Egyptian Protests: Falling Wages, High Prices
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By Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka
The road from the airport to the hotel shows the story: modern buildings partly conceal dilapidated, crowded structures that seem on the verge of collapse. Ancient jalopies chug along as if by inertia, while the latest luxury models zip past them. Huge billboards advertise multinational corporations. All this goes side by side with centuries-old mosques of breathtaking beauty, witnesses to a time when Egypt was the centre of Islamic culture — not just another third-world country offering the world cheap labour for exploitation. This was my first encounter with Cairo. Love at first sight.
I wasn't there as a tourist. What brought me to Egypt with my colleague, Samia Nassar, was the wave of strikes which, since December 2006, has been shaking the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In 2007 there were 580 strikes, demonstrations and protests, involving between 300,000 and 500,000 workers. The number for 2008 is likely to be more than twice that, reflecting enormous hikes in food prices.
We spent three packed days, talking from early morning to late at night with representatives of political parties and workers' organisations. One name cropped up again and again: Mahalla al-Kubra, the textile city, epicentre of the new labour movement.
With half a million people, Mahalla sits on the Nile Delta 120 kilometres north of Cairo, and includes most of the textile plants. For example, the Misr Weaving and Spinning Company, founded in 1927, employs 27,000, making it one of the largest factories in the world. Its workers — in particular the women — started the first, now famous strike of December 2006. Neither it nor any in the wave that followed were government-approved—all were illegal.
Mahalla, December 9, 2006. The first in the wave of strikes, involving more than 20,000 workers. Photo by Nasser Nouri. (Creative Commons License.)
One of the biggest strikes occurred in September 2007, when the workers at Misr Weaving temporarily took over the plant and established an independent security force to prevent the entry of management forces. They demanded bonuses that had been promised in December but not delivered. They demanded the dismissal of the CEO, who, they said, had defrauded them: the plant had made big profits but had not given them the share agreed on in December. They demanded removal of regime toadies from their Workers' Committee. They made gains on all three counts.
Why does Mubarak yield at all to the demands, despite the illegality of the strikes? He's scared that the effect of the textile strikers might spread to other industries. Egypt's workers are too numerous and desperate. More than 40% of the country's 80 million people live under the UN poverty line of US$2 per day. Consequently, the rise in world food prices is perceived here as a mortal threat. Mahalla's response has led the way. Its textile workers, Egypt's best organised, called for a new strike to take place on April 6.
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People from other cities rallied in support. Using Facebook, SMSs and blogs, a group of 70,000 youngsters ran a campaign called ``Stay home!'' — stay home, that is, from work, university or shopping on April 6. People did stay home. The streets of Cairo were noticeably quiet on April 6. Various political parties attempted to hitchhike on the campaign and proclaim a general strike — even a civil revolt. The workers warded off these premature calls.
The regime's plainclothes police anticipated the disturbances, entering Mahalla three days before. They occupied the troublesome factories, waited for the employees and escorted them to their machines, threatening any who did not work with imprisonment. After the company added a carrot to the stick, promising wage hikes, the workers deferred the strike. Nevertheless, demonstrations began in the late afternoon of April 6, the number of protesters rising to 20,000 or more, including workers, their families, the unemployed and people waiting on bread lines. They chanted against the government's price increases and police brutality. At least three demonstrators were killed by police fire, dozens were wounded and hundreds arrested. Confronting the police, the demonstrators demanded release of the prisoners.
Mahalla, April 7, 2008. Demonstrators outside the police station demand the release of prisoners, including many children, who were arrested during protests the previous day. Photo by Per Bjorklund.
When Samia Nassar and I arrived in Egypt almost three weeks later (April 24), Mahalla was tense, the police were in occupation and we could not get in. We talked with activists in Cairo, who were still mulling over what had happened.
The origin of the workers' strikes may be found in the government's 1991 decision to globalize. After signing agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the regime began to privatise factories, banks, hotels and even those retail chains that until then had been under government ownership. The attempts at privatisation that took place between 1991 and 2002 were inconclusive, however, and from 2002 until 2004 they were frozen. Then Mubarak appointed Ahmad Nazif as prime minister, and he gave the process an energetic push. Already in his first year, Nazif privatised 17 firms. He continues doing so today.
