“We are in the midst of the biggest and the strongest strike wave that the country has witnessed since the end of the Second World War,” explains campaigning journalist Hossam el Hamalawy.
As I sit down with him on the Glasgow leg of his UK lecture tour, he tries to convey the depth of the situation in his home country. “I’ll start by reading you out a couple of quotes that I have overheard recently,” he says. “I think that will give you an insight into how far along things are: ‘The problem of this country is capitalism… We are being ruled by a bunch of thieves, they are the worst thieves since the time of the pharaohs… There is no middle ground; you either stand with the robbers or those who are robbed… The road of reform has been blocked, we are left with no alternative but revolt’.”
“These are not quotes from meetings of socialists or radical leftists,” Hossam explains, “These are things I heard in meetings of Egyptian property tax collectors, would you believe?”
Hossam explains that the tax collectors went on strike for a period of three months, in which time tax-collection in Egypt dropped by 90%. “The strike culminated in an eleven day occupation of downtown Cairo and they ended up winning a staggering 325% pay increase,” he says.
This level of unrest currently appears to be the norm in Egypt, although this has certainly not always been the case.
“This kind of movement is happening under a classic third world dictatorship,” says Hossam. “State repression is very high.” He describes the level of violence being met out to anyone who dares to stand up to the government: “In 1992 the Islamic insurgents had launched their campaign against Hosni Mubarak, and the response of the government was a severe crackdown. Not just against the Islamists, but against everyone else as well. I remember growing up in Cairo and there were police checkpoints all over the city. People were disappearing. Twenty-two new prisons were built. People were joking that Mubarak had come up with a very creative way of solving the housing crisis in Egypt, by housing the entire populations in prisons. Those being held without trial reached 5000 according to human rights sources.”
Hossam recalls his time as a student, explaining that university campuses are the only place activists are safe as the police are not allowed to enter: “If you opposed the government the moment you stepped outside your university, you would be kidnapped, you would be beaten up, you would be taken to the torture chambers.”
He describes the recent case of a bus driver found agitating against Mubarak. When the police caught him, he was taken to the police station and gang raped by security officers. “The police filmed the whole thing and then went back to his bus garage and circulated the video amongst his fellow workers, as a warning. This sort of thing happens all the time at the moment.”
Despite this brutal repression, the Egyptian people are fighting back. El Hamalawy describes the major turning point as coming in 2003, when Mubarak refused to oppose the ‘War on Terror’: “At the end of the day, Hosni Mubarak’s regime is the second largest recipient of US foreign military aid after Israel. And with the outbreak of the Iraq war, we saw the biggest rioting since 1977. Around 50,000 people clashed with the police. The government totally lost control. People were ripping down and burning posters of Mubarak.”
From 2004 onwards, activists started mobilising and taking on Mubarak directly, in the form of an umbrella organisation called ‘Kifaya’, meaning ‘enough’ in Arabic. This started with mass protests in support of judicial independence. “We had two reformist judges who were going to get prosecuted on bogus charges, in very similar events to those that happened in Pakistan recently,” says Hossam. “Thousands took to the streets chanting in support of the judges, burning images of Mubarak, and calling for his overthrow. For me, someone who saw the 1990s, this was like something from a different planet.”
“But things were to take a completely different turn,” explains Hossam. “On the 7th of December 2006, 3000 female garment workers went on strike in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. This is home to the biggest textile factory in the Middle East, housing some 27,000 people working together. The women went on strike and started marching in the factory compound, demanding the two months’ bonuses that the government had promised them earlier.” These female workers then stormed the areas of the factory where their male colleagues were working, chanting and demanding the men came out on strike as well.
“The men laid down there tools and the entire textile mill went on strike,” reports Hamalawy. “They occupied their factory for three days despite security intimidation, and they won. But from that moment, they triggered what has been called the labour winter of discontent. Virtually all the textile mills in the Nile delta went on strike, demanding the same gains as those in Mahalla. But the industrial militancy did not stop there — it started spilling over into virtually all other sectors of the work force. So the following month, the train drivers went on strike and they slept on the rails, stopping the trains. Then cement workers went on strike and they won as well.”
Hossam explains that the mass media in Egypt, which is largely controlled by Mubarak, has dubbed the strike wave a “plague that is infecting the whole country.” And they, along with Mubaraks regime, became particularly worried when the strikes started spreading beyond industrial workers, into middle class professions. “Doctors were scheduled to go on their first national strike since 1951,” says Hossam. “The university professors went on their first mass strike since 1977, students on the campuses started mobilising. Social struggle went through an unprecedented upturn that we have not witnessed since the end of the Second World War.”
“Although this was initially a struggle over bread and butter issues, the workers soon started broadening their demands to encompass political issues,” explains el Hamalawy. “The most advanced sections in the factories started putting forward political demands like ‘we want to impeach the state backed unions and we want free unions’ — this is a political demand which is actually at the heart of the political transformation process.
"Also, if you look at the strikes, the workers are chanting against the IMF, saying that they will not be ruled by colonialism. You can see women workers wearing veils and carrying banners that say down with the government. So as you can see their political consciousness is very strong.”
In one of the most recent confrontations, Mahalla workers were set to go on strike but this was stopped by the government who occupied the factory with riot police and state security agents (the equivilent of MI5): “They detained the strike leaders in the factory, however everybody in town was going around saying ‘Is the strike going to happen?’ It came to 3:30pm, which is the time that the first shift should have left, but no strike happened. The heightened tensions caused the whole town to erupt, and that’s when there was a two-day intifada.” (Arabic for ‘uprising’).
“The government completely lost control. People were clashing with riot police in the streets. The government was very heavy handed — they shot using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas and they killed three people, including a fifteen year old boy.”
The soaring prices of food and the shortage of bread have also led to great suffering and violence. “In Egypt the word for bread is the Arabic word for ‘living’ because that constitutes a major component of the food basket of every Egyptian family,” Hossam explains.
“But bread is disappearing as well as other basic commodities that Egyptian families live on. We’ve had huge bread queues all over Egypt since February, and sixteen people have been killed up to now in these bread lines. People are basically fighting each other to get the basics that they need to survive, these are like scenes from the French Revolution.”
At the same time el Hamalawy remains positive about the future: “There is hope; Mahalla has shown us that. After the Mahalla uprising communities of fishermen also erupted in protest. The people were chanting ‘revolution until victory’ and that slogan is being taken up by ordinary women and men across the country. They were confronting Mubarak’s police, his tanks and his soldiers using rocks. This is an uneven battle, but the people will prevail.”