The revolt shaking Cairo didn’t start in Cairo. It began in this city of textile mills and choking pollution set amid the cotton and vegetable fields of the Nile Delta.
In a country where labor unrest was long thought to be a bigger threat than the demands of the urbanites now flooding the capital’s Tahrir Square, El Mahalla el Kubra has long been a source of concern among officials. The 32,000 employees at government textile mills and tens of thousands more at smaller private factories are the soul of the Egyptian labor movement.
The movement’s leaders have a long history of resisting harassment and enduring jail.
A nationwide protest against high food prices, unemployment and police torture that failed elsewhere exploded into violence on the streets here in 2008, inspiring a youth movement that eventually launched the effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
As reports of labor unrest rippled across the country this week, labor leaders here said improved living standards were no longer enough.
“Our slogans now are not labor union demands,” said Mohamad Murad, a railway worker, union coordinator and leftist politician. “Now we have more general demands for change.”
Until recently, a demonstration of several hundred people was considered large for Egypt. Police ensured that they did not get out of hand. But events in Mahalla on April 6, 2008, became famous throughout the country because of videos posted on YouTube, Facebook and other social media websites.
Tens of thousands of people turned out that day in this city of half a million, where shops sell brightly colored blankets and quilts, bolts of striped cloth, wedding dresses and other products of the city’s mills and factories.
After police opened fire, killing two people, crowds rampaged through the streets, setting fire to buildings, looting shops and throwing bricks at the officers.
Perhaps more significant to the regime, protesters tore down and stomped on a giant portrait of Mubarak in the central square, a rare event in a country where respect for the leader is enforced by a security apparatus with tentacles that reach into every block.
“This uprising was the first to break the barrier of fear all over Egypt,” Murad said. “No one can say that Egypt was the same afterward.”
Out of that grew the April 6 youth movement, which spread reports of what had happened in Mahalla.
While more-established opposition groups moved cautiously in the wake of the revolt that brought down Tunisia’s strongman in mid-January, the youth movement urged Cairo residents out onto the streets.
Protests returned to the streets of Mahalla too, and only this week started calming down. Rioting broke out Jan. 28 when police used force against a repeat of the April 2008 demonstration.
Demonstrators stormed and burned the main police station and set fire to police cars, witnesses said.
“On that Friday, the crowds controlled the city,” said Murad, who was interviewed behind a ticket booth as rickety trains rolled through on their way to Alexandria or Cairo, about 65 miles to the south.
The next day, he said, police pulled out of the city altogether, as they did in Cairo and other localities, and the army was sent in to restore calm.
On Monday of this week, tanks were posted in front of banks, where people lined up to withdraw money for the first time since the crisis began. There was only a small uniformed police presence, and the usual checkpoints guarding the entrances to the city were nonexistent.
But “government thugs” were said to be lurking throughout the city, looking for troublemakers and foreigners, so journalists’ interviews had to be conducted furtively.
In a preemptive effort to buy the allegiance of government employees, officials on Monday announced a 15% pay raise, at a cost of nearly $1 billion a year.
For the 25,000 workers at Egypt Spinning & Weaving in Mahalla, that would mean a boost of $24 a month from their current pay of about $160.
Hamdi Hussein, 59, a gray-haired labor leader and avowed communist who has been arrested more times than he can remember, acknowledged that the government has frequently been able to placate workers with timely raises or other concessions, or has kept them quiet by playing on their fears of privatization.
A strike called Tuesday at Egyptian Spinning & Weaving to show solidarity with the large demonstration in Tahrir Square drew only about 1,500 workers.
But elsewhere in the country, there were numerous reports of strikes. About 3,000 Suez Canal workers were reported to have gone on strike, and hundreds of workers at the government telephone company demonstrated for higher pay in Cairo and Suez.
About 2,000 workers went on strike at a pharmaceutical company in the Nile Delta and 1,300 walked off the job at a steel company in Suez, where hundreds of unemployed young people also picketed a petroleum company demanding jobs. French cement giant Lafarge in Suez was also reported to have been hit by a strike.
Labor leaders here such as Hussein, who runs a labor training and education center, say they are frustrated that they have no voice in the negotiations in Cairo. So far, the government has chosen which groups it wants to talk with.
But Hussein said that may change with the formation here of what is intended to be a nationwide “committee to protect the revolution.” He described it as an attempt to make sure the interests of the poor are represented in any changes and also to target corrupt members of the ruling party, especially government-sponsored union leaders.
Another role, he said, would be to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, a traditional enemy of the left but the largest single voice in the opposition.
But the goals of the labor movement have been transformed by the sweeping nature of the current protests, Murad said.
Labor wants much more than higher wages and better working conditions, he said.
“And we want Mubarak to leave.”
Special correspondent Emad Mekay contributed to this report.