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Blogging Egypt's Factory Strikes

If only the American press would give factory strikes in Egypt, a real mark of social unrest and often secular self-determination in the Middle East, attention.
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Whether or not this is picked up in the American press shouldn't matter. It's a story to pay attention to, however you can.

The textile factory at Ghazl el-Mahalla in the Nile Delta is Egypt's largest, with over 27,000 workers. Nearly all of the factory's workers went on strike last December to demand their yearly bonuses, which had been withheld and which provide most of their annual salary.

On Sunday, some 10,000 of those factory workers went on strike again, demanding 150-day shares of annual profits, improved industrial safety, and a raise in their monthly bonuses.

Within a few hours the number swelled to 15,000 as Egyptian police surrounded the factory.

The Egyptian government quickly declared the strike "illegal."

"The numbers of strikers are expected to rise in the coming few hours...the factory is under police siege," according to posts today by Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy. His blog, 3arabawy, is one of Egypt's most widely read in English. Along with Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger who gained international attention last year by posting (and continuing to post) videos of police brutality, el-Hamalawy is a go-to source on the rumblings of a wide scale labor movement in Egypt.

If only the American press would give factory strikes in Egypt, a real mark of social unrest and popular, often secular self-determination in the Middle East, as much attention as democracy-by-occupation in Iraq and the Fatah-Hamas schism in Palestine.

I'm typing this on Sunday night in the States and the only source for strike developments, in English, is Hamalawy's blog.

"I called Kareem el-Beheiri in Mahalla.. He says the strikers' numbers have exceeded 20,000."

And Hamalawy isn't even in Egypt; he's in California, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

I'm hoping when I search Google news on Monday, at least the international wires will have news from the factory in Mahalla. It definitely won't be on the cover of the nation's dailies; will it even be buried in the front section?

Factory workers began strikes last winter in Egypt, aimed at demanding some semblance of just wages, often in the face of privatization championed by the heavily-U.S.-backed Mubarak government and the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. gives $1.3 billion in military aid to the Mubarak government. Cairo's is hardly an example of good governance, whether in recent crackdowns on press freedom, widely regarded government corruption, or a long history of police brutality and state-sanctioned torture.

And then there is the treatment of workers.

The official name of the factory in Mahalla is the Misr (Egypt) Spinning and Weaving Company. A similarly named Spinning and Weaving Factory in the Nile Delta city of Shibin al-Kom was the site of strikes last winter that also included other Delta cities like Kafr al-Dawwar. Withheld bonuses and salary increases drove the protests, many of which were tentatively settled last winter and spring.

Workers in Shibin al-Kom, as of last February before their factory was sold to an Indian company that planned major layoffs, brought in a salary of 8 Egyptian pounds a day -- about $1.40 -- for an eight hour work day, six days a week. They got paid once a month.

A worker in Mahalla, according to an article by scholar Joel Beinen and Hamalawy in Middle East Report, took home a similar basic wage of about $30 a month. "With profit sharing, his net pay is about $75 a month. His 33-year-old wife... makes about $70 a month working in the ready-made clothing division of the same firm."

The effects of the strikes on Egyptian politics cannot be underestimated, not least because the workers offer a new source of major opposition to Mubarak other than the Muslim Brotherhood. Too often pundits in this country and elsewhere justify U.S. support for the regime as a necessary check to an Islamist opposition front in Egypt.

Clearly politics and labor in Egypt are more complex than that.

The country's workforce is the largest in the region along with Iran's, and so, in trying to be as uncynical as possible, Egyptian workers should be a major political force. It's more than four years after the fall of Baghdad -- we're supposed to care about democratic sweeps in the Middle East, right?

Cairo's leading independent newspaper, al-Masri al-Yom, estimated that around 226 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations occurred last year. 2007 included the major textile factory strikes, plus strikes at plants around Cairo, among the garbage collectors, and on the city's Metro.

"During my phone conversations with the strike leaders and activists inside the company," Hamalawy blogged in a busy day of posting today, "they always ask me if 'the people in America and the world have heard about the strike?'"

Have we? Will we look outside of the story lines pressed by the major agencies -- benchmarks in Iraq, Congressional hearings, eerily familiar drums for war with Iran -- to more telling stories from the region?

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