Textile workers' strike stirs discontent in Sisi's Egypt

Textile workers' strike stirs discontent in Sisi's Egypt
Mahalla is a hotbed of industrial unrest, but the latest strike comes at a time when a crackdown on dissent has weakened street protests.
4 min read
16 Jan, 2015
Workers have long demanded better pay and conditions [Archive image/AFP]

Thousands of workers have been on strike for some two weeks in Egypt's largest textile mill. They are withdrawing their labour in a dispute over bonuses, while also protesting against the government's recent decision to scrap cotton subsidies.

They are also following a time-honoured tradition at this factory.

The Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving, located in Mahalla el-Kubra, at the heart of the Nile Delta, has been a

     Strikes in Mahalla have historically set the tone for the country's class politics.

hotbed of industrial militancy in Egypt since at least the 1940s.

Strikes in Mahalla have historically set the tone for the country's class politics. If a strike in Mahalla wins, an upturn in the textile sector's industrial actions can spill over to the rest of the manufacturing population.

A strike in December 2006, also over bonuses, is credited with launching Egypt's "winter of labour discontent". Every textile mill in the country went on strike to demand the gains won by the workers of Mahalla. The textile strikes encouraged other sections of the working class to follow suit.

Government officials complained in 2007 repeatedly of the "plague of strikes" engulfing Egypt, pointing their fingers at Mahalla.

Spreading into politics

Though the December 2006 strike was primarily over bread-and-butter issues, the strike that followed in September-October 2007, was triggered by a set of economic demands, and not only witnessed wider participation, but also crossed the boundaries of economism into politics - with workers chanting against the World Bank, neoliberal policies, and corrupt government officials.

The victory of the 2007 strike gave another boost to an escalating wave of industrial action in other sectors in Egypt. Two months later, thousands of workers organised a march in Mahalla, demanding a rise in the national minimum wage, while chanting against Mubarak, and his family.

What swelled into a 20,000-strong march on that day was the biggest demonstration ever held against Mubarak since the start of his rule in 1981. It received barely any media coverage.

Years later, a strike planned by Mahalla workers was aborted under police pressure on 6 April 2008, but triggered mass confrontations with the police for two days in the city. The events were more or less a dress rehearsal for the 25 January 2011 revolution.

Blaming the bosses

The textile mill continued to witness sporadic strikes after the revolution - the last of which was in February 2014, also over the national minimum wage. More important was the workers' demand to purge the management ranks of Mubarak-era officials, blamed by workers for the decline of the company.

The ongoing strike, however, is not as strong as the previous ones - at least not yet.

The strikers are not staging a sit-in, like before, where thousands of strikers and their families moved to the factory, setting up tents and barricades, and in effect occupying the workfloor. Not this time.

The strike is taking place in a time of defeat for the mass movement that spearheaded the 25 January revolution.

     Sisi's crackdown on dissent... has dealt a crushing blow to street politics and industrial militancy.

Sisi's crackdown on dissent using his military arsenal, security forces and draconian legislative decrees, amid an atmosphere of government-manufactured paranoia thanks to its "war on terror", has dealt a crushing blow to street politics and industrial militancy.

Playing it safe

The strikers, mostly from the morning shift, go to the mill in the early hours, but lay down their tools, stopping production. A few marches have been held in the compound, but these have been tiny compared with the mass rallies the company usually witnesses during industrial actions.

And some workers are trying to play it safe by chanting in support of Sisi during the marches, limiting the ceiling of criticism to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab.

The strike leadership is not unified. However, it is rare that labour organisers at the factory have been united - due to a long history of complicated factory politics and ideological and personal feuds.

But even with a divided factory floor, organisers miraculously coordinated the February 2014 strike with seven other textile companies.

The ongoing strike in Mahalla comes on the heels of another stoppage in Helwan's steel mill, south of Cairo - another historical hotbed of industrial militancy.

Those two strikes, and sporadic others, are still far from posing a real threat to Sisi's regime. But they remain the last remaining pockets of dissent that a defeated revolution has left us with.

Egyptian revolutionaries must do their best to connect with these strikers, without high expectations about the short-term prospects.

It's unlikely to see Mahalla now rising against Sisi, but such industrial actions are slowly laying the seeds of what could be a full-fledged challenge to the ruling junta in the coming years.