the continuation of protests could lead to economic catastrophe. Government-run newspapers that supported Mubarak until the 11th hour before switching sides on February 11 are likewise calling on strikers to put the "national interest" ahead of their economic demands. Even moderate sections of the anti-Mubarak opposition are calling for strikes to end out of fear of what is called "civil war"--but which really means an intensification of the class struggle.

These forces have good reason to worry--the working class of Egypt that inspired the revolution through its struggles of the past six years is now on strike. Workers have decided that the time has come to draw the line against the corrupt system of rich crony capitalists that the Mubarak regime represented and defended for so long.

THE SPREAD of the workers' uprising since Mubarak fell is phenomenal. This is an expression of how the lid has been lifted off Egyptian society--individuals or groups from all walks of life now feel they can organize and act to have their grievances heard and answered.

It would be impossible to list in this space all the hundreds of strikes and protests that have taken place. They come from every economic sector--Suez Canal workers, petroleum, textile, cement workers, iron and steel, bus drivers, railway workers, bank workers, nurses and hospital staff, teachers, government workers of all kinds, and airport and customs employees. Journalists are organizing to purge their institutions of pro-Mubarak apologists. Even workers in the camp of multinational peacekeeping forces, located in the Sinai, have gone on strike.

The strikes raise specific demands related to individual workplaces, and this been the excuse for some in the media to claim they aren't necessarily political. But if you look closer, there are a number of common factors in the nature of the strikes and their demands.

Most of the strikes are in the government-owned sector or in newly privatized companies. The demands typically center around five grievances.

First, workers want a 1,200-pound ($204) monthly minimum wage. Second, they want to replace corrupt CEOs--many of them are also members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Third, the strikers, many of whom have been working on temporary contracts for years, want job security. Fourth, many workers are demanding that privatization and outsourcing be reversed, and that they become government employees again. Fifth, among many strikers, there is a desire to get rid of pro-regime union officials and sympathy for the formation of new, independent unions.

A number of strikes have won concessions, especially around the demand to become permanent employees. Other walkouts have forced the government to replace corrupt managers and officials.

On January 30, four independent unions, led by the property tax collectors union, formed the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. This federation is gaining support. On Wednesday, night-shift workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co.--the country's largest state-owned company--in the industrial center of Mahalla went on strike, and the action spread to other shifts. The workers reportedly voted to join the new federation.

Egypt's two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, are the site of daily multiple strikes. While the heavily industrialized Delta region in the north is seeing many of these actions, some parts of Egypt's south are also on fire. For example, workers from all trades in the southern city of Asyut are on strike, and their street demonstrations give the town the appearance of a general strike.

Western media reports on the Egyptian revolution have emphasized the role of youth in making the revolution--and especially those with access to Facebook and Twitter. But this misses the importance of the mobilization of workers, whether young or old. As a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt said in an interview:

Young people from different social classes, all with their own grievances against the regime, did play a leading role in igniting this revolution. But the role of the working class in the revolution was central from day one...

[W]orkers in Cairo, Alexandria and Mansoura were key players from the beginning. However, workers couldn't participate collectively in the revolutionary struggle at that point because the capitalists went on strike and shut down production. That would change in the days before the fall of Mubarak on February 11, and in its immediate aftermath.

Egyptian workers refuse to live in the conditions they have been forced to endure any longer. They support the changes so far, but want to go further--to bring down the Mubarak regime and create the space to organize for their legitimate social and economic demands.

On the other side, military leaders and their liberal backers want the Egyptian revolution to come in for a soft landing as a political revolution against a dictator, which leaves the structure of Egyptian society intact. This would replace one section of the ruling class with another--the sections of big business not tarnished by associations with the Mubarak gang taking over from the most corrupt cronies.

The strike wave in Egypt shows the potential for deepening the revolution and transforming it into an all-out class struggle against the social and economic system.

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