Thursday, May 20, 2010

Egypt: social unrest and political uncertainty

Egyptian workers demonstrate in front of government building in Cairo on 2 May. The workers demanded a rise of the minimum wages to 1200 LE per month (about € 150) in accordance with a ruling from an administrative court in 2008. (Picture Masry al-Youm)

  Unrest at the workplaces is since long a feature of Egypt's economic life. Most salaries - particularly in state enterprises and .among state employees - are ridiculously low. But te past few months the unrest has been visible in the capital Cairo itself. Sit-ins and demonstrations are taking place on a daily basis. Joel Beinin, history professor at Stanford and a long standing expert on the condition's of Egypt's working relations, wrote the following in Foreign Policy:
Since February workers from over a dozen workplaces have sat-in nearly continuously in front of Egypt's parliament.  Each group has its own demands related to wages and working conditions in their workplace.  Collectively, they have established a permanent presence of working-class dissent in downtown Cairo targeting the neoliberal economic policies the government headed by Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif Egypt has implemented with renewed vigor since taking office in July 2004.
The success of the sit-in tactic was established in December 2007, when 3,000 municipal real estate tax collectors occupied the street in front of the Ministry of Finance for 11 days.  They won a 325% salary increase; and their action led to creating the first independent trade union since the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was established in 1957.
Since 1998 over 2 million workers have participated in more than 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations, or other collective actions protesting low wages, non-payment of bonuses, wage supplements, and social benefits, and private investors' failure to uphold their contractual obligations to their workers.  The protests spiked sharply since the Nazif government accelerated the pace of privatization of public-sector enterprises in 2004.  According to a recent report published by the Solidarity Center, The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, privatization has usually meant less job security, longer hours, and a lower standard of social services for workers, while ETUF rarely defends their interests.
The character of worker protests has been changing since late March. Supported by NGOs like the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services and the recently established Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a growing number of workers, are coalescing around the demand for a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds(about $215). That proposal was first advanced in 2008 by workers at the giant Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., in the Nile Delta. Security forces prevented Misr workers from striking in support of this demand on April 8, 2008.
The demand for a living minimum wage was revived when Nagi Rashad, a worker at the South Cairo Grain Mill and a leading figure in the workers' protest movement, sued the government over its 2008 decision not to increase the national minimum wage.  The basic monthly minimum wage, equivalent to about $6.35 at the current exchange rate, was established in 1984.  With cost of living increases, it reached nearly $25.00 in 2008.  Bonuses and supplements to the basic wage - if they are paid - make it difficult to calculate actual wages precisely.  Khaled ‘Ali, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, was the lead attorney on Rashad's case.  On March 30 he won an administrative court ruling ordering the president, the prime minister, and the National Council for Wages to set a "fair" minimum wage reflecting the current cost of living. 
Wages of most Egyptian workers are inadequate to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and education.  Even with two wage earners, the typical monthly wage of textile workers, which ranges from $45-$107 a month, is below the World Bank's poverty line of $2 a day for the average Egyptian family of 3.7 people.  According to the World Bank, nearly 44 percent of Egyptians are "extremely poor" (unable to meet minimum food needs), "poor" (unable to meet basic food needs), or "near-poor" (able to meet some basic food needs).
On April 3 workers rallied in Cairo while a delegation sought to present a copy of the court ruling ordering the government to implement a minimum wage to cabinet members.  After cabinet representatives refused to meet with them, they called another demonstration to support a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds for May 2. Hundreds of workers gathered in downtown Cairo that day, demanding that the government implement the court order.  They were confronted by a massive deployment of security forces attempting to intimidate them.
Protesters chanted "A fair minimum wage, or let this government go home" and "Down with Mubarak and all those who raise prices!"  Khaled ‘Ali told the press, "The government represents the marriage between authority and money - and this marriage needs to be broken up."
 Coupled with this widespread social unrest is also a growing uncertainty about Egypt's political future. President Mubarak turned 82 on 4 May and stayed out of sight for a couple of weeks after he underwent surgery in Heidelberg (Germany) in March, whereby his gallbladder was removed. On 6 May he reappeared in public at the occasion of 'Workers day'. In his speech he paid no attention to the actions to raise the mimimum wage of LE 35, but said ominously that wages should be in accordance with the 'levels of production'. Also he argued against constitutional reform, using the same old arguments that he has been using over and over again that   “current delicate circumstances do not allow room for those who fuse change with chaos''.  Those that are “jeopardizing” Egypt’s future, Mubarak warned, “must not ignore the people’s endorsement of constitutional amendments since 2005, and the need for the constitution to be stable and firm.”
His words were believed to be adressed mainly against Mohammed  el-Baradei, the 67 year old former head of the Internatiuonal Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who has said that he wants to be an independent candidate at the upcoming presidential elections in 2011. The present constitution makes that virtually impossible, since it stipulates that presidential candidates have to have present 250 signatures of members of the sitting parliament, a parliament which, of course, is heavily dominated by Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Mubarak till now has left open the question whether he himself will be candidate for another period, a vagueness which is believed to be instrumental in keeping open the possibility that his 47 year old son Gamal will follow in his footsteps. On the subject of parliamentary elections, due for the Fall of this year, Mubarak remained vague as well , saying no more than that they will be 'free.and have integrity', which says nothing about the aprties that are allowed to participate. On 11 May, less than a week after Mubarak's speech, parliament prolonged the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1981, for another two years, This time however, it was amended in such a way that it will only be used against acts of terror and drug trafficking. The dfifference with the previous period, during which administrative detention and judgements by special security courts were part and parcel of it, remains to be seen.  .  .

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