Defiant Egyptian workers pose challenge to next president

Egyptian workers leave the Misr spinning and weaving factory in Mahala, 120 kms north Cairo, after a day's work on April 8, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD KHALED)

MAHALLAH, Egypt: Egypt’s next president will have to contend with frustrated workers who have threatened a new wave of strikes if their demands are not met by an already cash-strapped government.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the ex-army chief who overthrew Islamist President Mohammad Morsi last July and is hailed by supporters as a tough leader who can restore stability, is widely expected to win next month’s election.

But he is likely to face strident demands from the same labor leaders who organized a massive 2008 strike seen as a precursor to the 2011 uprising that ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

And with tourism and investment having largely dried up following three years of turmoil, it’s unclear whether the government can meet their demands.

Labor activist Kamal Fayoumi says he struggles to make ends meet despite having worked at a textile factory for 30 years, and he and other labor leaders insist the promise of the 2011 uprising – “bread, freedom, social justice” – has yet to be fulfilled.

“All governments over the past three years, including Morsi’s, have only made promises, but never delivered,” Fayoumi told AFP at a roadside cafe in Egypt’s textile hub of Mahallah, 115 kilometers north of Cairo.

In the years since Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, workers have staged persistent strikes across the country, only halting them in February under a temporary truce with military-installed authorities.

The strikes had taken place in key sectors, including textiles, steel, cement, public transport, ports and postal services, further compounding the country’s economic woes.

Protesting workers have demanded higher wages along with a minimum wage plan, improved working conditions, a halt to the privatization of state-owned units and an end to corruption.

After three decades at the massive state-owned Masr Spinning and Weaving factory in the Nile Delta city of Mahallah, Fayoumi, 53, says he earns a paltry $200 a month.

“How am I supposed to offer a life of dignity to my family?” Fayoumi said. “If this situation continues, we will strike again, no matter the next president, Sisi or [Hamdeen] Sabbahi.”

Sisi, who is riding a wave of popularity and nationalist fervor after ending Morsi’s divisive yearlong reign, is expected to win the May 26-27 vote. Leftist leader Sabbahi, his only rival, came in third in the 2012 election won by Morsi.

Sisi’s picture is displayed on shop windows in Mahallah but in smaller numbers than in Cairo, where large posters and banners have sprung up in almost every square.

Analysts say that for more than five decades, the authorities have negotiated with the state-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation as the sole representative of workers, much to the frustration of critics who accuse the union of being hand in glove with the authorities.

Independent unions have proliferated since 2011, but the authorities refuse to recognize them, and often use the army to help break strikes.

In February, Egyptian media said the army had dispatched scores of its drivers to replace striking public transport workers.

“This comes as we witness ... a new [interim] government that includes figures linked to the Mubarak regime ... which takes us back to a dark period of Egypt’s history,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said in a report.

Giving in to the workers’ demands, however, would add to the government’s already hefty deficit at a time when tourism and investment are at an all-time low and the economy is being propped up by aid from Gulf allies.

“The budget deficit for this year to June 2014 is estimated at about 20 percent,” said Shaheer George, a labor researcher with EIPR.

“If the government adopts a minimum wage plan or increases salaries across categories as demanded by workers, the deficit will simply soar.”

Officials say the government wants to cut the deficit – burdened by fuel and food subsidies – to 10 percent and set up labor-intensive projects to address unemployment, which rose to around 14 percent last year from 9 before the 2011 revolt.

Labor Minister Nahed Ali Ashri declined an interview request, but the Cabinet said Thursday that it had approved a draft law which proposes setting up fast-track courts to resolve labor disputes.

Labor activists have shrugged in response, warning that more confrontations may await.

“Workers in cities like Mahallah are supporting Sisi, but if he fails to achieve social justice, they will return to the streets against him,” activist Hamdy Hussein said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2014, on page 5.




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