Saturday, August 6, 2011

The city and its workers that first took on Mubarak


By Robert Fisk

"...Every time I asked about the strike, the officials asked me if I'd seen Mubarak in his Cairo court cage. They thought I was talking about the battles in Tahrir Square last January. Only when one of the heroines of the Battle of Mahallah, Widdad Dimirdash, a scarved woman of super-energy, loud voice and a great sense of pride, walks into the room do they understand. Mrs Dimirdash helped to lead one of the first great strikes against the government-owned (that is, Mubarak-owned) Misr Cotton Company in 2006. "It wasn't really political," she says – I'm not sure I believe her here – "but we had no choice. Our wages had become so low and the cost of food so high that we could no more afford to eat and live."

Of the 30,000 cotton workers in Mahallah – women and men labour in separate factories – 6,000 are female. They stopped work along with the men, living in their separate factories and refusing to leave until they received a "massive" pay increase; from £60 a month to £100, making them – still – among the lowest-paid industrial workers in Egypt. But the Mubarak government agreed the new salaries within three days.

It had no option. Mahallah, the centre of Egypt's export trade, was too big to fight....

The French journalist Alain Gresh was among the first to grasp the full significance of this; that these workers were "the forgotten actors" of the Egyptian revolution. He has recorded how one Egyptian industrial reporter responded to his questions in Cairo by asking: "Why, up till now, have the rebellions in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain failed?" He might have added Syria to the list. But it was in Tunisia, whose unions were strong, that the Tunisian general workers' syndicate finally brought down the Ben Ali dictatorship. In his final days, its call for a general strike was devastating. Nor were the men and women of Mahallah the only industrial workers to crush Mubarak's power. The Suez cement factory complex workers – who had staged their own miniature "revolution" in 2009 to protest at the company's cement sales to Israel – began another political strike in February of this year.

As for the workers of Syria, Libya, Yemen, they had long ago been co-opted, Baathised, Green Booked or tribalised, socialism being an unhappy inspiration to most dictators despite their expressions of friendship for the old Soviet Union. So does it take a strong trade union or workers' movement to bring revolutions in the Middle East to successful fruition? Mahallah is a grubby city – but its place in history is growing by the year."

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