Friday, February 11, 2011

Behind the scenes of Egypt's revolution

Striking Misr Spinning and Weaving Company workers in Mahalla al-Kubra. (Nasser Nouri)

SO after the last two days of yes-he's-going, no-he's-not, Mubarak has finally been sent off to the sunset home for retired dictators - well Sharm el Sheikh, for now. I'd not go into the water if I was him. The Guardian's reporters ChrisMcGreal and Jack Shanker met a lifeguard from the Red Sea resort, Mohammed Abdul Ghedi, in Tahrir Square holding up a sign in English that said: "Mubarak you are nothing, you are heartless, without mind, just youkel, worthless, fuck off."

"This is my first day here and he is gone. Mubarak is a liar. When he promised to leave in three or six months we don't believe him. We only believe him when he is gone," he said. "Now Egyptians are free. All of Egypt is liberated. Now we will choose our leaders and if we don't like them, they will go."

It is not the kind of revolution that some naively expected. The people did not storm the presidential palace. The proletariat has not seized power. For now, the Army is taking charge. As it was in the past. Though this time it is promising to safeguard the transition to democratic government. We shall see.

So what has really changed? "We have changed, the Egyptian people have changed", as a man in Tahrir square said, and onlookers have marvelled. People chased off the riot police who were trained and equipped to batter them. They made clear from the start that they would not be distracted or divided by religion or other irrelevances. They stood up to Mubarak's thugs, whether on charging camels, or dropping masonry from overhead, or firing shots in the dark.

When the army came, some people sat down in front of tanks, and some talked to the soldiers. If the army was not ordered to shoot the people, it could be that the officers considered what might happen if the order was given and the soldiers refused to shoot. Better to leave the tanks parked, and the people holding the square.

It was not just happening in Cairo of course, and not just in Tahrir Square. In neighbourhoods where people took control and chased off looters and provocateurs, and in workplaces where workers met freely and organised, on the docks and canal, and in mills and factories, there was your revolution. It must have been brewing beneath the surface before it took the world's intelligence services and media by surprise.

And it has not gone away.

Here's a report that appeared of all places in the Los Angeles Times.
February 9, 2011,0,4302496.story

Egypt uprising has its roots in a mill town

***** El Mahalla el Kubra has long worried the Mubarak government. And the city’s dogged labor leaders now want more than just better working conditions. *****

By Timothy M. Phelps, Los Angeles Times

February 9, 2011

Reporting from El Mahalla el Kubra, Egypt

The revolt shaking Cairo didn’t start in Cairo. It began in this city of textile mills and choking pollution set amid the cotton and vegetable fields of the Nile Delta.

In a country where labor unrest was long thought to be a bigger threat than the demands of the urbanites now flooding the capital’s Tahrir Square, El Mahalla el Kubra has long been a source of concern among officials. The 32,000 employees at government textile mills and tens of thousands more at smaller private factories are the soul of the Egyptian labor movement.

The movement’s leaders have a long history of resisting harassment and enduring jail.

A nationwide protest against high food prices, unemployment and police torture that failed elsewhere exploded into violence on the streets here in 2008, inspiring a youth movement that eventually launched the effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak.

As reports of labor unrest rippled across the country this week, labor leaders here said improved living standards were no longer enough.

“Our slogans now are not labor union demands,” said Mohamad Murad, a railway worker, union coordinator and leftist politician. “Now we have more general demands for change.”

Until recently, a demonstration of several hundred people was considered large for Egypt. Police ensured that they did not get out of hand. But events in Mahalla on April 6, 2008, became famous throughout the country because of videos posted on YouTube, Facebook and other social media websites.

Tens of thousands of people turned out that day in this city of half a million, where shops sell brightly colored blankets and quilts, bolts of striped cloth, wedding dresses and other products of the city’s mills and factories.

After police opened fire, killing two people, crowds rampaged through the streets, setting fire to buildings, looting shops and throwing bricks at the officers.

