A strike by thousands of textile workers at Egypt’s biggest factory entered its second week on Thursday, after attempts by government officials and management to end the protest failed.
Workers at Misr Spinning in the industrial city of Mahalla are demanding payment of a “social allowance” equivalent to a ten percent addition to their monthly pay, promised by Egyptian president Abdelfattah al-Sisi to public sector workers in September. Despite efforts by managers in Mahalla to cut short the action by suspending seven workers alleged to be leading the protests, the strike movement has spread to other plants.
Textile workers in another major public sector company in the town of Kafr al-Dawwar near Alexandria began a strike for the same demands on Sunday, followed on Tuesday by workers at the Suez Canal Authority’s Port Sa’id Engineering Company.
“The strikes express the pain that workers and the poor are feeling as a result severe pressure from the economic crisis and spiralling prices”, argues Egyptian labour journalist Mostafa Bassiouny. “Following the regime’s propaganda about the big national projects it is undertaking, such as the widening of the Suez Canal, people are shocked to find that the same regime is attacking their living standards, as prices are increase and real wages are fall.”
Strikes in the manufacturing sector follow a short-lived spike in protests over the summer after the government announced plans for a new Civil Service Law which trade unionists say threatens to wipe out job security for millions of government employees. In the face of a determined propaganda campaign from the regime, and internal divisions within its leadership, the civil servants’ movement ran out of steam after a few weeks. Yet concessions to the Mahalla workers could spark a revival of resistance to the Civil Service Law.
The low turnout in the parliamentary elections may also be a sign that the regime’s ability to rally workers behind its call for stability is weakening. “Some workers had great illusions that Sisi would save the country,” notes Bassiouny, “but it is noticeable that in Mahalla they were able to organise themselves to take strike action in order to raise their wages, but couldn’t be bothered to go out and vote.”
The spectre of repression also still looms large over the strikes. While the regime has been wary of head-on confrontation with major groups of striking workers, smaller scale protests are repeatedly broken up by police or soldiers and strike leaders arrested. In June this year a worker was reportedly shot dead by the army as tanks moved in to crush protests at a military-owned factory in Suez.
With an official visit by Sisi to London expected next week, trade unionists in the UK are joining calls for an end to British government backing for the Egyptian regime. Mark Serwotka of PCS and the CWU’s Dave Ward are among the high-profile signatories to a statement calling on Cameron to withdraw Sisi’s invitation. Meanwhile members of UCU’s national executive have joined nearly 70 other academics in a letter to the Independent calling for protests against the visit in response to repression of the student movement and attacks on academic freedoms.
A range of groups including Stop the War Coalition, Egypt Solidarity, Campaign Against Arms Trade and USi are backing a protest on Wednesday 4 November, 5-7pm at Downing Street.
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