“Mahalla created the spirit of the revolution,” said Hamdi Nasheby, 60, a white-bearded man dressed in a flowing grey gown, or jalabiya, who said he had worked at the factory in the fertile heart of the Nile Delta for 45 years. “But now that the revolution has happened and Egyptians have gained their rights, they have forgotten the suffering of Mahalla — the revolution has forgotten us.”
Around him, dozens of his fellow workers gestured angrily on a recent afternoon, shouting over each other as they tried to explain their demands: a share in the profits of the sprawling state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., better health-care and retirement packages, a raise in monthly wages from 700 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($115 to $165), and the dismissal of the company’s chief executive.
Behind them, the factory gates were padlocked, the wide concrete smokestacks idle and the sandstone administration buildings vacant as hundreds of their colleagues sat under tarpaulins to shelter themselves from the fierce summer sun — a picture of exactly what Egypt’s ailing economy does not need.
Strikes spread across the country during the weeks after the 2011 uprising began, bringing Egypt’s economy to its knees, a blow from which it has not recovered. Tourists and investors have stayed away, and foreign exchange reserves have tumbled to dangerously low levels.
While last year’s broad labor unrest has abated, the strike by some 22,000 employees at the Misr factory already has spread to seven other textile firms, in both the public and private sectors, and labor activists are talking about a new nationwide “workers’ revolution.”
Such talk may be premature, but it is hard to ignore the symbolism of this new unrest in Mahalla.
It was here that Egyptians first tore down and burned a huge poster of Mubarak four years ago, as a protest over low wages and rising food prices mushroomed into a nationwide general strike calling for “freedom and dignity” and an end to official corruption and police torture. The strike inspired a nationwide youth movement and Facebook campaign that eventually became a major force in the 2011 revolution.
But the fall of Mubarak has been followed by 18 months of drift in the way the country has been governed. Security has deteriorated, rubbish has piled up on the streets and police turn a blind eye to Cairo’s steadily worsening traffic.