The weeklong strike last month ended peacefully when the government-owned company made concessions on wages and profit-sharing bonuses that fell short of workers' demands. But the mill and its 27,000 employees have become a focal point of the labor unrest. Nearly a year ago, the same workers struck for several days, igniting solidarity across Egypt as work stoppages spread to railway, flour and other industries whose salaries and benefits have not kept pace with sharp rises in the cost of living.Rarely do workers en masse rebel against corporatist "trade unions" (a common problem from post-socialist to post-nationalist states that have degenerated from enlightened despotism to mere despotism) as well as their employers at the same time, so what's happening in Egypt is noteworthy. Mubarak's NDP charges "outside agitators" like the Muslim Brotherhood (whose economic program, while criticizing some aspects of privatization, unemployment, etc., is extremely cautious: "The Electoral Programme of the Muslim Brotherhood for Shura Council in 2007," Ikhwanweb, Cairo) and Kifaya with causing trouble, but that is not the case . . . yet. If Egypt's political opposition do not support workers fed up with economic liberalism as well as political corporatism, and vice versa, they cannot challenge the Mubarak regime. Neither workerism nor electoralism nor activism in "civil society" alone suffices.
"This is the largest, most militant strike wave since the 1940s," said Sameh Naguib, a labor expert and sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. "Hundreds of thousands of workers are involved and it's spreading quite rapidly. . . . The question is how this labor movement may play into a larger democratic movement against the government."
Mubarak's economic reforms, including privatization and lower corporate tax rates, have led to 7% economic growth in each of the last three years. Those otherwise impressive statistics have not benefited workers whose stagnant salaries have been decimated by wildly surging prices that have recently pushed inflation to monthly rates as high as 15%. This has created resentment among the lower and middle classes, who say Mubarak's economic liberalization has benefited only those with government connections.
The strikes come as Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, has cracked down on political opposition, jailed journalists and editors, closed a human rights organization and imprisoned hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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Egyptian officials contend that the Muslim Brotherhood, which adheres to strict Islamic law and has been accused of inspiring militants, and other anti-Mubarak elements, including the secular Kefaya political organization, are attempting to radicalize the nation's unions.
The textile workers say they are not influenced by outside forces, but by disillusionment over salaries and what they see as corrupt union leaders poorly representing them during Egypt's opening of its economy.
"Of course we will see more strikes, and the reason is clear to everybody," said Kamal Abbas, head of an independent worker advocacy group that was shut down by the government this year on charges of inciting labor unrest. "This union is totally subordinate to the state, and all its members are appointed by the state security services. There must be a [genuine] union that represents workers."(emphasis added, Jeffrey Fleishman, "Discontent among Egypt's Workers," Los Angeles Times, 27 October 2007)
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Egypt: Islam, Democracy, and Labor Unrest
A story that Lenin's Tomb, Hossam el-Hamalawy, Joel Beinin, etc. have been covering well has finally percolated down to the corporate media.