Egypt’s labor movement: 4 years in review

Kareem el-Beheiry was 20 years old when he first took part in a labor strike in December 2006.

“I didn’t know what a strike was,” said el-Beheiry, the Mahalla Textile Factory’s first blogger.

The next day he saw a scene that changed his life. “I saw a woman crying in front of a TV camera, saying she could not feed her kids.”

The blogger, shocked by the scene, thought to himself, “Does this really exist in Egypt?”

It does, according to Esam Shaban, a researcher at the Afaq Ishtiraqeyya Center. Over 80 percent of Egyptians are poor, Shaban says, and conditions have worsened over the past five years.

While the Egyptian government often claims that increasing poverty is a result of global market fluctuations, others suggest that Egypt’s problems are the direct result of growing gentrification and the government’s economic policies.

In the late 1990s the government began privatizing industry, which had been under state control since the 1950s. The education and health sectors were then privatized in the early 2000s. Many factories that had previously been nationalized were bought by foreign investors seeking quick profits. They were attracted by Egypt’s lax labor laws, accentuated by a new law in 2003

In the mid-1990s, farmers were stripped of the protective laws as the government stepped in to protect large landowners and cut subsidies to small farmers.

“Today even working two jobs is not sufficient to provide for a family,” Shaban says. “It has caused an economic crisis and people can’t remain quiet about this.” Many Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest their economic plight.

“On the Egyptian street,” says Shaban, “the individual act of discontent became a collective act of protest.”

A turning point came in December 2006 when over 24,000 workers at a state-owned textile factory in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla launched a massive strike. On the third day of the strike, labor leader Jihad Taman noticed el-Beheiry filming and thought he was a security agent. When el-Beheiry showed him his factory ID card, Tamam took el-Beheiry under his wing.

The December 2006 strike broke down a barrier of fear among Egyptian labor activists. By the time of the next strike, in September of 2007, the blogger and his fellow strikers were chanting against the World Bank’s role in the “colonization” of Egypt and calling for the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak.

News and images of the 2006 and 2007 uprisings spread across Egypt like a virus. Soon, strikes, sit-ins and protests were springing up all around the country.

On 6 April, 2008 food prices hit a new high, and once again Mahalla was the site of dissent.

With the aim of preventing another major strike, security forces closed the textile factory compound. State security trucks from around Egypt surrounded the Delta city. Workers subsequently called off the strike as security made it impossible for them to congregate.

Mahalla, however, was not easily pacified. When security forces beat a woman and her daughter, they ignited the people’s anger. For days the clashes continued, with scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian Intifada becoming a reality on Egypt’s streets. 

Infrastructure, like police cars and train tracks, were set ablaze with the intention of sending a message: Under this regime, life has become unbearable.

In the 6 April uprising, the demands of the workers and the general population overlapped. People called for lower food prices as workers called for a minimum wage.

During the 6 April strike, state security agents arrested and tortured el-Beheiry along with many other labor activists. He was released 73 days later. In 2009, the government transferred el-Beheiry to Cairo and in 2010 he was fired.

In May 2008 a 10,000 person sit-in of real-estate tax collectors caused the government to give in to demands for a 300 percent wage increase. On 21 April 2009, thousands of tax collectors gathered at the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, forcing Minister Aisha Abdel Hady to recognize their independent union, the first in Egypt since 1957.

At the end of 2009 more and more sit-ins moved to the sidewalks of downtown Cairo. When workers’ calls for government interference–particularly in recently privatized factories–went unheeded, they moved to the gates of parliament.

On 8 February workers of the Tanta Flax and Oils Factory started a sit-in on the doorstep of the Council of Ministers in downtown Cairo. In January, the factory’s union head, Salah Mosallam, along with nine others were fired in retribution for launching a number of strikes in Tanta. After the Saudi factory owner locked the factory, workers moved their protest to downtown Cairo, calling for their re-instatement or severance payments in accordance with Egyptian law.

“The example of the Tanta Flax Company has proved that the policy of privatization is a failure,” said independent MP Gamal Zahran.

After more than two weeks of sitting-in, the roughly 400 protestors rolled up their blankets and went home after the union head came to an verbal agreement with Minister of Manpower and Labor Aisha Abdel Hady and the factory representatives.

But while the Tanta workers may have been temporarily placated, their action brought about a new tactic for Egypt’s labor movement. Their 16-day sit-in started a new wave of sit-ins on the sidewalks of the Egyptian parliament.

Workers from the Salemco and Amonsito companies repeated the Tanta Flax scenario almost as if they were following the same script. It seems as though workers have discovered that in order to have their voices heard, they must take their protests to the streets of Cairo.

So far, even this kind of pressure has only brought limited results as factory owners have repeatedly neglected to uphold the promises they make to force the workers off the street. A few weeks after their settlement, the Tanta Flax and Oil Company workers were back on the streets of downtown Cairo.

While the ongoing strikes have empowered Egyptian labor activists, conditions are still not ideal.

“We say the street is ours, but when security forces beat Bahaa Saber in public and then tortured him behind closed doors, this remains only a slogan,” says Mahalla blogger el-Beheiry, referring to the 6 April 2010 protest at which an activist was violently beaten in front of masses of onlookers and rolling video cameras.

“Protests don’t show the democracy of the government, they prove the failure of the government, they show there is no government,” el-Beheiry says.

The Egyptian government’s inequitable economic policies are working to shatter the concept of the state as a paternal figure, according to Shaban. “Confidence in the state that controls everything, that turns the water on and off, has been lost.”

El-Beheiry thinks that protests need to be combined with direct action. “I like the idea of workers in Argentina. Let us privatize the factories for ourselves. This must be tried in Egypt,” he says, referring to events during Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis where factory owners fled the country with their savings and workers took over factory administrations and ran the shop floors themselves.

On 19 February MP Nasha’t el-Qassass from President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party called for protestors to be shot. The parliament responded by recommending to him to the Values Committee.

The following day protesters held placards reading, “Shoot us.”

“The media has been central in spreading the news of protests,” Shaban says. Today protesters are benefiting from the coverage of local and international media outlets as well as citizen journalism tools, like blogs, twitter, and live video feeds. 

Last month, lawyer Khaled Ali from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights handed in the papers for a case calling on the Egyptian government to set a fair minimum wage. Hundreds gathered at the Minister’s Council lead by Independent Tax Collector Union head Kamal Abu Eita chanting, “For those living in castles, a maximum wage, for those living in graves, a minimum living wage.” 

On 1 May, sugar factories in the Qena Governorate went on strike due to unbearably low wages. At the end of April, 9000 workers at an aluminum factory in Naga Hamadi called for the implementation of a LE1200 a minimum wage. 

Meanwhile, the five different groups of protesters on the sidewalk of the parliament buildings united to raise their voice in protest on May Day.

“On Labor Day, workers are supposed to be given benefits, year after year we are being given crises,” says el-Beheiry. 

Later today, workers and activists from all around the country will protest before the Council of Ministers. They will call for the implementation of a court case that was raised and won by worker Nagy Rashad against the Egyptian government. According to the court ruling, the prime minister is required to introduce a minimum living wage in accordance with market prices by 1 May. The current minimum wage, set in the mid-1980s, is LE35.

Meters from where many of the sit-ins have been taking place, an old mural reads, “Democracy serves the people.” But for the people sleeping on the sidewalk, this sounds like a hollow platitude.

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