The cotton and textile industries belong mostly to the public sector, an inheritance from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Misr Weaving and Spinning Company has not been privatised yet, although the workers are very concerned about this possibility: they fear that it would lead, as elsewhere, to dismissals. Their protest focuses on other issues too, especially the low wages and the hikes in food prices. Another complaint concerns their official union. The Workers' Committee of Misr Weaving belongs to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which they criticise for its cozy relations with Mubarak's National Democratic Party. There are courageous attempts to create alternative workers' committees within the plants at Mahalla. These committees, though independent, find support among political parties and movements, including some of the people we met.
Take, for instance, the issue of salary. A senior worker at Misr Weaving earns about $80 per month, including bonuses, fringe benefits and overtime. The United Nations, as said, defines poverty in Egypt at $2 per person per day. Since an Egyptian worker supports, on average, 3.7 persons, a salary of $80 per month means $0.72 per person per day. Faced with the prospect of the April 6 strike, the company agreed to raise the basic monthly pay for workers at all levels, but even if this agreement is fulfilled, the very best-paid workers at Misr Weaving (those with college degrees) will earn — after bonuses — only $180 per month, which is still far below the poverty line ($224).
The textile workers are among the worst paid in the public sector (this sector has 6 million people, in a workforce of 22 million), but the others are also in poverty. We heard about doctors, for instance, who moonlight as taxi drivers. In the private sector, the pay is slightly better, but job insecurity is high and conditions are miserable.
Until December 2006, most public-sector workers refrained from rocking the boat, preferring job security at low pay over the uncertainty of privatised firms. Now they can no longer hold back: the overall cost of food has increased by 26% in the last year. Prices of bread and grains have risen by 48%, fruits and vegetables by 20%, meat by 33% and chicken by 146%, bringing people to the point of explosion.
Mahalla, April 7, 2008. Photo by Nasser Nouri. (Creative Commons License.)
Among the leaders we met were members of the Workers' Coordinating Committee for Trade Union Rights, formed by various leftist organisations. It gives counsel and guidance to striking workers. We also met people from the Tajammu Party, the Nasserist party al-Karama, the Solidarity Committee with the Agrarian Reform Peasantry, Doctors without Rights, Engineers against Oppression and others.
I will not conceal the excitement we felt when we sat opposite the veteran leaders of Egypt's left who patiently and modestly answered our many questions. Ala Kamal, who volunteered to organise the meetings, was astonished to find that people were ready to talk with us. In Egypt this cannot be taken for granted. We were representing, after all, organisations in which Arabs and Jews work together, namely the Organisation for Democratic Action (our political party) and the Workers Advice Center. In the last decade the ``Anti-Normalisation Movement'' in Egypt has cultivated a hostile attitude not merely toward Israel but even toward the Arabs living there, lumping us together with the Zionist camp.
From the very first meeting we could sense hints of this attitude. After we'd made it clear that we'd come to express solidarity with the Egyptian workers, we were told by a veteran leftist who asked to remain anonymous: ``Your task won't be easy. Personally, I'm a communist and an internationalist, and I'll be happy to talk with you, but the violence used by Israel recently, and the dominant national and Islamic discourse, have sown confusion in the ranks of the left. In the past we were more precise. We distinguished between Zionism and Judaism. Today the situation is different.''
Nevertheless, the ice quickly broke at all our meetings. The common interest prevailed. This was no accident. The awakening of the workers has ushered in a new dialogue of solidarity. We found general agreement that the struggles which began in Mahalla, and which are spreading to new sectors, amount to the birth pangs of a labour-union movement.
This movement is spontaneous. It unites around concrete demands for economic rights, such as salary hikes and freedom of organisation. It is not dominated by any of the existing political forces, including the left. Natural leaders are emerging.
