Workers in Egypt bring Tahrir Square to shop floor
Published May 1, 2011 9:28 PM
Egyptian workers are taking Tahrir Square to the shop floor. Since 2004 more
than 1.7 million of them have held more than 3,000 strikes, job actions and
other forms of protest. (Joel Beinin, “The Struggle for Workers’
Rights”) The removal of Hosni Mubarak in a mass, popular uprising
involving all segments of Egyptian society has given workers an opening to take
their particular economic, political and social demands to the shop floor and
push for major changes.
Changes are coming rapidly in the structure of the labor union movement.
Hussein Megawer, the head of the officially recognized General Trade Union
Federation, has been jailed for 15 days under the same provisions regarding
investigating crimes that prosecutors used against Mubarak’s sons.
(Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, CTUWS news report)
The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions has quickly asserted
itself, condemning the military government’s proposal to outlaw strikes
as “a betrayal of the revolution.” The EFITU has called for a
massive May Day protest in Tahrir Square. The EFITU is growing rapidly, as seen
by the decision of 60,000 transportation workers to affiliate with the
Some 4,000 workers in Mahalla, a center of the textile industry and
workers’ struggles since the 1930s, went on strike to protest the way the
government is distorting the textile industry. At a very famous strike at the
Misr Spinning and Weaving Co. in Mahalla in 2006, a group of women workers
walked off their posts and marched through sections of the plant where mostly
men were working, chanting “Here are the women! Where are the men?”
The men quickly joined the women to shut the plant down. The women strikers
also put a lot of emphasis on organizing solidarity in the community. (Al
Jazeera, April 11)
In the last two decades of Mubarak’s rule big changes were made to the
Egyptian economy. Many state-owned companies were turned over to foreign owners
or politically connected entrepreneurs who made extraordinary profits by
cutting salaries and benefits, affecting women workers the most.
There are still problems. Women who attempted to hold a demonstration in Tahrir
Square on International Women’s Day were brutally attacked by government
thugs. The police and army did not protect them, and the movement didn’t
organize an effective people’s guard.
Need to overcome divisions, strive for unity
A good example of the complexities facing Egyptian workers can be seen in Qena,
a southern governorate (province) where for more than a week thousands have
protested the appointment of a new governor, Emad Shehata Mikhael. Mikhael is a
Copt, a Christian minority that makes up from 5 percent to 15 percent of
Egypt’s population, but is a substantial portion of the people in Qena.
He has spent his whole career as a police officer in Mubarak’s repressive
In the first days of protests Copts and Muslims both came out. But more
recently groups have appeared with banners citing Mikhael as “an enemy of
God.” However, according to the English-language Daily News of April 22,
“Protesters vowed to form neighborhood watch groups to protect churches
during their upcoming Christian holidays and chanted ‘Muslims and
Christians are one hand,’ refuting allegations that the protests were
sectarian in nature.”
The Free Coalition of Railway Workers joined the protests and cut off rail
service in Qena.
Earlier in March, more than 6,000 teachers went on strike to demand permanent
jobs, not three-year appointments. (CTUWS, March 1) Teachers in Egypt face
class sizes of 90 students and get paid $20 a month to start.
Another problem is the return of 2 million workers from Libya. Their
remittances are going to be sorely missed because they had earned much more in
Libya than in Egypt. The Egyptian bourgeoisie is going to try to turn these
repatriated workers into a reserve army of unemployed to drive down wages and
Workers in Egypt are fighting to build their own organizations and overcome the
divisions they have inherited from their past oppression. They are indeed
building unity and solidarity.
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