Egypt: See no strikes, hear no strikes, report no strikes

Hundreds of workers at a local factory have been on strike since the end of May, demanding an increase in salaries and back pay that has not been given. On Tuesday, the Egyptian state security reared its ugly head when a foreign journalist attempted to cover the strike.
Egypt Tanta Strike
Tanta strike - ©

CAIRO, July 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) — With dozens of workers gripping the iron rod gate marking the entrance to the Tanta Flax and Oil Company, plainclothes state security grabbed, shoved and punched this American reporter. The workers began chanting as the reporter attempted to record footage of what was happening inside the factory.

“No, you are not allowed to see them. It is forbidden,” said the unnamed state security official who forced the journalist to return to Tanta’s train station.

Unsurprisingly, Egypt has no desire to have foreign journalists cover the workers' strike as it enters its second month, even if stopping them requires violence. Nassar Osman, who identifies himself as a spokesman for the workers, said he wants everyone to see what is going on here.

“The people have not been paid in months, they aren’t getting their promised raises and now they are getting harassed by police because of the strike that is going on here,” he said. Osman was working with the state security officials in order to allow the journalist to enter the factory, but to no avail.

According to state security at the factory premises, a foreign journalist, irregardless of proper accreditation, must secure a “permission” consisting of a paper from the information ministry to enter the factory. However, the foreign press office in Cairo said that “there is no such paper. If the state security says no, then you can’t go in.”

Don't look at the workers

The incident highlights Egypt’s growing concern over the coverage of workers’ strikes and demonstrations in the country. Last year, in the Delta town of Mahalla al Kobra, tens of thousands of Egyptians went to the streets in support of the local textile factory workers who went on strike in demand of better wages to combat the rising costs of foodstuffs.

The government responded swiftly, moving troops into the town to quell the dissent. At least one person was killed in the crossfire and scores of people were arrested, including an American photographer who was briefly detained.

“The way they are treating us here is horrible and they don't even allow foreign journalists to do their job,” said one worker, who was to give an interview after the journalist was forcibly put on a “microbus” and driven to the city center. He added that “because the government has a stake in the company, they don’t want the outside world to see what is going on here.”

Fighting for our rights

But, what is really going on in Tanta? According to reports and workers' statements, a Saudi company purchased the factory this year from the Egyptian government. They promised an annual 7 percent salary increase, but since May, the workers have been conducting daily protests and an almost ongoing sit-in on the factory premises after their salaries did not come.

“We want our money,” said the worker, who asked not to be named due to security risks. He argued that all the workers are demanding are better means to survive and live their lives without worrying about making ends meet.

“We are not paid well and with the rising costs of things and food in Egypt, it is becoming extremely difficult for us to support our families, so we have taken to this action in an effort to show that we are prepared to fight for our rights,” he said.

Police Looking for Journalist

Shortly after the interview began, however, the man received a phone call from a fellow worker who told him that the police were searching for the journalist. Scared, the worker immediately ended the interview and rushed out of the café. According to him, the “microbus” driver that the police had forced into taking the journalist to the train station had been arrested. He did not want to risk arrest.

“I can’t be arrested. My family is too important for me to go to jail,” he said as he paid the bill and rushed off.

This is what the state has done to Egyptian society, says Gamal Eid, the Executive Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). He says that the state of fear instilled in Egyptian life has limited the amount of discussion toward certain areas.

“Just like workers movements, these people believe that the government can and does come in and arrest people and beat them up for simply expressing their ideas. This is wrong, but the fear is very strong and this is difficult to break,” he argues.

Workers Unite

In Tanta, with the workers holding strong, coverage of the strike has been limited to phone conversations with those inside the factory. With no end in sight for the workers' sit-in, it is difficult to gauge whether they will be successful or not.

“Look at what we achieved in building our own union,” says Mervat Hilal, a deputy of the tax collectors union, the country’s first private workers union. “We were able to create our own union and get our demands heard, so hopefully, others will follow suit,” she continues, pointing to the union established earlier this year and that has been praised as the first step toward guaranteeing workers rights.

The tax collectors held a similar sit-in at the Egyptian Parliament last year, demanding that their monthly salary be increased. With the government unwilling to budge, they formed a private union. It has been largely successful. Their monthly wages have increased from an average of 300 Egyptian pounds ($50) to over 1,200 Egyptian pounds monthly ($200).

Osman says that their example is a major force in keeping spirits high at the Tanta factory.

“We see others have succeeded. I want all to see what is going on here so we can get there, like other people have already done in this country,” he says.

Whether they will succeed is yet to be seen, but with the chanting uninterrupted every day at the factory, the workers’ pressure is growing, as is their international stature. No foreign journalists are being allowed in, but word is getting out.