Egypt: New wave of strikes

Eight months after the overthrow of Mubarak, workers and youth still face poverty, unemployment, corruption and repression

Almost eight months after the overthrow of the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian workers and youth still face poverty, unemployment, corruption and repression. A growing number of workers are turning to strike action to challenge this.

The court trial of Mubarak continues, together with his sons, Gamal and Alaa, and some of their cronies. Ahmed Ezz owns 70% of Egypt’s iron and steel production (bought cheaply when state-owned industries were privatised) and 50% of ceramics. He was a leading member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, senior member of the National Assembly and friend of Gamal Mubarak. On 14 September, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of LE660million ($111m = £70m) for corruption. For a man reported to own $1.5billion in 2008, the fine is small change. All privatised industries should be renationalised, without compensation to the owners, who made fortunes while paying low wages.

It is estimated that corruption – including bribery, tax evasion, theft, nepotism and extortion – may have cost the economy as much as $57 billion in 2000-2008, or an annual average of $6.4 billion. That’s about $800 a year for every man, woman and child while 40% live on less than a dollar a day.

Unemployment rising

The economy has been hard hit by the fall in tourism, one of Egypt’s largest employers. Revenues are down $1billion a month. Egypt Air is losing 56% of its passenger traffic. This is partly because of fears of insecurity following the violent attempt of the old regime to hang on to power, but also because of the global financial crisis, with falling living standards in many countries.

Withdrawal of foreign capital in the six months after the revolution totalled about $16 billion. A 7% fall in GDP during the first quarter of the year was the equivalent of a $30 billion loss to the economy. These factors have resulted in unemployment, already high, growing to anything between 10-20%. Rising prices also make life a growing struggle.

An opinion poll, last April, found that 63% felt unemployment was the biggest issue facing society. Eighty percent expected their household’s financial situation to get better in the next year. Seventy five percent were confident that the new government was able to address the main issues facing the country. Of those who participated in protests during the eighteen days that overthrew Mubarak (one quarter of respondents), 64% said unemployment and low living standards were their main reasons for doing so, compared to 19% who said lack of democracy and political reform.

Now that it is becoming clearer to working and middle class people that the economic situation is getting worse, and that the government is unable to improve living conditions, growing numbers of workers are taking strike action. They are realising that it is only by their own action that conditions are going to improve and that they cannot rely on the government to change their lives for the better.

There are now about 150 independent trade unions, compared to three before the revolution. In the past three weeks, there have been a growing number of strikes, after a quieter period during Ramadan, in August. In the first week of September, 22,000 textile workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla announced a strike (Their tremendous strike in 2007 inspired workers and youth, ultimately leading to the downfall of Mubarak.) The Minister of Manpower was forced to negotiate with the workers, making concessions, including 200% bonuses, after which the strike was called off. It could be back on soon if the promised concessions are not delivered quickly.

Teachers’ national strike

Teachers began a national strike on 18 September – their first national strike since 1951. Called by the new Independent Teachers’ Union, about 70% of teachers are estimated to be taking part, demanding LE1200 a month as a minimum wage. “I have been working for 16 years, I have a family and children of my own, and I make LE900. Everyone knows that no one in Egypt can live on less than 1200-1500 pounds per month,” said one teacher (Ahram 19/9/11) They are also demanding smaller class sizes (which can be 60 -100), an end to ‘merit tests’ and the sacking of the Interior Minister. "They’re saying the country and the ministry have no money, but we all know how much money they have and what they do with it," said one maths teacher. (Ahram 20/9/11)

Most of the 62,000 public transport workers in the greater Cairo area are on strike. They are also calling for a pay rise to LE 1,200. In July, the finance minister approved a 200% pay rise for all public transport workers (whose basic pay is LE 250 a month), but the increase never materialised.

Doctors are striking and demanding improvement of health services, raising government health spending from 3.5% to 15% and restructuring salaries and wages system.

1200 workers in Ideal factories started a strike on 14 September. Saad Sallam, the owner, bought the company when it was privatized for LE 315 million. He has now sold it to the Swedish company Electrolux for LE 2.7 billion. Under the terms of the privatisation, workers should be paid 1% of the deal – LE 4000 – but Sallam has refused to pay.

Thousands of sugar refinery workers in Upper Egypt have been on strike for six days, over pay, working conditions and for the removal of management appointed under Mubarak. University lecturers are threatening strikes. Civil aviation workers and post office employees called off planned strikes after the government promised their demands would be implemented. As well as higher wages, postal and other public sector workers have also demanded the removal of top managers still in place from the Mubarak regime.

Students at the American University of Cairo struck against a 9% rise in tuition fees. They were joined by university workers, including drivers, cleaners and security staff who are demanding higher wages and shorter hours, which can be up to sixteen a day. The university conceded a rise to LE 1500 for the security staff and a 5-day week for cleaners.

Threat of repression

The government has been both making concessions to strikes and, at the same time, preparing to clamp down on them. The ban on strikes, introduced in March, has not been fully applied, with only five workers prosecuted, so far. But on 16 September, the cabinet, after meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), announced that Mubarak’s Emergency Law is to be enforced. The SCAF previously decided to abolish it by the end of September. The Law has been expanded to criminalise “disrupting people’s work” (i.e. strikes), blocking roads through demonstrations, spreading false news and information (with military courts deciding ‘the truth’). Since the downfall of Mubarak, more than 10,000 people have found themselves before military courts for ordinary criminal charges.

The SCAF used the excuse of the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a week earlier, to re-introduce the Emergency Law. Some have suggested that the regime allowed the storming to take place, manufacturing an incident that could be used as a pretext for the Emergency Law’s reintroduction. The regime will also have noted that the numbers turning out at weekly Friday protests have fallen. Protests on Friday 16 September, against this Law, were the smallest since January 25th, with about 1,000 in Tahrir Square.

Some weariness after eight months of weekly demonstrations, many of them enormous, is to be expected. But there is also a growing realization that demonstrations are insufficient by themselves to change the situation. Working class solidarity and struggle by striking, and in some cases occupying workplaces, is growing and has the power to force concessions from government and employers. Momentum towards a national general strike needs to be built, to draw all sections of workers and youth together to win real democratic, workplace and social gains. This entails rank and file, democratic control of mass action and creating mass committees of action in the workplaces, communities and colleges that are linked up at local, regional and national levels.

Democratic socialist programme

But wage rises will not last long while prices continue to rise, and do not directly benefit the unemployed, poor farm workers and other sections of the poor. The capitalist system will always try to take back whatever it is forced to concede, while ever it remains in place. The task of active trade unionists, youth and socialists is to raise the idea of a government of workers and the poor to complete the revolution started on January 25th.

The strike wave raises the need for workers in different industries, both public and private sector, to organise their own mass workers’ party. Activists from different struggles need to join together. Youth and students, those fighting for democratic rights and other social and community campaigns also need to join with organised workers.

A democratic socialist programme would include a decent minimum wage of at least LE 1200 linked to rising prices, decent education and healthcare systems, a massive house-building programme and a shorter working week to provide jobs for the unemployed. These must be linked to nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of all big companies, large estates and banks. The economy could then be planned to meet the needs of the majority instead of the profits of a tiny minority.

With such a campaigning programme, an independent voice for workers and youth can be built, including contesting elections (The SCAF regime claims that it will hold elections from November until March 2012). A socialist alternative would challenge the well-financed, pro-big business parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. A call for a government of workers and the poor would expose all the other parties who defend the right of big business to continue to exploit the majority of the population.

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September 2011