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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 federation.

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 apparatus.

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 benefits.

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.