A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Few Words on the Mahalla Declaration of Autonomy

Last Friday, as most attention was focused on the demonstrations in Cairo, workers in the big Egyptian textile city of al-Mahallat al-Kubra (Mahalla for short) took over the City Council offices, ousted the council, declared themselves a Revolutionary Committee, and declared that Mahalla was announcing its autonomy from the "Ikhwani (Brotherhood) State."

There were predictable jokes on Twitter about Mahalla joining the United Nations and laments that it was just one more item making Egypt look ridiculous in foreign eyes.

Of course Mahalla is not about to become an independent republic, but I suspect this incident deserves more attention, and I suspect less giggling, than it has received. If you haven't heard about it, that's because all the Western reporters are in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Most Westerners have probably never heard of Mahalla, or al-Mahallat al-Kubra, but it's of the most important industrial cities in Egypt, the center of the country's huge textile industry. You probably own some shirts or sheets or bathrobes made in Egypt; odds are,they were made in Mahalla.

It's a big place. (In fact, that's pretty much what "al-Mahallat al-Kubra" means: the Big Place. That may contribute to its anonymity.) Perhaps half a million people today. And for all those people who are arguing over whether the Egyptian Revolution is a revolution of Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood or a Revolution of liberal intellectuals led by a bunch of young folk with Facebook and Twitter accounts, the workers in the textile mills of Mahalla are convinced it's a revolution of an oppressed proletariat. And what's more, they think it started in 2006. And they sure don't think it's over.

Indeed from 2006 onward, and really picking up momentum in 2008, Mahalla has been wracked by labor activism, general strikes, and worker-management and worker-security forces clashes, and some of the inspiration for the later Egyptian Revolution took spark from the Mahalla strikes, most notably the April 6 movement.

Throughout the post-fall-of-Mubarak era, Islamists and liberals have fought constantly over politics and religion, while the economy has drifted steadily downward. Many political forces give lip service to the plight of Egyptian industrial workers, but no one has done anything effective. The real revolution may be yet to come, and the powers in office whether Muslim Brothers or liberals, will be held responsible,

Not wanting to sound like a Marxist here, but the day may yet come when last Friday's odd little declaration of an autonomous workers' soviet in Mahalla may not seem quite so humorous,
Mahalla's Big Textile Plant

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