EFITU leader and other activists claim government bluff over devalued wage rise as new revolutionary front is organised
Wednesday 25 September 2013
Egypt may eventually face its third revolution since 2011 if the country's new government does not meet the demands of its frustrated labour movement, a leading trade unionist has warned.
Egypt's prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, recently proposed a minimum wage increase for state employees, in what was supposed to be a populist gesture.
But the leader of the Egyptian federation of independent trade unions (EFITU), a group founded during the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, has denounced the move as too little too late.
Government officials have said the wage deal is a generous measure given the country's dire economic predicament. But workers are furious that the proposed increase – which from 2014 will raise wages from 700 Egyptian pounds (£70) a month to 1,200 – is based on demands made in 2008 and does not take into account the currency's devaluation.
People are also angry that the increase does not apply to private-sector workers, who form about two-thirds of Egypt's workforce, and fear the amount may include bonuses, lowering the basic salary.
"I'm warning the government. They have to comply with the workers' demands," said Malek Bayoumi, president of EFITU, which was founded in opposition to a decades-old state monopoly on union activity. "It's not planned yet, but they have to look after the workers, otherwise finally there will be a third revolution – in the factories, in the government, everywhere."
Other activists fear the wage proposal is a bluff aimed at placating the powerful labour movement for a few months and until the government has finished suppressing Morsi's Islamist loyalists.
"It's just to postpone the fight with the workers till January," said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent labour activist and revolutionary. "During that time they will have killed off the so-called terrorists, and then they can turn their full attention to the workers."
Egypt's labour movement was one of the main forces behind the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak, while their prolific strikes helped destabilise Mohamed Morsi during the final months of his presidency.
Hamalawy argued that Morsi's army-backed successors fear the movement could have a similar effect on their own administration, particularly after the strikes and sit-ins in Suez and Mahalla this summer.
"The labour movement is the biggest threat to any government," he said. "It's not armed groups that break down a regime but mass strikes."
Away from workers' groups, organised opposition to Egypt's army-led government is still mostly limited to Islamist groups such as Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
But activists opposed to the authoritarianism of both the Brotherhood and the army are beginning to re-emerge, as Monday's formation of a new revolutionary group indicated.
Some of the most prominent names from the 2011 uprising – including Ahdaf Soueif, Ahmed Maher, and Alaa Abdel Fatah – congregated to introduce the movement, the Road of the Revolutionary Front.
"The revolution's goals are being forgotten and hence there is a need for this front," said Maher at the meeting.
Meanwhile, a government minister postponed the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, a day after a judge banned the group and all its activities.
Ahmed el-Borai, minister for social solidarity, announced on Tuesday that the ban would be delayed until the completion of individual cases brought against many of its leaders this summer.
An outright ban of the Brotherhood would be the most symbolic moment of a brutal crackdown that has already led to the deaths of 1,000 Brotherhood members, and the arrests of thousands more since July.
Many Egyptians support the Brotherhood's complete isolation, but some still hope that the group may be brought back into the political process, fearing it splintering into violent factions if left out in the cold.
Researchers also warn that the Brotherhood's dissolution would have a devastating effect on its ability to maintain humanitarian programmes, which in the past have provided medical help and food to millions of Egyptians.
"Any decision to ban the Brotherhood, regardless of what you think of the organisation, is going to have a pretty big societal impact," said Steven Brooke, an academic researching the extent of the Brotherhood's social work.
"According to balance sheets from the fiscal year 2011, the Brotherhood provided medical care in over a million cases. If you cut this out, who's going to pick up the slack? The state is incapable of doing it themselves, and while there are other charities, the reach of the Brotherhood is hard to beat."
*Photo by Mai Shaheen