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.
‘Mahalla sets the tone ’
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.
The price of chicken
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.