Lately, Egypt has been going through a wave of strikes and protests, featured by the industrial working class. This could be indicating a new rise of struggles against military dictatorship, which governs the country since 2013, when it carried through the coup organized by the current president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, to defeat the back then president and member of Muslim Brotherhood [MB], Mohammed Morsi.
The base of the resistance against military regimen is located in the industrial regions of Mahala -in Nile Delta-, Asyut, and the area of Suez Canal, specifically in Ismaylia and Port Said. According to Mada Masr, independent news website, “Most significant protests take place among employers of seven companies outsourced by the state-owned Suez Canal Authority (SCA), as well as the Assiout Cement Company and two privatized textile mills: the Nile Cotton Ginning Company and the Shebin al-Kom Textile Company”.
Main demands are: higher wages, workplace parity, compliance with justice’s verdicts, reintegration of dismissed workers, and payment of overdue profit shares. The number of workers engaged in protests is unknown, but the estimated is around thousands of workers. In the city of Asyut, more than 240 workers went to strike last Monday (7th) demanding the payment, by the Cement company they work for, of the 10% profit shares bonus, established by law.
Another demand is to reincorporate dismissed employees. Around 300 fired workers from the textile company Shebin al-Kom, organized a protest last Tuesday, December 8th, on this regard.
Not more than a month ago, workers of two big textile public companies of Mahala, 17,000 workers over a total of 25,000, stopped their activities, demanding for the payment of 10% company’s profits shares the company had refused to pay, claiming losses during the previous period. Workers denied this. The strike, which lasted 10 days, was only suspended after government’s compromise to pay the money owed to the workers. Strike’s committee made a public statement affirming if the government does not comply with the agreement, they will call a new strike for indefinite time.
In Jahara’s Food Processing Factory, in Behera province, also in Nile Delta, about 5,000 workers suspended their activities protesting against their miserable wages, and demanded, like in other cases, the payment of the corresponding 7% company’s profits shares established by law. A worker from Beheira denounced his salary is not more than 500 pounds (US$50,00), and it has been more than three years since he got a raise.
This scenario of strikes in main industrial centers of the country is not by chance; it expresses the most exploited workers’ growing unhappiness. After one year of al-Sisi’s election (in a not at all fair election), workers do not see any improvement of their life quality. A new workers’ rise can be preparing right now, and this would change the political situation of the country, by opening a new moment of Egyptian Revolution.
Official Trade Unions, specially Egyptian Trade Unions’ Federation, do not even mention these strikes on their web pages, same as the media in general. There is a strong boycott to current struggles by the media and trade union bureaucracy. In fact, the official federation, founded in 1957 by the almighty Gamal Abel Nasser to control Egyptian trade union movement, made the impossible to convince workers to not go on strike.
In 2011, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) was founded, as part of a union reorganization process opened by the revolution who defeated Hosni Mubarak, in January of the same year. Over the last two years, they carried through a process of cooptation of most of EFITU’s leaders; with rare and honorable exceptions, most main leaders surrendered to government’s speech of ‘national unity to fight terrorism, represented in its majority by Muslim Brotherhood’, word of militaries.
Economic crisis and growing authoritarianism
As we have stated in previous articles, Egyptian economy is going through a period of strong deterioration. Most evident facts of this reality are: growing inflation (official data points12% this year), rise of the dollar, decreasing wages, and crisis of Tourism Industry, deepened by the downfall of the Russian airplane in Sinai Peninsula. The expansion of Suez Canal has been a total failure, and the construction of a new capital, announced by the president, will possibly not be accomplished due to lack of investors.
What is more and more real is the growing imposition of authoritarian laws by military dictatorship. Anti-strike and anti-protests’ laws are still current. The number of political prisoners is unknown; among them, the Human Rights activist Mahienour, and countless activists, bloggers and journalists. The photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid has been detained now for over 850 days, without trial. The constitutional court has passed in April several laws, dictated by the government, criminalizing strikes and protests.
Abuses and lack of information are imperative in Egypt’s penitentiary system. Many families reported cases of tortures, and a huge amount of prisoners did not have right to an impartial trial. Journalists’ trade union recently launched a campaign denouncing this situation and demanding for political prisoners to have at least a decent medical assistance. There are some absurd cases, such as people getting arrested by the police for carrying books or wearing a t-shirt.
