April 6th in Egypt will be remembered as the day that a nationwide general strike was suppressed by the state. It may also be remembered as the day that Egypt began resembling Palestine.
In a dusty Delta industrial town, workers at Egypt's largest state-owned textile plant clashed with state police and soldiers. There in Mahalla al-Kobra, the scene of burning schools and buses and street fights between soldiers with guns and protestors with stones evoked Gaza. These workers have gone on strike before, arguing for a raise in their tiny wages, and hoards of state security have suppressed their demonstrations before. But the outcome was different this time -- according to one activist quoted on a widely read Egyptian blog, from the late afternoon into the evening on Sunday, Mahalla was "witnessing an intifada... you are talking about a war in the streets everywhere." Clashes continued on Monday.
The hundreds arrested and more than 150 injured in Mahalla were only part of Sunday's news from Egypt. The planned strike of the factory workers, as has been widely reported, inspired calls for a countrywide general strike -- people staying home from work, from school, hanging Egyptian flags from their windows in solidarity with the thousands of underpaid and underfed workers and the half of the country that lives on less than $2 a day.
But in sand-stormy Cairo, as in Mahalla -- as in the past -- the Mubarak regime dispatched thousands of shock troops and soldiers. They lined downtown streets, arresting people off the street and then moving to seize activists and strike organizers from their homes and offices. The official count was over 200 arrests across the country -- including activists and bloggers who made calls for demonstrations online, even on Facebook. The number of arrested, of injured and abused by a government that is clinging to power by stifling any dissent is probably much higher.
"If this is a regime that wants to see solutions and wants to see alternatives, the first thing they should do is allow people to express themselves, not to take them in dozens -- whether the workers of Mahalla or the activists of Cairo and other governorates." This was Rabab al Mahdi, a professor at the American University in Cairo, on a talking heads program on Al Jazeera English -- far more incisive coverage than CNN. The government's spokesperson arguing with al Mahdi rehashed lines about protecting the Egyptian people from chaos and about the illegality of public protests under the thirty year-old "emergency laws." The State Department will likely agree with the Egyptian government while inserting, for good measure, an impotent caveat about feeling uneasy about scenes of violence in Egypt.
But it won't cross the mind of our government that underfed Egyptians protesting in the streets and sitting in police stations and jail cells because they chose to raise their voices -- outside, on the roofs of buildings, online -- know exactly how the cards fall. Mubarak's National Democratic Party can cite a "political agenda" to demands across Egyptian society for this quashed general strike. The government's not-subtle subtext is that all this, really, has been or will be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. The NDP knows that connecting all this to Islamism will make police brutality acceptable in eyes of the world, particularly the US.
But this is not about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists have announced that they will boycott the municipal elections on April 8th and over the past few months hundreds more MB members have been detained. But from a distance, April 6th, the day of the suppressed general strike, seemed to call on the torment of millions of Egyptians -- maybe half in a country of 75 million -- who, to quote the Rania al Malky, editor of the Daily News Egypt, are having to choose between their daily livelihood and their political hopes. "The question is, how far can we sacrifice bread for the sake of freedom and a dignified life?" she asked in an editorial.
With rising wealth gaps, inflation, and increasingly evident fear from their government for any kind of popularly supported reform movement, there is the promise of more protests and more workers' strikes. And, of course, more state repression.
Change is the rhetoric of choice in our presidential elections. But change has been a long time coming in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak's legacy is languishing in power while Egyptians lose their livelihood and grow restless. On Sunday, his regime projected its most enduring image: police and hired plainclothes thugs following their orders to beat up and to detain.