Has Egypt's Middle Class Gained From The Revolution?

July 21, 2011Marketsby EW News Desk Team

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Since June 12, half of the 18,000 workers employed in maritime services by seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal have been on strike. In contrast, those employed directly by the canal authority have always received higher wages and better benefits - long before January 2011 when subsidiary company workers raised the demand for parity, effectively a 40 percent wage increase.

Management of the subsidiary companies accepted this demand in April, but the interim government has maintained that wages and working conditions of public service workers are established by parliamentary legislation, and therefore, no changes can be made while the parliament is dissolved. The strike expresses workers' rejection of this logic.

Egyptian workers have achieved increased strength and self-confidence in the course of the revolutionary movement. Labor unions continue to rebuff myriad accusations in the press and by some of the "revolutionary youth" that workers' economic demands are narrow "special interests" rather than "national interests." In this respect, workers share the achievement of all Egyptians who heeded the revolutionary call, "Lift your head high. You are an Egyptian" - the recovery of their human dignity.

The removal of former president Hosni Mubarak and the top layer of his regime empowered Egyptians to find their voices and demand "dignity, democracy, and economic justice" - a popular chant during the occupation of Tahrir Square in January-February and since then.

During the three days before Mubarak's departure on February 11, workers visibly contributed to the revolutionary process by engaging in some sixty strikes, some with explicitly political demands. Strikes and sit-ins have continued regularly since then at the rate of several per week. The total of perhaps two-hundred workers' collective actions for the first six months of 2011 is at the same order of magnitude as the pace of labor protest since 2004.

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The interim government promised a further increase to £E 700 (about $120) monthly, effective July 1, 2011. However, the state budget for the fiscal year that began on that day reduced the amount to £E 685. Workers and their supporters continue to press the demand for £E 1,200.

The minimum wage, however, applies only to those employed on permanent contracts (the equivalent of tenure). The private sector operates primarily on the basis of indefinitely renewable "temporary" contracts lasting one-year or less. The "informal sector" is unsupervised by the government. Therefore, the minimum wage applies primarily to public sector workers on permanent contracts.

Struggles to obtain permanent status for public sector employees have escalated. For two weeks in June, some 200 workers on temporary contracts at Petrojet, an oil services firm, conducted a sit-in demonstration in front of the offices of their employer, the Ministry of Petroleum. Although access to the offices was not blocked, five workers were arrested. On June 29, they were convicted in a military court and received suspended sentences of one year in jail. This is the first implementation of SCAF's Decree 34 of March 24, which established penalties of up to £E 500,000 (about $83,400) and up to one year in jail for participating in a "disruptive" strike or demonstration.

The suspended sentence suggests the delicate balance SCAF must maintain. It seeks to minimize the political and economic changes that occur under its watch and until it can hand off power to a legitimate civilian government. But the SCAF cannot repress all popular demands and remain legitimate in the eyes of the people.

The April 6 Youth Movement and other "revolutionary youth" groups that emerged from the Tahrir Square occupation from January 25 to February 11 were, at first, reluctant to embrace specific economic demands, despite the popular chants demanding "social justice." Since the mass demonstrations of July 1 and July 8 and the reoccupation of main squares in Alexandria and Suez as well as Tahrir in Cairo, the April 6 Movement has raised the slogan, "The families of the martyrs and the poor first."

Economic demands have become more prominent since clashes between families of the martyrs and thugs of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo in late June. A large banner overlooking occupied Arabain Square in Suez supported the general demands of the current phase of the revolutionary movement. Speedier public trials for Hosni Mubarak and the high officials of his regime accused of corruption and purifying the Ministry of Interior, which commands the police and other security services, are high on the list. The banner also demands a jobs program for youth - unemployment is especially high in Suez - and a national minimum and maximum wage. The later demand has been adopted by those continuing to occupy Tahrir Square.

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In addition to SCAF's reluctance, there are many obstacles to fulfilling the revolutionaries' aspirations for social justice. Personnel, practices, attitudes, and institutions of the old regime are entrenched throughout the country.

The lives of Egyptian working people are still cheap in the eyes of a great many policemen, government officials, and managers of firms in both the private and public sectors. What has changed, and this is the most important gain of the revolutionary movement, is that workers no longer accept this.

Read the full story from Foreign Policy

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