Saber Barakat, a leading figure in the Coordinating Committee, told us: ``The results of the privatisation policy have been devastating for the workers and the poor. Between 1996 and 2006, 750,000 workers were pensioned off, each for a one-time payment of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds [$3700 - $5500]. At the end of the 1990s, the regime even began offering the feudal lords the lands that Nasser had confiscated. Between 2003 and 2005, many of the poor peasants were expelled from their lands because they couldn't keep up various payments. They were left without livelihood. Having no choice, they drifted into the cities, living on the margins, a thing that has added to the unemployment and suffering.''
Cairo, April 2008. Left to right: Samia Nassar and Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka of WAC-Ma'an, with Saber Barakat and Muhammad Abed al-Salam.
Privatisation has turned out to be a boomerang, because as soon as the workers understood they had nothing to lose, the barricade of fear was broken. Hamdi Hussein, one of the labour leaders at Mahalla, met with us in Cairo. He said: ``From 1994 until December 2006 the labour movement was frozen. These years saw no cadres develop with political awareness or with the energies needed to organise a strike. But everything changed in December 2006. A new phenomenon appeared: militant workers, though lacking political background. Many women stood out among them. In general, they belong to no organisation or party. There was a need to start from scratch, to create active committees with the aim of educating the workers, giving lectures and organising leadership courses.''
Saber Barakat added: ``Since the first years of this decade we have thought about building independent labour unions. The Coordinating Committee is to some extent an implementation of this idea. It was founded in 2001, well before the wave of strikes. I myself left the Steelworkers' Union after eight years as its general secretary. I had reached the conclusion that unions like that were hopeless. We raised a cry for building democratic unions that would be independent of the ruling party, indeed of all political parties as well as businessmen. On the other hand, it's clear to us that the union will also need to cope with the problems arising from the lack of free speech.''
The workers' movement imposed a new political agenda. The struggle for power until now has been between the Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, the discourse has been national or Islamic. We heard about the suppression of liberal writers and about disturbances concerning the veil. Now, however, something new has happened. Ever since the workers raised their heads, there is no ignoring them. They have put themselves on the map.
The importance of the new labour movement consists in its independence from all the existing political forces, including the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and the left in its various branches. The working class has raised a new social agenda, which it has moved to the center of public discussion.
Until now the political arena could be summed up thus: the regime versus the Muslim Brothers. This equation tied the hands of the traditional left, such as the Tajammu. Not wanting to be associated with the Muslim Brothers, they often found themselves lining up with Mubarak.
The liberal Kifaya (``Enough!'') movement challenged this bipolar politics in 2004, when it went out to demonstrate against Mubarak's one-man rule. But Kifaya lost momentum in tandem with the lessening of American pressure to democratise. Kifaya reflected petit-bourgeois and intellectual strata that demanded, basically, political rights. The social-economic issue was not on its agenda. Kifaya was not conjoined with the day-to-day hardships of the population, although today it does support the new labour movement.
The advantage of this movement, in contrast, is that the demands for fair wages, for the right to organise, and for freedom of speech have the ability to unite all social levels — and not on the basis of religion, rather on that of a broad democratic agenda. This agenda suits textile workers, clerks, doctors and engineers — in short, all walks of life.
That is what frightens the Mubarak regime. It is why he has mobilised all his forces to put down the new labour movement. He understands that Mahalla al-Kubra has become a symbol for Egypt as a whole. Nevertheless, in the interest of his own political survival he cannot ignore what is happening. He has been forced to return again and again to the economic situation. On May 1, accordingly, he promised to raise salaries in the public sector by about 30%. Fulfillment may be another story.
The Muslim Brothers too have been surprised by the force of the labour movement. After trying to downplay the events of April 6, even announcing they would not take part in the strike, they have had to backtrack. Now they claim to be leading the movement!
The workers see globalisation as an economic and political problem, while the Muslim Brothers view it, through their ideological prism, as a cultural one. Globalisation is bad, in their eyes, not because it privatises firms and impoverishes workers, but because it represents the West, infidel values and permissiveness.
Precisely for this reason, the regime prefers the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose religious worldview doesn't threaten the foundations of the economic order and cannot unite the whole people behind it. Moreover, the Brotherhood is radically anti-democratic. It presents no alternative to the capitalist regime and privatisation. Further, the regime uses it to frighten people about Western values, democracy among them.
