‘Widespread strikes put Egypt to the test’ from Sydney Morning Heralds
CAIRO: In a nation that outlawed strikes and largely judged independent unions to be enemies of the state, a juggernaut labour movement is flourishing.
Egypt’s ruling military council, that assumed power after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak, issued a renewed ban on strikes in April. But in recent days, this has been resoundingly defied by empowered labour leaders and burgeoning bands of new unionists who are striking in massive numbers not seen since the first weeks of the revolution.
The fast-spreading strikes amount to a serious test for the interim government over the parameters of freedom of expression in the new Egypt.
The strikes are threatening the fragile economy, described by observers as a ticking time bomb, with the government bleeding cash reserves and Egypt losing foreign investment. Economists warn against granting broad public-sector raises given that Egypt’s gaping budget deficit is on a parallel with Greece.
But the military council has to decide whether a crackdown on the strikes would ignite more unrest and lend truth to charges that little has changed since Mubarak fell in February.
Doctors are staging sit-ins at hospitals, demanding pay rises and a trebling of public health spending. Teachers, on strike for the first time since 1951, are shutting down thousands of schools, calling for the sacking of the education minister – one of the many remnants of the Mubarak era – and a ninefold rise in pay.
Transport workers have partially stalled Cairo’s bus fleet calling for a 200 per cent pay rise, while dockworkers stopped work at the key port of Ain Al Sokhna, disrupting Egypt’s vital sea links to the Far East.
Further unnerving jittery foreign investors, the nascent labour movement appears to be spreading to private factories and farms, fuelled by the breaking of a barrier of fear that served to curb union activity here for decades.
The labour unrest underscores the duality of the revolutions that have upended the Arab world with uprisings sparked as much by a hunger for economic change as a thirst for political freedom and democracy. In Egypt, it is becoming clear that the interim government, followed by a new, democratically elected one after promised elections, faces a massive challenge.
”The genie is out the bottle,” the executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, Magda Kandil, said. ”Now that fear is gone, the workers are demanding more.”
The Washington Post