Sinai Peninsula and armed groups’ action
The other source of instability in the country is the action of armed groups, especially in Sinai Peninsula, but also in Cairo and cities like Alexandria. An article recently published in al-Araby newspaper will help us understand the seriousness of the situation.
“‘More attacks are occurring than ever before’, unequivocally reports TIMEP. Numbers speak loudest: in 2014 there was, a highly distressing, 30 attacks per month “four times the rate of prior years”. But in the first eight months of 2015, those numbers did not mushroom – they exploded”.
As mentioned before, besides Sinai, in Libya frontier region, in Cairo and in Alexandria, attacks to military targets are taking place, as well as to touristic and multinational companies, like the attempt of exploding a bomb in Cairo’s airport and killing an IBM businessman. Confrontations between armed groups and the Army have become something usual.
The government, evidencing its arrogance and short sense of reality, declares “Egypt is a free, safe and stable country”, and adds ‘Sinai is completely under control’. Authorities try to convince people “terrorism” is the main enemy to be defeated, while they use this speech to attack any and all kinds of demonstrations against governments’ policies. Undoubtedly, there are different reactionary and Islamic Fundamentalist groups acting in Egypt, but serious media is talking about an “insurgency” against military government, driven by groups with an incorrect ideology and methods, yet relying on a legitimate sense of social unhappiness.
In Sinai, for example, many groups were armed during the war period with Israel; they received weapons from the government and they are now using those against the army. There are also groups like Ajnad Masr, of Salafist ideology, or the Allied Popular Resistance Movement, who perform armed actions against military targets and international corporations. Other groups, like Walaa and Revolutionary Punishment, supposedly integrated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, are currently acting in Giza region. We reinforce our disagreement with these kind of armed actions which, like IS actions, can only provide legitimacy to the government for repression and attacks to workers and the social movement as a whole.
Struggle tradition of Egyptian workers’ movement
Egypt is the most industrialized country in the Arabian world, with a large tradition of struggles and organization. The other two countries with a strong working class presence are Iran and Turkey, none of them Arabian countries. The firsts workers’ strikes date from 1899, when workers of the Tobacco Industry went on an important strike.
The rise of trade union movement played its role during the 40’s and 50’s, when the country was going through its golden years of industrialization, and Cairo became “Nile’s Pearl”, also expanding its cultural industry around. Nasser, with his policy of cooptation and repression, banned the right to strike and created, as mentioned before, the ETUF, in 1957. During Nasser’s golden years, economy used to grow at an accelerated pace, about 6% a year, which generated over one million jobs, actually pausing the struggles over the next period.
In the 70‘s, when the process of liberalization of economy took place, driven by Anwar al-Saddat with a policy of “open doors” to imperialism, there was a major unionist rise, with strong strikes over salary and against privatizations. Most important ones were the transportation strike, in ‘76, and the Bread Riot, in ‘77. During the 90’s, more specifically in ‘91, Mubarak signed an important economical agreement with IMF, causing a new workers’ and popular rise along the following years.
It is worth to remember, nowadays an important part of Egyptian factories are Army’s property, and the soldiers, young people forced to perform military service under the threaten of going to jail if they do not, they are the ones who operate the assembly lines. After the privatization process, many militaries associated to international capitals, becoming the new Egyptian bourgeoisie.
From 1998 to 2010, something between 3400 and 4000 strikes took place all over the country, involving around four million workers against privatization and pauperization of working conditions. Until July 2015, around 800 strikes took place, not counting the strikes which took place from September until today.
Currently, a new workers’ rise might be preparing, which could have a great impact, not only in Egypt but all over the Arabian World. Of course it can be defeated, but it could also reactivate a process of struggle in the whole region. The role of independent trade-unions, as well as activists who went through the experience of 2011 Revolution, will be vital to the final development of this process. Also, a demonstration on the 5th anniversary of the Revolution has been called, on January 25th, by the movement “Back to Square”, calling for a great march against al-Sisi. We do not know what will happen. Cards are on the table. We should embrace Egyptian workers’ struggle with solidarity, and make them aware they have comrades supporting them in all four corners of the world.
Translation: Mariana Soléo