The regime’s breathing space did not last long. At the end of 2006, the emergence of a new workers’ movement shifted the balance in the struggle for change in Egypt. A strike by textile workers at the public sector Misr Spinning plant in al-Mahalla al-Kubra in December 2006 can be considered the beginning of a new phase in the movement for change. Founded in the 1930s, Misr Spinning is one of the largest spinning and weaving companies in Egypt; the struggles of its workers had become a reference point for the Egyptian labour movement.8
There had been continuous workers’ protests during the years preceding December 2006, including important strikes such as those in the cement industry, the textile sector, the railways and elsewhere. However, the strike by the Mahalla workers in December 2006 marked the onset of a different trajectory in workers’ struggles, brought about by qualitative changes which could be considered marking the rise of a new workers’ movement. The workers at Misr Spinning in al-Mahalla began their strike on 7 December 2006, demanding payment of their annual bonuses, as specified by law for public sector firms. The strike followed a week-long ‘pay strike’ where workers had refused to cash their pay cheques in protest at the company’s failure to add the annual bonus to their pay. This was the biggest workers’ protest in terms of numbers involved since the protests by workers in the Kafr al-Dawwar Spinning Company in al-Beheira governorate in September 1994, which had ended in a clash with security forces. The Misr Spinning strike continued from 7 December to 16 December and ended with negotiations that led to some of the workers’ demands being met. This was in itself a transformation in the way that the state dealt with workers’ protests. Generally, the state had previously relied on repression, as it had done with the workers’ protests on the railways in 1986, at the ESCO textile mill in 1987, within the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989, and in other protests during the 1980s.
The ending of the Misr Spinning strike without violence by the security forces, and the meeting of some of the workers’ demands, dispelled the fears that had been created by the experience of earlier protests, in which workers had been fired upon and killed, detained or lost their jobs. Workers’ understanding that the state’s response had changed triggered a wave of industrial action in a variety of sectors: going on strike became an everyday activity in Egypt. Strikes were also of a longer duration than they had previously been.
There are multiple reasons for this change in the behaviour of the security forces. The most important was the liberalization of the media which was taking place in this period, which allowed the news of the strike to spread more quickly. At the same time, the security forces were hesitant about direct attacks on protesters in the face of online solidarity campaigns and increased media coverage both inside and outside the country. The authorities were also divided on how to deal with strikes, as a result of contradictions and conflicts between the regime’s own labour organization, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), and the Ministry of Labour.
The lengthening duration of workers’ protests during this period provided a new opportunity to develop organisationally. Workers had to protect equipment and buildings from sabotage and supply provisions during their protests. Likewise, negotiations required choosing representatives. This organizational development produced negotiations committees, organizing committees, protest leaders, provisions committees and security committees. These would lay the foundations for the future development of independent trade unions, beginning with the Property Tax Collectors’ Union, which was founded in December 2008.
The new workers’ movement was also characterized by the wide participation of women, to a much higher degree than in previous worker mobilizations. The 2006 strike at Misr Spinning was started by women, and the nursing sector, where large numbers of women work, played a major role. Women leaders also appeared in many other sectors to a much greater degree than had previously been the case.9
The period after the Misr Spinning strike in 2006 also saw the evolution of workers’ demands in parallel with this organizational advance. The Misr Spinning workers’ strikes provide an illustration of this qualitative shift. After the success of the 2006 strike, workers organized a further strike in September 2007 demanding the improvement of working conditions, the development of the company and action to hold corrupt elements to account. After a week of strike action, some of these demands were met. Just a few months later, in February 2008, Misr Spinning workers organized a street demonstration demanding a rise in the national minimum wage for all Egyptian workers. This was a major shift in consciousness as for the most part workers’ protests had previously only raised demands related to their own company. Moreover, they tended to focus on the ‘variable’ portion of the wage bill (composed of bonuses and allowances), as opposed to basic pay. Thereafter, the demand for a raise in the national minimum wage became a semi-permanent fixture in the list of demands of workers’ strikes in different workplaces.
The most important outcome of this strike wave was the emergence of new independent unions. In the ETUF elections of November 2006, just a few weeks before the Mahalla strike, the security apparatus and the government took the unprecedented step of excluding from office all of the major worker activists who had previously held elected positions. It was thus no surprise when ETUF stood side by side with management during the Mahalla strike in December. Workers responded by attacking the official union offices, throwing the ETUF officials out of the company and gathering signatures to a statement withdrawing confidence from the ETUF factory union committee.
The first attempts to found an independent union did not relate to Mahalla, however: they emerged out of the protests by property tax collectors which began in September 2007 and continued until December 2007, when their demands were met. This extended period of protests led to the formation of a committee to lead the movement and to negotiate in the name of the property tax collectors – effectively a trade union. Shortly after the end of the protests the tax collectors agreed to found a union as a natural extension of this committee.
The foundation by thousands of workers of a trade union outside of state control, after half a century during which trade unionism had been subsumed by the state, was a major democratic step forward. In fact, the independent unions which were formed in 2008 and thereafter were the sole mass organizations not under the control of the state. They also constituted a direct challenge to ETUF, which is one of the most important state institutions and which had been used as an instrument to control workers by successive Egyptian presidents since its founding by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957.
It is important to note here that one of the factors which mobilized this new workers’ movement during this period was the neoliberal economic policies of the International Monetary Fund, which were initiated by the regime from 1991 onwards. The Egyptian state’s economic policies between 1952 and 1970 had been characterized by centralized planning, and even after the growth of the private sector and the economic changes which Anwar al-Sadat initiated, the state continued to play the central role in the economy, through its ownership of public sector projects and companies. The form of labour relations established during the Nasserist era continued to dominate the labour market in Egypt. Moreover, ETUF retained its importance for the regime as a tool of political mobilization during elections and in order to build support for important policies, ranging from the peace treaty with Israel to the policies of Structural Adjustment adopted after 1991.
These economic reforms led to the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the role of the state declined. The stable labour relations which workers had enjoyed during the previous era began to break down as market forces asserted their dominance. This development was reflected in changing practices by the workers’ movement that emerged after 2006. For a long time, workers in Egypt had relied on ‘work-ins’ as a means of protest, occupying their workplaces without stopping production. This tactic reflected the political culture of Nasserism, where production was considered a national goal, and the factory was seen as the property of the people. By contrast, after 2006, the majority of workers turned to strike action, reflecting the impact of Structural Adjustment and its direct subjection of the production process to market mechanisms rather than national development goals. The new workers’ movement can thus be considered a delayed reaction to the imposition of the neoliberal reform programme after 1991, and the retreat of the state from the Nasserist social contract, as well as the paralysis of ETUF.