The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What to make of the "general strike"

As the khamseen winds blew into town today, a strange thing happened. A general strike that has been called for weeks went missing. People went out on the streets, asking, "have you seen the general strike?" "Are people striking over there?" "Do you know where the general strike went?"

It was all rather odd, because opposition and independent newspapers had been promising a "day of rage" and an "uprising," and the stodgy old state newspapers had ignored the subject altogether, preferring to concentrate on news that the price of rice and cooking oil had gone down and, er, that anyone striking or not showing up to work could face prison. The previous evening, a communiqué from the Ministry of Interior was aired on state television, telling people that they could get into a lot of trouble for participating in a general strike which wasn't going to take place anyway. The very, very pro-NDP Rose al-Youssef had also tried to reassure its readers: "Don't worry, there won't be a general strike, you can peacefully go to work."

On the opposition side, while most legal parties decided not to back the call for a general strike, there was the usual ambiguity from the Muslim Brothers, with one day General Guide Mahdi Akef calling for it and the next the group's Secretary General Mahmoud Ezzat (frequently thought to have more organizational weight) was saying that the MB were giving moral backing to the strike but would refrain from participating. Only Kifaya, Karama and a handful of the usual groups (radical leftists etc.) lent their full support for the idea of a general strike by going out on the streets. A much bigger group of people, mostly on Facebook, were calling for staying at home rather than going out on the streets to mark the general strike.

So, to recap, there were at least three strikes taking place yesterday: the Mahalla workers' strike and solidarity strikes by workers elsewhere, such as Kafr al-Dawar; the solidarity strikes and protests by the political movements in universities and major cities like Cairo by Kifaya and related movements; and an unknown number of solidarity stay-at-home "strikes" by individuals. These were of course all connected, but not necessarily all coordinated. I also wonder whether some of the workers striking for specific gains -- a new minimum wage, better benefits -- might have felt apprehensive about their cause being made into a symbol for the call for abstract gains -- democracy, reform, down-with-Mubarakism. The connection between the strikes carried out by the organized labor movement, which has specific bread-and-butter goals and whose political aims have for now focused on better representation in the local and national unions, and the broader political opposition is thus still hazy. There is certainly a great deal of public sympathy and admiration for the workers, a consciousness among the political class that they represent a movement that could be harnessed more effectively than Kifaya's disparate coalition, and the source of symbolic leadership for dissent that, unlike specific individuals like Ayman Nour or whoever else, can't be put in jail, be slandered or decapitated.

If we look at these three strikes separately, we can learn different lessons.

The workers' strike

There had been some uncertainty about the strike beforehand. Its main instigators, or at least the people who inspired it -- the brave workers of Mahalla al-Kubra -- apparently were divided about whether what was supposed to be their strike should take place. Although Hossam says this is because of the co-option of some labour leaders in Mahalla:

The factory itself has turned into a battleground of open propaganda warfare between the state-backed Factory Union Committee and the CTUWS faction on one side (and what a bloody irony when the CTUWS activists were the ones who had initially led the fight against the govt backed unions!), and the Textile Workers’ League activists who continue to agitate for the strike on the other. Statements and counterstatements are circulating the factory floor. A number of CTUWS activists were threatened with physical assaults by the workers when spotted distributing anti-strike statements from Hussein Megawer the head of the corrupt, state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions. The activists fled the scene, and left the statements hung on the wall, only to be torn down by the workers. Mohamed el-Attar, one of the CTUWS activists, phoned Ad-Dustour labor correspondent Mostafa Bassiouni. Attar was fuming, after Mostafa ran a report exposing the anti-strike pledge signed by Attar and four other labor leaders, and threatened Mostafa with a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Textile Workers’ League called on the media outlets to boycott Attar and Co accusing the latter of losing credibility… Management officials in the different departments and production sectors are showering the factory floor around the day with calls against the strike, and the Gharbeia Province governor showed up in Mahalla and met with a group of the management as well as police informers in the factory to discuss how to sabotage the industrial action…

Since the CTUWS have been the leaders behind the Mahalla workers' movement -- the same ones who previously organized the largest strike in decades -- it seems to me that if labour leaders are in the middle of negotiations as they claim to be, they have a right to not go on strike. I would reserve judgement about the workers in favor of the negotiations, since they never asked to become national symbols of dissent and are after getting what they want from management. Besides, whatever the dispute between the CTUWS and the Textile Workers' League about whether or not to hold the strike, the atmosphere at the factory was very different than on previous occasions they held the strike.

It seems security forces took over the factory starting at 3am, were out in force in the city and made clear that they were ready to use violence. It seems that those who decided to join the spontaneous protests that began after the 3:30pm shift change ran into some serious resistance, including the use of cattle prods to electrocute strikers, tear gas, and other measures. Unlike previous strikes, probably because the security forces were so aggressive, this got quite violent as troops battled workers throwing stones and on occasion molotov cocktails. I hope that this does not set the new pattern for future strike actions, as it would probably mean the end of the powerful non-violent resistance shown by workers across Egypt over the last two years. Most seriously, at least two people appear to have been killed and hundreds were injured as live ammunition was used -- as it had been to control the last major strike movement in the mid-1990s. The consequences of this clash for the factory that had indisputably grabbed the leadership of the labor movement is still uncertain, and one hopes it does not put permanent shackles on labor activists there.


