The revolution that last year overthrew Hosni Mubarak has stirred the Egyptian labor movement. Unions representing textile, ceramics, gold mining and other workers are demanding higher pay and better conditions after decades of corruption by public and private corporations and fear of retaliation by police if strikers lingered too long on picket lines.
Labor strikes multiplied in the final years of Mubarak's autocratic rule, notably at the state-owned textile mill in El Mahalla el Kubra, where clashes with police in 2008 foreshadowed the national political uprising three years later. But duplicitous unions, broken promises by factory owners and workers too worried about their jobs to become politicized kept labor strife a containable annoyance for Mubarak's ruling party.
That has changed. Newly elected President Mohamed Morsi faces one of his biggest challenges from emboldened workers calling for profit sharing and higher wages despite an economy damaged by months of political tumult, rising debt and anemic foreign investment. The tenor is further strained by oligarchs connected to the old guard who are loath to step aside for businessmen emerging from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The strikes signal a new era in the nation's disquieting transition to democracy. But it is too early to tell if workers are galvanized enough to win lasting labor law reforms and better pay. It is also uncertain whether Morsi, who ran as a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, has the acumen to fix an economy that if left untended could damage the political fortunes of Islamists just as they are emerging from decades of persecution.
"The labor movement has become stronger," said Haytham Mohamedein, a prominent labor lawyer. "After Mubarak's fall, workers were able to form 200 independent syndicates and unions with 2 million members. Whether in Suez, Mahalla or Cairo, they became more united and are slowly winning more rights."
More than 20,000 workers are protesting in Mahalla, where at one textile mill a worker was killed in an attack on strikers over the weekend. About 12,000 laborers are striking at Cleopatra's two factories, which produce tiles and ceramics sold worldwide. The Cleopatra dispute turned violent last week when workers ransacked and burned government buildings in the industrial city of Suez, where barbed wire and barricades have surrounded the municipal complex for more than a year.
"We're changing the workers' way of thinking," said Mostafa Ansary, a labor activist. "We couldn't demand our rights before without being called selfish. The worker was never the problem. The corrupt business owner is under the spotlight and he can't operate as before. He's the one who destroyed the economy."
The Cleopatra strike is a symbol of the sway Mubarak loyalists still wield. Abul-Enein, a former lawmaker and member of Mubarak's disbanded party, parlayed his political connections into tax breaks, land deals and wealth. He is on trial for allegedly helping organize the 2011 deadly clashes in Tahrir Square in which hired thugs riding camels and horses attacked anti-Mubarak protesters.
Despite his legal troubles, Abul-Enein radiates aplomb. He recently held a news conference on a barge floating on the Nile. He told the Egyptian media "50 troublemakers" were behind the strike, adding that "there is no industrial country around the world" where workers have better rights than in his factories.
"Shame on them," he said of his employees. His plants have been closed since late June and workers claim Abul-Enein is prolonging the strike to use his economic leverage to win an acquittal in his criminal case. The strike is over unpaid bonuses and demands by employees — many of whom want to return to work — to share in company profits.
"Until our last breath we will keep to our demands," said Abdulrahman Mohsen, who lives in a tent at the plant's entrance to block anyone from entering. A breeze lifted off the sea, and in the distance freighters sailed toward the Suez Canal. "I'm 35 years old and still can't afford to get married. We have hope in the new government, but so far nothing has changed."
Delayed marriage is as potent an economic indicator in Egypt as dwindling foreign reserves, which have fallen to about $15 billion, or less than half of what they were before the revolution. Economic growth has tumbled from 7% annually to 2%, and the job market is shrinking.
"If I only depended on this1,400 pounds a month it would take me 30 years to buy a wedding home. I moonlight as a carpenter," said Anwar, a thin, animated man with faint sideburns. "But a lot of older men with families have nothing to fall back on."
Anwar doesn't know when he'll marry his fiancee. He suspects it might be a while, given his boss' ties to a toppled order that is less visible but remains powerful.
"Abul-Enein is trying to use the political unrest in the country to pressure us," he said. "He wants to show that Morsi can't fix anything and that the country is still in the hands of the old regime."
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.