Class struggle rocks a U.S. ally

April 25, 2008

One of the U.S. government's most important allies in the Middle East was shaken in early April by strikes and demonstrations over rising food prices. Mostafa Ali reports from Egypt on how the confrontations came about--and explains the backdrop to the crisis that spurred them.

THE CALL by opposition groups in Egypt for an April 6 general strike against the economic policies of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak marked a significant step for the country's new democratic movement.

Textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra, Arab nationalists, moderate Islamists and socialists joined Kifaya (meaning "Enough!" the unofficial name of the loose-knit opposition movement, the Egyptian Movement for Change) and others in putting out the call to demand pay raises that could keep up with runaway inflation.

To get around emergency laws that stifle freedom of expression, activists relied heavily on the Internet network Facebook and mobile text messages to publicize the call. They asked workers, government employees and students to boycott schools, factories, banks and government agencies.

Despite widespread popular support, the call produced mixed results--due to intensive government propaganda and scare tactics, such as declaring the Mahalla strike illegal, threatening mass arrests and accusing organizers of plotting riots and violence.

Striking textile workers demonstrate in Mahalla al-Kobra in December 2006
Striking textile workers demonstrate in Mahalla al-Kobra

On the day of April 6, Egyptians woke up to find that state security forces, riot police and much-hated hoodlums paid by the state had occupied every single major square in cities across the country. In Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square, thousands of security forces literally outnumbered pedestrians and tourists.

Despite the intimidation, a number of small but lively demonstrations took place in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's two largest cities. College students protested at Cairo and Helwan Universities, and 300 people demonstrated on the roof of the Egyptian Bar Association in midtown Cairo, cheered and supported by thousands of pedestrians.

The number of protests and the turnout for demonstrations was much lower than organizers hoped for. Still, hundreds of thousands of workers and students across Egypt heeded the strike and boycott call by staying home. Many schools and workplaces reported lower-than-usual attendance. Traffic in Cairo, a city notorious for its nightmarish congestion, was almost clear.

What else to read

Al-Ahram Weekly carries English-language news updates and commentaries on the situation in Egypt.

One of the best left-wing writers on Egypt is Joel Beinin, a contributing editor to Middle East Report and Information Project. His article "The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra" provides essential background on the fight of textile workers. More recently, he wrote about the impact of market reforms in "Underbelly of Egypt's Neoliberal Project."

Beinin's book Workers on the Nile, coauthored with Zachary Lockman, is a study of the role of trade unionism and the working class in the development of Egyptian nationalism in the first half of the 20th century.

The International Socialist Review published a special feature on the global food crisis, including Hossam El-Hamalawy's "Revolt at Mahalla" on the eruption of class struggle in Egypt in connection with the food crisis, and Sharon Smith's "The revolt over rising food prices."

BUT IN the city of Mahalla, a historic bastion of working-class resistance in the central Nile Delta, things unfolded in a very different way.

On the morning of the 6th, all eyes were focused on the city, since the call for a general strike had been initiated by the textile workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., who have been battling the government over wages and conditions for over a year.

Despite pressure by pro-government union officials not to participate, many rank-and-file workers were ready to occupy their plant at 7:30 a.m., at the start of the morning shift. When workers arrived, however, they found it surrounded and occupied by hundreds of police. Uniformed and plainclothes officers intimidated the workers and, under threat of arrest, literally walked workers to their machines.

By midday, government-controlled media and news agencies were boasting that the strike had failed and hailing Egyptian workers for supporting "law and order."

But to the government's dismay, Mahalla proved more defiant than that. At around 4 p.m., as the morning shift came to a close at the textile factory, 25,000 workers, students and others poured out of schools and workplaces for a peaceful mass march against government policies. When security forces attempted to block the march, all hell broke loose.

For hours, Mahalla's streets resembled a scene from the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Thousands of residents battled police, throwing rocks and lobbing tear gas canisters back at them. As efforts at repression intensified, the anger grew deeper. Many burned cars, and a rail line connecting Mahalla to the Mediterranean.

By the next day, hundreds of protesters had been wounded by live and rubber bullets and tear gas. But dozens of the security forces had also taken a beating. The government-run media tried to portray the mini-Intifada in Mahalla as the act of a few "thieves" and "robbers," but the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Yom carried impressive pictures of mass street battles against state barbarity, not "a handful of thieves."

