Francesco De Lellis, Gianni Del Panta, and Mattia Giampaolo report on the battle by workers in Egypt to save the Helwan Iron and Steel Company from liquidation
Workers at the Iron and Steel Company of Helwan, on the southern fringes of Greater Cairo, spent the tenth anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution staging a massive demonstration in their factory. However, their thousands-strong march was neither a celebration of the popular revolt that ousted president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 nor a reaffirmation of the role of the working class in the revolutionary process. In fact, workers at the Iron and Steel were defending the source of livelihoods for them and their families, protesting against the liquidation of the entire factory decreed by an extraordinary general assembly meeting on January 11. Dreading the definitive closure of the 67 years old factory, the roughly 7,300 workers of the plant started agitating and ultimately proclaimed a permanent sit-in on site on January 17.
The decision to liquidate the most important iron and steel plant in the country came after at least a decade of accumulated losses and spiralling debt. Production has fallen to 10 percent of the factory’s former annual capacity. The workers, though, are refusing to pay the price of years of mismanagement and lack of investment, leading to the decay and obsolescence of the plant’s machinery. “They destroyed it, now they sell it”, was one of the chants aired in the daily marches during the week after workers declared their protest.
“We will not leave, Hisham will leave” was another slogan of the sit-in, referring to the much hated Minister of Public Enterprise Sector, Hisham Tawfiq, who is behind the decision to liquidate the Iron and Steel in Helwan and other key public industries, claiming that their losses have burdened the national budget for too long. “We will not leave it to the thieves,” workers chanted in their demonstrations, pointing their fingers at those who, according to them, have deliberately caused the collapse of the industry. The government’s official line is that market saturation has forced the shutdown on the Helwan Iron and Steel Company. Yet, contributing to the market glut is also the Suez Steel factory, which has been controlled by the army since 2016. Plants owned by the army often benefit from subsidised energy and transportation costs, meaning they can undercut their competitors, according to experts quoted by independent news website, Mada Masr.
The protest remained totally peaceful, although massive numbers of security forces were deployed immediately after the launch of the sit-in, to prevent people from the local neighbourhood joining the protesters. A journalist for the private channel Cairo 24 was also reportedly arrested while attempting to reach the site of a demonstration to cover the events. Media coverage of the protests from the inside has been very difficult, and information dissemination has been mainly done by workers themselves and solidarity activists on social media platforms.
The approximately 7300 workers also decided not to interrupt production, as a way to show their responsibility towards the factory and avoid the extremely difficult and costly procedure of re-starting furnaces. However, they also wanted to affirm that the plant is continuing to work, against claims by the ministry itself saying that the plant was effectively already idle before the decision to liquidate it. Workers also raised a call to president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to visit the factory in order to prove wrong the claims that the mill has halted production.
The announcement of the liquidation and the launch of the workers’ sit-in have stirred a wide debate, both at a societal level and in parliament, where Minister Hisham Tawfiq was targeted by heated speeches and critiques from a number of MPs opposing the closure of the Iron and Steel and more generally the gradual liquidation of a number of important public industries. A broad and heterogeneous coalition, which includes several independent trade unions, public figures, and political parties, has launched a popular campaign in defence of the Iron and Steel Company and in solidarity with the workers. The Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, together with a number of workers from the factory, also submitted an appeal to an administrative court to contest the decision on legal bases.
On January 21, the president of the Holding Company of the public sector metallurgical industries visited the plant – accompanied by the Secretary General of the state-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation, ETUF – and proposed sizeable pay-outs and compensations to workers, hoping to persuade them to accept the liquidation and disband the sit-in. The demonstrators unanimously rejected the offer, and firmly reiterated their basic demands: to rescind the decision to liquidate the factory and to implement a development plan. According to a recent declaration by the Ministry of Public Enterprise Sector, each worker of the factory would receive a pay-out of at least 220,000 EGP (around 10,000 pounds), but the workers have pointed out that at least three quarters of the workforce will not be eligible for retirement benefits, and will thus risk immediate unemployment.
The liquidation of the factory will have repercussions not only on an economic level, but also for a community that has shaped its identity around the plant, supplying it with a workforce generation after generation: “Egypt is our country. Steel is our life” was also reportedly one of the chants heard in the early demonstrations.
At the time of writing, protests seem to have subsided. Legal complaints will do their course. Will the government act swiftly to bring the issue to an end or will it attempt to wear the workers down through an exhausting judicial battle?
A symbol more than a factory
The Iron and Steel factory is much more than a manufacturing site. It represents one of the symbols of Egypt’s attempt to build a solid industrial base that could grant to the country actual, and not just formal, independence from Western powers. For many Egyptians, the factory has therefore come to embody ideals such as modernization and development, emerging as one of the symbols of state intervention in the economy. President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s words in his inauguration speech at the plant summarized well all these aspects. According to him, the Iron and Steel factory was nothing less than “Egypt’s-dream come-true”.
