Between Repression and Resistance: Egyptian Workers’ Struggles

MAHALLA, EGYPT - APRIL 7, 2008: Tens of thousands of protestors took to the street to protest rising food prices and government attempts to privatize state-owned factories. The group became known as the April 6 Movement and played a major role in Egypt's 2012 revolution. (James Buck / PBS)

By Mostafa Bassiouny and Anne Alexander

Only two years after Abdelfattah el-Sisi welcomed international investors to a glitzy development conference showcasing opportunities in Egypt, his regime’s promises of a brighter economic future are looking threadbare to millions of Egyptians. Reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund as the price of a $12 billion Extended Fund Facility loan have led to spiralling inflation, and despite repression, rising levels of frustration are spilling onto the streets and workplaces in a new wave of social protest. At the end of last year the Sisi regime managed to force through some of the most painful changes – such as last November’s currency devaluation, the imposition of a new Value Added Tax, and further cuts to subsidies on fuel – without significant protest on a national scale reflecting repression on an unprecedented scale, rather than a genuine indicator of acceptance of these policies. Although fragmented and spontaneous, levels of grass roots economic and social protests are high, and the workers’ movement in particular has remained relatively resilient in the workplaces. Crucially, the regime’s success in implementing the IMF’s conditions for the loan is also contributing to the draining away of its popular support.

In this blog-post we will assess the current state of the Egyptian workers’ movement and the potential for its revival. The workers’ movement remains, we will argue here, the most important potential location for effective popular resistance to the neoliberal policy agenda, reflecting organised workers’ capacity to paralyse sections of the economy and the state apparatus itself and the legacy of over a decade’s sustained experience in self-organisation. Despite the regime’s efforts to break this tradition, current levels of strike action and attempted strike action suggest that it has not succeeded.

Two competing pressures are operating on the workers’ movement, and it is not yet clear which will prove decisive. One the one hand, the intensity of the economic and social crisis for Egypt’s impoverished majority is pushing workers and wider layers of the poor into taking collective action. On the other hand however, levels of direct repression of worker activists in particular have significantly increased over the past year, as we will outline below. This targeted repression takes place in a context marked by intense state brutality, including an unprecedented campaign of enforced disappearances, endemic torture and extrajudicial killings by the security services.

The economic measures taken by the state in order to meet the conditions of the IMF loan of $12bn over 3 years have imposed unprecedented burdens on the poorer classes and in particular the working class. These measures have included cutting fuel subsidies by more than 40 percent for the 2016-7 budget, leading to a wave of strong inflation, combined with the new inflationary burdens resulting from the imposition of a new VAT of 13 percent on goods and services. And with the decision to liberalise the Egyptian currency on 3 November 2016, these inflationary pressures increased even further as the result of the Egyptian’s pounds collapse to half its previous rate against the dollar, leading to the rise in the price of a number of goods and services, including basics such as medicines, health services and education services.

On the other hand, any rise in wages was very weak, for example the allocated portion of the state budget for wages rose by 7.6 percent in 2016-7, while inflation was at least 11.5 percent according to official figures, meaning that the six million state employees faced at least a 4 percent pay cut. In reality the wage cut has been more than the estimate in the state budget, because of the rise in inflation was in reality much higher. The Central Bank of Egypt announced in February this year that the annual inflation rate was 33 percent, up from 28 percent in January, and 24 percent in December 2016, with the expectation that it will have report  a rise further in the last quarter of the financial year 2016-7.

An attempted strike by textile workers at the giant Misr Spinning company in the Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra on 7 February this year is a tell-tale sign of rising anger in industrial workplaces. Workers in a number of the Misr Spinning company factories organised a strike on that day, with around 4,000 workers taking part. The action was concentrated in the ready-made garments factory, the sheets factory and the towels factory, which have the greatest concentration of women workers. Their leading role recalls the strike of December 2006, which was begun by women workers, who raised the famous slogan, “Where are the men? Here are the women!” The same chants were raised again during the attempted strike in February.

In 2006 the women’s action triggered a strike which brought out the rest of the factory and marked a turning point in the development of the workers’ movement across Egypt, unleashing a wave of strikes across the textile sector and beyond. In this case, management was able to abort the action before it could take off, but the general picture over the past year is one of rising levels of social protest, including hundreds by workers. These are a direct response to the worsening of economic and social conditions for the poor, reflecting the weakening of the social security net and the decrease in the value and impact of subsidies on goods and services and the state’s reduction of its social role.

