Egypt: First Democracy, Then a Pay Raise

Raphaël Kempf

Egypt woke from 30 years of night on the morning of Saturday 12 February. President Hosni Mubarak left for Sharm el-Sheikh on the Friday night, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The protesters’ main demand had been satisfied, as the rais (head of state) had stepped down. The revolution seemed to be over. Mohammed Farid Saad, behind the wheel of his car, complained about the revelers who blocked the road near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and prevented him from moving; they were at the end of a long night of improvised singing and drumming. “That’s enough now!” Saad said. “We can’t party forever! We have to build the country, we have to work!”
Saad owns and manages a small industrial adhesives factory, in a poor district of Cairo’s Old Town, that makes a generic version of a US product. On the morning after the revolution, his 15 employees (many of them women, some very young) were already at work when he arrived. Saad was happy about the revolution, and convinced Egypt would now be more serious and better organized, and that his workers would be more responsible. He also believes there will be less corruption; until now, he has had to bribe government health and safety inspectors. His employees were delighted by Mubarak’s fall, but preoccupied with their pay. At around $85 per month, they were far below the $200 minimum demanded by leftwing movements.
That demand was not part of the revolution program as described by Khaled al-Khamissi, author of the best-selling novel Taxi. “The revolution had a clear objective: democratizing Egyptian political life, bringing down Mubarak, reforming the constitution, dissolving parliament and holding genuine elections.” He acknowledged the importance of industrial action with its social and economic (rather than political) demands, especially the workers’ strikes of the past few years: “There is continuity between those strikes and the 2011 revolution.”
A small group in a café by Tahrir Square was talking about the situation soon after prayers on the Friday, before Mubarak’s departure was announced. Alaa Shukrallah, a middle-aged paediatrician, is a veteran of student protests and an activist in non-governmental organizations. He read the newspaper aloud, listing factories and firms that had joined the strike, including rail and oil, water and bus companies, and the ministry of agriculture. Employees had been joining in industrial action for several days. Some had heard the “appeal to our fellow Egyptian workers” made on 9 February by 10 leftwing organizations, demanding social justice, a fair minimum wage, democracy in the workplace and freedom of association: “Workers of Egypt, you are a part of this great revolution of the people. Your struggles over the past few years have prepared the ground for this.”
Lawyer Khaled Ali, director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, said: “The workers did not start the 25 January movement because they have no organizing structure,” but “one of the important steps of this revolution was taken when they began to protest, giving the revolution an economic and social slant besides the political demands.” This analysis was not shared by the Facebook-using middle class young whom the media portray as the heroes of this revolution. Ahmed Maher, 30, an engineer and the general coordinator of the 6 April Movement, said: “The workers did not play a role in the revolution. They were far removed from it.” Maher’s movement, which put forward exclusively political and democratic demands, was an important trigger. He has organiszed a demonstration every 25 January (Police Day) since 2009, to demand political liberalization. The 2011 demonstration was decisive.
The movement’s name comes from a call to industrial action on 6 April 2008 by the workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving, the largest factory in Mahalla al-Kubra in the central Nile Delta region. At the time, young Cairenes had met workers and decided to create the 6 April Youth Movement on Facebook. It quickly diverged from social demands to concentrate on the fight for democracy.
Workers’ struggles have played a decisive role in the past few years. They grew in all sectors and created a culture of criticism and demands. “In 2010,” said Khaled Ali, “there wasn’t a day without at least three protests.” For Kamal Abbas, a former worker who is now the director of the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services, “these industrial actions planted the idea that it is possible to strike.”
The Misr factory stopped work on 16 February 2011, despite a communiqué from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, broadcast on television and sent to mobile phones, calling for a halt to industrial action. Workers pitched tents in the factory, as they had done on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and slept there. They plastered the walls with their demands. First was that Fouad Abdel Halim Hassan, the company president accused of corruption, should resign. Others concerned pay and bonus increases, the provision of housing for workers, and conditions. Workers deeply resent inequalities within the company. They complain that the management was given almost free accommodation while they had to rent apartments in the town centre at market rates.
Amal, 28, has been at the factory 13 years and earns $51 a month. She wants her accommodation paid for by the company. She complained, as did all the others, about being paid “by the millim,” meaning a tenth of a piastre, the currency used in the era of King Farouk in the 1950s. Another worker’s payslip showed he earned 290,000 millim, or $49, for two weeks’ work. Mohammed el-Metwally Igazy, 39, has worked there for 15 years and earns around $85. He demanded a minimum salary of $200 a month, “as decided by the constitutional High Court.” In fact, it was the court for administrative litigation, which comes under the Council of State; by its 30 March 2010 ruling, it forced the state to set a minimum salary for a dignified life. This ruling, which triggered what newspapers called “the salary battle,” has not been implemented by the government. The $200 are still being fought for, part of the social struggles.
The demand from the Misr workers was not met. After a few days’ strike, negotiations took place on 19 February between the management, the military governor and a workers’ delegation. The governor made the first, loudly applauded, announcement: The company president had stepped down and been replaced by a well-known and liked engineer, Ahmed Maher. Strike days would be paid, and a pay increase was being studied. The workers carried Maher aloft in triumph. They had got rid of their company president, just as others on Tahrir Square had pushed out Mubarak. Now they were reassuring visitors that their actions had nothing to do with the revolution that had just shaken Egypt. And yet it seems that this strike, like so many others, would not have happened without the revolution.
Mubarak’s fall might have meant that industrial action ebbed away, with the country in a hurry to resume normal life, to clean up the streets as well as the system. But many strikes and other demonstrations began a few days after the revolution ended. Every factory, ministry and company presented its claims. In the oil, gas and steel industries, the post office and ambulance service, strikes and protests multiplied: People demanded the removal of the head of the company, factory or ministry. Even the police demonstrated for pay increases in front of the ministry of the interior in Cairo’s city centre, and in other major cities. After Mubarak’s departure, people expected wealth to be redistributed, and made their expectations known. Taxi drivers were convinced that money would come quickly, echoing a slogan from Tahrir Square: “Hosni Mubarak, tell us where our money is!”
Experts replied on newspaper comment pages that it was too early, wealth had to be shared gradually. “Workers’ strikes [are] a threat to the Egyptian economy,” said two economists. Few heeded such warnings, because the revolution freed speech. Egyptians can now assert their rights, even in sectors where no strikes were recorded before 2011.
The public company An-Nasr Lil-Asmida is based in a vast industrial zone not far from Suez, where it produces pesticides. It is huge and looks prosperous. There is plenty of housing for workers, a hospital, and salaries are frequently above $200 a month. And yet on 13 February, 200 employees demonstrated (without stopping production at the factory). Their main demand was that the company president, Adel al-Mouzi, accused of corruption, stand trial; they also wanted a more modern factory to be built.
According to Nabil Fahmy, a technician, “It was impossible to do anything before the revolution because of state security officers. Now we can strike. Today there is freedom, the army is protecting us. It used to be impossible to meet the head of the board of directors. Today, it’s possible. Before the revolution, few people talked. Now we can talk, sit down and discuss the company’s problems.” The words “freedom of expression” are frequently heard, and workers feel that their management will vouch for them, when before it was unaware of them.
On 19 February, lawyers at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights petitioned the military authorities, which now run Egypt, to set a maximum salary (as provided for by the Egyptian constitution) with the aim of reducing the wealth differential. Khaled al-Khamissi says: “The revolution is not over, it has only just begun.” Translated by Tom Genrich Raphaël Kempf is a lawyer. Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global