The following day, Al Yom announced the death of Ahmed Ali Mubarak, a 15-year-old student shot by the police as he watched the protests from the window of his home. In the days that followed, four other deaths caused by police shootings were confirmed. And with close to 300 people detained in connection with the demonstrations, hundreds of angry relatives camped outside Mahalla's police stations to demand the protesters' release.

Al Yom also ran interviews with women who explained why they participated in the protests. "How can I feed the children and care for my mother who has a heart condition on her retirement, which is 59 pounds ($11) a month?" one woman told the paper.

EGYPT, THE largest country in the Arab world and the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel, is experiencing a serious economic and political crisis that threatens the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Despite achieving rates of annual economic growth of 7 percent in the last few years, the government's neoliberal economic policies of privatization have left up to 40 percent of the country's population of 75 million living under the poverty line.

Recently, severe shortages in bread, the main staple for Egyptians, left millions to stand in lines for hours at a time, only to go home empty-handed. In March alone, ten people were killed in fights that broke out in bread lines. In addition to bread shortages, ordinary people are struggling to keep up with unprecedented rates of inflation. Prices for most basic foods, such as rice and cooking oil, rose by 50 percent in the first three months of 2008.

Meanwhile, wealthy Egyptians and their multinational partners continue to amass huge wealth.

The list of multinational corporations doing business in Egypt, while not as long as in, say, India or China, is still quite substantial. Driving through the streets of Cairo, you see signs for IBM, General Motors, McDonald's, BMW, Vodafone, Shell and dozens of other Western conglomerates.

These multinationals enjoy a skilled workforce in Egypt, yet pay starvation wages. Most Egyptian workers earn $100 per month on average. Consequently, they find it harder and harder to put enough food on the table.

Yet while poor Egyptians can spend six and seven hours in bread lines, the rich enjoy a life of luxury. Any wealthy couple in Cairo can drive from their 5 million-pound apartment in their BMW to any of the hundreds of fancy restaurants that cater to the rich, where they can spend more than 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($200) on one dinner.

This situation is a result of a major transformation that the Egyptian economy has undergone in the past 30 years, under both the late President Anwar Sadat and current President Mubarak.

During the 1950s and '60s, the state nationalized most large industries, guaranteed full employment, free education and health care, and subsidized basic foods. It also launched an ambitious industrialization campaign, enlisting the help of the former USSR. However, while attempting to ensure a safety net for workers and the poor, the state repressed all aspects of independent political or union activities.

After its crushing defeat suffered at the hands of Israel in the June 1967 war and under pressure from U.S.-led neoliberal economic policies, the government changed course.

Beginning in the 1970s, Sadat embarked on an open-door investment policy that began to reintegrate Egypt into the world economy under U.S. tutelage. The first act was to lift subsidies on bread and basic foods, as instructed by the International Monetary Fund.

That move was met by a mass uprising of Egyptian workers in January 1977. But the government succeeded in crushing the rebellion, while delaying the cuts only temporarily. In the absence of a strong union movement or a left, a significant number of Egyptian workers hoped that the neoliberal model would improve their lives.

In the last 20 years, the economy has gone from being dominated by a public sector that accounted for 70 percent of its operation to having an 80 percent private-sector economy. The government relaxed many labor laws and protections for workers, especially in the growing private sector. Many public-sector workers lost relatively decent-paying and secure jobs, and were told to seek employment in the private sector.

AFTER THREE decades of privatization and the phasing out of state subsidies, public opinion has shifted dramatically in the other direction. The majority of workers today have lost faith that privatization policies would improve their lives.

More importantly, years of passivity have begun to give way to a new era in which struggle is seen as a means of winning social change.

At first, poor and landless peasants carried out a campaign of resistance against government attempts to roll back gains from Egypt's modest land reforms and restore the powers of their former landowners.

By 2004, the industrial working class took the lead in struggles against neoliberalism. Between 2004 and 2008, there has been an average of 100 strikes per year, involving numbers close to half a million workers. Textile workers, subway and rail workers, tax collectors, university professors and many others all struck for higher wages--mostly, they won these battles. Private-sector workers played a growing role in the strike movement, and women workers were at the heart of many of these successful strikes.