The building project started officially in 1954 and completed about 4 years later. A few figures make clear the gigantic character of the factory. It was built on about 4,000 acres of land and at its peak in 1982 employed 25,527 workers, who were gradually reduced to the still impressive figure of about 13,000 on the eve of the 2011 revolution. Next to the factory, there is a company town, composed of around 3,000 households of the factory’s workers, hospitals, schools, sporting clubs, and an industrial technical college. Just as the factory encompassed all stages of steel processing, workers lived out their whole lives in the factory town.
In sharp contrast to the textile sector, where labour militancy had already emerged in the first half of the century, the iron and steel branches of industry could not rely on any kind of tradition of workers’ activism. In many cases, moreover, workers were former peasants who came directly from the countryside, having no experience at all of labour mobilizations and enjoyed relative, but still real, social mobility. These factors might help explain why there were no significant labour disputes at the Iron and Steel factory throughout the 1960s. Things started changing, however, by the end of the decade. Two main elements seem relevant in this regard. On the one hand, the workforce increased at an impressive pace, jumping from about 4,500 workers in 1958 to more than 21,000 in 1971. On the other hand, the Socialist Institute, which operated in Helwan, organized several political meetings with workers, some of which attracted as much as 4,000 people. In such a context, the adoption of austerity measures in the wake of the failure of Nasser’s economic project and Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, which shattered the myth of so-called Arab socialism, led to an upsurge of labour militancy. In reaction to cuts to salaries and longer working days, blue-collar workers in Helwan staged an impressive 10,000-strong sit-in. Whilst some workers’ demands were satisfied, the security forces broke up violently the sit-in, arresting hundreds of workers.
In the following years, the Iron and Steel factory remained vital and radical. Workers took part in the 1977 bread revolt, which broke out in response to cuts on basic foodstuffs and almost brought down Sadat’s regime, and protested against Israeli president Navon’s visit in Egypt in 1980. The latter mobilization is remarkable since it represented the first protest in Helwan that did not emerge from economic demands, opening up a decade in which various leftist organizations operated semi-clandestinely in the plant. It was in such a context that workers, to protest against a factory committee seen as too close to the state, occupied the factory twice in July and August 1989. The request of elections for a new factory committee faced the brutal response from the security apparatuses, which opened fire on the workers, killing one, wounding dozens, and arresting hundreds of them. The 1989 events became a symbol of workers’ activism and police brutality for the Egyptian left, which won a record high number of seats in the following factory committee elections. In a gradual way, however, the militant character of Helwan apparently faded away and the Iron and Steel Factory remained silent in the years that preceded the revolution – when the longest and strongest wave of workers’ strike since independence developed in Egypt – as well as in the course of the revolution itself. From a stronghold of leftist tendencies and labour activism, Helwan apparently turned into a bastion of moderation and conservatism. Does the scale of mobilisation over the last few weeks show that some of those traditions are reviving?
The wind-up of the Iron and Steel Company is not the only recent attempt by the Egyptian regime to get rid of state industries: a process that actually has been going on since the 1990s, when international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank insisted on the implementation of a vast set of neoliberal reforms. In February 2020, for instance, the government ordered the sell-off of the historical Navigation Company, whilst the National Cement Company suffered the same fate in 2019. However, workers in Helwan as well as elsewhere are mobilizing to avoid the liquidation of national industries. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, despite a very high level of repression, workers are still continuing to fight back over a range of issues, with up to 173 demonstrations taking place in 2020.
One of the most important protests was the two month-long sit-in that workers at the state-owned Delta Company for Fertilizer and Chemical Industries in Daqhaliyya (Northern Egypt) staged to protest against the closure and relocation of the factory in Suez – about 200 kilometres away. The factory was established in 1965 and currently employs about 2,500 workers. The company was also one of those factories which represented Nasser’s attempt to build a national industrial basis and has remained under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, in spite of several previous attempts at privatization. The decision to liquidate the factory, according to one of the trade union leaders, was due to the lack of innovation of the means of production and the rise in gas prices since 2014 which has caused significant losses. The government justified its decision under the pretext of high levels of pollution in the area, ensuring that workers will be relocated in the El Nasr Company for Fertilizers and Chemical Industries in Suez. The factory will be demolished and replaced by housing compounds in order to deal with the housing emergency which, among other things, triggered protests in September. As workers’ protests went on, security forces arrested 9 workers, among them 4 members of the factory committee, in January 2021.
Another important dispute took place at one of the historic strongholds of the Egyptian labour movement: Misr Spinning and Weaving in Kafr el-Dawwar. On December 27, according to the Center of Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), workers went on strike after the decision of the government to demolish the factory and to replace it with popular houses, as in Daqhaliyya. Other important textile factories, moreover, are suffering the same fate. In February 2021, the Alexandria Spinning Company’s (Spinalex) branch in Nozha, announced the closure of the factory and its relocation to Sadat City. Many workers were pressured into resigning and many others were relocated with the promise of receiving accommodation in the new city.
The development of this new wave of labour protests in Egypt is particularly significant. It shows that workers are still capable of acting collectively to defend their jobs, salaries, and social dignity, despite the difficulties and setbacks of the last few years.