Egypt's Cauldron of Revolt

It was striking workers that first inspired the Egyptian uprising. And they're still at it.

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."

Fayumi, who works at the power station, says he and his colleagues work double shifts or two jobs to make ends meet. He works from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. every day and still finds it difficult to pay the rent.

Wages have not kept pace with rising staple prices. According to official statistics, the average base salary for employees in Mahalla is about $100 a month, a derisory sum that is nonetheless more than in many other towns, thanks to the previous strikes. Elsewhere, this could be as low as $50 a month.

Such pressures have fueled widespread labor actions across the country, buoyed by the anti-Mubarak protests and growing since his departure. There have been work stoppages and protests in government banks, the oil and gas ministry, the transportation sector, the telecommunications ministry, the health ministry and more, in dozens of cities across the country.

Many of the strikers are state employees or workers in public-sector factories who are concerned about privatization. "Privatization would make us like temporary workers who can be fired on whim," says Yasser Ishaq Ahmed, who is on strike from Elegikt, a state-owned electricity company.

Most are also demanding raising (and enforcing) the minimum wage. "How can I support my children? I make 400 pounds a month," about $65, he says. "All of the workers in the company make 135,000 pounds per month combined, but the CEO alone makes 180,000."

A number of strikes have already won some or all of their demands, most notably at the Tawfiq al-Nour department store chain, when 5,000 employees from around the country descended on Cairo to demand shorter working hours and benefits. Strikers won a 12-hour day (down from 16) and a sizable pay raise.

The spread of strikes in the wake of Mubarak's resignation has alarmed Egyptian officials. On Feb. 14, citing economic instability, the Army urged strikers to "go back to work," in what many took to be a thinly veiled threat. On state TV and radio the striking workers have been repeatedly denounced as selfish and upsetting the economy, even while the protesters who were in Tahrir are now praised.

But the two groups are not so easily separated -- thousands of workers joined the demonstrations in Tahrir, and many say the political space provided by Mubarak's fall has emboldened them to strike. "This is the time to act. We want an overthrow of this whole system, not just the removal of one person," says a labor leader from Mahalla, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Still, labor organizers say they take the Army's threats seriously -- the memory of a pair of striking workers hanged by the new government following the 1952 revolution, which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, has not faded. And as economic instability continues, they risk losing the urban middle-class allies that helped make the revolution possible. "Dear Egyptians, go back to your work on Sunday," tweeted Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive whose account of his detention by Egyptian security services galvanized protesters. "Work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country."

In Mahalla's crowded coffee shops, where the air is thick with shisha smoke and the tea served in dirty glasses, labor activists are debating and planning their next move. Ironically, while the rest of the country is engulfed in labor unrest, there have been no strikes in Mahalla this week.

Instead, workers here are planning the launch of an independent labor union, a rarity in a country where most unions are tied to the state. Some see this as a move with clear political implications. "When you are fighting a state-controlled union, that is inherently a political demand, not just an economic one," says Marai, the Mahalla labor activist.

In fact, many of the strikes assert political and economic demands simultaneously, in part because the CEOs of many firms are tied to the Mubarak regime. And with a few exceptions, such as steel magnate and National Democratic Party kingpin Ahmed Ezz, those CEOs are still in positions of power.a

"A lot of us here in Mahalla are talking about democracy and political freedom alongside better wages and living conditions," says Marai. "Some people felt that our mission was accomplished after Mubarak fell, but I think our revolution is just beginning."

-/AFP/Getty Images


Berlusconi's Real Woman Problem

The exploitation goes far beyond a few underage girls.

Silvio Berlusconi is at the center of two dramas in Italy today. The first centers on the prime minister's notorious personal and political scandals: A judge will soon decide whether Berlusconi should immediately face trial on charges of paying for sex with a 17-year-old and abusing his office to have her released after being accused of theft. With its Roman settings and operatic staging, the effort to put Berlusconi on trial has had the makings of a comic opera, as if Benny Hill were playing Scarpia in Tosca.

The other battle is less acute, but more critical for Italy's future. This past weekend, one million Italians and some foreign sympathizers marched -- not only in Italy, but everywhere from New York to London to Honolulu to Jakarta -- in order to air their grievances against "Berlusconi-ism," the distorted political and social system that the media magnate has imposed on the country since he came on the scene in 1994. Even if Berlusconi leaves the soon, Italians realize he will leave behind a toxic legacy, one in which the media cynically undermine democratic norms and women have largely been robbed of their dignity in public and private life.

