The Strike Wave in Egypt

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 10, May 1928, No. 5, pp. 303-311, (3,318 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE characteristic feature of Egyptian economy—the production of cotton for export abroad, and especially for the provision of the British textile industry with raw material—has undergone a certain modification during the war and the years following the war. It is true that cotton production has retained its position of outstanding predominance. Over 90 per cent. of the roughly 14,000,000 of the Egyptian native population is connected with the production of cotton. Cotton of various kinds makes up over 8o per cent. of Egyptian export, while every year goods, and particularly industrial products, amounting in value to from 450 to 460 millions, are imported into Egypt from abroad, with Great Britain again at the head of the list.

A growing tendency towards industrialisation in Egypt has, however, begun to make itself felt, especially during the last decade. The impetus came in the first instance from the fact that during the war Egypt was for years cut off from her usual markets and sources of supply, and was therefore forced to begin manufacturing her own raw materials and supplying herself with industrial products. In this way a somewhat extensive textile industry developed, which by 1917 already employed 72,818 workers, including 19,122 women. The same thing occurred in the spinning trade (a spinning company was formed as early as 1916, with a capital of 4150,000), in the leather and shoe industry, in the furnishing trade, etc.

The mineral resources of Egypt were also more intensively exploited during the war and the post-war period. It had already been known for the past ten years that Egypt possessed a number of valuable mines containing lead, zinc, gold, iron and copper, and that manganese phosphate and petroleum are also present. But the exploitation of the fairly productive petroleum wells in Hurgada, south of the Gulf of Suez, was first undertaken during the war, when the British fleet was suffering from a shortage of fuel, and now the daily output is about 500 tons.

Most of the industries, of course, were in the hands of foreign companies, and this was also the case with the exploitation of the mineral resources. British capital (e.g., the Anglo-Egyptian Oilfields, Ltd.) and, next to that, French and Belgian capital played the chief part in industrial undertakings. Most of the companies took advantage of the privileges accruing to foreign capitalists through the capitulations, and refused to admit native capitalists into their companies.

It was the splendid position of the cotton trade in the years following the conclusion of peace, and the accumulation of large amounts of capital in the hands of the Egyptian landlords and merchants, that first caused the claim for an industrial outlet for native capital to be put forward. These capitalists soon began to launch an attack on the privileged position of foreign capital. At the end of 1926 the “League of Egyptian Industries” presented a memorandum to the Egyptian Government and to Parliament, in which a policy favourable to the development of Egyptian industry was demanded.

The League, according to its own estimate, numbered 140 members, who held in their hands the whole of Egyptian industry, representing a capital of 440 millions, and employing not fewer than 200,000 workers, or one million persons, including their families. The League put forward the following demands:—

(1) That the Government should give preference to native goods over foreign in all Government orders.

(2) That it should improve the internal communications of the country and lower the railway rates.

(3) That it should introduce a tariff system in order to make Egyptian industry able to meet competition.

In July, 1927, the “Misr” Bank, was opened with industrial backing which was almost entirely in Egyptian hands. It sanctioned the formation of four joint stock companies; one for cotton weaving and spinning, one for silk, one for flax spinning, and, finally, one for the fishing industry. These companies were to be carried on exclusively by means of Egyptian capital.

“Industrial development” has for years been one of the slogans of the Egyptian national movement. This movement is looking to the establishment of an effective national industry, to the driving out of foreign capital from its controlling position in the most important industries and branches of trade (railways and tramways, etc., and also water and electric undertakings are in the hands of foreign capitalist companies) for the achievement of real Egyptian independence.

The same motive underlies the special bitterness of the struggle against the Capitulations, and the enactment of a series of laws to check the further penetration of foreign capital. Only recently another such law—the law concerning joint stock companies—has been drafted, which provides for the inclusion of at least two Egyptian citizens, on the board of directors of every joint stock company, and lays it down that at least 25 per cent, of the employees must be Egyptian born, and that foreign companies should be subject to a special tax.

Besides these political means, Egyptian capitalists also employ the weapon of direct economic warfare. When last summer ten large foreign cigarette factories formed themselves into a trust and refused to include the Egyptian factories, the Egyptian cigarette manufacturers appealed to the Government and public opinion to boycott all cigarettes produced by factories financed by foreign capital.

These progressive developmental tendencies shown by Egyptian capital, with the struggle against the supremacy of foreign capital, represent a characteristic mark of the industrial development of Egypt.

II. Working Conditions and the Protection of Labour

The opposition between Egyptian and foreign capital is, however, increasingly overshadowed by the intensification of the opposition between capital and labour within the undertakings themselves.

The conditions in Egyptian industry are absolutely monstrous. The proletariat is recruited from the impoverished peasants, especially those of Upper Egypt, and from the poorest handworkers; so far as the skilled workers are concerned, immigrant elements—Italian, Greek, Armenian, Syrian—are extremely numerous.

