The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Labor strikes could turn into opposition?

At last some Western coverage of Egypt's labor strikes -- Labor movement possible future for Egypt opposition:
For every single strike over the past few months, government agencies have been quick to negotiate with the workers and grant their demands, which have generally been for unpaid bonuses, benefits, and salaries.

"The government has the money to pay it because the price of oil is high and they've sold off a bunch more public sector enterprises," explained Joel Beinin, the head of the Middle East Studies department at the American University in Cairo and a long time observer of Egypt's labor scene.

"This is the biggest, longest strike wave at least since the fall of 1951," he added. "Just in terms of the size of what we are talking about, it is substantially different from what we've had before."

In his writings, Beinin has described the strikes as "the most substantial and broad-based kind of resistance to the regime."

In 2006 alone, the independent daily Al Masri Al Youm counted 222 instances of labor unrest, including a weeklong strike at the massive spinning and weaving complex at Mahalla Al Kobra north of Cairo involving some 20,000 workers.

The trend has continued in 2007 with daily reports of strikes.

There are indications, however, that the government has become fed up with these protests and sit-ins, and labor minister Aisha Abdel Hadi has suggested that rabble rousers are behind the wave.

"This situation has gone on long enough - we are working to solve the problems of the workers, but there are those who want to ignite a revolution," she said on television mid-April.

Government ire has recently focused on labor nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Center for Trade Union and Worker Studies (CTUWS), which they have publicly accused of fomenting the strikes.

In April, the organization's offices were closed down in the southern town of Nag Hammadi, the northern industrial complex of Mahalla, and Wednesday police dragged activists out of their headquarters in Cairo's gritty industrial suburb of Helwan.

"Closing the offices of a labor rights group won't end labor unrest," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the Human Rights Watch. "The government should be upholding legal commitments to Egypt's workers instead of seeking a scapegoat."
Don't forget to read our own Arabawy for obsessive coverage of Egypt's labor movements!