Inside Egypt’s mass strikes

Issue: 118
Posted: 31 March 08

Anne Alexander

Egyptian workers’ dramatic revival of strikes is a direct challenge to those who argue that the working class in the Middle East—or in the Third World more generally—has been economically and politically marginalised. The strikes have often been very successful in winning concessions from management and the government, such as large wage rises, permanent contracts for temporary workers and the payment of overdue workplace benefits and bonuses. Although workers’ demands are largely “economistic” and localised, the strike movement has potentially profound political consequences, as it challenges both the repressive local state and the remorseless global logic of neoliberal economic restructuring. The strike movement creates a dual problem for the Mubarak regime. First, workers’ resistance is potentially an obstacle to future economic restructuring, including further privatisation of state industries, and casualisation and large-scale job cuts in the government bureaucracy.

Second, the strike movement represents the most serious challenge the state-run trade union movement has faced since its creation in the 1950s. Paradoxically, the Mubarak regime, despite its commitment to market reforms, still relies on the state-run trade unions to mobilise a semblance of “popular” support for government candidates during elections, and as a counterweight to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.1 The strikes are also taking place in a context of growing opposition to President Hosni Mubarak within Egypt, and the crisis faced by the US—the Egyptian regime’s primary international sponsor—as a result of the occupation of Iraq. Since 2000 Egypt has seen several waves of large street demonstrations and the growth of a democracy movement that rallied a range of opposition groups under the slogan “Kefaya” (“Enough”). Protests by pro-reform judges in May 2006 exposed conflicts within the state apparatus itself, while the Muslim Brotherhood won its largest ever share of parliamentary seats in the November 2005 elections, despite intimidation and fraud.2

The contrast between the brutal repression of these movements and the seeming paralysis of the state when faced with workers’ protests is notable. Workers’ actions are completely illegal, since the right to strike is so restricted as to be impossible to exercise. Nor can it be that the regime feels less threatened because workers’ demands are not directly political—during the 1980s and 1990s workers’ protests raising much more modest demands were crushed by overwhelming force. Rather it is likely that there is a combination of factors at work. One of these is the regime’s reluctance to open a “second front” at a time when it is facing growing opposition. Another factor, as the development of the strike movement shows, is that Egyptian workers still constitute a powerful social force when they organise collectively, one that the Mubarak regime cannot easily defeat. The pendulum may well swing back towards repression, but it will be more difficult to crush the movement now, after hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers have experienced for themselves the exhilarating power of collective action.

Workers in the age of “Empire”

For more than three decades supporters of the kind of market reform programmes ceaselessly promoted by the International Monetary Fund have argued that workers who resist such attacks on their living standards and working conditions are relics from a bygone age. Influential intellectual currents in the anti-capitalist movement, which grew out of the protests at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999, also challenge the classical Marxist assumption that the working class is the central agent of revolutionary change. So Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that industrial workers have lost their cohesiveness as a social group, dissolving into the greater “multitude” of the oppressed, exploited and dispossessed.3

Several assumptions underlie these arguments. The first is that the classical Marxist notion that as capitalism expands it creates its own gravedigger, in the shape of a growing working class, must be rejected. Wage workers, it is argued, constitute a shrinking or marginalised minority. In different areas of the Third World this phenomenon is attributed to the expansion of an “informal sector” made up of street hawkers and home-workers, massive waves of redundancies from state-run industries and even processes of deindustrialisation. Chris Harman, in an earlier issue of this journal, deals with these points in detail, and argues that, far from disappearing, the working class on a global scale is larger than ever and remains central to capitalist production.4 In the case of Egypt, the proportion of industrial workers in the total workforce is virtually unchanged compared to the early 1990s, despite the impact of economic restructuring.

