Revolution through Arab eyes – the Factory

Film review

Revolution through Arab eyes – the factory

David Johnson reviews a new documentary showing the history of struggle in the Middle East’s largest factory.

“Revolutions don’t come out of the blue,” says the commentator, as scenes of Egypt’s 2011 revolution open this history of the Mahalla Spinning and Weaving Company and the struggles of its 27,000 workers. Interviews with past and present activists show the background to those inspiring events.

Workers speak with pride about their workplace, with its ten cotton mills, power station and 300,000 machines, making five million items of clothing a year. The film shows a side of Egyptian women largely ignored by the media.

Workers interviewed are confident activists, who describe their work and the solidarity coming from it. “We spend eight hours every day together. It’s more than we spend at home. We are all together – Christians and Muslim. At work we are like a family.”

Within a decade of Mahalla opening, the first strike took place in 1938. Workers won a change of shift pattern. In 1947 a strike demanded the reinstatement of victimised workers. Tanks entered the factory and three were killed.

When the Free Officers, with Colonel Nasser at their head, seized power in 1952, we see scenes of huge enthusiastic crowds. Workers had been inspired by Nasser’s speeches, but a month later they went on strike and were brutally suppressed. Later, concessions were made and the film shows how Nasser combined reforms with repression.

Many workers in the 1950s and 1960s believed they were living under a socialist regime. Mahalla was (and still is) a state-owned company. “Nasser followed socialism,” says one retired worker. “I was a socialist member of the union. We loved him for his bravery and for freeing us from the monarchy.”

The film does not challenge this description of Nasser’s regime, although socialism cannot exist without real democratic control by workers at every level of society.

After Nasser’s death, Sadat changed the regime’s direction and started favouring the private sector. When soldiers returned to their Mahalla jobs after the 1973 war, dissatisfaction grew. A strike broke out in 1975 which one leader describes as “poor workers against capitalism.”

Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat in 1981, accelerating privatisation. Interviewees remember the Mahalla strikes of 1986 and 1988. In the first, management caved in and conceded the workers’ demands of paid weekends.

During the second, 20,000 demonstrated, chanting “Down with Mubarak” – the first time this was heard on the streets. They were protesting at the cancellation of an education allowance. The leaders were given long prison sentences and then sent to distant parts of Egypt after their release.

Following that defeat, no strike took place until 2006. Then, after a two-month pay bonus had not been paid, women workers walked out. “Where are the men? The women are here!” they chanted as they marched round the massive site, the men joining in.

After a three-day strike, management promised the bonus would be paid. But when that promise too was broken, another six-day strike and factory occupation won a massive victory. Many other workers were inspired to follow Mahalla’s example.

Mubarak’s fall

The film mentions that the official union leaders were impeached, but it does not adequately expose their role as an arm of management in trying to defeat the strikes. But it describes the vital later step towards setting up an independent trade union, with elected leaders instead of appointed ones.

The Mubarak regime’s fall was heralded by the events of 6 April 2008. The film says the Mahalla workers called for a general strike, but in fact the strike never got fully off the ground inside the factory due to a massive security forces clampdown.

But outside in the city, workers’ families poured onto the streets and fought pitched battles with police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, killing three. Egypt’s prime minister came to the factory days later to personally promise the workers a month’s pay as bonus. But this was too little, too late to save the regime when the uprising broke out in January 2011.

The film’s disappointing conclusion shows revolutionary activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, saying: “Even if workers are not raising political slogans now, let them win and help them win those economic struggles. They will get the confidence to raise political slogans the following days.”

Of course socialists should give every support to help win strikes and occupations, but we should also show the links between these actions and the fight for democratic rights.

El-Hamalawy continues: “The labour movement is the only solution to put a silver bullet in the body of the regime. These uprisings and strikes will continue until we get a cabinet and a new regime that can solve Egypt’s structural problems, but as long as the army generals are still ruling this country no political process is going to deliver us the demands that we have put forward in Tahrir and other squares.”

But do the Revolutionary Socialists, of which El-Hamalawy is a prominent member, really believe that ending the generals’ rule will allow a political process to deliver all workers’ demands?

While capitalism continues, its government representatives may change but bosses will go on squeezing as much labour from workers for as little pay as possible.

The struggle to kick the generals out must continue, but no illusions should be created that a capitalist civilian government will meet all workers’ aspirations. A government of workers and the poor is needed.

This film is a good introduction for further discussion. See it on YouTube