As militant textile workers in Mahalla plan to strike indefinitely from Saturday, Egypt’s Revolutionary Youth Coalition has called for a mass rally in Tahrir Square this Friday.

Strikes are growing here in Egypt. A post workers’ strike is ongoing, with a number of other groups of workers joining the strike movement. It is estimated a quarter of a million workers will join a national strike this Saturday, 10th September. In Cairo the aim is to build on the momentum from Friday’s street protests in Tahrir Square.  

Textile workers from a number of towns and cities have announced they are joining Mahalla’s strike on Saturday. Mahalla has been a major site of workers’ unrest in recent years, especially the major textiles strikes in 2006 and 2008, widely believed to have helped lay the ground for this year’s revolution.   

Mahalla’s public sector textile factory is the biggest factory in Egypt, employing 22,000 workers. They will all begin an open-ended strike on Saturday. Workers are demanding that Prime Minister Essam Sharif increase investment in the company, introduce a minimum wage in line with inflation and release outstanding pay cheques. 

Mahalla workers issued a statement, declaring that their struggle is for not only themselves but also to win a decent standard of living for all Egyptian workers. A delegation of workers has gone to Cairo to present their demands directly to the prime minister’s office.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently rules the country prior to elections, has asked for a meeting with the labour leaders in Mahala. This has been refused by the workers. The prime minister is, however, going to Mahalla for the negotiations.

I’ve been going to the picket lines for the postal strikes and it seems they will continue until at least this Friday, 9th September. More generally, there are calls for increased co-ordination of strikes by different groups. There is potential for a general strike to be orchestrated, but it all depends on what happens in Mahalla on Saturday – and how effectively the action spreads to other areas – plus what happens in Tahrir Square on Friday.

Activists are preparing for big protests in Tahrir this Friday with various groups echoing the Revolutionary Youth Coalition’s call for a mass rally. Some are demanding an immediate halt to military trials of civilians. There are also serious concerns that current planning for elections unfairly advantages the more conservative elements, including former Mubarak supporters.

It is anticipated there will be clashes with security forces on Friday. Youth activist groups have called for security personnel to be withdrawn from Tahrir on Friday, due to fears of ‘bloodshed’. On Monday there were assaults by security forces on the families of the revolution’s martyrs, while Mubarak’s trial was in session. 

Moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders have, unsurprisingly, declared they won’t participate in the Tahrir Square rally. Ahram Online reports: ‘The General Secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party Saad El-Kataneny announced that the party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was not going to participate in the million-man protest to be held on 9 September 2011 in Tahrir Square’. 

This isn’t the first time Egypt has seen a strike movement emerge this year. In the final three days up to Mubarak’s downfall on 11th February there was a rapidly growing wave of strikes, with Mahalla at the epicentre, which proved to be one of the decisive factors in forcing the president to flee. After Mubarak’s downfall there were further strikes, with workers raising independent economic demands such as calls for better pay.

Mahalla workers previously played a key role for in efforts to organise beyond the limits of the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions. Last month growing independent labour groups forced the prime minister to agree to dismantle the executive board of the old federation. Mahalla union activist Wael Habib currently sits on a special committee designed to oversee this transition.

The majority of the labour militancy is outside Cairo, but the capital could still become a major focus. Organisation is very patchy, but there has been some development of independent workers’ groups since February. There is an organised left, though it remains relatively weak. A key issue is what links can be made between the youth-led protests in Tahrir (and elsewhere) and the strikes. 

Friday and Saturday are likely to be decisive in shaping the coming months. The hope is that the workers’ rebellion will generalise, involving more groups of workers and greater co-ordination, representing a new phase in Egypt’s revolution.

Mahmoud Mahdy is an activist in Scotland’s International Socialist Group. Additional material provided by Alex Snowdon and Feyzi Ismail.

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