Egypt: employment by sector
Source: ILO, Key indicators of the Labour Market 2007


YearAgriculture (percent)Industry (percent)Services (percent)
1990 39.020.740.1
199534.021.944.1
200029.621.349.1
200329.919.850.4

A second line of argument is that the relationship between workers and employers has altered so that resistance within the workplace is either futile or at least much less likely to succeed than “community” or “social” struggles outside. Another version sees workers as too cowed by the threat of unemployment through the spread of casual and short term contracts to take action to defend their living standards or working conditions. The precariousness of workers’ position in the neoliberal economy is said to produce a disciplined and disposable labour force.5

The picture in Egypt over the past year challenges these common arguments. Some of the country’s most vulnerable groups of workers have been drawn into struggle. The successful strikes by women garment workers and tobacco packers in the Delta are two important examples, but there are many others.6 In many workplaces, for example, a central demand of the whole striking workforce has been that temporary workers are made permanent. Workers in an Italian owned group of cement factories forced management to offer permanent contracts to 500 of their colleagues after a series of strikes.7

Lessons from Luxemburg

None of these developments would have been a surprise to Rosa Luxemburg. Her classic pamphlet The Mass Strike was written almost exactly a century ago in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution, yet the dynamics of class struggle she outlines are clearly visible in Egypt today. The scale and intensity of the movement are different to that described by Luxemburg—the strike movement which began in Egypt in December 2006 has involved something like 200,000 workers and has yet to meet with any concerted opposition from the Mubarak regime—but several key aspects of her analysis are confirmed by events.

A major theme of Luxemburg’s work was her rejection of artificial distinctions between the “economic” and “political” aspects of workers’ collective action. She noted how “economic” strikes over wages and conditions constantly flowed into and out of “political” strikes in protest at repression in a process of “ceaseless reciprocal action”.8 In part this politicisation was inevitable in an authoritarian state that banned strikes, but Luxemburg argued that it also reflected the social weight of the working class. In their mass strike meetings workers won the right of assembly and the right to free expression that the authorities had only just denied middle class reformers. In similar fashion, just as the Mubarak regime had succeeded in driving pro-democracy activists off the streets, it faced a challenge from striking workers who demanded, and won, the right to assemble in their thousands to protest, debate and organise.

Perhaps the most iconic scenes of the Egyptian strike movement have been the mass rallies of the textile workers at Mahalla al-Kubra. Time and again thousands of Mahalla workers have gathered in the vast forecourts of the Misr Spinning factory complex. During the two strikes of December 2006 and September 2007 the area was transformed into a tented city where workers ate and slept. Workers’ representatives reported back to mass meetings of thousands of strikers on the progress of negotiations. Lively protests with chants, drums, placards and palm branches communicated the strikers’ determination to the authorities and kept their spirits high.9 To paraphrase Luxemburg, in the midst of rigid, authoritarian Egypt the workers of Mahalla al-Kubra won the right of assembly and freedom of speech by storm. Although the sheer size of the Misr Spinning factory with its workforce of 24,000 has played a role in creating opportunities for mass protests, similar scenes have been repeated across Egypt during 2007.

The experience of the Mahalla workers also illustrates Luxemburg’s argument that mass strikes represent the “living political school” of class struggle.10 In December 2006 they demanded the payment of a two-month profit sharing bonus. By March 2007, 5,000 had resigned from the state-controlled textile workers’ union in protest at its failure to support their strike. In September 2007 they went on strike for a second time, to enforce the agreement reached at the settlement of the 2006 strike, but also demanded the sacking of corrupt managers and trade union officials, and called on the government to convene the National Wages Council to discuss raising the level of the national minimum wage. On 17 February 2008, as the National Wages Council prepared to meet, around 10,000 protested in the streets of Mahalla al-Kubra demanding a national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds and chanting anti-Mubarak slogans.11 A movement that began as a localised dispute over unpaid bonuses now contains, in embryonic form, the outlines of a generalised confrontation between key sections of the working class and the state over living standards.