Hossam has more details on what happened in Mahalla, and links to pictures.

The activists' strike

It was already pretty clear from the ministry of interior's warning on Saturday that a no-tolerance policy would be applied to activists involved in the general strike. By early Sunday over 95 activists, bloggers and politicians had already been arrested, and a stroll through Downtown Cairo showed that security was serious about coming out in force. Midan Tahrir's occupation by Central Security forces (and various sundry other units, including baltaguiya), with the backdrop of the khamseen's apocalyptic skies, certainly made a strange impression. As usual the activists were herded and pushed onto Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, and from the terrace of the Lawyers' Syndicate over a thousand activists staged their demos. I see nothing very interesting here -- the show of solidarity was nice, but we haven't moved beyond the dynamics of the Kifaya protests of 2005. The presence of baltaguiya, especially, suggested that security forces were quite ready to resort to the tactics of using these hired street thugs, who are paid 20-30 pounds and a sandwich by police to beat up protesters, to avoid direct police-activist clashes. One wonders why they do that, except if only perhaps that the police and Central Security troops, which form the cordons that contain the demos, do not want to get their own hands dirty. Or perhaps security does not trust them to engage against ordinary citizens in this manner and prefers to have them remain on the sidelines.

The stay-at-home strike

This is the potentially most important part of yesterday's events, although it is difficult to interpret. Why was Cairo so empty yesterday?Was it because people decided to stay at home in a show of solidarity, or because people were afraid to go out and face potential riots and the security crackdown? Was it both, a form of safe civil disobedience for people who don't want to take the risk of open political participation? It's hard to know the answer, but the fact that many classrooms at schools and universities were nearly empty yesterday suggests that, one way or another, the call for a general strike had a real, widespread public resonance. Some, like Baheyya, see in this a budding campaign of civil disobedience of the kind many have advocated for several years. She had written in July 2007:

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.

By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.

The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

Is this what happened yesterday? I really don't know, but it's plausible that this kind of attitude is slowly developing. What's certainly encouraging is that the strike was supported by a myriad of different organizations. The MB's hesitant take on the strike -- understandable since putting thousands of their members on the street would have led to certain mass violence -- was nonetheless important, since it gave it the moral backing of Egypt's most important organized political force. Others too joined in who are not among the usual suspects, such as university professors fighting for greater independence and better salaries or the latest middle-class, professional movement to hit the scenes, Doctors Without Rights.

The workers' cause, the bread crisis, the outrage over last year's constitutional amendments, multiple corruption scandals, high prices, a bankrupt Egyptian foreign policy, the abandonment of even pretending to hold fair elections, routinized arrests of political dissidents -- all of these things have affected virtually all strata of Egyptian society, and the feeling of uncertainty over the future caused by the absent of a clear presidential succession process have all contributed to growing disenchantment with this regime. I think this has been pretty well established. For over two decades now, any political force that tried to rally citizens around this disenchantment has been met with repression and decapitation of leadership. We are left with a leaderless movement, one that some fear could turn into a mob, as it did during the 1977 bread riots, whose memory hung heavily over yesterday. Or, maybe, it just turned into a day of limited solidarity, an alpha version of what a real general strike might look like in the future. It remained a real condemnation of the current state of affairs. One socialist activist wrote in an email:

On April 6, 2008 Egypt did not in fact witness a general strike. Yet there is always potential for a general strike and there is clearly a great deal of discontent which may fuel such a general strike in the future. Since the massive strike at the Mahalla Textile Company in December 2006 Egypt's workers and labor unions have become increasingly vocal and active. An increasing number of workers have also been demanding the establishment of freely organized, independent, and representative labor organizations; an increasing number of workers have also been developing their contacts with other groups of workers and coordinating their efforts – these are the elements that are needed for a general strike.

Speaking of 1977, I was talking recently with a friend who was at university that year about his impressions of what was happening. He told me about one friend who had told him that he had been stopped by rioters who had set up a checkpoint. They politely asked him to step out of his car so they could burn it, as they had been doing all day. He pleaded: "but my car is a small, look at the one behind me, it's a Mercedes." So they let him go, and proceeded to torch the Mercedes. A prominent Marxist professor who had been very supportive of any anti-Sadat initiative then arrived, pale-faced: "the riff-raff have taken over the streets!" The lesson here is that even people who sympathize with workers or would like to see a massive uprising are afraid about the consequences of mass public . 1977 was bloody, and did not resolve anything beyond getting the price of bread to be reduced again -- a poor substitute for the better economic management, job creation and accountability so sorely needed in Egypt. Perhaps yesterday's invisible strikers are still looking for means for meaningful political expression without potential chaos, an option the regime has denied them for decades.

See also:

6 April blog - Dedicated to general strike

Underbelly of Egypt’s Neoliberal Agenda - Joel Beinin looks at another factory case, also covered here.