Egypt's Revolution Could Hinge on Labor Groups

Will workers join political reformists in Egypt, or will they negotiate a separate deal with the post-Mubarak military regime?

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Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- Strikes and protests are against the law in revolutionary Egypt, thanks to a March decree from the generals who run the country by fiat. Egypt's electrified workers, however, seem to have gotten the opposite message. A cascade of strikes has gripped almost every major labor sector this month. And unlike political activists, who were driven out of Tahrir Square this summer and since have had trouble mustering quorum at Friday rallies, the workers are encountering some surprisingly unqualified success.

The Democracy ReportOrganizers and political activists say that Labor's momentum could finally curtail the former regime; they point out that paralyzing strikes in February of this year put the Tahrir Square uprising over the top and spurred President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. Now, they say, months spent organizing independent trade unions beyond the control of the corrupt old state-run labor federation have yielded millions of active, politicized Egyptian workers.

"The heart of the revolution is the workers," says Kamal Khalil, a leader of the Workers Democratic Party. Since January, he has agitated for more independent labor unions; hundreds have been formed, while members of established unions like the doctors and engineers syndicate have pushed to replace mistrusted leaders and eliminate government control.

"The workers aren't afraid of being dragged before military courts," Khalil says. "If the strikes are strong, the military won't be able to stop them."

Right after Mubarak's resignation, the government increased public sector salaries and bonuses. The question now is whether workers will join their economic demands to the calls for radical reform of Egypt's political system - or whether labor unions will repeat modern Egyptian history, breaking ranks with political dissenters to negotiate a separate deal with the regime.

Egypt's dictators developed sophisticated tools to thwart strictly political dissent, and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has deployed those tactics regularly over the last nine months to discredit or silence critics, accusing them of taking foreign money or of sowing chaos, throwing some of them in jail.

Workers, however, are a harder target. Almost all Egyptians can relate to underpaid employees, whether in a factory or at a hospital. And the kind of corruption that really enrages the average Egyptian is the workaday sort that thrives in the centralized government bureaucracy and in the workplace, the kind of patronage and graft that saps the public treasury and leaves buses always breaking down, hospitals overcrowded, and basic goods unaffordable for working families.

There's an unmistakably bold, anti-authoritarian streak among the striking workers, most of whom take home around $100 per month.

On Saturday, jubilant teachers assembled in front of the Egyptian government's cabinet headquarters, demanding a minimum monthly salary of about $500 and the replacement of the Mubarak-holdover education minister.

The next day, the teachers decamped. "We're giving the government a week, maybe a month, to meet our demands," teacher and organizer Hala Talaat said. "I don't think they will, so we'll have to go back on strike."

The labor avalanche wasn't slowing though. Thousands of striking public transportation workers took the place of the teachers outside the cabinet building. All 47,000 of Cairo's public bus drivers and support staff have gone on strike. They are demanding better pay, health care, and professional uniforms. A parade of workers brandished their pay stubs, showing take home pay ranging from about $60 a month for a rookie to $120 for a 19-year veteran.

Presented by

Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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