CAIRO — In the sprawling factories of El-Mahalla el-Kubra, a gritty, industrial town a few hours' drive north of Cairo, lies what many say is the heart of the Egyptian revolution. "This is our Sidi Bouzid," says Muhammad Marai, a labor activist, referring to the town in Tunisia where a frustrated street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the revolution there.
Indeed, the roots of the mass uprising that swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power lie in the central role this dust-swept company town played years ago in sparking workers' strikes and grassroots movements countrywide. And it is the symbolic core of the latest shift in the revolution: a wave of strikes meant to tackle social and economic inequities, which has brought parts of Egypt to a standstill.
Here in Mahalla's smog-beaten, faded yellow factories and textile mills, a series of workers' strikes demanding better pay and benefits erupted in 2006. The actions, in a country where large demonstrations were rare and independent labor organizing remains illegal, galvanized a youth movement that played a key role in eventually toppling Mubarak.
More than 24,000 workers at dozens of state-owned and private textile mills, in particular the mammoth Egypt Spinning and Weaving plant, went on strike and occupied factories for six days in 2006, winning a pay raise and some health benefits. Similar actions took place in 2007.
Then, on April 6, 2008, thousands joined protesting workers in one of the town's central squares, a frenetic array of vegetable stalls and shouting street vendors. "At first, there were only a few of us," said Marai. "We chanted 'Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!' and people started joining us."
Within hours, the protest had grown to thousands and riveted the country. Incredibly, demonstrators pulled down a poster of Mubarak and stomped on it; some clashed with the police and torched vehicles. Such images had not been seen in Egypt for almost 30 years and shook the government to its core, according to former officials.
The workers immediately won concessions -- as they had in the strikes of 2006 and 2007 -- including bonuses and pay hikes. The success spawned a Facebook group, the April 6 Youth Movement, which has played a prominent part in the current uprising, and inspired a strike wave over the next two years.
"After Mahalla in 2008, the first weaknesses in the regime appeared," says Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "Nothing was the same in Egypt after that."
Perhaps most importantly, the Mahalla strikes birthed a new opposition movement as socialists, left-wing lawyers, and Internet activists forged lasting links with labor leaders and facilitated connections between factories. The U.S. Embassy observed at the time that "in Mahalla, a new organic opposition force bubbled to the surface, defying current political labels, and apparently not affiliated with the [Muslim Brotherhood]. This may require the government to change its script," according to a classified document released by WikiLeaks.
In recent weeks, Mahalla workers joined a nationwide general strike that started on Feb. 9 and likely tilted momentum in favor of the Tahrir Square protesters and hastened Mubarak's fall two days later. "The workers have tremendous power to change society," says Kamal al-Fayumi, a labor leader who works at a power station and has been imprisoned a number of times for his activities. "When we entered the picture, it signaled the end for Mubarak."
Once a symbol of the grandeur and vision of the country's economic nationalism, Mahalla was home to the first fully Egyptian-owned enterprise, the Egypt Spinning and Weaving plant, established in the 1930s. By the 1960s, the plant was the largest factory in the Middle East, employing tens of thousands.
But under Mubarak, a large number of state firms were privatized, including some in Mahalla, pushing thousands into relative job insecurity. And many state subsidies were slashed -- food subsidies alone dropped by more than half during his rule.
After 2004, these changes accelerated with the appointment of a "reform cabinet" of business tycoons who pushed further liberalization of the economy along IMF-suggested lines. On the one hand, this produced robust growth rates and attracted investment; on the other it fostered official corruption and exacerbated woes for the poor, who faced soaring inflation and food prices.
By 2008, the U.S. Embassy was noting that the "fundamental unspoken Egyptians [sic] social pact -- the peoples' obeisance in exchange for a modest but government-guaranteed standard of living -- is under stress," according to the document leaked by WikiLeaks.
Many in Mahalla say the reforms have put tremendous pressure on them. "I have five children and I can barely survive," says Khala Muhammad, a striking worker. "I can't afford even basic things."