Egypt: Striking Workers Confront Government

Michael Slackman, The New York Times
CAIRO — Day after day, hundreds of workers from all over Egypt have staged demonstrations and sit-ins outside Parliament, turning sidewalks in the heart of the capital into makeshift camps and confounding government efforts to bring an end to the protests.

Nearly every day since February, protesters have chanted demands outside Parliament during daylight and laid out bedrolls along the pavement at night. The government and its allies have been unable to silence the workers, who are angry about a range of issues, including low salaries.

Using an emergency law that allows arrest without charge and restricts the ability to organize, the Egyptian government and the ruling National Democratic Party have for decades blocked development of an effective opposition while monopolizing the levers of power. The open question — one that analysts say the government fears — is whether the workers will connect their economic woes with virtual one-party rule and organize into a political force.

This week, with blankets stacked neatly behind them, at least four different groups were banging pots, pans and empty bottles and chanting slogans. There were factory workers, government workers, employees of a telephone company and handicapped men and women. The group of handicapped people said they had been there for 47 days, demanding jobs and housing.

“If we get our rights, we will leave,” said Gamal Sharqawy, 42, a government worker who said that he and about 200 others had spent 22 days on the pavement. His demand was for a pay raise. He earns $18 a month.

“We will take our rights,” he said with a blend of despair and determination.

While political demonstrations are still dealt with harshly, the government’s approach to labor protests has been to negotiate, offering raises and back pay to get workers off the street.

“The current wave of protests is erupting from the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century,” wrote Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford and principal author of a report on Egypt’s labor movement for theSolidarity Center, a labor-financed advocacy group in Washington. The report said that 1.7 million workers engaged in 1,900 “strikes and other forms of protest” from 2004 through 2008.

The government has tried to define workers’ complaints as pocketbook issues, analysts said, hoping that if specific demands are met, workers will disband without blaming those in charge and without adding political change to their list of priorities.

For a time, that seemed to work.

“The government realizes the most important thing is to ensure these protests are kept at a wide distance from the political opposition elite, because then it will not gain momentum,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

As evidence, he said the leaders of the state security agencies had held negotiations between protesters and the government, often pressing ministries to meet workers’ demands. “They think this is a way to contain protests, but what happened is the workers have come away empowered,” Mr. Bahgat said.

Workers say they have learned that if they stage job actions in their factories, as they used to do, they will be dealt with harshly by the police. But if they make noise on the streets of Cairo, the government will relent.

Surrounded by barricades and the police 24 hours a day, the demonstrators have turned the sidewalks into a revolving door of protests. Nearly every work sector has appeared at one time, including tax collectors, who struck for three months. About the only group that has not is the security force.

The workers’ protests and their implications have become a hot button topic here in part because parliamentary elections are coming up. The intensity of the discussion has been stoked by the government’s newest and most problematic opponent, the former director of the UN nuclear agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has publicly made the case to link the economic plight of average Egyptians with the lack of democracy and political accountability.

Mohamed Abdellah, a leading member of the governing party and former longtime member of Parliament, said that he was not worried because he saw the protests as a positive sign that Egyptian civil society was evolving.

“It means that society is more dynamic,” he said, though he said that some of the workers’ demands were ill conceived. “People are claiming what they want, and raising their voice — this is a good signal.”

But there are other indications that the leadership’s tolerance is beginning to fray. This month, Hassan Nashaat al-Qasas, a member of Parliament and of the governing party, was quoted in the news media as calling on the Interior Ministry to shoot the protesters: “Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it.”

In a speech on Saturday, a national holiday, President Hosni Mubarak seemed to respond to the protesters. While insisting that the nation had come a long way economically, he acknowledged that there were still significant problems and poverty, a concession for a leader who has been in power for nearly 30 years.

Then Mr. Mubarak appeared to signal he would not tolerate much more.

“I sincerely welcome the interplay in the society as long as it abides by laws and the Constitution, and is intended to realize the interest of Egypt,” he said. “This interaction should not turn into a conflict or a confrontation and we have to be aware of such a turn.”

But his words went unheeded on the streets outside Parliament. Near the chamber of the upper house of Parliament, where hundreds of people were gathered, employees from a yarn factory had set up a model coffin, saying it represented the Egyptian worker. Khalid Jaraj, 40, a father of three small children, said he worked for a factory that had run out of cash and had not paid him his salary of $110 a month for three months.

Amira Mahmoud, 25, jumped up from her place on the sidewalk to explain that, yes, she wanted to see the root of the workers’ problems solved. “We want a solution, and that is democracy,” she said.

But, she added, what she needed first was some money to survive. “There is not enough money, not enough money for us to live,” she said as a crowd assembled. Over Ms. Mahmoud’s shoulder, Fouad Whaba, 35, shouted: “We will die. We will die.”

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