Egypt workers press fight
for wages, rights unions
|Textile workers in Mahalla, Egypt, at sit-down protest Aug. 26 demand payment of promised bonus. “Our revolution is for freedom against hunger, poverty, and nepotism,” they chanted.
BY SETH GALINSKY
Less than a week after the Egyptian army’s bloody clash with the Muslim Brotherhood, hundreds of workers at the government-owned Weaving and Textile Company in Mahalla launched another strike Aug. 26, demanding payment of a promised bonus and the firing of a hated top manager — one of many signs that working people in Egypt remain determined to fight for their interests.
President Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by the military July 3 after tens of millions took to the streets across the country demanding his resignation. Some 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed and thousands injured in the military’s heavy-handed response to the Brotherhood’s attempts to restore the Islamists’ hold on the reins of government. Top leaders of the Brotherhood have been jailed.
Much of the U.S. press — from major bourgeois dailies to most radical liberal publications that claim to speak in the interests of working people — wrung their hands over the ouster of the elected president as a blow to “democracy” and called for his restoration or reconciliation with the severely weakened Brotherhood.
The New York Times, noting the imposition of martial law and curfews by the interim government and the appointment of military officers as governors in many provinces, warned that a crackdown on workers and their organizations would swiftly follow the actions against the Brotherhood.
But one doesn’t so easily follow the other.
On one hand is a sectarian bourgeois Islamist movement that miscalculated its real power. On the other are millions of toilers who have carved out political space and gained confidence in struggles over the last several years against the repressive Hosni Mubarak regime, the military junta that replaced him, and the Morsi government, backed by Brotherhood street thugs, that followed. Having dispatched its main capitalist rival, the army-connected bourgeoisie in Egypt now faces a more complex challenge — the unfolding class struggle and deepening crisis of capitalism.
Workers, small farmers and Egyptians from all walks of life — including many who voted for Morsi in 2012 following the popular overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011 — were fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood government. Not only were working people angry that the Morsi regime fulfilled none of its promises and made them pay dearly for the deepening capitalist economic crisis — with steep price and tax hikes in basic necessities and growing unemployment. But they became increasingly incensed at the creeping assault on basic democratic rights and steps to impose the Brotherhood’s sectarian vision of Sunni Islam in public life.
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s stubbornness is the central cause of the current crisis,” Kamal Fayoumy, an electrician at the giant Mahalla El Kubra textile mill and central leader of many workers struggles, told the Militant by phone. “They have refused to step aside in the face of the people’s will.”
The Brotherhood hoped that by provoking the military into attacking them, supporters who died would become “martyrs” and help the group regain support. Preparing for battle at their camp at the Rabaa al-Adawiya, they set up a kitchen, pharmacy and a field hospital. On Aug. 14 soldiers and cops cleared out the camp using armored vehicles, bulldozers, tear gas and, eventually, live ammunition, killing at least 200 people. According to the Interior Ministry, 43 police and soldiers were also killed in the clash.
Meanwhile, Brotherhood supporters targeted Egypt’s Christian Coptic community, which represents about 10 percent of the country’s population. According to Al Ahram weekly, the Islamists torched at least 50 churches, Christian-owned businesses and schools on Aug. 14 alone.
People protect Christians
In many cases workers, youth and others who are Muslim joined human chains to protect Christian institutions and homes from reactionary mobs. “The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to cause religious animosity and conflict. But no one must be allowed to divide us,” said Ibrahim Abdel Gawad, president of the Independent Farmers Union in Ismailia. “That is why you see Muslim and Christian youth standing together side by side to protect the churches.”
The Brotherhood’s recent actions are no surprise to working people in Egypt. In early December last year, armed Brotherhood thugs attacked demonstrators who were protesting Morsi’s proposed constitution that would soon be used to restrict democratic rights, union organization and freedom of worship.
The intimidation didn’t succeed in pushing working people back. According to the Cairo-based International Development Centre, there were an average of 1,140 strikes, sit-ins, marches and other workers’ actions in June and July leading up to Morsi’s overthrow.
