Wedad Demerdash, 45, at her home in the Egyptian town of Mahalla al-Kubra.
by Liz Sly, Washington, December 30, 2011
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.