Egypt’s Invisible Labor Movement
I get a very different picture of the Egyptian “revolution” from Al Jazeera and other international new sources than from the US media. The latter seems to focus exclusively on the massive street protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, ignoring the critical role of major strike actions across Egypt in the days before Mubarak’s resignation.
The US media also portrays the Egyptian revolution as a Facebook revolution, made possible by the miracle of the Internet, which overlooks four important facts:
- Forty percent of Egyptians are illiterate (http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/beininegypt), and only the sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite have access to the Internet.
- The April 6th Youth Movement, the driving force behind the January 25th Day of Anger, was born out of Egypt’s labor movement and named after the momentous April 6, 2008 Mahalla Strike.
- Many foreign analysts believe that strike action by 200,000 workers across Egypt on February 8, 2011 was the final factor leading the military to pressure Mubarak to step down (owing to fears of an imminent general strike, and the resulting damage to Egypt’s economy).
- Although middle class doctors, lawyers and managers eventually joined the protest in Tahrir Square, they were also the first to try to persuade the other demonstrators to go home and wait for elections.
The Role of World Bank/IMF Structural Adjustment
Also omitted from mainstream media coverage is the root cause of the massive labor unrest that accompanied the street protests, namely the role of draconian “structural adjustments” the World Bank and IMF imposed on Egypt in 1991. Twenty years of these neoliberal reforms (think Reaganomics on steroids) have created a society in which 44% of the population lives below the poverty line of $2 per day per person (http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/beininegypt). The average Egyptian worker makes $70 a month. With two parents working, the average Egyptian family of five struggles to get by on less than $1 per day per person. In Cairo, it’s not unusual for homeless families to take up residence in the cemetery (see http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/20112148356117884.html).
Three Thousand Strikes Since 1998
Although the only legal union in Egypt is the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation, approximately two million workers have engaged in over 3,000 illegal strikes (only two strikes were authorized by the government-run union) since 1998. These strikes are typically greeted with brutal government repression, consisting of extrajudicial assassination, beatings by paramilitary thugs and arrest and torture. The brutal repression, in turn, has led striking workers to make political demands (such as Mubarak’s resignation, democratic elections, legalization of non-government unions and an end to violent repression), in addition to demanding better pay and working conditions.
The strength of Egypt’s labor movement, which has grown by leaps and bounds since winning a few wage concessions in 2006, means that the Egyptian revolution is by no means over. Even though traffic has resumed flowing through Tahrir Square and despite the imposition of martial law (and a ban on strikes) by the military junta, widespread labor unrest continues. According to Al Jazeera English (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/02/2011216141815340645.html), workers in banking, transport, oil tourism, textiles and state owned media were all on strike last week to demand higher wages and working conditions.
Even more significant is the February 19th declaration by Egyptian independent trade unionists (representing over 30 unions):
Demands of the workers in the revolution
O heroes of the 25 January revolution! We, workers and trade unionists from different workplaces which have seen strikes, occupations and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of workers across Egypt during the current period, feel it is right to unite the demands of striking workers that they may become an integral part of the goals of our revolution, which the people of Egypt made, and for which the martyrs shed their blood. We present to you a workers’ program which brings together our just demands, in order to reaffirm the social aspect of this revolution and to prevent the revolution being taken away from at its base who should be its beneficiaries.”
To be continued