The Egyptian regime is cracking down on all manner of dissenters — from Muslim Brothers in Parliament to the well-known Kifaya movement to bloggers and journalists. But another form of opposition has been scoring victories: a wave of wildcat strikes that, like the Kifaya protests, began in late 2004. The collective action of Egyptian workers is currently the most broad-based kind of resistance to the regime. It represents a possible threat to the “stability” President Husni Mubarak needs to pass his office on to his son, as most Egyptians are convinced he seeks to do.
Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy tell the story of the most militant and politically important strike to date in “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order.”
Workers like ‘Attar and Habib tolerate such low wages because the Misr firm is part of Egypt’s large public sector. Manual workers and white-collar employees in the public sector have jobs for life and the right to a pension equal to 80 percent of their salary at retirement. Since 2004, however, the Egyptian government has renewed its drive to privatize the textile industry. Workers fear that the new investors, many of them from India, will not provide them with the job security or the benefits they and other public-sector workers have enjoyed since most textile mills, along with other large and medium-sized enterprises in all sectors of the economy, were nationalized in the early 1960s under Gamal Abdel Nasser. These fears have led to an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes, which, since late 2004, have been centered in the textile sector, but have spread to other industries as well. In late 2006 and 2007, the strike wave has reached a particularly high crest.
Since the enactment of Egypt’s Unified Labor Law of 2003, it has technically been legal for workers to strike, but only if approved by the leadership of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions. Since the federation, along with the sectoral general unions and most enterprise-level union committees, are firmly in the grip of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), all actual strikes since 2003 have been “illegal.”
Muhammad ‘Attar and Sayyid Habib were among the leaders of a December 2006 strike at Misr Spinning and Weaving, one of the most militant and politically significant in the current strike wave. This upsurge of labor collective action has occurred amidst the broader political ferment that began in December 2004 with taboo-breaking demonstrations targeting President Husni Mubarak personally, demanding that he not run for reelection in 2005 (he did) and that his son, Gamal, not succeed him as president. An amendment to the constitution permitting the first-ever multi-candidate presidential election generated expectations that the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections would be fair and democratic. These hopes were frustrated. Nonetheless, a wide swathe of the public, which is mostly engrossed in trying to earn a living, began to take notice of politics.
With the election of 88 Muslim Brothers in 2005, Egypt’s normally sleepy Parliament acquired a substantial opposition bloc that has exerted continual pressure on the regime. Inexperienced in handling serious public debate, the regime has begun to crack down viciously on all manner of dissenters — from Muslim Brothers to bloggers and journalists. The passage of a second round of constitutional amendments in March 2007 will make it much more difficult for independents and Muslim Brothers to run for political office and permanently allow abusive police practices that have been nominally illegal or permissible only under the “temporary” state of emergency in force since 1981.
Read the rest of the article in Middle East Report Online here.