Hours of work in the factories are from 12 to 14 hours and even more, with no sort of regard for women and children. Flourishing undertakings work day and night in two equal shifts. When it is realised that during the summer months (i.e., for more than half the year) Egypt has a tropical climate, that the factory accommodation is for the most part old and unhygienic (e.g., the sugar industry, which employs 15,000 to 30,000 workers, dates from the year 1897), that the same hours hold good for workers in the open air—under the burning sun—it is possible to picture what this that is almost universal (it is shortened to 8 or 9 hours only in exceptional cases of specially hard or skilled labour) means to the Egyptian worker.

Wages vary from 5 to 20 piastres per day. Piece work is a popular means of oppression which is especially favoured in the old foreign undertakings. Where the piece-work system is not possible, special inspectors see that the necessary output is maintained.

The purchasing power of these wages (in English money from 1s. to 4s. per day) is very low, for, as the index figures show, Egypt is one of those countries in which the cost of living has come down very little since the war. Wages are far from supplying the minimum needs of a single person; further, most of the workers being Mohammedans have to support their whole families, for female labour in the factories, with certain important exceptions in recent years, is strictly forbidden.

The workers’ houses are insanitary hovels. In the workers’ quarters many families are herded together in a narrow space, and no drainage, water supply, etc., exists. It is so unhygienic and filthy that for a long time the Press has been urging the destruction of these quarters on the ground that they represent a perpetual danger of infection.

The sanitary conditions in the factories and workshops are no better arranged. The factory owners, like the European industrialists at the beginning of the last century, take the point of view that the worker (who has usually received no education, and is illiterate) should be worn out like a beast of burden. This explains also the frequent change of work, the ill treatment of the worker, and his dismissal on the slightest provocation, or when he is no longer capable of work. There is no legal provision for workmen’s compensation, nor is there in existence even the most primitive form of social provision such as old age pensions, unemployment benefit, &c.

These labour conditions have for a long time given rise to a demand for a certain measure of legal regulation. Year after year since the end of the war the introduction of a labour protection law was considered imminent. During the British Protectorate (i.e., until 1922) the drawing up of such a law was adjourned until the formation of the native government; then in the years 1922-3-4 the tense political situation and the drawing up of the constitution provided the pretext for a fresh postponement, while the government of Zaghlul Pasha in 1924 merely created commissions of arbitration and courts for the settlement of conflicts between Labour and Capital by which the rights of combination of the workers were reduced to a minimum. The Labour Protection law, however, was not drafted until the fall of Zaghlul, and the two years regime of Ziwar Pasha (who concerned himself only with the interests of the bankers and big landed proprietors) removed the question entirely from the sphere of practical politics.

In the new Parliament, with its Zaghlulite majority, the question of a labour protection law again came up, in fact it was officially mentioned in the Government’s programme and a commission for labour and social questions was set up, which put forward all sorts of schemes. But although Parliament has now been sitting for nearly two years, the subject of workers’ protection has made no progress. The sending of a commission to Europe to study labour questions was under consideration, but eventually was allowed to drop. A regular outcry was raised by the capitalist parties against the activity of the commission. The representatives of foreign capital were especially vehement in contesting the necessity of workers’ protection in Egypt; relying on their privileges under the Capitulations they declared that they did not intend to submit to such laws, which they stigmatised as bolshevist plots, etc.

The native capitalists, in the fear of falling behind foreign capital, urged the Government not to burden the young Egyptian industry in its development with labour protection laws. The result was that the Government rejected all the commission’s proposals and in the speech from the throne, in November, 1927, the question of labour protection Legislation was not even mentioned. Instead, a new commission was set up which was to examine afresh the earlier schemes.

The Role of the Trade Unions

These insults to the workers and the complete disregard of their interests are due to the fact that there is no proletarian fighting organisation, not even trade unions capable of acting on behalf of the workers.

Until 1923-4 the Red Confederation of Trade Unions was in existence and, under Communist leadership, carried out a whole series of wage movements and strikes, considerably improved the position of the workers in various sections of industry and was on the way to becoming a real mass movement of the Egyptian working class. In 1924, under the regime of Zaghlul Pasha, this Confederation was dissolved by force, its leaders were seized—the secretary of the Federation, Anton Maroun, died in prison—and mass discharges of federated workers were carried out. Since then no more trade unions have been formed on a class, basis. There remain only two other types. One is represented by the trade unions of skilled workers (for the most part, foreigners), which are rather organisations of mutual aid and understanding, with the employers, and whose chief feature is political neutrality.

The second type of union was brought into being by the Zaghiulist movement itself, which found the organisation of the workers necessary for its own political purposes. These unions were led by political leaders, mostly lawyers like Dr. Maghoub Sabet, Zoher Sabry, &c., or members of Parliament like Hassan Nafeeh; they have a nationalist programme. Of the economic struggle, the improvement of working conditions, there is little to be found. Usually they strive to avoid conflict with the employers and to secure compromises on any points at issue.

The employers and factory owners have, however, in the last few years launched an attack on the workers at just those points where certain gains were made in 1923-4. The arbitrary lengthening of the working day, the lowering of wages and, above all, the cancellation of privileges formerly granted, Such as the right to claim medical aid, monthly contracts, etc., all this and other treachery practised against the workers clearly shows the defenceless condition of the working class in the hands of the capitalists.

