During the past few days a steady stream of reports has confirmed the increasingly decisive role of the Egyptian working class in the struggle against the Mubarak regime. While the mass assemblies and clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo have been the focal point of media coverage, the growing wave of working class militancy—in the form of protest demonstrations and strikes—will have a greater impact on the course of events.
In the industrial community of Kafr al-Dawwar—a historic center of working class militancy—hundreds of silk and textile workers participated in protests over inadequate pay and bad conditions. In Helwan, a Nile city south of Cairo, 4000 workers from the Coke Coal and Basic Chemical Company announced a strike.
While demanding higher pay, permanent contracts for temporary workers, and an end to corruption, the workers also declared their solidarity with protestors in the capital. In another significant protest action in Helwan, 2000 silk workers participated in a demonstration that demanded the removal of their company’s board of directors.
In the city of Mahalla, located in the Nile Delta, 1500 workers protested the late payment of wages and bonuses. In another struggle in that city, hundreds of workers at a spinning company participated in a sit-in demanding action on over-due promotions. In Quesna, also located in the Delta, 2000 pharmaceutical workers went on strike.
More than 6000 workers employed by the Suez Canal Authority in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez staged sit-ins to demand adjustments in their pay. Also in Suez, 400 workers employed by the Misr National Steel Company initiated industrial action.
This movement of the Egyptian working class began long before the mass protests in Cairo that began during the last week of January. As documented in a study by Professor Joel Beinin, a specialist in the history of the Egyptian labor movement, the developing strike wave “is erupting from the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century. Over 1.7 million workers engaged in more than 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest from 2004 to 2008.”
Ironically, the growth of labor militancy has been, for the sclerotic Egyptian regime, an unwelcome consequence of economic growth during the last decade. This growth has been fueled by the massive inflow of international capital into Egypt during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Foreign Direct Investment increased from $400 million in 2000 to $13.2 billion in 2007-08. Egypt is now the largest recipient of FDI on the African continent. Between 2004 and 2007, the annual rate of GDP growth increased from 4 percent to 7.2 percent.
But the benefits of economic growth have been confined to a small section of society. Despite strikes that have occasionally wrested concessions, the overwhelming mass of the working population is mired in poverty. Moreover, the regime has responded to the rising challenge from the working class with escalating brutality and repression.
Now, in the context of a nation-wide mass movement against the Mubarak regime, the decisive question is the role of the working class in deciding not only the fate of Mubarak, but the nature of the regime that arises from the ongoing revolutionary convulsions.