MAHALLA EL-KUBRA, EGYPT — Much was made of Facebook, Twitter and the role social media played in lending a sense of youth and modernity to the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Then came the ascendancy of political Islam, which seems to be leading Egypt in a different direction entirely.
But the real roots of the revolution may lie here in this crumbling cotton mill town in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s industrial heartland, and with an old-fashioned labor dispute over pay that began five years ago.
And, according to one reading of the events that unfolded, it all began with a little-known act of courage on the part of a matronly, middle-aged millworker who wears a head scarf and was inspired to act because she couldn’t afford to buy meat for her family.
It was she who helped organize the initial strike by disgruntled workers in December 2006 that culminated in a nationwide call for a work stoppage on April 6, 2008. The date inspired the 6th of April Facebook group, which was used to rally the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January.
When the men of the mill balked at joining the banned strike action, she seized the initiative and led her female co-workers out into the factory grounds. Chanting “Where are the men? Here are the women,” they marched around the mill until the men were shamed into joining them. After three days, the workers won.
Amid the upheaval of the past year, the part labor played in the birth of the revolution has been largely forgotten. But workers joined the revolutionaries in the square in February and have continued to stage strikes throughout the year, taking on a far greater role in Egypt, with its strong industrial base, than labor has in other countries where uprisings have taken place.
The strikes continue to this day, and although they have been eclipsed by the far-better-publicized demonstrations in Tahrir Square, future Egyptian governments will need to address at least some of the demands of an increasingly organized labor movement if the country’s unrest is to be tamed.
This is the story of Wedad Demerdash, 44, a mother of four and, perhaps, the original revolutionary.
The Misr Spinning and Weaving Co. in Mahalla is Egypt’s biggest industrial enterprise and one of the largest cotton mills in the world. Founded in 1927, it was once the flagship of Egyptian industry, churning out high-quality cotton that was sold around the globe.
In recent years, its workforce has dwindled to 21,000 from a peak of nearly 40,000, and it operates at a considerable loss to the state. But to Egyptians, the mill is legendary. Known simply as Mahalla, it has become synonymous over the years with the militancy of its workers.
“Whatever happens in Mahalla sets the tone for Egypt,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a labor activist and blogger. “If Mahalla goes on strike and wins, you can be assured the rest of the country will go on strike too.”
So it was in 2006. Demerdash had gone to work there in 1984 at age 16, paying little attention to politics as she married and raised four children while holding down her job as a garment stitcher. The militancy of Mahalla had been muted by the repression of the Mubarak era.
But by the middle of the past decade, change was coming to Mahalla. Cheaper Chinese and Indian cotton threatened the mill’s competitiveness. Inflation was eroding the already pitiful basic wage of 300 Egyptian pounds a month — about $60. Fears were rife that the mill would be privatized and sold, and that all would lose their jobs, as had happened to many other enterprises.
By the end of 2006, when the management had not fulfilled a government promise to pay a bonus of 100 pounds — about $20 — the workers of Mahalla stirred again.
Demerdash cannot explain what it was that pushed her to take a leading role in the strike that would unleash a revolution, except that it had to do with the price of chicken, a basic wage that had not risen in years and a burning sense of injustice that the bonus had not been paid.
“God has given you the ability to confront others, and you should go ahead with it,” she recalls her husband telling her. She says she discovered in herself previously unrecognized abilities to organize and to persuade.
She printed leaflets and argued with co-workers who were reluctant to take action that could land them in jail. Soaring food prices had pushed meat beyond the means of most. Chicken was a once-a-month treat. Soon, the women were eager to join the strike.
“The women were more militant than the men,” said Joel Beinin, a professor at Stanford University who has written extensively on Egypt’s labor movements.
At the moment called for the strike to begin, Demerdash led the women out of the building where they worked onto the sprawling grounds of the mill complex. They found themselves alone. Through the windows of the other buildings she saw the hesitant men.