In the meantime, a courageous democracy movement by lawyers and judges for real reforms and an end to fraudulent elections helped stir public sentiment and emboldened the workers' movement.

However, due to the success of the Egyptian government in repressing radical Islamist groups such as Jihad in the 1990s and because of the youth and small size of the developing new left, the Association of Muslim Brotherhood has become the Mubarak regime's main opposition force.

The Brotherhood denounces former radical Islamists who employed violent means to reach political power. It seeks, along the lines of the Islamist Welfare Party in Turkey, to achieve power through electoral means.

While critical of the government's pro-U.S .and pro-Israel stances and its repressive measures, the Brotherhood's economic and social goals differ little from those espoused by the regime. The Brotherhood shares a principled commitment to the sanctity of private property and the capitalist free-market system, albeit in more Islamic robes.

This explains why the Brotherhood at key moments refuses to go head to head with the government. Despite being denied formal legal status or fair access to ballots and with hundreds of its members languishing in the regime's torture chambers, the Brotherhood leadership aims to play the loyal opposition.

Popular anger over the deteriorating economic situation has forced the Brotherhood leadership to adjust its rhetoric recently away from key slogans such as "Islam is the solution" and more towards addressing workers' demands for pay raises and subsidies.

But while it now pays lip service to workers' grievances and formally supports popular democratic reforms, the Brotherhood leadership still refuses to mobilize its half a million-strong membership to directly challenge the government in the streets.

This was made clear during the April 6 standoff. While the Brotherhood formally supported the idea of a strike in a statement issued on the Internet, it refused to call on rank-and-file members (who were generally quite sympathetic to the strike demands) to take part. The rationale it gave was that the Brotherhood doesn't support "civil disobedience" that could compromise law and order.

The lack of participation of younger Brotherhood members in the strike was a missed opportunity. For example, across the street from the Bar Association headquarters during the lawyers' demonstration on April 6, I saw hundreds of men and women watching. Many of these spectators were Brotherhood supporters, and they expressed public support for the protesters and disdain for security forces. Yet they felt ambivalent about taking part in the strike, as their leadership continued to waffle.

THE EGYPTIAN government claims that the economic crisis is solely the result of a steep rise in food prices internationally.

But the reality is different. As other countries in Asia and South America have experienced, rising poverty is the consequence of the failure of neoliberal and privatization policies to improve workers' lives. While the government might be able to stabilize the bread situation, the deeper issues aren't about to go away.

Moreover, the government has been forced to grant concessions to striking workers in the hope of stemming the tide. These concessions reflect the regime's vulnerability and, at the same time, are emboldening more workers to strike and protest.

Mahalla is a case in point. On April 8, Mubarak announced a bonus of a month's pay for the Misr textile workers for not striking on April 6 and a 15-day grant for all textile workers. So the next day, 1,000 angry workers at the El Nasr Company for Spinning and Weaving occupied their factory to demand the month's pay bonus, in parity with Misr workers. "We learned that striking is the only way to win our demands," a strike leader told Al Masry Al Yom.

As the popular anger and strikes play out and the government races to find ways to buy time, one thing is certain: one of the pillars of U.S. domination in the Middle East is in for trouble.

Popular anger at social injustices and poverty among Egyptians is compounded by bitter resentment at the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israel's slow genocide against the Palestinians.

In Mahalla, protesters made a connection between their struggle and that of the Palestinians--confronting riot police with stones, they chanted: "Allah, Allah, Allah. This is not Ramallah," in reference to the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

These sentiments have begun to find all kinds of expressions. Popular movies and soap operas gain great applause when they tackle the question of Israeli and U.S. arrogance in the region. Even on previously apolitical sports programs, commentators ask why the U.S. media pay attention only to Chinese human rights violations and continue to ignore the plight of the Palestinians.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the events unfolding in Egypt as a storm. Yet they could represent the first stages of one.

In these circumstances, the Egyptian left has a great opportunity to deepen its connections and roots among workers and build a true democracy movement that could reshape the region based on making people's needs the priority, not the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

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