April 6th

I will be in Mahalla tomorrow covering the strike in the Ghazl el-Mahalla textiles factory, the 3rd strike since December 2006. I’m super excited about going, mostly because it will mean meeting workers who not only won two previous strikes, but succeeded in getting rid of the company chairman and board of directors, i.e. heroes. In addition I find the atmosphere at even small scale sit-ins and protests electrifying so 20,000 men and women standing up to their management, the government, the state security army and their own bloody union (!) should be amazing.

About the their own bloody union thing: I’ve been reading bits and pieces about the Egyptian labour movement, including an excellent booklet by Mostafa Bassiouni about the surge of strikes and sit-ins which began after the December 2006 Ghazl el-Mahalla strike. This strike was opposed by the workers’ official union, as was their next strike in September; women workers attacked the union chief with their shoes when he tried to persuade them to call off the strike, which I think is the least he could have expected. Tellingly, during negotiations at the end of the strike, the workers’ union was on the same side of the table as factory management.

This is a legacy of the Union of Workers’ Syndicates of Egypt established in 1957, a three-level organisation which seems to suffer from the same cronyism, corruption, lack of transparency and crippling bureaucracy which afflicts the majority of governmental institutions in Egypt. Bassiouni points out that on more than one occasion the same individual has been both head of the Union and the minister of manpower. Given that at this time the state was the largest employer and most members of the Union were employed in the public sector, this meant that the individual employed in both these roles was supposed to simultaneously represent both workers and their employer. Bonkers.

Being as it is, stuffed full of NDP supporters, this Union has demonstrated that it is inimically opposed to workers’ interests, and in particular their right to strike. The Ghazl el-Mahalla workers have their own organisation now, the Rabta, or League, which will be leading the calls for a number of demands tomorrow in a factory which seems to have been turned into a military barracks in anticipation of the strike.

Mahalla reinvigorated the labour union movement in 2006 and it has inspired calls for a general strike throughout Egypt tomorrow. Here are the details, provided in a charmingly odd English translation of the original Arabic:

Protest against Oppression & Corruption

Tomorrow’s peaceful strike, Sunday April 6, 2008

Cairo, April 5 2008,

No Work
No University
No School
No Selling

We need Just Judiciary
We need Enough Salaries
We need Work
We need Education for our Children

We need Appropriate Transportations
We need Hospitals
We need Medicines for our Children
We need Freedom and Dignity

No Thug Policemen
No Cases Fabrication
No Price Hikes
No Patronage
No Torture in Police Stations
No Protection Money
No Corruption
No Bribes
No Detentions

Tell your friends and family to also start work strike by tomorrow APRIL 6.

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information backs the Egyptians right to strike. http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/2008/pr0405.shtml

Always with his finger on the pulse even from California Hossam has a great roundup of what’s planned for tomorrow here. The Hisham Mubarak Center has set up a ‘Front for the Defence of Egypt’s Protestors’ which is already sending alerts out via the ever useful Facebook. One activist, Mostafa Khalil, has already been arrested in Mansoura, accused of membership of an illegal organisation (opposition group Kefaya) and has been detained for fifteen days.

The group has just sent a message saying that blogger Malek has been arrested.

I have mixed feelings about the sagacity of the call for a general strike tomorrow, mostly because I’m not sure how appeals for a strike sent out via Facebook and the Internet will succeed in mobilising the millions of Egyptians who do not use these media. I showed Samia – who cleans my house and does not use the Internet – a statement about the strike and she had heard nothing about it. She clearly identified with the motivations behind the strike but her main priority is her daughter, who goes to Helwan University. I’ll tell her not to go to university on Sunday, she told me. In protest? I asked. No, in case something happens to her in a demonstration or something, she replied.

At the other end of the class spectrum Egyptians on an English language mailing list I subscribe to have expressed their objection to the strike as being anti everything but not pro anything and generally not being constructive. One computer programmer friend described it as ‘mass vandalism’ and ‘aih kalam’ [nonsense]. He said that nobody in his office would strike tomorrow.

Part of the problem is that a strike on this scale is hugely ambitious, and can never hope to bring together the disparate groups of Egyptian societywith their competing priorities and concerns in a joint action. This necessarily undermines the strike’s momentum, since in order to succeed a strike action necessarily requires clear leadership, a defined set of demands and solid organisation, all of which are lacking in this case. Critically, in relying on the Internet to mobilise people the strike’s organisers have possibly missed a huge swathe of Egypt’s population.

Having said that, I’m all for any kind of civil disobedience, particularly if it succeeds in making only a small dent in the general state of apathy which exists in this society. There is a fear surrounding political activism and protests; over 25 years of the emergency law, and the corrupt, heavy-handed police force which enforce it have transformed social protest into a crime for many Egyptians. If tomorrow’s protests succeed in breaking this taboo then this is no bad thing.

It’s self-evident, but in the absence of a viable alternative to the current regime, change will never happen through political protests such as this. Tomorrow will be a busy day for security bodies – who will no doubt respond with their usual blunt tactics – but it will only create the briefest of ripples in the stagnant pool of the regime. Those outside the circle of patronage and privilege i.e. the majority of the population, who have plenty of grievances but no one to back, have not been mobilised. Critically, fatigue, poverty and the all pervasive apathy are neutralising the anger necessary to fuel any successful mass protest.

The government has clumsily succeeded in very temporarily containing the bread crisis and averted a repetition of 1977 when the people spontaneously rose up in January against the possibility of bread prices rising. Nor is it 2003 when thousands gathered in Tahrir Square against the war in Iraq. Like a strike, to generate enough motivation to participate in a protest on any significant scale people must feel real anger against/passion for something or someone. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the nebulous mix of grievances – corruption, police abuse, poverty, a crippling malaise generally – which are daily life in Egypt are not enough to bring about political change at the moment.

Which brings us back to Mahalla, and the power wielded by workers. The 25,000 workers who went on strike in Ghazl El-Mahalla were twice successful in making the factory’s administration (the government) comply with their demands; they possess the economic clout which the regime quite literally cannot afford to ignore. And theirs is not an isolated case, as is illustrated by the victorious sit-in held by the Real Estate Tax Collectors at the end of 2007/early 2008. Notably, as Bassiouni points out, sit-ins and strikes held in 2007 in nearly all cases resulted in the workers winning. Even more notably, Ghazl El-Mahalla held a protest for a national minimum wage in February indicating a widening of their cause beyond their own demands.

Workers possess an irresistible combination of motivation, organisation and influence and have demonstrated their preparedness to ‘illegally’ exercise their legitimate right to strike in violation of draconian legislation which demands amongst other stipulations that 2/3rds of a Syndicate’s board agree to the strike (unlikely given their makeup, see above). I’ve bored you all about this before, but I’ll say it again: the bravery of these men and women, who have so much to lose, is incredible.
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