Egypt has a long history of activism and protests, but worker frustration has gained huge renewed momentum after three hard years of political upheaval and economic downturn.
A reported 100,000 Egyptian workers have resorted to strikes this year — one of the main reasons for the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hazem el Beblawi and his entire cabinet on Monday.
The labor activists were instrumental in mobilizing dissent years before toppling Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and now they are an increasingly critical force amid military crackdown on protests and all forms of dissent.
Disappointed by government promises and failure to impose a minimum wage, thousands of workers resorted to strikes. Egypt is now preparing for its sixth government since the start of the anti-Mubarak movement.
This week the army took over the running of Cairo’s bus system, and popular military man Abdel Fattah el Sisi is waiting in the wings for a widely expected run at the presidency.
Across different industries, 2013 was a rough year for Egypt’s economy, and economic suffering is partially to blame for worker unrest. And the poorest have been hit the hardest. The country’s poverty rate rose to 26.3 percent at the end of last year, compared to 25.2 percent before the 2011 uprising, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.
Since January, textile factory workers, doctors, pharmacists, and public bus drivers have launched strikes to demand better pay and an improved compensation structure for workers across Egypt. They say conditions have deteriorated further since the end of the Mubarak era.
“Things accumulate until you get to a boiling point, then there is a social blowup,” said Dr. Ibrahim Awad, director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. “This is what happened.”
Aly Fattouh, 40, has worked for Egypt’s public bus authority for the last 17 years.
Fattouh is one of 30,000 bus workers who are currently on strike throughout Cairo. They are demanding an increase in salaries from EGP 600 a month ($86) to the proposed minimum wage of EGP 1200 ($172).
Public service pay, which has been static for years, cannot keep up with Egypt’s skyrocketing inflation. “Of course we are affected by inflation: the difference between the prices back in 2010 and now is crazy,” Fattouh said.
Fattouh, who is a member of the public transit syndicate, said Egypt’s governments over the last 20 years have failed to “cleanse the public transportation authority from corrupt leaders.”
The absence of a government response is also fueling the workers’ anger. Several ministers reached an agreement with the labor unions last week. Then, amid mounting criticism, the whole interim government abruptly resigned on Monday. Prime Minister Beblawi invoked JFK in his parting speech. “It is time we all sacrificed for the good of the country. Rather than asking what has Egypt given us, we should instead be asking what we have done for Egypt,” he told Egyptian media.
The northern city of El Mahalla El Kubra is dominated by the textile industry. On Saturday, an estimated 19,000 workers suspended a strike that was called on February 10 after promises from the now-departed PM.
Iman Khalil, a factory manager in Mahalla, said that during the Mubarak regime government officials and labor movement leaders used to come to talk to him. This has changed in the intervening years. "(Now) none of the ministers or the unions come to ask about us, we are the ones knocking on their doors,” Khalil said.
In addition to higher wages, the Mahalla workers also called for the resignation of Fouad Abdel el Aleem, president of the Holding Company for Spinning and Weaving. His firm manages 32 textile factories across Egypt. According to independent local news site Mada Masr the workers accuse el-Aleem of “repeated administrative failures, financial mismanagement and corruption.”
For now, the Mahalla strikers have suspended actions for 60 days until the new government is formed.
But even before the latest government resigned, many workers addressed their grievances directly to el-Sisi, who has cultivated a popular public persona as Egypt’s savior. El Sisi has been a heroic figure among many Egyptians since he deposed unpopular ex-President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The streets of Cairo are full of banners, posters, and gifts promoting the 59-year-old army chief, and on Wednesday it was announced that for now he would keep his job as defense minister in the new government. He won’t be running for president quite yet, but Reuters reported that he would remain as a minister until an election law is finalized in the coming days. He is expected to stay in office until the day he announces presidential run.
“We are asking the new government for the transparency and honesty with the Egyptians and the workers,” said Fattouh.
After the cabinet resigned, the army stepped in to address the strikes and run the Cairo bus system, demonstrating who is really in charge in Egypt now.
In a post on the official army Facebook page, a spokesman said that “Armed Forces ran several public transportation lines to transfer citizens from the main streets and squares within greater Cairo” to alleviate the public bus drivers’ strike.
“When the bus drivers go on strike, it affects everyone,” said Ashraf Khalil, author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. “The army is driving the buses now.”
The latest wave of strikes points to the ingrained corruption and dysfunction of the country’s public sector. This dates back to the Mubarak era, has been worsened by the economic strife since the 2011 uprising, and has not been addressed by a series of short-lived governments.
As the military regime’s crackdown on Islamists and other opponents continues, the workers face few options for voicing their grievances. “There are should be channels for social dialogue,” Dr. Awad said. “There are no channels now.”
If Sisi does eventually become president of his country, Egyptians will expect him to do more than shuttle buses.
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