It’s game over for Egypt’s workers from Kuwait Times

Published Date: September 27, 2011
By Roland Singer-Kingsmith

KUWAIT: Egypt is undergoing unprecedented industrial strikes this week. Over half a million public sector workers have participated in demonstrations, marches and sit-ins across the country since the beginning of the month. The first independent trade unions in Egypt’s history, inaugurated since the revolution, are cracking their knuckles by coordinating non-violent political action on a massive scale.
Huge numbers of teachers, doctors and factory workers are putting enormous economic and political pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces by refusing to work until the interim government concedes to their demands. Schools are closed, factories are empty and hospitals are dangerously understaffed. This is, without a doubt, the largest walkout of working and middle class Egyptians in modern history.
Yet, astoundingly, the English speaking world remains deaf to their calls. In stark contrast to the round-the-clock coverage of the events in Tahrir Square in January and February 2011, the workers’ uprising is receiving little or no international exposure. Global newspapers appear morbidly obsessed by US-Israeli relations, Twitter feeds are trending exclusively in Arabic and Al-Jazeera is reposting articles about strikes in April.
Considering that Egyptian laborers alone are estimated to number around 25 million, the potential power that trade unions and workers’ parties can exert is phenomenal and no complete resolution to the Arab Spring can be realized until the labor movement is satisfied. This is a modern socialist revolution in action and its absence on the international political scene constitutes a media blackout of Mubarak-esque proportions.
What little international attention there is being paid to the Egyptian labor movement is often cynical and misinformed. The compulsion of certain bystanders to urge Egyptians to calm down, return to work and expect change in the not-too-distant future is unsettling and naive. An editorial in a Kuwaiti daily last week condemned the recent ‘muscle-flexing display of anarchists’ outside various government buildings, as if the author were reprimanding his adolescent son for throwing a tantrum.
Apart from its patronizing tone, this particular attitude proves that many continue to believe that the 25 January Revolution has already been concluded and that the labor movement is somehow disconnected from the toppling of Mubarak’s regime. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The heartbeat of the 25 January Revolution continues to pound in the fierce activities of Egyptian unionists and socialists. The Egyptian labor movement is fundamentally aligned with the ideological demands of the political movement realized earlier this year. It represents the direct and practical application of the three revolutionary ideals – change, freedom, social justice – but in the personal economic sphere rather than the public political one.
It aims to protect workers and employees from gross financial inequality, lack of employer accountability and often perverse working conditions. In a country where 61 percent of the total national workforce are not formally employed, have only the flimsiest job security and absolutely no recourse to defend their legal rights, the seeds for a working class uprising were sown long ago.
Egyptian factory workers have perhaps the loudest voice. Although the grievances being articulated are numerous and specific details vary between different subsections of the overall movement, there are nevertheless large swathes of common ground. Most unions representing laborers, for example, have agreed that the SCAF has an obligation to set a fair wage at $200 per month, institutionalize the signing of employment contracts and expunge those departmental heads linked to the previous ruling party.
The heritage of the factory workers’ role in the labor movement has become legend since the famous strikes at El-Mahalla Textiles on 7 Dec 2006 where protestors collected 12,000 signatures denying their confidence in the factory syndicate committee after it refused to fight employers to raise their wages or recognize their right to strike. Although the strikers did not achieve their immediate demands, it was the first attempt by workers to take over a state-run syndicate and resulted in the immortal slogan
: ‘Fair wages, an independent union’.
It might be easier to understand the plight of Egypt’s labor workforce if we consider the grossly irresponsible privatization program that Mubarak oversaw during his thirty year reign. Large numbers of public businesses were auctioned at huge discounts to foreign companies that had bribed government officials to sign off on ludicrously corrupt contracts.
For example, in April this year, a fierce court battle began in Shubra El-Kom, an industrial town 70 km north of Cairo, over the legality of a contract that saw a public textile company worth $174m sold to an Indonesian private firm for just $3m. The official had pocketed most of the difference. Such deals assured no further government control, which allowed companies to set their own standards and refuse inspection without answering to a higher authority or being required to protect their employees.