Because the Muslim Brotherhood approves the existing economic order, the workers see it as part of the problem. We heard the following from Bashir Saker, a representative of the Solidarity Committee with the Agrarian Reform Peasantry: ``They are with the bosses against the workers, they are with the feudal lords against the peasants, and their propaganda plays a role that causes demoralisation in the farmers' resistance movement.''
The awakening of labour has surprised not just the regime but also the various leftist movements. The Egyptian left includes a broad spectrum of national Nasserites and socialist organisations. They have acted behind the scenes, but never as an organised force. Of the many leftist groups we met, none denied this fact. On the contrary, they readily agreed.
The Communist Party is outlawed, but 30 years ago Anwar Sadat established a party called Tajammu and announced to the leftists that it would be theirs. Legality had its price, however. The Tajammu became ever less attractive and less relevant in the public eye. This showed, for example, in its electoral decline from five seats in the year 2000 to just two in 2005. (The ruling regime has 311 seats and the Muslim Brotherhood 88.) The party newspaper, al-Ahali, dropped in circulation from 120,000 to 30,000. But the latest events on the labour front have opened new horizons. The Tajammu will continue as a legal party, but some of its members, with this new field to work in, have gone underground and re-organised as the outlawed Communist Party.
More important are socialist organisations that have chosen to remain outside the Tajammu because of the latter's closeness to the regime. They are active today in the Coordinating Committee, and they are trying to build leftist parties with legal status.
There is another encouraging sign as well. Until now, in the absence of a workers' movement, the section of the left that sought to distance itself from Mubarak had no population to work with, so it limited its activity to supporting the Palestinian national movement. In the year 2000 it backed the Intifada, and especially Hamas, which it saw as leading the resistance. Now, however, the workers' struggle has made a new approach possible, neither national nor Islamic. It is opening a third, internationalist alternative. Since the start of the awakening, the labour movement has provided the left with its natural environment, and there is the feeling that leftist forces are again on their feet.
The new labour movement in Egypt has put the working class on the map, both locally and in the wider Arab world, which suffers from similar economic, social and political conditions. The echoes from Mahalla have penetrated the world as a whole. That is the movement's most important achievement to date. It has shown that the choices in the Arab world need not be confined to Islamic fundamentalism or secular dictatorship.
[This article first appeared in Challenge magazine <http://www.challenge-mag.com/>.]
The B u l l e t
June 2, 2008
Egyptian Protests: Falling Wages, High Prices and the Failure of an Export-Oriented Economy
In April 2008, after a wave of protests over low wages and high food prices, including an attempt to generate a general strike by many workers and social activists on April 6 and led by workers in the state-run textile industry, the Egyptian government suspended its export of rice and cement in order to meet local demand. This suspension of exports is a response to the failure of the export-oriented economy that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescribed for Egypt in 1991. More than a decade and a half of neoliberal reforms in Egypt has brought the Egyptian society to the brink of a deep social crisis. Fearful of the collapse of the political order, the authoritarian political regime of President Hosni Mubarak recently conceded to the demands of the poor and the workers and promised a 30 percent wage increase for public servants and urged the private sector to offer similar compensation. As representatives of Egyptians workers have pointed out, the rising food prices while not being the main cause, has indeed exposed the dire situation of Egyptian workers and peasants who have suffered declining standards of living and increasing poverty since the mid-1990s.
In late 2007, the depth of social polarization in Egypt was captured in two controversial yet popular Egyptian movies – Heya Fawda and Hayna Maysara, which played in theatres across Cairo and other major cities. The movies were welcomed by a frustrated Egyptian population that has suffered from a lack of political liberties, economic rights and state oppression. The movies depicted the brutality of the Egyptian state and the failure of its policies through the experience of a community that inhabited one of the many slums of a big city. In a country where over 40 percent of the population lives below or near the poverty line (less than $2 a day), and the popularity of these movies among the Egyptian public is a sign that people have had enough. Effective expression of frustration has taken on an organized form only in the recent years and only among the industrial working class. For example, 2006 witnessed 222 industrial actions, and in 2007 there were 580 actions among diverse sectors including transport, textile, garbage collectors, and followed by while collar strikes which included physicians, property tax collectors and university professors. This year has seen even greater numbers of industrial actions to day, and over a 1000 protests of various kinds. Peasant resistance has remained hidden from the general public and suppressed by the state, although the land grab underway by land developers and the tourism industry has faced often tough – if divided – resistance, from the Egyptian popular classes across rural Egypt.