“We could see that they were just standing by their machines. We could see they were afraid,” says Demerdash, recalling the moment when she burst into her chant. “So we decided to incite them in any way we could. We wanted them to be ashamed.”
It worked. The men spilled out to join the strike. For three days, the workers occupied the factory grounds. On the fourth day, management caved, and the bonus was paid.
The victory triggered a wave of copycat strikes around the country throughout 2007. Egypt was plunged into the most intensive period of industrial unrest it had witnessed in decades. The Mahalla workers took the lead again in the spring of 2008, calling for a general strike on April 6 to demand a national minimum wage. A group of young Internet activists named its Facebook page after the date, and in January this year, the 6th of April group became renowned around the world for its role in galvanizing the uprising.
The baton had passed, to a new and very different generation of revolutionaries.
But, for Hamalawy, who closely chronicles Egypt’s labor movement, it was that first strike that started it all.
“December 2006 was definitely the turning point that will be engraved forever as the start of the liberation of Egypt,” he said. “If that strike had not taken place and had not been victorious, I don’t think we would have witnessed all the revolutionary transformations we have seen.”
Demerdash’s role also has gone largely unnoticed outside this dusty, decrepit town where almost everyone either works at the mill or knows someone who does. Here she has become something of a celebrity and a source of advice on labor issues. At a tea garden beside one of the tributaries of the Nile, a janitor recognizes her and approaches to ask how to improve his working conditions. She whips out a dog-eared copy of Egypt’s labor law from her purse and quickly finds the clause relevant to his concerns.
She continues to campaign tirelessly for better working conditions, while holding down her 48-hour-a-week job at the mill. She has also acquired a partner and soul mate, Amal Ahmad Said, 44, who is equally garrulous and passionate about her cause. They have become regulars on the labor activist conference circuit and traveled to Tahrir to participate in labor demonstrations.
But theirs is not the militancy of Marx or Che Guevara, the icons of the leftist, secular crowd that dominates the Tahrir protests. A Koran is on display in Demerdash’s living room, along with an abundance of pink- and lemon-colored teddy bears and white fluffy dogs that speak to the innocence she brings to her quest for decent pay and working conditions.
She dismisses as irrelevant the Facebook revolutionaries who named their page for the strike she helped inspire. “I don’t acknowledge them,” she says. “April 6 was born in Mahalla. It was a miracle that this corrupt regime was toppled, and it was to the credit of the workers.”
She holds in even greater contempt the Islamist parties that have emerged in the first rounds of Egypt’s elections as the revolution’s biggest winners. Though a devout Muslim who covers her hair, she thinks politics and religion shouldn’t mix. The Islamists, she says, “have hijacked the revolution.”
“I hate them,” she says. “The real owners of the revolution are the workers.”
But although she, like many Egyptians, feels the revolution has lost its way, at the close of a tumultuous year that has transformed her country almost beyond recognition, she cannot say it was in vain. A mini-revolt at the mill at the time Mubarak fell brought in new managers, who have been more sympathetic to workers’ concerns.
No longer does she fear that the company will be privatized and sold. The industrial action of those earlier years saw her basic wage increased to 500 pounds a month — she takes home about 900, including incentives and bonuses — and there is a promise, not yet implemented, of a national minimum wage of 1,200.
Whether it will be paid is in doubt, given the rocky state of Egypt’s economy. But there are other improvements. “We do our jobs now with high spirits,” she says. “Workers are being treated with more mercy these days, which is right because all the worker wants is to work to feed his family.”
For Demerdash, that’s what it has always been about. About pay, to be sure, but also respect, and the future of the mill to which she has given a lifetime’s work. Her eyes gleam when she talks about it.
“I love my work. I love and fear for my company. I love the sounds of the machines when I get to work in the morning, and I love the sounds of the machines going home in the evening,” she says. “As long as the machines are running, it means we can provide for our families and for our homes.”