Just a few weeks after the attempted strike at Misr Spinning demonstrations took place in seven governorates across Egypt in protest at the reduction in the subsidised bread ration. In 2016, according to a report by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, there was a noticeable increase in protest levels, and in particular protests by workers, with more than 1700 protests recorded in 2016, of which 700 were workers’ protests and a further 600 were of a social character. This indicates a transformation in mood compared to the period from 2013-2015, when the frequency of workers’ protests dropped noticeably. This likely reflected a number of factors, including on-going repression, the impact of official propaganda under the slogan “war on terror”, and the expectations raised by the regime of new economic projects following the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, and the widening and development of the Suez Canal and the surrounding area.

The rise in the frequency of workers’ strikes and social protests in 2016 has been accompanied by another rise in the level of repression and crushing of strikes. A significant development was the referral of the Alexandria Shipyard workers to a military trial on charges of incitement to protest, and the arrest of workers’ leaders from the Public Transport Authority in Cairo on charges of incitement to strike, while workers from the IFFCO food plant were also hauled before the courts on charges of striking.

This is the context in which we must evaluate the attempted strike in Misr Spinning in February this year, which sparked such hopes on its announcement, but it cannot be separated from the general conditions which the workers’ movement is experiencing. The development of security prosecutions of striking workers casts a long shadow on the workplace and makes any steps towards the organisation of a strike fraught with danger. However the conditions in the Misr Spinning factory itself have also played an important role. As it was this company which led the rise of the workers’ movement from the end of 2006, it has also experienced a heavier degree of repression than many other workplaces, both in terms of security prosecutions and management victimisations. This has had the effect that most of the workers’ leaders who played a significant role in previous years are no longer able to do so, because they have been sacked from the company or transferred to sections of the company where they are unable to have an impact on the workers, while those that remain are under constant surveillance by management, making the possibilities of organising a successful strike much more difficult than previously. This however, also makes the fact that between 2500 and 4000 workers did join the strike all the more important.

The events in Mahalla in early February are thus another confirmation of the interplay between the two competing pressures on the workers’ movement: the whip of worsening economic conditions and the truncheons of the police. The number and scope of protests over the past year suggests however that the effectiveness of the second of these in inhibiting the rise of the workers’ movement has begun to weaken. It is also significant that 2016 saw a new wave of important political protests over the agreement to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia.

And behind these immediate pressures on the Sisi regime, other factors are also at work. The longer-term effects of the recent round of neoliberal reforms are likely to further undermine the regime’s viability. For the past four decades (despite pursuing previous programmes of ‘structural adjustment’), successive Egyptian regimes have relied on mechanisms to ensure continued social stability inherited from the state capitalist policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser. These do not only include the system of state subsidies which the IMF’s managers are so keen to dismantle, but also the wages of millions of civil servants. Over the same period, both Sadat and Mubarak continued to depend on barely-modified versions the corporatist ruling party and state-run ‘trade unions’ which Nasser also created to manage discontent. Sisi’s economic policies mark another wave in the neoliberal assault on the public sector. Yet beyond the febrile atmosphere of the ‘war on terror’ and the white heat of repression in aftermath of the 2013 coup, Sisi’s regime has not found anything stable to fill the gap left by the hollowing out of the old ruling party and the state-run union apparatus.

The action by women workers in Mahalla on 7 February thus cannot simply be written off as a failed attempt at a strike. Rather, considered in this wider context, it may be a harbinger of a new rise in the workers’ movement and a sign of possibilities for greater resistance to come.

Mostafa Bassiouny has more than a decade’s experience as a reporter and editor in the Egyptian and regional press. He was industrial correspondent for the Al-Dustour newspaper between 2005 and 2010, reporting on the uprising which rocked the town of Mahalla in 2008. He reported on the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia in January 2011 before returning to Egypt to participate in the uprising against Mubarak. Between 2011 and 2014 he was Head of News for liberal daily Al-Tahrir and is currently Egypt correspondent for the Lebanese daily Al-Safir. Anne Alexander is a research fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. She has published widely on Middle Eastern politics, social movements and digital media, and is the author of Nasser, a biography of Gamal Abdel-Nasser (2005). Mostafa and Anne are co-authors of Bread, Freedom and Social Justice and contributors to Where are the Unions?

Featured photograph: Egyptians demonstrate in Mahalla on April 7, 2008, these protests took place after the 6 April strike. The 6 April Movement, as it became known, was formed in the wake of the uprisings in Mahalla and help to generate revolutionary energy that eventually fed into the 2011 revolution.


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