Saad al-Husseini may be a member of a banned political organization, but he's feeling the wind at his back. At the entrance to al-Mahalla al-Kubra, one of Egypt's largest industrial towns, the tall, bearded "independent" Member of Parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood whose members are regularly arrested and tortured by the state hops into a car, buoyed by signs of local dissent. "There are two strikes in Mahalla today," he says, cheerfully. "We will show you."
The strikes involving several dozen workers in the Nile Delta town about 60 miles north of Cairo are just the latest in over a dozen that have already occurred the same week and that's just in Mahalla. A number of similar strikes are underway throughout the area, in what is shaping up to be another long, hot summer of discontent in the Nile Delta.
The densely populated Delta has some of Egypt's best farmland, and is also the country's industrial heartland. Mahalla, where tens of thousands of striking textile workers have won their demands on multiple occasions over the past three years, has become a symbol of labor militancy. Many of the strikes are called by the Independent Textile Workers' League, which operates like a union but without official recognition. "Since December 7, 2006, when the workers of [Misr Spinning and Weaving Company] factory went on strike, that was a historical day. It was the first and the biggest strike in Egypt. And the strikes haven't stopped since," says Husseini.
Strikes, sit-ins, and factory occupations are technically illegal in Egypt except in the unlikely event that they were authorized by the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation. But legal restraints have not stopped workers from laying down their tools; analysts attribute the phenomenon to the declining living standards that have accompanied the government's market-oriented economic policies, combined with the absence of democratic channels of recourse in President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. By some estimates, Egypt has seen at least 250 strike actions this year alone, organized locally and often featuring women workers playing a leading role. "Everything in the country is expensive, and most workers work two jobs, and still, it's not enough," says Wael Habib, a Mahalla strike leader.
The unrest comes at a critical time for Egyptian politics. President Mubarak, who has run an iron-fisted police state since 1981 and is meeting President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, is now 81 years old, and the press is buzzing with speculation about imminent succession most likely by his son, Gamal. While some see the Nile Delta strike wave as nothing more than a fight for daily bread, others say they're a portent of what's to come.
"They were chanting against Hosni Mubarak, against Suzanne Mubarak, they were chanting against Gamal Mubarak. Outright chants," says Hossam al-Hamalawy, a left-wing journalist and labor activist, of recent strikes in the Delta. "They had 20,000 people marching for an hour in the city of Mahalla demanding that Mubarak will be overthrown, and then people say that these workers are not political?" Even so, says Beinin, most of Egypt's strike leaders don't belong to political parties, and doubts that Egypt's opposition groups will be able to channel workers' dissent into a unified push for political change.