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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3 Responses to April 6th

  1. Safiya Outlines says:

    “the bravery of these men and women, who have so much to lose, is incredible.”

    It is incredible and I’m grateful to you for bringing it to our attention.

    The history of most countries with labour laws is littered with the struggle and sacrifice of such ordinary people and it’s something more people need to remember.

  2. Hossam says:

    Best of luck Sarah! I’m sure you’ll do a great job in Mahalla.. I look forward to reading your reports..

  3. Seneferu says:

    [Delayed and protracted response ahead.]

    “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”

    The first two paragraphs of the pamphlet above sound silly: No work? So don’t go to work. We need education? So don’t go to school. And as for the judiciary demands, you know (or I feel so) they are being pushed in support of a faction that has shown itself to be political and demagogic, rather than one more willing to work quietly behind the scenes for the same just demands, which I’m not so sure is an entirely good thing.

    The demands above may not make sense if you merely look at them from the onset, but only if you ponder on them from a deep metaphysical sense. Is it a good idea to send a message across? Perhaps. But as a working formula? I haven’t figured that out yet..

    And excuse my own cynicism here, but my deepest mistrust of this strike comes from the organizers behind it who have sufficiently demonstrated their sympathies with the poorest of Egyptians (“the pigs”) when they were attacked at the border last January. One moment they are halal bacon, and the next martyrs of the evil regime.

    It sounds like political expedience to me.

    And speaking of expedience, I guess this is what happens when such an undefined strike spirals out of control. What happened here? I thought it was supposed to be peaceful. And as Con says to your post above, the food inflation is related to – besides our uncovered local bread smuggling corruption, and disastrous agricultural mismanagement – a global chain of events that is not entirely in any single government’s hands. So back to expedience, I would understand if the strike organizers knowingly use it to play on the real economic suffering of the Mahalla workers and residents, but worried if they believe in their own scenario.

    I like what this paper salesman said of the strike over here:

    “Al-Ahram newspaper says that some prices have decreased by 20 percent. The strike is good if it has a positive effect. It is like a candle, it can either light up a room or else it can start a fire and burn down a building. One needs to be careful.”

    Here’s to hoping for a future opposition that is more Egypt-focused, and more interested in lighting up the room than burning down the torch.

    (Sorry for the delayed dosage of ‘negativity’, but I felt I had to say it. Here are some more economic points that I suppose one should think about.)

    And I guess Mahmoud Amin El-Alem didn’t “have Alzheimer’s” after all…

    All that said and done, maybe the wake up call to the government’s mismanagement and corruption is a good thing, but I hope it remains at that…

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