Considering that Egypt’s only trade union, The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), had been state run since it was established in 1957 by Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, workers such as these were powerless to complain. Instead they had to suffer silently the impromptu lay-offs, criminally low wages and inhumane working hours. Thankfully, the eventual disbanding of the GFTU after the revolution has led to a deluge of new unions and syndicates fighting to represent their members in newly sanctioned legal territ
ory. This is where we find ourselves now and the future of change in Egypt will depend on the success of such organizations.
Some sectors’ demands go beyond simply protecting job security and financial prospects. Teachers, for example, have demanded that government spending on education should increase to 6.3 percent of GDP. In a statement released by the Independent Teachers Syndicate on 25 September, seven demands were laid out including the forced resignation of Ahmad Mussa, the Minister of Education, the appointment of more graduates of education colleges to the Ministry as well as the ‘introduction of a fair and humane wage
that will put an end to the evil of private tuition’, referring to the grim reality that many public school teachers are forced to offer extracurricular lessons to make up their miserable salaries.
To think that such tumult, dissatisfaction and widespread malaise in the working class was somehow removed from the events in Tahrir Square that expelled Mubarak and his cronies from office is a fool’s game. The crucially decisive role that the factory worker strikes on Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 February 2011 played in finally bringing Mubarak’s government to its knees has been largely forgotten outside Egypt.
However, the critical importance of the labor movement in the recent revolution has not been lost on Hossam Al-Hamalawy, independent Egyptian blogger and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, who believes that the workers have always been the key to political change. Unlike journalists, students and lawyers, the workers have their finger on the pulse of the country’s economic power. In an interview with Jadaliyya Al-Hamalawy said: ‘The workers, if they strike, it’s game over. It’s finished, because the m
achine won’t work. There’s no money coming in. No trains are moving. No buses are moving. No factories are working. No ships are sailing. No ports are operating. It’s game over – finished.’
Since Mubarak’s departure on the 11 February the labor movement has made extraordinary advances and shows no sign of slowing up. At time of writing, public school teachers have just agreed to suspend their nationwide strike for a week pending the response of an emergency governmental meeting convened to decide how to deal with the   insistence of protestors’ demands. So far the SCAF has remained dangerously mute on the topic issuing a statement only recognizing the movement and pledging only to ‘review a d
raft law dealing with improving the financial and social welfare of teachers’.
Likewise, in a landmark legal decision, three private companies have been renationalized in an extraordinary victory for the socialist unions. A judge refused the pending sale contracts of Tanta Linen Company and Nasr Company, which manufactures steam boilers and pressure vessels, and Misr Shabein Al-Kom, a spinning and weaving company.
According to an account in Al-Youm Al-Saba: ‘The court ordered to return the three companies to their normal state before contracting and retrieving all branches, tools and machines without debts or mortgages. The court also ordered to return the workers back to their jobs and provide them with all their rights.’ Apparently, on delivery of the verdict, the entire courtroom cheered.
Successes such as these have not however been enough to eradicate the prevalent opinion of many in Egypt that stability trumps action in times of political turmoil. These opponents believe that grinning and bearing the status quo in the short term will allow for changes to be made at a more appropriate time in the future. Among the proponents of such a view are the Muslim Brotherhood who have spoken out in particular against the teacher strikes saying that their actions ‘contradict the noble duties of educ
ators and negatively affect our children at all school levels’. Despite the MB’s generally high levels of popularity, in this instance they are in a minority.
Sadly, the ferocity and passion with which Egyptian workers are currently striking is matched only by the remarkable apathy which the international community receives the news. Far from the ‘muscle-flexing display of anarchists’, the Egyptian labor movement is a mature, sophisticated and powerful campaign struggling against decades of governmental negligence.
It proposes a clear vision of how Egypt’s workforce should be treated and how the government should invest in the future. Considering the vociferous support that the international community lent to the ideals of the Jan 25 revolutionaries, it would be unwise to turn away at the climactic moment when the reality of their hopes and dreams is in the balance.
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