Working people organized to protect themselves against stepped-up Islamist thuggery after Morsi’s ouster.
In Ismailia, an industrial city along the Suez Canal, “we discussed with the army establishing popular committees, but they rejected the idea,” construction worker Mahmoud Salama, a leader of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions there, said by phone. “So people started on their own to form popular committees to defend themselves from Brotherhood attacks.”
Popular committees were also set up in Mahalla El Kubra, a textile industry center. “Made up of workers, students and residents, they guarded the workers’ neighborhoods, and public and private institutions,” Fayoumy said.
But the committees were often not strong enough to prevent non-proletarian elements from undermining their purpose.
Fatma Ramadan, a member of the executive board of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said from Cairo that now “most of these committees are constituted by thugs or are being used by opportunists.”
On Aug. 18 the government ordered the committees to disband.
Labor opposes Brotherhood return
Trade union activists and participants in struggles of small farmers who spoke with the Militant by phone Aug. 20 and Aug. 21 oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s return to power. While they hold a range of views on the crackdown, they remain confident in their capacities and prospects for future struggle.
“The situation is dangerous,” Salama said. “Roads between towns are not safe. Many workers are not going to work. This creates chaos.” At the same time, he said the curfew is “not dangerous for the rights of workers, who meet during the day anyway, and not at night.”
Fayoumy noted that workers in Mahalla are conducting a petition campaign “demanding that a trade union law legalizing our unions be passed, that free union elections be held, that fired workers be returned to their jobs and for a minimum wage of 2,000 Egyptian pounds a month ($286) and a maximum wage 20 times that.”
“In Mahalla 10,000 workers have already signed,” he said. “But the state of emergency is making it harder to get around so it has slowed somewhat now.”
“Our struggles have been postponed, that is the price working people are being forced to pay,” Karam Saber, president of the Land Center for Human Rights, said from Cairo. “The farmers’ union movement is starting a campaign against debtors prisons, for land distribution and for better loans, but when we go to the Ministry of Agriculture they tell us to wait until the battle with the Muslim Brotherhood is over.”
“This state of emergency will slow the class struggle, because right now the only thing the worker can do is go to work and return home,” said Ramadan.
Mahitab Algilani, a member of Revolutionary Youth who has been active in the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, said that “although the state of emergency is against the rights of working people, in the current situation it is justifiable in order to eliminate terror. But we know that the state of emergency could be used against us next.”
“I support the intervention of the army and the arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood people because workers do not have arms at this point,” said Gamal Abu’l Oula, director of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services office in Mahalla. “We are for a temporary state of emergency. It will not stand in the way of trade union struggles.”
A strike for higher pay by 2,100 workers at Suez Steel that began in early July ended Aug. 22, according to Al Ahram. The paper reported that two strike leaders were released on bail Aug. 13 after fellow workers protested in front of the Suez City courthouse. Police then arrested three more workers Aug. 21-22.
According to the Times, the army has sought to pin blame for the strike on the Muslim Brotherhood. But Al Ahram notes that a variety of political parties are supporting the workers’ fight.
“The Suez governor promised to release our coworkers on Friday,” Walid Hassan told the paper. “If not, workers might go on strike again.”
President Barack Obama said in an Aug. 15 statement that Washington “strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces” and favors “a process of national reconciliation.”
Although Obama cancelled a joint U.S.-Egypt military exercise scheduled for September, Washington maintains $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The aid is crucial to maintaining advanced equipment the military buys from the U.S.
The government of Qatar, the biggest financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi was in power, has continued to send some aid to the Egyptian government.
Four Middle East governments — Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — are backing the interim government. The three Arab monarchies — who have long viewed the Brotherhood as a political threat — have put together a $12 billion aid program. The Israeli government has been lobbying Washington to keep the military aid to Egypt flowing. All four see aiding the new regime as the best road toward establishing capitalist stability and countering the governments of Turkey and Iran, which denounced the overthrow of Morsi as a coup.
Georges Mehrabian and Bashar Abu-Saifan contributed to this article from Beirut, Lebanon.