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Strike wave rolls through Egypt

Published May 21, 2007 9:23 PM

A wave of labor strikes is rolling through Egypt, both in the Nile Delta, where Egypt’s large textile factories are located, and in Cairo, its major city and capital, where transportation and metro workers have struck. The most common demand is for higher pay and payment of bonuses and profit sharing, an important part of an Egyptian worker’s income.

There were 56 strikes recorded in April and 15 in the first week of May, according to Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy in the online edition of the Middle East Report. Egypt has a population of 80 million, of whom 22 million are workers.

The General Federation of Trade Unions (also known as the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions) was set up in 1956. All government workers were required to join the union. The GFTU up to now has never called a strike and there has never been a legal strike in Egypt.

In the current strike wave, in areas where local federations of the GFTU are supporting the workers’ struggles, workers have been able to win relatively easily. The workers have held sit-ins, hunger strikes and mass meetings but not picket lines, which might be broken up by the cops.

Where the GFTU local federations have supported the government, which has generally been the case, workers have had much more difficulty. The workers’ committees are forced to organize not only against their bosses—often banks and foreign companies that have bought privatized companies—but also against the official union. Still the workers have won some concessions.

To support and organize themselves, workers set up centers, which they legally organized as companies to get around the government’s labor laws and registration requirements. The most prominent of these centers is the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), whose general director is Kamal Abbas. The CTUWS grew out of two very militant strikes at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989 in which Abbas played a leading role. The government shut the CTUWS down the last week of this April.

An unusual aspect of the workers’ struggles in Egypt is the support they have gotten from some of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with deep roots in Egypt. The Brotherhood is a major opponent of Egyptian President Mubarak and also contains many very well-off businessmen.

In February, one of the Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament, Abd al-Aziz al-Husayni, announced his backing for the walkout of the Misr Spinning and Weaving workers in Kafr al-Dawwar, south of Alexandria. His parliamentary colleague, Sabir Abu al-Futouh, from Alexandria, followed up by issuing several statements supporting another strike. Husayni and Futouh are both from the Nile Delta, where the Muslim Brotherhood has more members who are not affluent.

Marxist groups have also organized support for the striking workers. Both the Marxists and the Muslim Brotherhood face severe repression from the Mubarak regime.

Egypt is one of the major recipients of U.S. military and economic aid. But this has not kept its workers, when lashed by globalization, privatization and increasing poverty, from taking on the bosses and the state apparatus designed to keep their struggles under control.