In its coverage of Egypt, the western media, in line with American President George Bush's call for liberal democracy and open elections, has focused on the abuses of political rights and suppression of civil society in isolation from an analysis of how the agenda of global economic integration by the western imperialist powers has been responsible for the suffering of the majority of Egyptians. Egypt has remained a strong ally of the U.S. in the region and has played an important role in mediating the Israeli/Palestine conflict. This regional role played by Egypt has often overshadowed Egypt's domestic politics. Consequently, the recent wave of strikes and protests in Egypt, which dominated the western media at first seemed as if overnight Egyptian workers and citizens had decided to take action despite the anti-terror law, which replaced the emergency law and bans any activity including strikes and protests that might be deemed as disrupting social order and peace.
The reality remains that Egyptian citizens, workers and peasants have experienced a fundamental social change as Egypt embraced a free market economy in 1991. A deepening of capitalist social relations has occurred with a radical increase in the use of coercions and violence by the Egyptian state. Such political repression is connected to the radical decline in the material conditions of ordinary Egyptians.
Enter the IMF
In line with the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme signed with the International Monetary Fund in 1991, the Egyptian government has been steadily privatising the public sector, liberalizing prices and rents. By 2005 the government, either wholly or in part, had sold off 209 of the 314 public sector companies earmarked for privatisation. The sale of the public sector has been accompanied by massive lay-offs, an end to job security and a downward spiral of wages and benefits for Egyptian workers. Female workers especially have become the victim of unemployment, as previously public firms become privatized.
The Egyptian opposition claims that economic liberalization pursued by Nazif has made the rich richer and the poor poorer in Egypt. As a result of the 1990s wave of privatization, precarious labour conditions (low wages, temporary jobs, reduced benefits and shift work) have become generalized among the existing working class in major cities, while many others have faced a loss of employment. For Egyptian big business interests, business has boomed and growth has remained positive, and thus it can be safely concluded that profits mounted at the expense of workers' livelihoods. The weakness of the neoliberal mode of economic organization became exposed when food prices began hiking while wages remained stagnant, although the economists and the ruling classes in Egypt have been celebrating the positive growth rates of the economy. This deterioration of workers' lives has corresponded to a rise in labour unrest since 2005.
Labour Unrest: Old and New
The most unforgettable moment of crisis and public protest in Egypt's recent history has been the bread riots of 1977, which occurred in response to Sadat's liberalization of bread prices. The extent of state brutality was evident then as over 100 people were killed during the riots. Since taking over power in 1981, Mubarak has been careful to prevent a repeat of 1977 riots. He even used the fragility of political situation in Egypt as an excuse in slowing down implementation of IMF and World Bank demands. However, the dominance of a neoliberal minded cabinet under Prime Minister Nazif overlooked the real condition of Egyptians.
Since 2005, there has been a radical increase in the number of strikes and protests in Egypt. The protests of 2005 occurred in the context of presidential elections and aimed at exposing the absence of political rights and space for political debate. However, the labour protests of 2006 and after have marked a crucial departure in social protest in Egypt. These protests have been in response to the privatization of public sector firms, which has been accompanied by low wages and diminishing benefits for workers. At the same time, the collusion between managers of public sector firms and the main Egyptian state-controlled General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions (GFETU), has led Egyptian industrial workers to seek autonomy from the union. Fed up with GFETU and its failure to voice the concerns of workers, in 1990 labour lawyer and political activist Youssef Darwish established the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS). The CTUWS was indeed the first step towards establishing an independent trade union that could genuinely represent the interests of the workers and defend their rights. Unfortunately, after the April 2008 protests, the CTUWS became the target of attack by state security, which resulted in the forced closure of the center and its various branches across Egypt. This was part of a mass arrest of political activists on the eve of the April 6 strike call. These kinds of arrests have continued.
