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Egypt: Strikewave shakes regime and state-run unions
Elite fear new social explosions
A HUGE strike wave has swept across Egypt in the past three months - a country where strikes are illegal and demonstrations of any sort face brutal, bloody repression.
Tens of thousands of textile, cement and poultry workers, as well as railway workers, shipyard, municipal and hospital workers have taken action, including factory occupations. Anger has erupted over low pay, poor health and safety, privatisation and management corruption - and over government-run trade unions siding with the employers.
Almost unreported in the western press, this strike wave is of major importance for many reasons. Egypt has one of the biggest and potentially strongest working classes in the Middle East, with a long tradition of struggle. The fact that this section of the population is taking action independent of any other sections of society or political parties represents a new, progressive and hugely significant development.
This is especially the case in a region where discontent and anti-imperialist sentiment has often been channelled into parties representing the ideas of the most reactionary sections of political Islam.
Even more significant is that the struggle for better wages has coincided with an Egyptian 'intifada' against the leaders of the corrupt state-run unions. These are in reality little different from the so-called 'unions' that were organised in the Stalinist Soviet bloc ie transmission belts for the regime's policies.
This movement has continued to develop and has won important concessions. Unlike other protest movements it has not been snuffed out by the notorious riot police as soon as it broke out. This is an important lesson on the potential power of the working class in changing society in the Middle East.
In December, 27,000 textile workers went on strike at Egypt's largest public-sector factory, Ghazl El-Mahalla, north of Cairo. They demanded the same bonus (two months salary) as other public-sector workers. Union officials supported management but the strike went ahead. The workers settled after five days for a bonus of 45 days' salary.
13,000 have since signed a petition calling for the local trade union officials to be impeached. Mass resignations are threatened and workers are demanding the formation of a new union, independent of the government-backed General Federation of Trade Unions.
On 14 February, a compromise plan agreed by the official union and the workers' leaders was rejected by the workforce. Under the plan, a Works Representative Committee with over 100 elected members would sit alongside the official union committee, with whom it would have equal powers.
Also in December, 3,000 workers occupied the headquarters of Helwan and Tora cement plants. They barricaded it with lorries and denied entry or exit until the administration responded to their demands, paying bonuses that were three months overdue.
On 4 February 21,000 workers in three textile factories in the Northern Delta region went on strike for better pay. 12,000 occupied Kafr al-Dawar, demanding a share of the revenue from the sale of company land, better safety and medical care, an end to the freeze on promotions and a 45-day bonus like the Ghazl El-Mahalla workers. Management corruption also fuelled the workers' anger.
When state security forces locked the workers in the plant in an attempt to starve them into submission, the workers defiantly promised to stay and not eat until their demands were met. "Strike until death! Strike until payment!" became their slogan.
The strike ended on 10 February, when Al Behera governor, Major General Mohamed Shaarawi told the workers that the government had addressed their demands. Again, there was fury at the role of the official trade union.
At Misr Shebin Al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company, 4,200 spontaneously struck and up to 3,000 occupied the state-owned plant as the Indian company, IndoRama were about to take over. It was the first strike in the factory's 47-year history.
Workers had been promised a bonus payment of 140 days' pay, but found instead they were being given a loan of 45 days' pay.
Incredibly, Spinning and Weaving Syndicate union leader, Said El-Gohary, accused the strikers of being "terrorists who want to sabotage the company." Workers pointed out the factory was their livelihood so they would hardly want to sabotage it.
Textile workers are among the lowest paid in Egypt, earning 250-400 Egyptian pounds [£23-£36.50] a month. There has been increasing competition from China, forcing living standards even lower. The currency was devalued in 2001 and then floated in 2004, increasing prices on imported goods.
Free trade zones have been established where factories are exempt from customs duty, putting pressure on companies outside the zones to also cut costs. While workers have paid the price, profits have been rolling in.
An American Chamber of Commerce study in 2004 said that "certain features of the Egyptian labour market need to be modified if economic reform and growth is to be attained." It called for the abolition or reform of job security provisions for employees and the end of wage-setting rules for public enterprise workers, adding that "a flexible labour market attracts investors."
On 26 December 2006, President Hosni Mubarak announced that the government intended to carry out 34 changes to the constitution. He said these amendments "not only aim to rid Egypt of socialist principles [!] launched in the 1960s, but also seek to create a more favourable atmosphere for foreign investments."
Although Egypt's constitution describes the state as a "Democratic Socialist Republic", Colonel Nasser's dictatorial regime in the 1950s and 1960s had very little to do with genuine socialism.
It is true important reforms were granted under Nasser and the nationalisations carried out by the regime were a blow to imperialist interests. However, the nationalised industries were not run on the basis of democratic workers' control and management and so became a means by which sections of the bureaucratic elite could siphon off millions through corruption.
A genuine socialist programme would include the nationalisation of all the major companies, banks and land, with democratic workers' control. Egypt's resources could then be planned to meet the needs of working and poor people, with decent pay and proper health and education facilities.
It would also include democratic rights, including free elections, free speech, a free press and the right to organise in free trade unions.
Dangers to system
At present there is no political party arguing for such a programme. The main opposition party, the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, has had almost nothing to say about the strike wave. The government has accused the Brotherhood of organising the strikes, but there is no evidence that they have done so.
As many of their leading members come from business and middle class layers, they are caught between wanting to oppose the regime while fearing this mass spontaneous movement.
However, if the movement continues to grow then it is not ruled out that some Muslim Brotherhood leaders could change their position and start to use more radical rhetoric about the strike.
The pro-democracy protest movement, Kifaya ('Enough'), that organised demonstrations in the face of security forces' attacks in 2004 and 2005, has been unable to reach out to these workers' movements.
They have continued to hold protests but the numbers participating are rarely over 1,000, often much less, mainly because they are not taking up demands which affect the working class. In December, several leading members resigned.
Among Mubarak's amendments is Article 88, which stipulates judicial oversight of elections. The proposed amendment will reduce the supervisory role currently played by judges, replacing it with an oversight role for the powerful State Security police.
"Mubarak is paving the way for his son to inherit the throne, by using state security and other executive bodies to eliminate rivals," said Judge Hisham Bastawisi, a leader of last spring's Judges Movement (which protested about the rigged elections).
Sections of the ruling class can see the dangers for their system from the explosive anger stored up among Egypt's workers and poor.
Speaking in January, Ibrahim Eissa, the Editor-in-Chief of independent newspaper El Destour, said, "When 27,000 workers in Mahalla go on strike under the banner 'we are real men,' that is a sign of change to come. We are floating on a sea of corruption here in Egypt, and we have two choices - chaos and change. Nothing will remain as it is now for much longer."
He is quite rightly warning of the possiblity of revolutionary explosions in the near future in Egypt.
There is growing working-class confidence having seen concessions forced from the government by bold and united action.
The Egyptian working class is the biggest in the Middle East and their victories give an example to workers throughout the Arabic-speaking world and beyond. What is needed is a revolutionary workers' party that can link these struggles with a programme for a democratic socialist society.
In The Socialist 8 March 2007:
International Socialist Resistance
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review
International Women's Day
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Workplace news and analysis