Thousands of workers have taken control of one of Egypt's biggest state-owned textile factories in a continuing protest over pay and work conditions. Tensions are mounting as the strike enters its fifth day. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has this report from the town of Ghazl el-Mahalla.
The textile workers at the Egypt Weaving and Spinning Company first went on strike last December. Management then made them promises the workers now say they have not delivered. So the factory's 27,000 employees have walked out again, demanding higher wages and the firing of top managers, who they accuse of corruption.
The workers have taken over the gigantic factory, which has customers all over the world.
Worker Mustafa Farahan says his paycheck is only about $57 a month after 21 years of service to the company. He asks how he can be expected to feed his wife and four children on those wages.
The government says several millions dollars in revenue are being lost every day that the factory is shut down.
Most of the strikers are fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and they have been camped out at the factory 24 hours a day all week. They are refusing to go back to work until their demands are met. They say they have no other choice, because their wages have not kept up with inflation.
The wildcat strikes have been far larger than any protest organized by the political opposition groups because the workers' movements have more grassroots support than any of Egypt's political parties or activist groups.
The chants are targeting the president and the minister of labor, alongside the factory managers.
But it is not clear whether the strikes will have wider political implications. The workers do not entirely agree among themselves about whether this is just a labor action, or something bigger.
Twelve-year factory veteran Hassan Mohammed says the papers say the workers are challenging the government. But he says it is not a challenge, the workers are just calling for their rights.
With that, one of the factory's most senior workers, El-Sayed Habib, interrupts him.
He says, " Frankly we are challenging the government." And then he disappears into the crowd outside the factory where he has worked for more than four decades.
Twenty-three-year-old textile worker Kareem El-Behirey has been posting photos and video of the events in Mahalla on his blog, reaching activists elsewhere in Egypt and around the world with the latest developments.
He points out some of the messages displayed around the factory on banners and signs, alongside an effigy tied to the front gate.
"This message is for President Mubarak, about the workers' problems in Ghazl el-Mahalla," El-Behirey said. "And they ask him there, 'Please, please Mr. Mubarak, we want you to come to Ghazl el-Mahalla company to listen to the workers."
Switching from English into Arabic as he continues the tour, Behirey directly addresses the factory's owners - the Egyptian government.
He says, "Someone is wrong. It is either us or you. I do not believe that 27,000 people are wrong, so the government is wrong. When it ignores 27,000 people, something is wrong with the society." He says, "Either find us another society to live in, or find us another government to rule us, or find our rights and give them to us."
It remains unclear whether authorities will respond to the strike with a better offer, or with a show of force. Security troops surrounded the factory Wednesday and remain heavily deployed throughout town. A number of strike organizers have been detained and released. The workers vow that they will not abandon their strike even if the factory is raided.