The legacy of the Left in Egypt has been one of concessions to the ruling party's demands. In the course of the 1980s, the Left allied itself with the ruling NDP (National Democratic Party) against the Muslim Brotherhood and this cost the Left the support of the poor and peasants from rural Egypt. A further retreat of the Left occurred in the wake of IMF/World Bank demands to shift the Egyptian economy towards an export orientation. Accepting the general shift of the economy without taking into consideration the effects of such a shift on working people, the Left lost most of its popular support among Egyptians. One instance that highlighted the weakness of the Left and their understanding of the current global economy was when the Left parties opposed privatization arguing that it was an attempt at ‘selling Egypt to foreigners.’ The ruling party easily defended privatization demonstrating how it was Egyptians who had gained control of the privatized firms and not foreigners.
With a Left in disarray and disoriented, it should not be a surprise that the people feel they cannot successfully press their demands through Left parties. As a result, the workers, the unemployed, those living in slums and others began self-organizing. The most prominent of these groups has been university students who are seen as a threat and thus controlled by the state security apparatus within university campuses. As guarantees of employment for university graduates came to an end under Mubarak, university graduates have been left disillusioned and unemployed. Those employed earn around LE 300 which is insufficient to even pay the monthly rent for an apartment. Young people feel a lack of dignity as most are incapable of starting a family due to low salaries, lack of employment, and the high cost of living. In an attempt to regain their lost dignity due to lack of employment, these young men have joined Islamic groups who oppose the government due to its unjust policies. Universities in Cairo and other parts of Egypt have thus become sites of activism, rebellion and a corresponding heavy police presence. Thus, while workers of Mahalla al Kubara demanded a rise in their wages, others involved in the April 6 general strike (and other subsequent calls for mass strike action) have deeper grievances about a failing economic and political system and a corrupt ruling class who have benefited at the expense of the general Egyptian population.
Egyptians have suffered from the absence of personal liberties, right to education in the context of a deteriorating public school system, right to economic freedoms and guarantees of a descent livelihood, underscored by the April bread riots that left more than seven people dead. It can be concluded that the current protests and calls for general strike are motivated by material interests of Egyptian workers and a disappearing middle class and demonstrated by recent protests of white collar workers such as journalists, doctors and accountants who are faced with a radical rise in the cost of living while their salaries have remained low. Twenty two percent of Egyptians or 14.2 million live below the poverty line of $1 dollar a day, and millions other live close to poverty line.
Mahalla al Kobra:
Mahalla al Kobra, which lies 110 km north of Cairo, has been known for launching industrial action in the recent past (such as the major strikes of December 2006) similar to its recent strike action in support of better wages and benefits for more than 250,000 public sector manufacturing and textile workers. The workers of Mahalla factory constitute one quarter of the million textile and garment workers in the public sector.
What makes Mahalla el-Kobra so important to the Egyptian state? First, Mahalla has been the largest state run textile factory, meeting the demands of the state for textile, a company that was established in 1928 by Bank Misr as a symbol of Egyptian nationalism. Second, its workers have been at the forefront of industrial labour in Egypt, resisting the pressures to privatize the factory. The push for competitiveness has left the remaining public sector workers with low wages and at Mahalla monthly wages stand at $34 per month, most of which is absorbed by the high rents for workers' residences, food and transportation.
Earlier in 2006, Mahalla workers went on strike when Prime Minister Nazif reneged on his promise to increase sufficiently annual bonuses, which supplement low wages. The strike was successful in that workers were offered bonuses equal to 45 days of their work as opposed to the two months that they had demanded.
