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Strikes in Egypt – cracks in the regime

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Since the 2006 there has been a dramatic resurgence in the workers movement in Egypt, the largest Arab country in terms of population with a population of over 80 million people, and where 17 per cent of the workforce are industrial workers. President Hosni Mubarak has held Egypt in an iron grip since 1981, utilizing emergency laws for 25 years to ban opposition parties and independent unions. Egypt is a key US ally in the region receiving the second highest level of US subventions, Israel of course being number one. Since 1979 US economic aid to Egypt has totaled $30 billon and there has been a similar figure for military aid. In the first multi-candidate presidential elections in 2005, in which Mubarak still won with 88 per cent of the vote, there has been something of a relaxation of the dictatorship with various opposition forces emerging including  the long term opponent of the military regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser 1956-70, Anwar Sadat 1970-1981 and Mubarak- the Muslim League.

Since 2005 though a democratic movement, involving leftists and Islamists has emerged called Kifaya, the Arabic word for "enough," with an offshoot called Youth for Change. In fact youth and students have been in the forefront of a series of protests in the universities and on the streets which have been vigorously repressed by the police. Its young leaders have been imprisoned for months, mistreated if not tortured by but the resistance to My Mubrak keeps breaking out a fresh. The other location for resistance has been the factories and other workplaces. Egypt's unions remain state controlled and strikes and workers protests are usually harshly suppressed, However recently strike waves involving tens of thousands of workers have rocked Egypt and helped to ignite a bushfire of smaller but determined strikes, starting first in the textile industry, then spreading throughout the private sector and now into the public sector.

The events that started the latest period of protests was the strike and occupation of the Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company's factory in Mahalla al-Kubra occupied by over 20,000 workers in December 2006. The intervention by the police instead of crushing the strikes brought thousands of other workers form the surrounding area out in solidarity with them, some staging mock funerals for the boss of the factory. The strike was victorious, and was followed by action by railwaymen, car workers, construction industry workers, bakers, food processing workers and rubbish collectors. Another huge strike in the private sector took place at the Kafr el-Dawwar Textile Company early in 2007 involving over 10,000 workers. The Misr Helwan factory went on strike again in September 2007, employing the same tactics as before, mass strike, occupation and staying pout until they won. The second strike was more militant, however, reports Middle East Report Online: "Workers established a security force to protect the factory premises, and threatened to occupy the company's administrative headquarters as well".

Importantly women have been at the forefront of many of the strikes. In the textile industry they make up almost 75% of the workforce in some factories, are particularly badly paid and suffer from discrimination and oppression from managers and supervisors. The strikes that have been led by women have been particularly militant, in the Misr Helwan strike the women came out first and demonstrated outside the factory to get their male colleagues to come out, shouting: "Where are the men? Here are the women!î When the management tried to negotiate and reach a compromise deal one onlooker described the response, "The women almost tore apart every representative from the management who came to negotiate."

In February, the day before the National Council for Wages met 10,000 textile workers from Ghazl el-Mahalla demonstrated demanding that the national minimum monthly wage be raised. The Central Security Forces attempted to prevent the demonstration, but were defeated by the workers, raising slogans like 'Down Down Hosni Mubarak!'; 'They (the elite) are eating chicken and pigeons, while we are sick of eating beans!' and 'You, who's ruling us from Abdeen, your rule is shit!'

Egypt is a state with only a facade of democracy: the state is notorious for arresting dissenting authors, bloggers, critical editors and journalists and torturing detained suspects. Protests, a day after President George W Bush's visit in January 2008, against cuts in government subsidies were banned and protestors rounded in the centre of Cairo. Bush praised Egypt's "vibrant civil society." He was right but forgot to add that, at any one time, hundreds of the activists who make it vibrant are in prison without charge or on some bogus accusation.

With Inflation running at 12.3% The Economist has their GDP growth pegged at 7.1%, and claims that this should provide "steady but unspectacular" changes to the economy. However the population of the country suffers from terrible poverty, high unemployment and a shocking (and growing) gap between rich and poor. Recent elections in 2005 returned Mubarak because the main opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood were not allowed to stand.

In fact it is the states present obsession with the supposed threat presented by the Muslim Brotherhood that has allowed the workers movement to revive, according to socialists in Egypt. The brotherhood (al-ikhw?n ) is a large and well organised force which has existed in Egypt in one form or another since the 1928s first as a resistance movement to British occupation. Whilst many on the left do carry out joint protests and actions with them against the government, the strike wave has thrown up the contradiction that exists between the cross-class Muslims ikhw?n (whose leaders are rich or come form the middle classes) and the bulk of ordinary poor working class Muslims. One strike in particular pitted the 250 workers against the owner who was a member. In this situation the Brotherhood has been less than enthusiastic as an organisation about the strike wave, whilst some of its members have been involved in strike action and trying to organise independent unions.

This wave of strikes is a major political development amongst the working class. Already strike militants from across the country have met to discuss how to break the power of the government run General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions which has members and spies in every plant, always ready to shop activists and 'trouble-makers' to the bosses or the police. There are examples of collusion between state unions and management to sack militants and break industrial actions. No, even the BBC reports that workers are discussing how to build independent trade unions in Egypt, something that the working class needs and would act as a powerful political instrument for the working class.

Towards the end of 2007 the strike spread to the public sector with over 50,000 Real Estate Tax Collectors' on strike. It lasted for 11 days and stood militant in its resolution to win significant concessions from the state about pay and bonuses. By November 2007 thousands on strike with 33,000 threatening to go on strike. In the whole of last years hundreds of thousands of workers took strike action, the government believes that 647,133,637 days were lost through industrial action. In 2008 the doctors have begun to protest against the working conditions and pay, one doctor was quoted as saying "I was working 12-hour shifts, which left no time for outside work in private clinics. My wage LE 180 per month didn't even cover transport costs. Wages are so low they're a joke. A new graduate doctor receives LE 150 per month, meaning that he's torn between working with dedication and integrity, and trying to survive financially". Low wages and over work is a common complaint amongst Egyptian workers.

The task now is to continue and deepen the action, appealing for active international solidarity from other workers and socialists. Workers need not just independent trade unions but also a political party to struggle for power against Mubarak, whose regime, by all accounts, is growing weaker. A socialist party with a revolutionary programme for power, based on the most militant workers and young people can act as a new leadership in the working class and begin to re-forge the political landscape in Egypt. Egypt is the proletarian heartland of the Middle East, north African region, if the workers there can build a powerful socialist movement then it will act as a beacon of hope for the impoverished millions in other repressive states.

[INT]Al Jazeera[/INT] Al Jazeera news feature on women strikes in Egypt