RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We travel next to Libya's neighbor, Egypt. Their protests have moved from a public square to factory floors, as labor strikes spread across the country. In the latter years of his rule, Hosni Mubarak privatized many industries in Egypt and what had been government-owned factories were frequently given to loyalists or foreign buyers who had the right connections. Many got rich by cutting wages and benefits. Now the workers are fighting back, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS: The Shebin Spinning and Weaving Factory is the main employer in Menoufia, about 90 miles from Cairo in the Nile Delta. For generations, local men have worked at this sprawling 150-acre plant, spinning Egyptian cotton into products for the world market. Now this factory is closed and the striking workers take us on a tour.
On the factory floor, it's dark. There's a few lights on here. And what you can see are textile machines. They're off. There are no workers in this factory. They're all on strike.
(Soundbite of protest)
AMOS: They've chanted and marched for more than a month, encouraged by the success of the popular uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, says labor activist Hossam Hamalawi.
Mr. HOSSAM HAMALAWI (Labor Activist): On all levels there is more organizing than I've seen before. It has been given a boost by the revolution.
(Soundbite of protest)
AMOS: These days politicians from Cairo come to support the working. They see which way the wind is blowing.
This factory was privatized in 2007, sold to an Indonesian multinational company that served customers including Nike and Adidas. The new owners started to drastically cut costs as soon as they took over, a shock to workers who had job security and benefits when this was a state-owned plant, says Hamalawi.
Mr. HAMALAWI: Most of the privatized factories, salaries have been slashed, workers have been laid off, and what we call like the bonuses and the allowances, they have also been slashed.
AMOS: Now, with Mubarak gone and state security dismantled, the workers decided the time was right. When the owners eliminated another 95 jobs in March, the sit-in began.
When Ahmed Khalifi saw his friends forced out, he joined the strike too.
Mr. AHMED KHALIFI: (Through translator) They fired them and accused them of taking drugs and then they just locked it up. Is this an investment? To fire workers and shut the factory?
AMOS: Khalifi has worked here for more than 20 years and says he earns less than $200 a month, as he points out conditions in the workers' washroom.
This is the factory bathroom and it is filthy. The doors are open. The walls are grimy. And the workers that say this is the facility, this is what they have to work with here.
(Soundbite of protest)
AMOS: The Indonesian owners have offered a deal: more bonuses, longer contracts, a reinstatement of half those laid off. But it's not enough, says Hossam Hamalawi. The workers of the Shebin textile factory are going to court next week to challenge the original sale and force those owners out.
Mr. HAMALAWI: They are lobbying the government in order to re-nationalize the factory.
AMOS: And make this a government factor.
Mr. HAMALAWI: And return it to the public sector once again.
AMOS: Egypt won praise in Europe and the U.S. for privatizing the economy, but Egyptians were disgusted by the corruption that came with the transformation. Even the military was against, quote, "selling Egypt," as a top army official told state TV this week.
Michael Hanna is in Cairo for the U.S.-based Century Foundation.
Mr. MICHAEL HANNA (Century Foundation): Crony capitalism has grown up in Egypt, particularly in the past decade. And liberal economic policy is tarred with that corruption.
AMOS: Hanna says the privatization program - turning public assets into private hands - made some within Mubarak's inner circle very rich.
Mr. HANNA: And so it's very difficult now to try to push policies that are now, in the minds of regular Egyptians, associated with massive distortions in wealth, inequality and corruption. So it's a very big challenge.
AMOS: And there is wide sympathy for the textile workers' strike. It will be hard to convince Egyptians that private enterprise, so associated with the old regime, is good for Egypt.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.
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