An Egyptian worker is seen in 2006 next to cotton rolls at the Delta textile… (Nasser Nasser, AP )
Reporting from El Mahalla el Kubra, Egypt — The groaning industrial looms are cranking again inside the massive Misr Spinning & Weaving Co. factory in this gritty Nile Delta city famous for its textiles. Workers are streaming past army tanks and concertina wire to resume production of cotton and wool fabrics after a four-day wildcat strike.
That's good news for tough-minded textile workers such as Kamal Mohammed Fayomy — and also for the military rulers struggling to keep Egypt's economy from stalling in the wake of the national uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak after three decades of rule.
"Our most important demands were met, and we're very happy for that," said Fayomy, 47, a burly electrician and member of a 10-worker committee that negotiated an end to the brief strike with the government this week.
Alarmed by a sit-down protest in an industrial town with a long history of labor defiance, military leaders had initially threatened to use force to stop the strike in the government-owned factory complex. Instead, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces quickly agreed to some worker demands without resorting to violence.
And that, Fayomy said with satisfaction, has given new hope to a labor movement long dominated by crushing government control. The military met a key worker demand and fired the plant director, who had been accused of corruption. Workers at the state-run plant also were given a 25% monthly salary bonus.
"And we got paid for the four days we were on strike," Fayomy said, beaming as he listed the government concessions.
The swift resolution of a potentially devastating strike was a reminder that labor unrest is a key issue facing Egypt as it seeks a return to normalcy after the chaos of the uprising.
"Let's just say a political deal was reached. It was important to both sides," said Hamdy Hussein, a socialist who runs the communist party-affiliated labor advocacy agency Afak from a cramped office above a trash-strewn street here.
El Mahalla el Kubra, home to more than 100,000 workers at 3,000 textile plants, became a breeding ground for unrest three years before protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo staged their weeks-long demonstrations against Mubarak. A strike here April 6, 2008, gave birth to Egypt's youth movement after videos of police attacking workers flashed across the nation and the world on YouTube and Facebook.
Protesters rampaged through Mahalla back then after police shot and killed at least two people. Their signature act was ripping down and stomping on a portrait of Mubarak in the central square — a rare act of public defiance.
"We broke the taboo against the emergency law bans on gatherings and demonstrations," said Fayomy, who has been arrested twice for labor activism.
The military clearly did not want more labor strife at the Misr factory because of its potential ripple effects. Misr is the largest textile plant in Egypt and a centerpiece of a sector that produces more than a quarter of the country's industrial output. About 15,000 of the plant's 24,000 workers joined the wildcat strike.
"A strike here really gets the government's attention. It affects workers across the whole country," said Gamal Abu Ela, who manages another labor advocacy foundation in Mahalla. Ela said young organizers of the Tahrir Square protests drove 65 miles from Cairo on Monday to congratulate strike leaders.
The government agreed to meet more worker demands "as soon as the country is more stabilized," Fayomy said. Other workers said they did not want to take advantage of political instability or further damage the sputtering economy by making excessive demands.
"We don't want to spoil the revolution by making too many demands right now," said Faisal Lakosha, 43, who has worked for the company for 19 years. "Eventually, we'll get what we want."
Mohamed Mustafa Sabagh, an official with the government Directorate of Manpower, said, "It's just a matter of time" before the workers' remaining demands are met."
Workers are supposed to earn 1,200 Egyptian pounds (about $205) a month, but labor leaders said they actually are paid barely a third that amount. Special bonuses make up some of the difference.
Workers had demanded a doubling of salary, better medical insurance, job training credits and higher food and transportation payments. But they said getting rid of the plant director, Fouad Abdel Alim Hassan, was more important for now than getting more benefits.
With Hassan removed, the hulking Misr plant cranked away with new life this week. Stretching for blocks, the plant is a city within a city and known locally as the "industry castle." Secured by high concrete walls and concertina wire, it contains mosques, a hospital and employee housing.