Egypt Workers Striking in Record Numbers

A worker walks past a newly planted middle garden in Tahrir Square, following a campaign that was launched to clear the square after clashes between police and Egyptians incensed by a film denigrating the Prophet Mohammad, in Cairo 30 September 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

By: Bisan Kassab

Published Monday, September 24, 2012

Cairo -“It is extremely important to give investors clear signals that the rules of the game have changed enough to ensure equal opportunities are provided,” the statement read, “and to prove to the Egyptians that all opportunities will be made available to the majority, not the minority.”

This is not the platform of a center-left party, but rather part of a statement posted on the World Bank’s website.

This view was echoed during the conference of the National Competitiveness Council (ENCC), held a few days ago. The ENCC is a non-governmental organization founded by businessmen and academics “seeking to support the competitiveness of the Egyptian Economy.”

The ENCC released its first report in the summer of 2004 following another year of neo-liberal policies championed by politicians, businessmen and academics close to the Mubarak family.

Ahmed Hassan al-Borai is a professor of social legislation at the Faculty of Law, a major corporate lawyer, and a former minister of manpower. A few days ago at the ENCC conference, he shocked his affluent audience when, during his minutes-long address, he warned of an imminent social revolution.

Al-Borai told Al-Akhbar that the revolution he predicts could “destroy everything and everybody.” Al-Borai said he wanted the public to be aware of the threat posed by widespread social protests and labor strikes, and that the scenario warned against by government officials before the revolution could still come to pass.

“Back then, I said that social unrest quelled by using force against striking workers might escalate one day to create a major fire that is impossible to put out,” he said.

Al-Borai pointed to the adoption of economic justice slogans during the revolution as evidence of an impending upheaval.

Al-Borai’s views about the precursors of a looming social revolution are corroborated by the statistics on social protests issued periodically by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR).

The center’s latest report counted 300 protests in the first half of September which is the highest number registered since the beginning of this year, when the center started publishing bi-monthly reports about such movements. According to the study, the majority of these protests were “to demand better living and working conditions, long-term contracts and appointments.”

The report then broke down the social makeup of these protests, saying: “the general public came first with 93 protests, [followed by] factory workers and company employees (61); teachers (41); government workers (38); university faculty members and employees (15); drivers (11); medical workers including doctors, nurses and technicians (10); students (6); entrepreneurs, officers, vendors, and tour guides (3) per each sector; policemen, ushers, airport porters and mosque imams (2); and one protest by lawyers, pharmacists, air stewards, fishermen and parliament employees respectively.”

One point was overlooked CESR. Because large sections of the economy are owned or controlled by the army, strikes against its holdings can be seen as a direct challenge to the military.

The Nasr Company is a subsidiary of the military-owned National Service Project Organization (NSPO). This body is responsible for the Egyptian army’s economic projects, which have become the subject of much controversy after the January 25 uprising, amid calls for subjecting it to popular and parliamentary supervision and separating the NSPO from the Ministry of Defense.

Civilian workers in the Nasr Company for Intermediate Chemicals recently went on strike at all of the company’s seven factories, and held a sit-in in front of the presidential headquarters.

The workers, for the first time in Egyptian history, called for Major General Mounir Labib, the director of NSPO, to be sacked. According to a statement released by the workers, Labib’s position “is inconsistent with the spirit of the Uprising of January 25.” The workers also called for all the posts held by officers to be abolished, and for limiting the number of directors from the military to one for each sector.

Even more telling, the labor movement has reached this peak even though the General Workers' Union promised to suspend strikes for a period of one year during a meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi.

They made this agreement despite the fact that the Workers’ Union, considered the official trade union thought to enjoy government support in return for acting as the labor arm of the authorities, has not been involved in strikes since its inception in 1957, except on two occasions.

Following the January 25 revolution, a court ruled that the Workers’ Union elections were invalid. By that point the Union’s loyalty to the authorities had reached such an extent that in 2010 it postponed celebrations of the International Workers’ Day until the deposed President Hosni Mubarak was able to recover from an illness he suffered from at the time.

Naji Rashad, a member of the Interim Board of Directors at the Union, told Al-Akhbar that the current chairman of the Union Ahmed Abdul-Zaher had not made a “pledge” during his meeting with Mursi. Instead, he said, Abdul-Zaher proposed “an initiative” to halt strikes in return for a plan to meet the urgent demands of the workers, such as hiring temporary workers and reinstating those who had been dismissed.

“The media has only highlighted the first part of the initiative (for suspending strikes), which helped the president’s office use the ongoing strikes as an excuse for not fulfilling the second part of the agreement,” said Rashad.

When the January 25 protests first began, they were attended by a small number of political activists who were easy to circumvent and suppress by closed ranks of anti-riot troops from central security. Once the labor movement joined, the numbers in the street swelled to millions, and it was not long before Mubarak stepped down.

Labor Uprisings

In December 2006, around 24,000 workers from the state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra organized a successful strike.

From that moment on, the movement only gained momentum, with workers forming the vanguard in public advocacy and activism.

In September, 2007, there was another strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company. In January of the same year, real estate tax collectors had also gone on strike, leading to the establishment of the first independent trade union in Egypt since the pro-government General Workers’ Union was founded in the 1950s.

Then in April, 2008, al-Mahalla erupted in protest, following threats made by the Ministry of the Interior regarding a strike that the workers of the company were planning to hold at the time.

During these protests, the portrait of Hosni Mubarak was taken down for the first time before workers stormed the parliament building to protest the closure of their factory. Several months later, workers across Egypt held the largest number of strikes in the country’s history over a period of three days.

Those proved to be the last days of Mubarak’s rule. For as soon as the curfew was eased (in an attempt to revive the regime by allowing people to return to work) the workers started calling for Mubarak’s downfall.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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