Hesham Sallam on Egyptian workers' plight

There's a very good article by Hesham Sallam, called Striking Back at Egyptian Workers in the new issue of Middle East Report. It details the hostile rhetoric and actions by the military, interim government, and many commentators against the wave of industrial action and strikes that have taken place since the revolution.

This part of Sallam's piece on the treatment of strikers post-revolution is spot on:

Shortly after the resignation of Husni Mubarak on February 11, Egypt witnessed the rise of what Egyptian authorities and media outlets began describing as ihtijajat fi’awiyya or small-group protests. The Arabic term fi’a simply means “group,” but has acquired negative connotations and might be compared with how the term “special interest” is used to disparage American labor. 

. . .

The dangers of fi’awi demands are said to be three. First, the workers who make them are accused of seeking to exploit the revolution to serve their own financial interest. Wahid ‘Abd al-Magid of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies has articulated this perspective on a number of televised occasions, chiding labor protesters for slaving away in silence for 30 years and then choosing a moment of crisis to press their case. Mainstream portrayals usually draw a contrast with the Tahrir Square gatherings that preceded the downfall of Mubarak, juxtaposing the selfless motives of Tahrir to fi’awi protests that put particular agendas ahead of the greater good. According to the columnist Khalid Muntasir, “Tahrir demonstrations raised a political slogan, ‘The people want to bring down the regime.’ All the slogans revolved around the meaning of freedom, as demonstrators set aside their fi’awi demands and summoned forth the spring of liberty. They did not ask for a raise or a bonus. They looked at the wider context and at the nation as a whole. The contagion of narrow viewpoints did not spread among them, as it did among those who engaged in continuous, hysterical and vengeful fi‘awi demonstrations.”

Second, bread-and-butter demands are presented as a major challenge to Egypt’s economic prosperity and, therefore, national security. Finance Minister Samir Radwan claims that fi’awi demonstrations have cost the treasury 7 billion Egyptian pounds and the tourism sector 13.5 billion -- making them largely responsible for Egypt’s budget deficit and decline in foreign direct investment. Critics of strikes regularly invoke the expression “the wheel of production must turn” as a means of telling protesters to go back to work. Supreme Council head Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi himself sounded this note in one of his few public appearances. Similarly, a week after Mubarak’s resignation, prominent salafi preacher Muhammad Hassan used the phrase in calling for an end to strikes and sit-ins. Even opinion makers who proclaim sympathy with the strikers’ demands often defer to elite consensus on this point. “Despite the legitimacy of these demands,” wrote journalist and talk show host Lamis al-Hadidi, “I believe that this is not the time for settling accounts or self-interest. Now Egypt must come first and this is not simply a slogan.... Now the wheel must turn.” Interestingly, during the lead-up to the March 19 constitutional referendum those who advocated the “yes” vote also referred to “turning the wheel of production” to argue that approving the amendments would help bring normalcy to the country’s economic life.

Third, so-called fi’awi protests, the narrative goes, take their cues from affiliates of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) stirring up trouble to reverse the gains of the revolution. Eight days after Mubarak’s resignation, unidentified “informed sources” told al-Misri al-Yawm that three former regime figures were behind the “fi’awi demonstrations” in the state sector. The same week, the official news website of the Muslim Brothers reported that NDP members were inciting labor unrest, citing an unidentified source claiming that a dentist who held a leading position in the former ruling party had been calling on his colleagues to stage demonstrations. Government officials have corroborated claims of NDP involvement in inciting these activities, though they have yet to present any concrete evidence to back up the allegations. In March, Justice Minister Muhammad al-Gindi said that labor demonstrations are not spontaneous but a manifestation of an organized “counter-revolution” staged by remnants of the old regime. As the spring wore on, and sectarian tensions began to preoccupy the national political debate, it became standard practice for pundits and commentators to list fi‘awi protests together with sectarian strife as the two main channels through which forces of darkness are attempting to undermine the January 25 revolution.

Read the rest, but the articles makes several things pretty clear: the public discourse over strikes has changed dramatically since the revolution in a negative fashion, despite the fact that the strike movement was a major part of the preparation for the revolution and that demands for higher salaries, etc. seem perfectly legitimate. There's been a revolution, dammit, or at least many want it to become a fully-fledged one.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.