6th of April 2008: A workers' strike which fired the Egyptian revolution

Ekram Ibrahim , Friday 6 Apr 2012

The general strike launched in industrial city of Mahalla on 6 April 2008 showed the latent power of the Egyptian labour movement and helped spark the 2011 revolution which brought down the Mubarak regime

Mahalla strike
Protesters stepping on Mubarak's picture during the Mahalla strike, 6 April 2008 (Photo: Internet)

When Wael Habib, a leading member of Egypt's labour movement, stood in El-Shoun Square in Mahalla in 2008 demanding the right to a dignified life; he did not know that the strike he was taking part in would be a key event on the road to the January 25 revolution three years later.

"That day, I risked arrest at any moment," Habib, a textile worker at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, which has a long history of radical activism and currently employees a whopping 24,000 workers, told Ahram Online.

The January 25 revolution has roots that go back years, and one key element is the workers' movement that was revived in the later years of Mubarak's reign and achieved national attention on 6 April, 2008, when a general strike was launched in Mahalla.

The battle fought for better working conditions had started years earlier, yet reached a new milestone that April, when workers in the central Delta city of Mahalla staged a general strike. The workers in the city, led by Habib's textile co-workers, were protesting rising prices, low wages, delays in the payment of bonuses, profit shares and other wage supplements, as well as the privatisation of public-sector firms in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

A few days before the Mahalla strike, a group of political activists spread the call for a general strike on social media and through SMS messages under the name "April 6."

Walking in Mahalla city early in the morning on that rebellious day, it was clear that the strike was going to be big.

Security forces and trucks filled the streets to prevent an escalation. The Mahalla Spinning and Weaving Company was buzzing with plain-clothed security forces to prevent workers from going on strike.

"Security forces succeeded in preventing strikes inside the factory that day, but not outside it," labour researcher Mostafa Bassiouni told Ahram Online.

Habib started his strike after work at 3pm. He went on to El-Shoun Square, and then moved in marches of 60,000 - 80,000 people around the city.

"We had several strikes before, but this time it was different. Citizens took to the streets and rebelled against high prices, so it was not just us," Habib told Ahram Online.

The protest was intense - the then-president-Mubarak's pictures were pulled down and protesters walked all over them. It was the first time ever that Mubarak's picture was trampled on by protesters' shoes during a demonstration," Bassiouni said.

People took to the streets for three successive days, until representatives of the cabinet met with strike leaders, and promised to grant workers some of their demands. The officials conceded on 8 April and, only then, the strike ended.

"That day, I learned that the only way to win my rights was to stand up for them," Habib said.

The strike spread beyond Mahalla but not with the same intensity. The Kefaya ("Enough") political movement, which fought since 2005 against plans by Mybarak to groom his son Gamal as successor, followed by other political groups, had embraced the callfor general strike.

In Cairo the streets were less crowded than usual as some citizens followed the call to stay at home.

"I began my political activism that day; the call was so in touch with the demands of the people," Asmaa Mahfouz, political activist and former member of April 6 Youth Movement told Ahram Online.

Thanks to that general strike on 6 April 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement was born. This movement would go on to play a significant role in Egypt's January 25 revolution.

After the strike's success, the activists decided to form a political movement under its name, and April 6 moved from simply a call in the social media to become a force on the streets to oppose the Mubarak regime.

The April 6 Youth Movement followed the path of Kefaya by constructing tangible opposition to president Hosni Mubarak.

The workers' movement continued its battles after 2008, paving the way for the January 25 revolution.

"Regular workers' protests paved the way for the revolution," Howaida Adly, political science professor at the National Centre for Social Rights told Ahram Online.

Workers who took part in the early days of the revolution were not members of an organised body. The only official trade union was the pro-regime Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Its leader, Hussien Megawer, is currently in prison accused of involvement in the deaths of protesters during the infamous Battle of the Camel, which took place during the 2011 revolution.

"Trade unions were designed not to unite workers or get them rights, but for the good of the government," Adly said.

"For this workers' movement to succeed, the law should grant independent unions the right to safe guard workers' rights. Without passing this law, I don’t consider a revolution to have happened in Egypt," Adly said.

Labour unrest continues today, with many workers arguing that the situation is getting worse, and warning of another wave of strikes.

"Things are not getting better; we are denied our rights. I am afraid Egypt will witness a revolution of the hungry in the near future," Habib said.

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