CAIRO: The largest wave of labor unrest to hit Egypt in the past half century could be more than just the birth pangs of a liberalizing economy but also the mass movement needed to revitalize a flagging opposition.
Starting in 2004 and then picking up speed two years later, wildcat strikes have flared across the country, hitting everything from small food-processing factories to the massive state-owned textile firms.
There are contradictory developments going on. On one level, you can say that the tide is receding and the [opposition] movement is subsiding, said Wael Khalil of Kefaya, a loosely organized protest movement that appeared on the scene two years ago but has since lost much of its momentum.
At the same time, the level of discontent is higher than before, and not only the workers, he said, noting that while Kefaya s urban protests have been easily crushed, the government has been quick to respond to workers demands.
The thing about the workers’ movement is how frightened the government is – it is really a demonstration of how a mass movement can bring about change, he said. For every single strike over the past few months, government agencies have been quick to negotiate with the workers and grant their demands, which have generally been for unpaid bonuses, benefits and salaries. The government has the money to pay it because the price of oil is high and they ve sold off a bunch more public sector enterprises, explained Joel Beinin, the head of the Middle East Studies department at the American University in Cairo and a long time observer of Egypt s labor scene. This is the biggest, longest strike wave at least since the fall of 1951, he added. Just in terms of the size of what we are talking about, it is substantially different from what we ve had before.
In his writings, Beinin has described the strikes as the most substantial and broad-based kind of resistance to the regime.
In 2006 alone, the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm counted 222 instances of labor unrest, including a week-long strike at the massive spinning and weaving complex at Mahalla Al-Kobra north of Cairo involving some 20,000 workers.
The trend has continued in 2007 with daily reports of strikes. There are indications, however, that the government has become fed up with these protests and sit-ins, and Labour Minister Aisha Abdel Hadi has suggested that rabble rousers are behind the wave.
This situation has gone on long enough – we are working to solve the problems of the workers, but there are those who want to ignite a revolution, she said on television mid-April.
Government ire has recently focused on labor NGOs like the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Studies (CTUWS), which they have publicly accused of fomenting the strikes.
In April, the organization’s offices were closed down in the southern town of Nagaa Hamadi, the northern industrial complex of Mahalla, and on Wednesday police dragged activists out of their headquarters in Cairo s gritty industrial suburb of Helwan.
Closing the offices of a labour rights group won t end labour unrest, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.
The government should be upholding legal commitments to Egypt s workers instead of seeking a scapegoat. Activists of all stripes, as well as the people working with CTUWS itself, argue they are only assisting disgruntled workers but are not actively involved in anti-government political activities.
They accuse us of fomenting strikes, while all along our position has been that this wave of strikes is as a result of the rigging of the union elections, said CTUWS leader Kamal Abbas.
Union elections in November have been described by workers and activists as rigged in favour of the pro-government union leadership.
Significantly, as the country is gripped with its biggest wave of labor unrest in half a century, the official federation of trade unions is getting ready to celebrate its golden jubilee under the slogan we are with the president.
Egypt s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, though never strong in the labor movement, have also moved to support the workers demands, with parliamentarians becoming involved in local strikes and issuing statements of support for the CTUWS.
I think we all support the needs and the requests of those workers, said Brotherhood spokesman Issam Al-Aryan. There are hints that the trend-setting workers of Mahalla, from whom much of the public sector work force takes its cue are taking their protests to a more political level by calling for the formation of an independent parallel trade union and have been in touch with Kefaya activists.
We really need to think how we can link to it because this is activism 101, people start by protesting for a month s salary, but from that strike, several activists will emerge that want things to move further, said Khalil of Kefaya.