In the 1980s, Berlusconi succeeded in creating a near monopoly of national commercial television. The public broadcaster, RAI, has always been subservient to the government, so when Berlusconi became prime minister in practice he controlled five out of the seven national channels. He and his family also have extensive print and publishing interests which he has maintained even in office.

It is hardly news that a political leader has meetings with his staff to plan his media strategies, but what makes Berlusconi different is that the "staff" comprises editors of newspapers and TV channels that reach more than half the population. Given the concentration of media power in the hands of the prime minister, it is no surprise that for the past two years Freedom House has classified Italy's media status as only "partly free."

In the case of his current scandals, Berlusconi has unleashed his media companies to act as his public defenders. Over the last few days, they have started what looks like an organized campaign to defend the boss and attack his enemies. Last week, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of a Berlusconi family paper -- the low circulation daily Il Foglio -- published a long interview with Berlusconi in which he accused the Milan prosecutors who are investigating him of carrying out a "moral coup" and acting illegally. He compared them to the Stasi and today's Italy to East Germany. Ferrara was also allowed a six-minute monologue on RAI's Channel 1 prime-time news program in which he attacked the main anti-Berlusconi media. Channel 1 is RAI's flagship channel; its news editor, Augusto Minzolini is famous for his direct-to-camera opinion pieces in which he either praises Berlusconi or attacks the opposition. Last week, Channel 1 aired an interview with the prime minister without a single question about his trials.

Italy has never had a puritanical culture, but under the influence of Berlusconi's media, the country has become positively shameless. That has been especially evident in his current scandal. Berlusconi makes no secret of giving parties for up to 30 young women, some under 18, and a few, usually elderly, male friends. Indeed, another of his family owned papers, Il Giornale, has just published photographs of one of the girls who calls him "Papi," Noemi Letizia. She spent New Year's Eve of 2008 in his Sardinian villa when she was only 17. Her friend who took photographs of her at that party admitted that they were given "money for little presents, 2,000 euros or sometimes presents like necklaces or bracelets, the usual sorts of presents that an uncle gives a niece." Berlusconi doesn't deny knowing the woman at the center of the current case, Karima el Mahroug (aka Ruby), nor having phoned the Milan police station where she was being held on charges of theft in order to get her released.

One needn't be a moralistic American to be troubled by the prime minister's casual openness about this kind of conduct. And the effects are being felt not only among a small group of young girls, but among Italy's women more broadly.


Italy once had a thriving feminist movement. In the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, Italian society changed dramatically under both demographic and political pressure. Women earned greater financial and personal freedoms: The right to divorce in 1970 (confirmed in a 1974 referendum), as well as reforms in family law, the legalization of family planning (both in 1975), and the legalization of abortion in 1978, all led to greater legal, financial, and personal security for women. Major student protests and the changing social climate gave women an increasing voice in the workplace and in wider society.

But instead of moving to the near equality that women now enjoy in the rest of Western Europe, in Italy the process stopped -- or rather, was pushed off course. There are certainly underlying sociological causes -- not least, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church -- but the crass populism of Berlusconi's TV programming played an undeniably large role.

When Italian broadcasting was liberalized in the late 1970s, Berlusconi's offerings couldn't have contrasted more greatly with the staid standard fare offered by public broadcasters. Pretty scantily dressed girls became essential decoration for most TV shows, to be seen but not heard. Italy is hardly the only country in which sex is used to attain success. But on Berlusconi's increasingly influential channels, it became the only model on offer to Italian women.

In the last few years, he put this model into practice in his cabinet: Among party candidates for regional assemblies and the European Parliament were pretty younger women, often ex-showgirls, appointed by Berlusconi.

Finger-pointing aside, it's undeniable that gender equality has suffered. The glass ceiling in today's Italy is thicker than in comparable countries. According to the OECD, the percentage of women employed in the labor market is declining. Currently, only 46.4 percent of women work -- compared with 80 percent of Norwegian women. In Europe, only Turkey, where 24 percent of women are employed, makes a poorer showing. The 2007 World Economic Forum gender gap index put Italy in 84th place, down from 77th in 2006.

It was not only the left that was vocal on Sunday, Feb. 13: A missionary nun appealed for dignity for all the women who have been trafficked to prostitution on Italy's streets, and the editor of a right-wing paper said, "The position of women is still a problem; women live in a position of permanent discrimination. We must become principals and not extras."

Sunday's massive demonstrations may be a sign of an awakening among Italian women. The story of Ruby is the quintessence of what the journalist Paolo Guzzanti, a disillusioned Berlusconi supporter, dubbed mignottocrazia or "tartocracy." It would be a delicious irony indeed if the people who finally pushed Berlusconi out of power were the women he has spent so much of his career exploiting and degrading.