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Egypt Unwrapped

The Unheard Struggle in Egypt

Workers at Cleopatra Ceramics factory began striking during the revolution.
Last month, Egypt saw renewed protests following the election of Morsi, with millions of Egyptians having high expectations from the new president in the aftermath of January 25th revolution. Mass strikes spread across the Nile Delta region and in other locations such as Cairo, Alexandria, Daqaliya, Suez and Port Said.

These involved factory workers, gold miners, ceramic workers, doctors, postal workers, university staff.Mass strikes spread across the Nile Delta region and in other locations such as Cairo, Alexandria, Daqaliya, Suez and Port Said. Major labor actions took place in the town of Mahalla Al-Kubra, known as the heart of the largest worker movement in Egypt’s recent history. Tens of thousands of textile workers at state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving, the biggest textile company in the country, went on strike for more than a week over inadequate pay and work conditions, overdue profit-sharing payments, and corrupt management.

Another flashpoint for workers’ struggles was Ceramica Cleopatra, one of Egypt’s biggest ceramics firms, which was hit by strikes revolving around low wages, work hazard compensation, unpaid profit shares. In addition, around 1,500 workers at Sukari Gold Mine, the largest gold mine in Egypt, went on a nine-day strike to demand pay rises and disbursement of bonuses.

The July strikes are only the most recent in Egypt’s history of labor unrest. They have become an early test for newly-elected President Morsi, adding yet another battle in Egypt to compete for attention with the power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta for control of the state apparatus.

Morsi’s latest attempts to replace the army-backed administration maintain the same interim ruling system—for the time being. Similarly, leaders loyal to the former regime have been kept at the lead of factory management. With that in mind, Egyptian workers seem to be left in the background, particularly at a time where the public debate is focused on Morsi’s takeover of legislative and executive powers until a new Parliament is elected.

A large number of workers are still waiting for a living wage, although officials have repeatedly promised to implement a national minimum wage since last year’s uprising. In a video published by Al-Masry Al-Youm, a disillusioned female worker from Mahalla said about Morsi: “He’s only thinking about those earning 200,000 or half a million. He doesn’t think about the workers who are sweating blood. Where are our rights? We can’t even afford a crust of bread.”

According to the World Bank, almost 44 percent of Egyptians live on less than US$320 a year, the gap between the richest and poorest keeps growing, and the budget deficit stands at more than $3 billion. Facing up to a faltering economy, and with a ruling elite pushing for further privatization and foreign investment, the Egyptian government has found mounting pressure and hostility from the workers’ movement amid fears about the continuation of Mubarak’s policies.

On 24 July, Egyptian state textile workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving suspended their strikes. Although they received partial concessions, the workers said they would resume labor action in September if their demands were not fully met. “We have suspended the strikes until a government is formed and the country becomes more stable,” textile worker Faisal Laqousha told Reuters.

Establishing an effective government remains the big priority in a country that desperately needs stability, and these are still uncertain times for Egypt. While the workers’ struggle appears to be ignored, Egyptians insist on the implementation of promised reforms, pressuring the new government to revise—even partially—the neoliberal policies adopted by the Mubarak regime.

In an article on Ahram Online, Egyptian journalist Mostafa Ali identifies structural weaknesses in union organization and the failure of workers to form a labor party that could help to press their demands as two key shortcomings in the labor movement. While the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party have made social justice a theme of their political program, many of the Brotherhood’s leading figures are businessmen, like many linked to the old regime, holding interests that are expectedly different from those of Egyptian workers.

So far, little change can be seen in the status quo of post-Mubarak Egypt, with the government ignoring workers’ longstanding grievances and factory administration continuing to deny their rights. Without adequate pay, safety and insurance, thousands of workers and families are at risk in Egypt. With September approaching, if Morsi fails to act on the immediate demands of workers we may expect Egyptians entering more intense strikes, or we may even see a workers’ revolution in the months to come.

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Alessandra Bajec
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. She has contributed to An-Najah University's Voice of An-Najah radio broadcasts, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Progressive, among others. Follow her on Twitter @AlessandraBajec


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