On account of the unsatisfactory nature of the trade unions as defence organisations, a marked depression took place among the workers, and this led to a decline in trade union organisation and a flight from the unions. Of the 35,000 workers, organised in the Zaghlulist unions in 1926, only about 13,000 remained in the unions by 1927. In certain unions there was a drop, amounting to from 60 to 70 per cent, of the membership, so that their claim to existence was completely lost.

But this depression was only a passing phase. Since the capitalist attack became even more threatening, and since nothing was to be had by waiting for an early improvement in the situation, a new effort at organisation was set on foot, and a new advance of the workers’ movement made its appearance, with the following characteristics: increased activity of working-class organisation (a central body has once more been formed and the unions have issued statements to Parliament and the Press), wage struggles and, following in their wake, strike waves.

In the new organ of the extreme Wing of the Wafd, El Kischaf, an article has appeared which describes the present period of the Egyptian working-class movement as follows:--

The workers simply wish to remove the injustice which has been done them. Anyone who knows the Egyptian worker must admit that there is injustice. Although the workers labour unceasingly they can scarcely earn their daily bread, they are never sure of the little they do earn. They suffer also greatly from the standpoint of health and have no hope of any compensation in the case of industrial injury, or of help in their old age.

These workers form a large section of the nation and are its productive strength. Their suffering has an evil effect on the whole country. The Egyptian government and the legislative authorities could disregard the workers and their conditions so long as they were only a scattered group having no union to hold them together, no goal to aim at; now the workers have organised themselves in a movement which is apparent everywhere, and they have begun to feel that they form one class which has, one hope and one aim. This class consciousness is the basis of every social movement and the Government and Parliament must tackle the matter in earnest.

The facts on which are based these sober reflections of the Wafd journal are the intensified class conflicts of the present day.

IV Labour Struggles and Strikes

Almost every week in recent times struggles here take place in one or other of the Egyptian industries, often becoming acute before the arbitration committees have time to intervene. Only last summer the workers in the water and electricity works in Alexandria threatened a general strike if the wage reduction proposed by the company (a foreign one) was carried out. This threat produced an early remission of the wage reduction.

The 3,000 workers in the railway workshops at Fazum, which belong to a Belgian company, went on strike in September, 1927, as a protest against the brutality of a foreman, and the strike only ended on the dismissal of the foreman. In the winter the strike movement was renewed as a protest against a 10 per cent. wage reduction, which was threatened by the company on the ground that it could not meet the competition of the motor-car in any other way.

In November, 1927, a strike of silk weavers took place in Cairo, also as a protest against wage reductions. The workers assembled in front of the factories which had not stopped work and stormed the machines. The police intervened, and took a large number of prisoners. The cloth weavers’ strike in Cairo also ended with a bloody encounter between police and workers and the imprisonment of fifteen workers.

The largest tobacco factory in Melk locked-out its whole staff of 1,300 tobacco workers in order to prevent a wage movement from developing. The workers prevented the employment of strike breakers and demanded full employment on the same conditions as before.

The Suez Canal workers later issued a stirring challenge to the public, in which they complained of wholesale exploitation by the company, and made a special protest against the attempt to change their status back to that of daily wage earners, in spite of their ten years’ standing, in order to avoid paying certain increases which were due to them.

The bakery workers, the harbour workers of Alexandria, the workers in the petroleum fields, etc., also demanded improvement of their economic position, and are united in the, demand for a speeding-up of labour legislation.

But what particularly attracted public attention to labour problems was the tram strike in Alexandria, which lasted for five days, from November 21 to 26, 1927. For years the 2,000 workers employed by the tramway works have been in conflict with the company on account of their working conditions. Already, in 1919, they threatened a strike, but let themselves be put off with promises. Now they put forward clear demands:—

(1) The granting of a wage increase of 40 per cent.

(2) The admission of a union doctor in cases of sickness.

(3) The safeguarding of the workers in the case of the passing of the company into other hands.

While the union advocate was still conducting negotiations through the Arbitration Court, the workers decided on a strike, and held up the tramway traffic. The strike was general and complete, for it was decided on by a general meeting of all the tramwaymen. Thus the attempt of the company to resume the service with the help of strike-breakers was unsuccessful.

At this point the government intervened; it proclaimed the strike illegal, because it had been begun before the Arbitration Court had pronounced judgment, and called out police and military to suppress the strike by force. These threats had as little effect as the company’s announcement that every worker who did not return to work without delay would be regarded as dismissed. The workers remained obdurate, and traffic was at a standstill.

It was not until the government had accepted responsibility for the carrying out of the most important demands of the workers, and the union leaders threatened to abandon their leadership of the strike if the workers did not accept the government’s proposals, that the strike was broken and all the workers returned to work. The discipline and unity of the workers combined with the fact that, shortly after the outbreak of the strike, a sympathetic movement started among the taxi-drivers, did not fail to make a deep impression on the whole Egyptian people.

The demand for protective legislation for the worker is now being still more vigorously pressed forward on every hand, for there is no longer any doubt that the Egyptian labour movement has become a powerful social and political factor.