Revolution and Repression on the Banks of the Suez Canal
Many people in Suez proudly claim that they initiated Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution.” There were several demonstrations in opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency from his father as early as July 2010. Relations between the police and the people were tense after a police general was assassinated on November 29, 2010. On January 25, when protests in Cairo and Alexandria were relatively peaceful, the demonstration in Suez was particularly violent. Police shot dead three protesters, the first “martyrs of the revolution.” Demonstrators torched a police station.
Suez is strategically located at the southern end of the Suez Canal, and its workers have a history of militancy. Security authorities have typically gone to great lengths to intervene in strikes and other collective actions. This has not changed since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
Seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority in Suez, Isma‘iliyya, and Port Said employ about 9,000 workers in ship repairs and other maritime services. They went on strike on June 12 demanding parity with the wages and benefits of workers directly employed by the canal authority. This would amount to a salary increase of 40 percent. Workers raised this demand long before January 25, 2011.
In April the interim government promised to meet their demand. The effective rulers of Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has not authorized the wage increase on the technically correct grounds that as workers in the public service sector, their wages and working conditions are established by parliamentary legislation. Since there is no parliament, their conditions of employment cannot be changed by the proper legal procedures. The strike expresses workers’ rejection of this logic.
I travelled to Suez on July with two other Americans and an Egyptian to hear about the strike directly from workers at the Suez Canal Maritime Arsenal Company. On the way we stopped to speak with demonstrators who had been occupying the main square of downtown Suez (Maydan al-‘Arba‘in) since July 5.
A large and carefully painted banner commanding the square listed their demands, more-or-less the same as those who have occupied Tahrir Square and downtown Alexandria since the very large demonstrations of July 8. Speedier public trials for Hosni Mubarak and the high officials of his regime accused of corruption and purifying the Ministry of Interior, which commands the police, are high on the list. The banner also demands a jobs program for youth – unemployment is especially high in Suez – and a national minimum and maximum wage. The revolutionary youth groups do not speak so specifically about economic issues. More commonly, they call for “social justice” and, recently, “the poor first.” Liberals, like the business magnate Naguib Sawiris and his Free Egyptians Party, avoid these issues altogether.
An intense debate erupted about whether or not anyone should speak to foreigners. Most of those in the square were quite willing. Because there is a disproportionately high number of “martyrs of the revolution” in Suez, several people spoke with particular vehemence about demanding compensation for their families and prosecution of the police officers and commanders responsible for their death, a demand also prominent in Tahrir Square.
Some people mentioned the water problem in Suez. The pipeline supplying fresh water begins in Cairo and passes through Isma‘iliyya before it reaches Suez. Consequently, the drinking water is foul-tasting and has many impurities resulting in intestinal and kidney diseases and cancers.
The most articulate and willing to speak with us was a woman very conservatively dressed in a plain brown skirt, headscarf (hijab), another scarf down to her waste (khimar), and black gloves. She invited us into one of the tents set up in the square. A number of youths intervened and demanded that we leave the tent. Under pressure from the youths, we left the square sooner than we might have, but confident that we had understood why people were there.
When we arrived at the arsenal, one worker (no names are used in this article for obvious reasons) immediately suggested that he give us a copy of his video clip of a violent clash between the army and protesters who had blocked the road to ‘Ayn Sukhna, a popular beach resort sixty kilometers south of Suez, the previous evening. The clash is evidence that in provincial cities like Suez, not only in Cairo and Alexandria, distrust of the SCAF is growing. Even many who insist that they “support the army” go on to say that it has failed to fulfill the aspirations of the revolution.
Soon we were surrounded by a swarm of plainclothes security officials. The worker’s laptop, his personal property, not the company’s, was seized by one of the security men before he could complete the file transfer to our flash drive, and he was whisked away. Even though our main worker-contact had come out to greet us, we decided to leave before more workers were endangered. We drove to Port Tawfiq, where we bought snacks and a newspaper which reported that six workers at the arsenal had been dismissed the day before for participating in the strike.
As we had agreed, we spoke with our worker-contact on the phone after things calmed down. He and another worker agreed to come to meet us. We began the interview in a park in Port Tawfiq on the bank of the Suez Canal.
The park was occupied by about fifty youths who told us they had moved there from the ‘Arba‘in Square sit-in to “escalate their pressure on the army.” They insisted that they had no intention of disrupting the Suez Canal and that their presence was only symbolic. Nonetheless, there was an intimidating military unit stationed between the protesters and the canal. The park had been cordoned off with extensive rolls of barbed wire, leaving only one narrow entry.
The “revolutionary youth” came over to us and told us that we could not interview and photograph the workers in the park. They claimed that the workers had “sectoral demands,” whereas they had “national demands” and they did not want any confusion between the two. We mildly objected that we were about 100 meters away from the sit-in and weren’t photographing it or the Suez Canal. But we left the park.
The better dressed and more articulate worker introduced himself as “HM,” a “ship repairing engineer.” In Egypt many people who do not have university engineering degrees (such graduates would definitely not consider themselves workers) are called “engineer.” So this did not immediately arouse my suspicion. I did begin to have doubts when he said that the workers would accept a compromise of less than the full 40 percent wage increase, that the army was “trying to solve the problem,” and that their trade union committee affiliated with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation fully supported the strike. ETUF was an important instrument of the Mubarak regime and very rarely supported worker initiatives of any sort and only two strikes in recent decades. Independent trade unionists are demanding its dissolution.
The “ship repairing engineer” eventually admitted that he was part of management. So it was no surprise that the actual worker was unwilling to say much in his presence, even though he had agreed to speak with us only twenty minutes earlier. But this effort to control workers’ voice was only part of the story – the part that HM was willing, if reluctantly, to concede.
We had already attached his lapel microphone in the park and the recorder was running as we left. As we were crossing the street to conduct the interview, a military intelligence officer approached us. MH was recorded telling him, “I spoke to Colonel “A” from your office…. We coordinated with them regarding the things we are going to stay in this interview. We will finish and call you.”
MH also gave a brief report to the military intelligence officer about the political situation in Suez: “…last Friday, during the sit-in in ‘Arba‘in Square, some people from the April 6 group said they want the independence of Suez and the management of the waterway, and that is ridiculous. So we interfered, in cooperation with other political forces, and made them take back their statement. This is just stupidity. Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go talk to them for five minutes and then I’ll get back to you.”
It is, in fact, unlikely that the April 6 Youth Movement, a mainly upper-middle class group with a fundamentally liberal, albeit increasingly radical, outlook would make such demands.
More importantly, the collaboration of the company management with security and intelligence authorities, which was well-known and assumed during the Mubarak regime, remains just as it was. The novelty is that suppressing the voices of workers and other “stupid” people is not only a prerogative of their managers at work. Now even “revolutionary youth” feel empowered to determine who can speak to whom, where, and what should be said.
David Enders and Robert Eshelman were in Suez with me and have also reported on our experiences.