Workers at Mahalla in the Nile Delta have suffered a fresh wave of repression from Hosni Mubarak’s regime after a series of militant strikes, protests and demonstrations beginning on April 6th. The Egyptian police arrested hundreds of workers, demonstrators and even journalists reporting on the revolt, as the regime seeks to silence working class people angry at low wages and massive food price inflation which has seen bread prices go up nearly 50% in the last year.
The strikes at the Mahalla textile works are dangerous for the Mubarak regime, since it is the largest factory in Egypt and his government has already been destabilised by economic chaos and embarrassed by the recent Gaza refugee crisis, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians tried to flood into Egypt. The food crisis cannot easily be resolved – indeed, it is part of a worldwide phenomenon which has also seen riots in countries like Haiti and Bangladesh — and the regime faces an organised opposition.
When the strike was called on April 6th security forces occupied the factory, cleared the area and seized strike committee leaders Kamal El Faioumy and Tarek Amin. They also used the strike as a pretext to round-up activists from all manner of opposition political parties, most prominently the reactionary Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, several of whose leaders were put before military tribunals.
But that was not the end of the repression. In subsequent days, faced with riots in Mahalla and surrounding villages and unable to keep a lid on protestors, the regime’s police security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition against the people leaving at least two dead and hundreds injured. The total number of arrests was in excess of 800.
The textile mill in Mahalla has for the last two years been the scene of massive strikes, its tens of thousands of workers serving as a beacon to the Egyptian workers’ movement. Recent weeks have seen a wave of other strikes complementing the Mahalla action, including a broad range of workers from dentists to students also affected by economic turmoil and the repressive Mubarak regime.
Perhaps most important was the factory occupation staged by the textile workers of Wabariyat Sammanoud between 13 and 19 April, demanding a more than 100% increase in their food allowance from 43 to 90 Egyptian pounds. The 1,300 workers occupied the plant day and night, showing their steely determination by sleeping on the tiled floor of the factory and maintaining a constant look-out for police.
Many of the workers had to bring their children to the sit-in – indeed, around 60 per cent of the Wabariyat Sammanoud workers are women, and faced the opposition of family members who did not want to let them stay in the factory overnight or abandon their so-called “household duties”. The strike was a complete success and the bosses, taken aback by the resilience of the workers, were forced to capitulate.
Similarly, the government has tried to appease the Mahalla workers — on 9th April it sent Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to the town, promising pay rises – while it has also tried to keep a lid on the food inflation crisis by suspending all wheat exports. Panicking, the government is trying to silence workers using the carrot and the stick at the same time – it is clearly in trouble, even if the Mahalla movement appears to have ebbed for now. The Egyptian working class is rising as a force, with the strikes of recent weeks showing an even higher level of class struggle than the strike wave sparked at Mahalla in February.
But the working class does not appear ready to overthrow Mubarak. There is a high level of trade union activity, but it lacks political direction, with the left tied up in the cross-class Kifaya (Enough) pro-democracy coalition, which includes all manner of Islamists and bourgeois liberals. Just to serve as foot-soldiers for these parties to take power off Mubarak would be an enormous mistake.
If the working class is to seriously challenge the Mubarak regime but also the system which has caused such hardship – hunger, even – for Egypt’s workers and peasants, the workers’ many strikes and protests need to find their own independent political expression.