‘Workers in Egypt are more confident today’
‘Militant’ on-the-scene following Morsi ouster
Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
|Massive demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square July 26 dealt blow to Muslim Brotherhood efforts to reimpose unpopular and unstable Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi.
BY PAUL MAILHOT
CAIRO — A month after mass demonstrations and a nationwide petition-signing campaign involving millions of people that prompted the military to oust Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, working people here are beginning to focus on the next steps in their struggle to keep political space open and improve their conditions of life.
On July 26 massive demonstrations across Egypt squashed any momentum toward the return of Morsi, who remains under arrest.
Workers and others here give many reasons why they campaigned to push out the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in office.
“Morsi’s campaign for president was a campaign of promises,” Mahitab Elgilani, an organizer of a tent city of several hundred camped out in Tahrir Square, said July 29. “One of those was to release the thousands who were imprisoned in the course of the successful struggle against former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Instead, Morsi added to the numbers in jail for political protest.” Elgilani also pointed to rampant cronyism and deteriorating economic conditions.
A reminder of the price paid to advance the democratic openings are portraits of hundreds of youth who died in the struggle against the Mubarak dictatorship, along with others killed protesting the Morsi government, painted on walls throughout the city.
Because of the widespread expectation that economic, social and political conditions would improve following the February 2011 ouster of Mubarak, it did not take long for most layers of society to turn against the corrupt, violent, and politically stifling Islamist government.
“We began to protest after the first 100 days,” said Elgilani. “In the three months before the Morsi presidency was pushed aside on July 3, millions of Egyptians signed the Tamarod petition calling on him to resign.” Tamarod, which means rebellion, is the loose political coalition that initiated the petitioning campaign that spread in neighborhoods, workplaces and schools throughout the country for a change in government.
Although most Egyptians Militant correspondents spoke to expressed support for the military’s role in the ouster of Morsi, many were also quick to point out that the military leadership had collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood to impose repressive measures. The military has appointed an interim government, which includes many prominent capitalist politicians, some of whom were part of the Mubarak regime. New elections are being planned.
Workers point to deteriorating economic conditions over the past two years, leaving many workers and farmers on the edge of survival. In Ismailia, an industrial city surrounded by farmland 75 miles northeast of Cairo along the Suez Canal, three construction workers sat down with Militant worker-correspondents Aug. 2 to talk about the struggles of daily life.
“We had illusions that things would simply be better once Mubarak was ousted from office,” said Mahmod Salama, a construction worker and leader of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. “We thought we would no longer have to fight in the streets, but we have learned that is not the case.”
“The average construction worker makes between $3 and $8 a day, and most of us don’t work a full month,” said Salama. All three construction workers said they had not worked at their trade in the past three months.
“We used to be able to leave the country and look for work in other parts of the Middle East if things were slow here,” said Mahmoud Ali Mahmoud, “but that became severely restricted under the Brotherhood.” Disputes with other Arab governments also closed opportunities for work. Mahmoud, a plumber, said he was expelled from Saudi Arabia where he was working, following a dispute between Cairo and Riyadh.
Salama said workers are trying to find ways to unify the campaigns of the labor movement in Egypt. “We need to raise the wages of the lowest paid, to equalize conditions. The level of poverty is very high throughout the country. If the government subsidy on basic food items was ended it would be a disaster for millions.” Egyptian workers also need health care and social security that carries over whatever job you have, he said.
‘Workers have more confidence’
“Workers in Egypt have more confidence today because of what we have fought for,” Salama continued. “We brought down Mubarak, we petitioned for Morsi to step down, and we are learning from each other. It is a tremendous change from a couple of years ago. We could not have even discussed the Tamarod petition then.”
During the Mubarak regime, nearly all unionized workers belonged to the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). Following the overthrow of Mubarak, independent unions mushroomed as part of growing struggles for higher wages and better working conditions and reinstatement of militant workers fired for leading strikes or protests. Many of these new unions gravitate to the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).
“There are a growing number of struggles involving workers in Egypt,” said Fatma Ramadan, a member of the EFITU executive board. “But that doesn’t mean there are a growing number of workers in unions. The old Trade Union Federation has not been a good advertisement for belonging to a union. Also, because of ETUF’s relationship with the government, it offers certain benefits to be a part of their union federation that an independent union can’t.”
Workers who have pensions in Egypt, for example, have retirement funds tied to being a member of the government union. If you leave that union your pension is forfeited, Ramadan said.
Textile workers join anti-Morsi fight
“Workers in our plant and throughout Mahalla participated in a massive way in the mobilizations that led to the June 30 revolution,” Kamal Fayoumy, a leader of the Mahalla textile workers, said in an Aug. 4 phone interview, referring to the ouster of the Brotherhood. “Thousands of us — women as well as men — participated in six large workers protests in Mahalla demanding Morsi step down, because the Morsi government stood against the workers all along the line.
“Right now our main campaign is the collection of signatures on a petition of workers’ demands,” said Fayoumy. These include the legal right to join any union and recognition by the government of the choice of the workers; return to public ownership of companies that have been privatized, often leading to massive layoffs; a significant increase in the minimum wage and a cap on salaries for management personnel.
“The independent union in Mahalla continues to try and establish itself in the plant. Our numbers are growing and that is positive,” said Fayoumy. The government union officially remains in the plant, although it has little support among the workers and has remained aloof from their struggles.
There has been a lull in strikes and other workers actions since the overthrow of Morsi, as many are waiting to see what happens now. In an apparent effort to placate widespread dissatisfaction among working people, the military appointed former EFITU President Kamal Abu Eita as the new Manpower Minister, a post similar to a labor minister in many countries.
‘Gov’t sitting on time bombs’
“The government is sitting on a half-dozen time bombs right now,” said Ibrahim Abdel Gawed, a former farmer and leader of an independent farmers organization, who took part in the discussion in Ismailia. “Transit workers, port workers, farmers, all have long-standing grievances and demands that there are no proposals to satisfy.
“People’s attention is diverted temporarily with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government,” he said, “but that won’t last long and decades of workers and farmers demands will soon come to the fore again.”
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