EL-MAHALLA EL-KUBRA (Reuters) - The workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company once locked arms long enough to wring pay rises out of the Egyptian state, and inspired the pro-democracy uprising of 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Now, divided and cowed, with the army in power once more and armored vehicles inside their gates, their story could stand for the failure of Egypt’s entire pro-democracy movement to build on the revolution against authoritarian rule and unite in a common cause.
The April 6 movement for social justice that began the uprising took its name from the date in 2008 when the workers of the largest textile firm in the Middle East downed tools, along with many others in the gritty industrial city of el-Mahalla el-Kubra, and were bullied back to work by the security forces.
But since the army toppled Mohamed Mursi, Mubarak’s successor and Egypt’s first elected leader, on July 3, and security forces shot dead hundreds of supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood, key figures in Mahalla’s labor movement are not speaking to each other. They barely even share the same goals.
Widad el-Demerdash, who has worked at the state-run firm for 29 of her 47 years, fondly recalls the heady days of a series of strikes in 2006, when she and her colleague Amal el-Saeed helped to win bigger production bonuses for the factory workers.
“This was a big achievement,” she said in an interview at her apartment on Monday, her day off. But the smile turns to a frown when she is asked about Saeed.
They no longer have “any relationship”, she said, accusing Saeed of having joined the Brotherhood.
Demerdash agreed with the argument of the new military-led rulers that the Brotherhood is a “terrorist group” bent on destroying Egypt, in language that lays bare how polarized society has become during the most violent period in the Arab republic’s modern history.
“Whoever becomes ‘Brotherhood’ and sells out their principles is no longer a human being,” she said.
Like many who backed the army takeover, Demerdash supports the violent crackdown on the Brotherhood that has followed. More than 1,000 people, mainly pro-Mursi Islamists, have been killed since July 3. The toll includes about 100 soldiers and police.
For her part, Saeed denies having joined the Brotherhood but condemns those who vilify Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement. “I’m trying to tell people: ‘The Brotherhood are your neighbors, they are people and they have rights like you’.”
Like many of the 2011 revolutionaries, she says she voted for Mursi last year only because she could not bring herself to support his rival in the run-off, Mubarak loyalist Ahmed Shafik.
“I was among the first people to say ‘Down with Mubarak’,” she said. “There was no democracy in the past, and I fought for that. Now today, I’m still supporting democracy.”
Saeed said the removal of Mursi had taken Egypt backwards, and that she feared the consequences for the labor movement.
She acknowledged that Mursi’s government had failed to address workers’ longstanding demands for a guaranteed minimum wage and limits on bosses’ pay, but said progress on those and other issues such as delivery of unpaid bonuses was now less likely than ever.
“Who do we speak to now? Where is the government? The army is in charge of everything,” she said in an interview on Sunday in Mahalla, where posters of army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi abound in cafes, on buildings and at traffic circles.
For all that, there seems little doubt that most workers at the factory, which has a long history of labor activism, backed the army takeover and are content for now to acquiesce.
“The army needs to stabilize things now,” said Kamel Mohamed Fayoumi, an activist who was himself arrested when Mubarak’s government sent plainclothes security forces and riot police to intimidate workers during the 2008 strike.
Joel Beinin, a history professor at Stanford and an expert on labor and protest movements in the Middle East, said Egyptian workers had often succeeded in the past by managing to lay aside political differences.
“They have bread and butter interests on the line and understand they need to be united to win them,” he said.
Political upheavals mean that the monolithic trade unions that largely toed the state line under Mubarak have given way to a profusion of smaller, more independent unions.
But Egypt is now is so polarized between Mursi’s Islamists and the entrenched military-backed establishment that “neither the workers nor anyone else” have been able to bridge the gap.
“So people have been forced to choose. Neither choice is very good in terms of workers’ interests,” said Beinin.
Even those like Fayoumi who suffered under Mubarak’s police state did not speak out when the army and police thwarted a strike at Misr Spinning and Weaving Company on Monday and another protest at a Suez steel factory earlier in the month.
The Mahalla protest attracted only a few hundred participants - and was quickly followed by the deployment of armored personnel carriers inside the factory compound.
Local media reported that they were protecting the factory’s power station, but labor leader Mohamed El-Attar, a Mursi supporter, said even Mubarak had never dared to send troops to confront labor protests.
“These vehicles were sent by the army to terrorize workers,” he said. “We must ask, who are the real terrorists in this country today?”
Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alistair Lyon