Mahalla al-Kubra textile plant. Photo: Faris Knight/CC
Mahalla al-Kubra textile plant. Photo: Faris Knight/CC

David Johnson

As well as coming under pressure from the masses over the Egyptian regime’s cowardly response to the Israeli state’s merciless attacks on Gaza, ‘strongman’ President Sisi faces rising workers’ anger. Sharply rising food prices have severely hit Egypt’s low-paid workers, but there are signs of a fightback.

Around 14,000 textile workers at Egypt’s largest factory, Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta region, started a week’s strike on 22 February. Workers at one of real estate company Talaat Moustafa Group’s biggest subsidiaries, Alexandria Construction, in Cairo, held a protest on 28 February.

It was women workers in Mahalla’s clothing factory who started chanting slogans, which quickly spread from one building to another. Security staff locked exits to stop these workers, as well as those at the onsite power station, gathering in the central square. However, on the third day, 7,000 strikers rallied there. Dozens were arrested. As usual, the official state-run trade union committee denounced the strike, but workers drove them out of the rally.

This echoed the historic 2006 strike, when Mahalla women began the strike that was a key step towards the 2011 uprising bringing President Hosni Mubarak’s 31-year rule to an end. In 2008, the city saw an uprising that was to be repeated on a national scale, three years later.

The new strike’s trigger was the public sector minimum wage increase from 4,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) to LE6,000 per month. Although Mahalla is state-owned, pay is covered by the National Wages Council, which last October raised the private sector minimum wage to just LE3,500. A Mahalla worker with 25 years’ service taking home LE4,000 per month gets around US$130 at the official exchange rate, or US$80 at the parallel market rate (at the time of writing).

Workers also demanded their daily meal allowance be increased to LE30, chanting this barely covers “the price of a litre of milk.” They also chanted: “Where is Sisi’s decision?” pointing to an increasing willingness to challenge the president. In January, he arrogantly remarked: “Don’t we eat? We eat. Won’t we drink? We drink, and everything is functioning. Things are expensive and some things are not available? So what?”

The strike ended after a week, following the Minister of Public Business Sector’s intervention. Management agreed to pay LE6,000 per month minimum and most arrested workers were released. An earlier offer that included overtime payments, profit share and health insurance in the LE6,000 was not accepted.

Construction workers’ protest

Hundreds of Talaat Moustafa workers protested outside company headquarters. The company has been laying off workers on permanent contracts and replacing them with temporary workers on worse terms and conditions. Workers demanded overdue payments, a cost-of-living bonus, better health insurance and safety gear on construction sites.

Site conditions are poor, with no safety gear available and insufficient healthcare coverage. Many permanent workers laid off have been injured at work or suffer chronic illnesses.

Workers told reporters criteria for bonus rates and rises are obscure, but are consistently paid out to people related to or connected with managers. Managers and their assistants receive lavish benefits, while workers’ pay stays low.

Unusually, the police did not attempt to shut down the protest, although they have stopped smaller protests in the past. However, on 4 March an office workers’ protest was prevented when security forces locked gates.

But then hundreds of the company’s own security guards refused to start their shift! They demanded higher wages, better benefits, working hours and holidays. “Our salaries are very weak at LE3,000. We work for over 14 hours a day, unlike the rest of the employees. We receive the quarterly bonus at a lower percentage than them,” one guard explained.

Within 30 minutes, a senior manager met them, promising to pay a rise within two months, after which the protest finished.

Mubarak’s regime remains

Talaat Moustafa Group has had huge contracts constructing the new capital city President Sisi has overseen. It tripled its real estate and hospitality business in the past year, despite Egypt’s economic crisis. In the past few months its share price shot up, making millions for its multimillionaire major shareholder, Talaat Moustafa. One of Africa’s richest men, he was close to Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who was hated by workers for pushing through widespread privatisation when his father was president.

In 2008, Talaat Moustafa was found guilty of paying a former policeman $2 million to murder Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. The other major shareholders of Talaat Moustafa Group are the Bin Laden family of Saudi Arabia.

In February, the company entered a partnership agreement with United Arab Emirates investment company ADQ to build a vast new tourist city at Ras el-Hikma on the Mediterranean coast, west of Alexandria. The $35 billion deal, including sale of land by the army, will greatly help Sisi’s government pay $42 billion debt and interest charges it owes this year. Many questions are raised, including the viability of the project, its environmental cost, the true value of the land, how its army ownership came about, what local residents’ views are (they haven’t been consulted) and what controls there will be over future profits in a ‘free economic zone’.

The Sisi government’s desperate need for foreign exchange has forced it to sell off state-owned assets. Ras el-Hikma adds to the growing list of Egyptian companies and land now under Gulf ownership and control.

The gross inequality, corruption and brutal repression of opposition of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime has continued, and even increased, under Sisi. Recent strikes and workers’ protests could mark the beginning of a new wave of working-class action, as developed in Mubarak’s final years.

The reawakening of the Egyptian working class could be a powerful factor in ending the crisis in Gaza, opening the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid and encouraging workers and the poor across the Middle East and North Africa to oust their mega-rich rulers across the region.

Building independent trade unions and workers’ parties with socialist, democratic and internationalist programmes will be needed to end ongoing capitalist poverty, war and environmental destruction.