While the west may be under the impression that the revolution in Egypt is over, on the ground, it looks like it’s just getting started.
Protests by Coptic Christians and feminists as well as ongoing demonstrations by a hard core of democracy activists have continued. All have been met with violent reactions. The size of these protests, however, is dwarfed by the labour actions, strikes, protests — and even boss-nappings — that have taken place across the country following Mubarak’s resignation. This has put the workers on a collision course with the armed forces who currently rule the country and who have issued a decree re-affirming the illegality of such actions.
When asked whether it was because the army high command had links to the business elite, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Atteya told New Matilda, "they are the business elite". He described close links between business, the armed forces, and the National Democratic Party (whose head office overlooking Tahrir Square is now a burnt out shell), with generals trading khaki for pinstripe.
Nationwide strikes kicked off in the final days of the revolution, starting on 8 February and continuing until Mubarak was ousted. Many on the streets of Cairo believe they helped convinced the army to join the people in calling for Mubarak’s resignation. The army might have hoped that with the dictator gone, the people who worked their factory floors and in their office buildings would return to business as usual.
Jano Charbel, an Egyptian journalist who has been covering labor politics for more than six years, credits Egyptian workers as the key makers of the revolution, the ones who played "the most pivotal and important" role, one which began long before the crowds poured into Tahrir Square. (Watch Charbel’s full interview with New Matilda here.)
Indeed, the labour movement had already started to mobilise a serious challenge to both the law and the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union federation from 2007. Strikes and protests were called in the industrial cities around the Suez canal and in the north, most famously in the city of Mahalla El Kubra, on the north eastern fringes of the Nile Delta. Charbel describes the Egyptian Trade Union as a "yellow union" representative not of workers but of the "ruling National Democratic Party and businessmen’s interests". He said it had banned more than 20,000 candidates from running for office in workplaces across the country.
It was in Mahalla El Kubra in 2007 that 24,000 workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company went on strike and won, coming back to work only after winning unpaid bonuses and better working conditions. In 2008, as food prices sky-rocketed, they made another push with broader demands including education, access to hospitals, "medicines for our children", a "just judiciary," and "freedom and dignity" and an end to corruption and "torture in police stations". They were joined this time by workers across their city and the newly formed April 6 youth movement. April 6 take their name from the day of the strikes and played a key role in coordinating the protests this year.
With the help of April 6, the workers made the 2007 strike a national event, with many people across the country staying home, many businesses shuttered for the day and thousands of police deployed around Cairo to stop marches in solidarity. This was just the biggest of over 2000 labour actions that took place from 2003 to 2010, says Charbel.
These strikes were an example to the largely middle class protesters who, on 25 January 2011, joined workers and union activists in Tahrir Square.
If the army thought that Mubarak’s removal would placate the workers and end the strikes, they were dead wrong. Since early February there has been what Charbel calls an "unprecedented" wave of industrial actions in both the public and private sectors of the economy, involving at the very least hundreds of thousands of workers. Others, such as Egyptian socialist blogger and journalist Hossam Arabawy speaking on Al-Jazeera, put this figure at over a million.
This is hard to ascertain, however, as the strikes are mostly spontaneous, internally organised workplace affairs. Outside any of the ministries in downtown Cairo you will to find groups of public servants from around the city and the country gathered to demand better pay and conditions.
One such public servant, a 34-year-old sociology graduate and teacher named Ammar showed NM his contract. It stated his pay is 110 Egyptian pounds ($18.40 AUD) a month with an annual Labour Day bonus of ten pounds ($1.67 AUD). Stories of such abysmal renumeration are common in Egypt. Money, however, is not the only problem. There is also, in many workplaces across the country, the issue of what Arabawy has called a "little Mubarak" — a manager who either embezzles, underpays or harasses his staff, or otherwise abuses the power he has over them. Having seen giants fall, many Egyptian workers have decided that now is the time to challenge workplace tyrants.
New Matilda met a pharmacy owner in Zamalek, an uptown district of Cairo where the price of a coffee is substantially more than most Egyptians make in a day. He spoke of exactly such an uprising in his office, with all 15 employees threatening strike action if an overbearing manager was not removed. The owner in this case, was able to dismiss and replace the five employees he considered the ringleaders, and by doing so scare the rest of his staff back into line.
Clear common demands are emerging. Transparency and accountability for bosses in the public and private sector for starters. A minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian Pounds ($200.697 AUD) a month for full time work. There is even talk of a maximum wage, spurred by the ongoing revelations of secret fortunes worth more than the collective wealth of millions stashed away by figures in authority.
Workers’ entitlements have become a wedge issue among the revolutionaries, and turned some of the better-heeled against their former comrades from the factories. State TV and communiqués from the armed forces decry the damage the strikes are doing to the economy — but they don’t propose the bosses make any concessions in order to get the country back to work. Now is not the time, they argue.
With the political instability gripping the country, businesses cannot predict turnover and therefore cannot agree to any changes in the current arrangements. Wait until after the elections in October, they say, suffer just a little bit longer. Egyptian workers, however, show no signs of listening.
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