In the recent April 2008 Mahalla protests, where over 15,000 protested the rising food prices, over 150 arrests were made and possibly two deaths occurred at the hands of the security apparatus. Angry young men who joined the workers ripped and burned posters of president Mubarak. Police shot dead a 15 year old boy who was in his apartment. The state police prevented and/or arrested journalists from reaching out and reporting stories of people whose relatives were detained. Over 150 people were detained during the protests. At the same time, the state controlled media depicted the two day uprising in Mahalla as destruction of public property and vandalism by thugs just as the 1977 bread riots were labeled as ‘the revolution of the thieves’ by the state. There continued to remain a dominant presence of state security police (30 security trucks) in Mahalla even after the protests were suppressed. The state authorities cancelled council elections in the Mahalla al Kobra and in other parts of the Nile Delta fearing an electoral victory of pro-labour and Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers. Nonetheless, factory officials attempted to discourage strike action by offering LE90 of food allowances, which was rejected by workers who claimed that rising food costs would require LE150 instead.
In response to the recent socio-economic crisis that has engulfed Egypt, the Egyptian government has adopted a two-fold approach, which focuses on limited redistribution and repression. On the one hand, the state announced suspension of exports of key food items and construction material (cement, steel and rice) in order to reduce the cost of living on Egyptian citizens. This suspension of exports, which will continue until October 2008 was accompanied by a more important announcement of 30 percent salary increases for public servants across Egypt. On the other hand, President Mubarak recently announced that any attempt to disrupt social order will be met with heavy force.
Since the bread riots of 1977, the Egyptian emergency law has often been used to prevent freedom of association by workers and citizens. After 2001, the Egyptian state attempted to align its emergency law with the anti-terror law that carried deeper implications for all sorts of social protest or contestation of state policies as it defined all kinds of activities that could disrupt social order as constituting a terror activity and thus subject to police action. The Egyptian state and ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has been using these extended power of the state to prevent the emergence of an alternative to the current order, be it a left response or an Islamist one. In order to maintain a firm control over the presidential power, the NDP introduced constitutional amendments limiting the ability of other parties to run candidates for presidential elections. In order to nominate a candidate for presidential elections, a party needs the support of 10 members of every local council in 14 provinces. Thus, local council elections have recently been the target of state repression due to fear of election of anti-government councilors who might support opposition parties. As a result, the 2008 council elections saw only 30 per cent of the 52,000 council seats as being contested. The MB boycotted the elections after many of its potential candidates were arrested by the state.
The Unfolding of Neoliberalism
and Possible Alternatives
As happened in 1977, in 2008 Egyptian citizens took to the streets protesting an increase in bread prices. State officials hoped would help in the reduction of the budget deficit. The protests have warned officials that Egyptians will not remain quiet when their most basic needs are made inaccessible to them. Fearing a further escalation of kind of protests that occurred in early April, officials have announced price controls, an increase in salaries and a channeling of export of food and cement towards domestic consumption. The Egyptian president ordered the army to bake bread using the army ovens to respond to the food shortages. These measures have been taken at a time when Egyptian workers are faced with the lowest levels of wages. Egyptian workers earn 92 percent less than workers doing similar work in Israel, 81 percent less than in Turkey, and 65 percent less than in Tunisia, 40 percent less than in India and 15 per cent less than in Pakistan). Meanwhile, food prices have more than doubled since 2007 while rents and costs of transportation have experienced sharp increases. Even with two jobs and over 12 hours of work, Egyptian workers are incapable of paying the minimum rent for a small flat which costs around LE 300 per month (because of the rise in cement and steel prices).
The phenomenon of food and shelter insecurity has engulfed Egypt ever since it embarked on an export-oriented economy that saw local produce targeting international demand while ignoring local needs. What is significant about the current protests in Egypt is that it questions the legitimacy of the current neoliberal economic development that was pushed through forcefully by the Nazif government. In the coming months, it is possible that the government will focus on damage control through some redistributive measures. However, the extent of discontent and the spread of state violence and dispossession across Egypt cannot be contained without fundamental changes to the existing set of socio-economic policies.
Joel Beinin in an article which appeared in MERIP on May 9, 2007 captured the problem of building a progressive alternative that could effectively oppose the state in Egypt. He writes that the Egyptian Left never succeeded in linking U.S. imperialism and Israel/Palestine conflict with the expansion of capitalism. As a result, the Left continued to denounce imperialism and Zionism without building a grass roots movement that could oppose the expansion of capitalist social relations in Egypt. This weakness of the Left has left both workers and peasants without an institutional link to the Left Party and in effect the old Left has become irrelevant in Egypt. However, Beinin sees the rising wave of strikes and labour protests as signs that the struggle between labour and capital is intensifying as the neoliberal project is pushed ahead. What remains open ended is whether the Left can reemerge and build on this wave of protest and link the various urban/rural struggles as one struggle against capitalism, or if it will fail to recreate itself and thus miss a historic opportunity. •
Angela Joya lives in Cyprus and is completing a study on the political economy of Egypt.