Perhaps more significant to the regime, protesters tore down and stomped on a giant portrait of Mubarak in the central square, a rare event in a country where respect for the leader is enforced by a security apparatus with tentacles that reach into every block.

“This uprising was the first to break the barrier of fear all over Egypt,” Murad said. “No one can say that Egypt was the same afterward.”

Out of that grew the April 6 youth movement, which spread reports of what had happened in Mahalla. While more-established opposition groups moved cautiously in the wake of the revolt that brought down Tunisia’s strongman in mid-January, the youth movement urged Cairo residents out onto the streets.

Protests returned to the streets of Mahalla too, and only this week started calming down. Rioting broke out Jan. 28 when police used force against a repeat of the April 2008 demonstration.

Demonstrators stormed and burned the main police station and set fire to police cars, witnesses said.

“On that Friday, the crowds controlled the city,” said Murad, who was interviewed behind a ticket booth as rickety trains rolled through on their way to Alexandria or Cairo, about 65 miles to the south.

The next day, he said, police pulled out of the city altogether, as they did in Cairo and other localities, and the army was sent in to restore calm.

On Monday of this week, tanks were posted in front of banks, where people lined up to withdraw money for the first time since the crisis began. There was only a small uniformed police presence, and the usual checkpoints guarding the entrances to the city were nonexistent.

But “government thugs” were said to be lurking throughout the city, looking for troublemakers and foreigners, so journalists’ interviews had to be conducted furtively.

In a preemptive effort to buy the allegiance of government employees, officials on Monday announced a 15% pay raise, at a cost of nearly $1 billion a year.

For the 25,000 workers at Egypt Spinning & Weaving in Mahalla, that would mean a boost of $24 a month from their current pay of about $160.

Hamdi Hussein, 59, a gray-haired labor leader and avowed communist who has been arrested more times than he can remember, acknowledged that the government has frequently been able to placate workers with timely raises or other concessions, or has kept them quiet by playing on their fears of privatization.

A strike called Tuesday at Egyptian Spinning & Weaving to show solidarity with the large demonstration in Tahrir Square drew only about 1,500 workers. But elsewhere in the country, there were numerous reports of strikes. About 3,000 Suez Canal workers were reported to have gone on strike, and hundreds of workers at the government telephone company demonstrated for higher pay in Cairo and Suez.

About 2,000 workers went on strike at a pharmaceutical company in the Nile Delta and 1,300 walked off the job at a steel company in Suez, where hundreds of unemployed young people also picketed a petroleum company demanding jobs. French cement giant Lafarge in Suez was also reported to have been hit by a strike.

Labor leaders here such as Hussein, who runs a labor training and education center, say they are frustrated that they have no voice in the negotiations in Cairo. So far, the government has chosen which groups it wants to talk with.

But Hussein said that may change with the formation here of what is intended to be a nationwide “committee to protect the revolution.” He described it as an attempt to make sure the interests of the poor are represented in any changes and also to target corrupt members of the ruling party, especially government-sponsored union leaders.

Another role, he said, would be to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, a traditional enemy of the left but the largest single voice in the opposition.

But the goals of the labor movement have been transformed by the sweeping nature of the current protests, Murad said. Labor wants much more than higher wages and better working conditions, he said.

“And we want Mubarak to leave.”


Let's salute the heroism of the Egyptian masses. Let's salute also the maturity and wisdom they have shown.

Hopefully their revolution will not be usurped or stolen from them, as has happened elsewhere.

And we must also hope that the US-funded and equipped army, with its new authority, is not turned against the workers, as happened in 1952, when troops fired on striking textile workers at the Kafr al Dawar mills near Alexandria, and the "ringleaders", regarded as Marxists, were executed.

But whatever happens, things have changed in Egypt and the Middle East, and my feeling is that they are never going to be the same. A lot of people here are taking inspiration from the Egyptian people's struggle, and I've seen a few offering their ideas as to what should happen. I think we need to learn more about the workers' struggle, and we can learn from it. We are marching together.

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