The Egyptian government’s campaign to sell off the cream of its state-owned factories to private investors took a violent and murderous turn after some 7,000 evening-shift workers at the Kafr al-Dawwar Spinning and Weaving Factory staged a spontaneous sit-down strike on September 30, 1994. Security forces quickly sealed off the plant to prevent other shifts — the factory’s work force totals around 22,000 — from joining the strikers who were protesting recent firings and cuts in bonus and incentive pay.

The next day, workers from other textile plants in nearby Mahmoudiyya and Kom Hamid seized company buses and drove to Kafr al-Dawwar to support the strikers and clashed briefly with police. The following morning, October 2, security forces moved to seal off the factory from the surrounding worker residential area. When families of the workers tried to deliver food to the strikers, troops threw the food into a nearby canal. Fighting erupted and lasted more than two hours. According to one of the few published accounts, “Riot troops and locals maneuvered back and forth beneath the textile mill, while workers hurled stones and bottles down from the factory wall.” [1] Four civilians, including a 10-year old boy, were killed and many dozens injured, some critically.

Kafr al-Dawwar, some 20 kilometers south of Alexandria, is home to some 80,000 factory workers. The Spinning and Weaving Factory is the largest plant in the city. The killings spurred angry residents to stone the railway line connecting Cairo and Alexandria, cutting it for several hours. The Interior Ministry claimed that 75 “troublemakers” were arrested in the melee, and opposition papers claimed dozens more were seized over the following few days.

After the sit-in ended on the afternoon of October 2, some 31 of the workers were seized by police despite a promise that no workers would be detained. The factory remained shut for a week. Most workers returned on October 8, after Prime Minister ‘Atif Sidqi agreed to a key strike demand by reinstating some 2,000 workers fired over the previous several months.

When I met with worker activists and supporters in Cairo and Helwan in late October, all but one of those arrested had been released. Nine people remained in critical condition in Alexandria University Hospital, all of them facing the loss of their eyesight owing to buckshot wounds that the victims said had been negligently treated.

The strike was directed as much against the official trade union confederation as against company management. The government, respectful of Kafr al-Dawwar’s history of labor militancy, had been moving slowly to implement the provisions of Law 203, passed in 1991.

Law 203 authorizes factory heads to sharply cut payrolls in order to make plants more attractive to private investors — who up to this point have been consortia of Egyptian and Saudi or Kuwaiti capital. The activists told me that the new company head, Fathi Muhammad ‘Ali, appointed in May 1993, moved first to set up an “advisory board” from among the 21-member factory union council, transferring them to administrative positions with higher wages and bonuses. These official union personnel then signed off on decrees that sharply cut back bonus and incentive pay for workers and authorized dismissal for tardiness and other minor infractions. Like other public-sector workers, those at Kafr al-Dawwar Spinning and Weaving counted on ironclad job security and fringe benefits to offset wages running between 60 and 100 Egyptian pounds ($20-$35) per month.

On September 27, the activists said, a long list of new cutbacks and regulations was posted, co-signed by the factory union council. The sit-down action occurred after these official union representatives refused to relay workers’ objections to the management. (One account said that workers beat up two of the union representatives.) [2] The right to choose new representatives became one of the main demands of the strikers, one that has not been met.

One notable aspect of the Kafr al-Dawwar confrontation is the near total absence of Egypt’s otherwise high-profile Islamist movement. Only one of the alleged five ringleaders of the strike could be considered religious, the activists said, “and he’s not an Islamist. It was the workers and their families who went to the mosques and asked to use the loudspeakers to get donations for the workers.” The Socialist Labor Party, today an Islamist mouthpiece via its weekly paper, al-Sha‘b, lent rhetorical support, but its coverage of the events was no more significant than that of the bourgeois al-Wafd. (The semi-official press such as al-Ahram steered clear of the events altogether.)

I asked the activists if they regarded the confrontation as a success. “The workers won their economic demands,” they replied, “but not their political demands, especially the removal of the head of the factory.” They also thought that the confrontation had highlighted the need for independent unions accountable to the workers rather than to the government, but they know that the privatization campaign requires weak and subservient unions. “The state hasn’t closed its files in this case.”


[1] Middle East Times, October 9-15, 1994. An extensive and informative report of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights appeared in the monthly journal of the Ibn Khaldun Center, Civil Society (October 1994). Another good account by Clarissa Bencomo was posted on the Labornet electronic bulletin board on October 23, 1994.
[2] Middle East Times, October 9-15, 1994.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Egypt’s Factory Privatization Campaign Turns Deadly," Middle East Report 192 (January/February 1995).

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