Statement of Solidarity with Egyptian Workers
10 April 2008
CUPE Ontario International Solidarity Committee Condemns Attacks
on Striking Egyptian Workers
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario International Solidarity Committee strongly condemns the latest round of repression by the Egyptian government against workers and protestors in El-Mahalla, an industrial town in the Nile Delta.
Eyewitness statements from workers, human rights, and solidarity organizations in Egypt indicate that thousands of workers and their families have been targeted by government troops in the area. At least two protestors have been killed by security forces, over 300 workers arrested, and the area placed under siege.
The repression follows a courageous call for a one-day general strike, originating in El-Mahalla, and supported widely by workers, human rights groups, and political organizations across the country. El Mahalla Factory is one of the largest textile factories in the Middle East.
CUPE stands firmly with our Egyptian brothers and sisters in their fight against neoliberalism and state repression. We call on the Egyptian government to immediately release all those arrested in the last few days, particularly children. The Egyptian government must immediately cease the practice of torture in detention and bring to justice all those involved in human rights abuses. Furthermore, we call on the government to respect the right to strike and organize, and for workers at El Mahalla to be granted a liveable wage and decent working conditions.
CUPE International Solidarity Committee urges its members to send messages of protest to Egyptian officials in Canada as well as emails of support to the striking workers (see below). We note the call by workers for further strike action on May 4th and will continue to stand in solidarity with all workers in the region.
1) Send a Message of Protest to Egyptian Officials in Canada
Please take a few moments to send the message below to the Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa, the Egyptian Consulate in Montreal and senior government officials in Egypt (Prime Minister, Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of ForeignAffairs):
Cut and paste the following e-mail addresses into your address line:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Step 2 (optional):
Personalize your message – explain, in your own words, why you support Egyptian workers and oppose the repression by the Egyptian government.
Cut and paste the sample message below into your e-mail, and send:
Ambassador Dr. Mahmoud El-Saeed
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to Canada
454 Laurier Avenue East
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6R3
Dear Dr. Mahmoud El-Saeed:
I am writing to you today to condemn in the strongest terms possible the violent acts of the Egyptian state in its attacks on Egyptian workers at the El-Mahalla factory in the Nile Delta. I want you to know that the Canadian public is both alarmed and outraged at the behaviour of the Egyptian state and its flagrant violations of human rights, labour standards and international law.
So far, thousands of striking workers have been attacked, hundreds of protesters have been arrested and two people have been killed. Many more have been injured. These are shameful acts.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that your government has attacked the Egyptian people. I am aware that hundreds of pro-democracy and pro-reform campaigners have suffered repression at the hands of the Egyptian state, including forty men who are currently being tried by military tribunals in Egypt, despite the fact that many of them have been acquitted by civilian courts on numerous occasions.
I call on you to pressure your own government to stop immediately all attacks on workers at the El-Mahalla factory and on all Egyptian citizens, and to release immediately all political prisoners who have been detained for their labour and political activism.
Please be advised that the illegal and undemocratic actions of the Egyptian state will not go unnoticed in the rest of the world. The people of Canada are watching, and are expecting you to do the right thing: end the repression, and release the detainees now!
Your address (optional)
Step 4 (optional):
Cut and paste the same message above into the online feedback box on the websites of the Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa and the Egyptian Consulate in Montreal:
Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa
Egyptian Consulate in Montreal
2) Send a solidarity message to Egyptian workers
It is vitally important that Egyptian activists know about your solidarity and support. Please send a message of support to the address below to let Egyptian workers know about what you're doing to support their struggle.
Messages from trade union activists in Canada are especially important. If possible, please ask your union leadership to send an official letter of support.