However the Egyptian workers’ movement develops over the next few years, the experience of 2007 will prove invaluable to future generations of working class activists. In contrast to the bureaucratic structures of the state-controlled trade unions, new organisational mechanisms have been created from below. More or less formally constituted strike committees emerged in many of the disputes, and some, such as the Higher Committee of the Property Tax Collectors’ Strike, have become de facto independent trade union committees.12 Another development has been the formation of workers’ leagues, such as the Textile Workers’ League organised by the leaders of the Mahalla strikes. Although these are only the first tentative steps towards a revival of an independent workers’ movement in Egypt, they are vitally important. Moreover, as Luxemburg noted, mass strikes can forge unity between diverse groups of workers: breaking down barriers between manual and clerical, male and female, temporary and permanent. Mass strikes are “the method of motion of the proletarian mass”.13 They show us the “many-coloured picture of a general arrangement of labour and capital which reflects all the complexity of social organisation and of the political consciousness of every section and of every district”.14 The strike wave in Egypt went from the huge state-run textile factories of the Delta, to private firms in the new industrial cities, to government employees, even into the strategic sectors of the military industries and the Suez Canal. Hundreds of thousands of workers are adopting the same tactics and demands, or adapting them. The movement evolves as it spreads.

The development of the strike movement raises sharply the question of leadership. Mustafa Bassiouny and Omar Said discuss below the challenge that the strikes have thrown down to the state-controlled unions. The strikes also raise questions for Mubarak’s opponents, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood has tens of thousands of workers as members, it has played almost no role in the strike movement, despite government officials’ claims to the contrary.15 This creates a historic opportunity for the small forces of the left to win a new generation of Egyptian workers to revolutionary socialist politics. But it will not be an easy task. As Luxemburg argued over a century ago, the role of socialists in such times is to “endeavour to accelerate events”, but in the knowledge that class consciousness and organisation are only forged “by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution”.16


Notes

1: See Beinin and el-Hamalawy, 2007, for an excellent analysis from the early period of the strike wave and more on this point.

2: The Brotherhood is officially banned, so its candidates do not formally carry the party’s name in elections.

3: Hardt and Negri, 2001, p53.

4: Harman, 2002, is a detailed restatement of the Marxist position.

5: See Harman, 2002, pp16-23.

6: Alexander and Koubaissy, 2008.

7: See below.

8: Luxemburg, 1964, p39.

9: See Hossam el-Hamalawy’s blog for detailed coverage of the Mahalla strikes and other workers’ protests, including links to pictures and video: www.arabawy.org

10: Luxemburg, 1964, p32.

11: According to Kareem el-Beheiry’s Egyworkers blog, they were chanting: “Down Down Hosni Mubarak!”, “You, who’s ruling us from [the Presidential Palace in] Abdeen, your rule is shit!”, “They [the elite] are eating chicken and pigeons, while we are sick of eating beans”, and “Gamal [Mubarak], tell your dad, the Gharbeia province [where Mahalla is located] hates him!”, http://egyworkers.blogspot.com/2008/02/blog-post_17.html For translation and more analysis see http://arabist.net/arabawy/2008/02/17/20000-demonstrate-in-mahalla-for-minimum-wage

12: For a picture of the state-sponsored union bureaucrats standing in the street, while the tax collectors’ strike leaders and the finance minister negotiated an agreement in January 2008, see http://arabist.net/arabawy/2008/01/04/victory_tax_strikers/

13: Luxemburg, 1964, p43.

14: Luxemburg, 1964, p30.

15: Naguib, 2007.

16: Luxemburg, 1964, p32.


References

Alexander, Anne, and Farah Koubaissy, 2008, “Women were Braver than a Hundred Men”, Socialist Review, January 2008, www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=10227

Beinin, Joel, and Hossam el-Hamalawy, 2007, “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order”, Middle East Report Online, 25 March 2007, www.merip.org/mero/mero032507.html

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri, 2001, Empire (Harvard), available from www.angelfire.com/cantina/negri/

Harman, Chris, 2002, “The Workers of the World”, International Socialism 96 (autumn 2002), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj96/harman.htm

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1964 [1906], The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (Merlin),
www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

Naguib, Sameh, 2007, “Interview: Egypt’s Strike Wave”, International Socialism 116 (summer 2007), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=363