Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Egypt's economic reform meets unprecedented wave of labor resistance

This week, tax collectors went on strike, adding to growing labor unrest that threatens to unleash a 'social explosion' against Mubarak's regime.

(Page 2 of 2)

That frustration was in evidence when the Mahallah workers gathered on the shop floor last December to debate the merits of the strike. Participants recall that many were apprehensive about the government's reaction and that it was a mood of desperation, not optimism, that carried the day.

Skip to next paragraph

There were rumors that the government was seeking to sell the sprawling, out-of-date factory to private investors, which would almost certainly mean layoffs. And with base wages stagnant at about $50 a month in recent years, against annual inflation that has been above 10 percent, they decided they had very little to lose. While the government has avoided mass layoffs at its factories, it has sought to depress wages by withholding bonuses and encouraging early retirement.

The spark for the first strike was government-owned factories failure to pay a profit-sharing bonus. Hanan Ali, who has worked at the factory for 20 years and whose monthly salary reaches 240 Egyptian pounds ($43) describes the feeling that taking the risk for that bonus felt like the difference between death and survival.

"Why am I striking? I have two children, my husband died seven years ago … and I pay 200 pounds a month for rent. It's becoming impossible for us to live. This is why I'm striking."

Though labor activity has tapered off recently, there were at least 35 strikes across the country in November, according to the Egyptian Workers and Trade Unions Watch, a nongovernmental organization.

While disgruntled workers have not coalesced into anything resembling a united political force, corrupt companies, industries being left in the dust by competition from emerging heavyweights like India and China, and a generation of Egyptians who came to rely on steady, albeit low-paid work, have created a major challenge for the Mubarak regime, analysts say.

"Important elements among the Mahallah strikers are now framing their struggle as a profoundly political fight with national implications. They are directly challenging the economic policies and political legitimacy of the regime," Mr. Beinin wrote in a recent piece for Middle East Report Online.

Hisham Fuad is hoping to push things further. The labor activist, who was been networking with factories across the country, says he sees signs that the labor movement could be politicized. "The mills are making connections with each other; we can see a movement away from purely economic demands.

"In Mahallah's September strike, we saw lots of overtly political slogans attacking the NDP."

The Mahallah plant was founded by Mohammed Talat Harb in the 1930s, a famed Egyptian nationalist who was one of the country's first domestic entrepreneurs to challenge the foreign businessmen who dominated the country's economy at that time. It became a symbol of Egyptian progress, and by the time it was nationalized in the 1960s, it was the largest factory in the Middle East and Africa, with about 50,000 workers.

That history explains why it's been central to the emerging workers movement.

Though government employees today, most of the Mahallah workers speak with barely disguised contempt of their current employer, particularly allegations in the state-owned media that their strikes have had more to do with "outside agitation" than economic grievances.

They also allege corruption among the officials overseeing the factory as one reason for its economic struggles.

"Our movement is completely independent of any political forces or parties. All our demands are economic and simple; we just want fair wages," says Ahmad el-Naggar, who makes about $50 a month at the plant.

"The corruption of this country is present here at this company. If our strike has anything to do with politics … it is the failed politics of the government, and not any intervention from political parties," he says.