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Egyptian workers wage ‘biggest struggle since British rule’

Published Jun 8, 2008 9:13 PM

A workers’ movement in Egypt that disdains the official trade union is building its own independent organizations and is confident enough of its strength that it recently attempted a general strike. Faced with a wave of strikes that are growing larger and more intense, the U.S.-backed regime of President Hosni Mubarak has responded with concessions for some workers and repression for workers whose leaders are particularly militant.

Historian Joel Beinin, who teaches at the American University of Cairo, writes that the workers’ movement “is the largest and most sustained social movement in Egypt since the campaign to oust the British after 1945.” (Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2008)

Growing poverty and hunger among workers amidst a major boom for the Egyptian capitalists and the international capital flooding into the country are fueling the workers’ anger and organizing. Egypt’s real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 6.8 percent in 2007 and is expected to exceed 7 percent for the 2007-2008 fiscal year. This growth produced 2.4 million new jobs, almost all requiring advanced skills or professional training, which means these jobs are beyond the reach of Egypt’s workers and peasants.

While bosses and some skilled technicians are thriving, for most workers the situation is sharply different. Some 45 percent of them earn $2 or less a day and can no longer afford the inflation that has more than doubled the price of many commodities, such as peppers, cooking oil and onions, or even bread, a staple which is heavily subsidized. The International Monetary Fund has called on Egypt to stop subsidizing bread, which would make the suffering for the poor even greater.

Thirty-eight percent of Egyptian workers have no formal job contracts or social insurance, which means that they can be fired at will and have no benefits—like vacations, sick days, unemployment or even workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries. In the private sector, the proportion is an astounding 71 percent. There is evidence that privatization has led to deterioration in health and safety conditions.

Mubarak offers raises, but hikes gas prices

In April, after fights on bread lines left 15 people dead, Mubarak called out the army to restore order and also to set up military bakeries, since low-paid government bureaucrats had been diverting subsidized flour to the private sector. Egyptian blogs report that as May ended the lines weren’t as long as they were in April and the fights weren’t deadly, but bread was still not readily available.

Early in May, Mubarak gave government employees a 30-percent raise in an attempt to undercut the call for a general strike. But then he hiked the price of gasoline more than that to pay for the raise.

Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., a public sector conglomerate and the largest industrial enterprise in Egypt, is in Mahalla al Khurba, an industrial town in the Nile delta north of Cairo. It has been the leader in this strike wave, its workers conducting successful strikes in December 2006 and September 2007. The strike called there in April of this year was picked up nationwide.

While giving the Misr workers, state employees, a 30-percent raise, Mubarak arrested three of the most militant leaders, who had openly identified themselves as socialists: Kamal el-Fayoumi, Tarek Amin and Kareem el-Beheiri. On June 1 they were released from the State Security jail and are home with their families.

By freeing the three, the Mubarak regime avoided the heat that would have been generated if he had kept three workers in jail whose only crime was that they effectively represented the workers in their enterprise. Other strikes have been breaking out in plants that didn’t get the raise and bonuses that went to Misr.

The Muslim Brotherhood, usually an opponent of Mubarak, has made ambivalent statements about this strike wave and the organizations the workers are building. One thing the MB objects to is the role of women in the struggle. In the pictures of the strikes at Misr, there are always women with their fists raised, some with head scarves, some without. One Mahallah female activist made the women’s role clear (see arabist.net): “Don’t call us ladies! We are workers and we are proud of it. We work in the factory, we work at home, and we work in the farm. We are workers!”

Muhammad al-Attar, an elected member of the strike committee at Misr, told a rally after he was released: “I want the whole government to resign. I want the Mubarak regime to come to an end. Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable. Work is politics. What we are witnessing here—this is as democratic as it gets.” (Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2008).

Egypt, with nearly 80 million people, is the strongest Arab ally of the U.S. and gets more U.S. aid than any other country, except Israel. It protects the southern and western flank of Israel as well as the Suez Canal, the route Mideastern oil takes to Europe.