On May 11 the Egyptian government extended the State of Emergency, which has been in effect continuously since 1981, for an additional two years. The Emergency Law gives the regime broad powers which it has used to try to suppress dissent of all sorts. But the law and other repressive measures have been ineffective in stemming the tidal wave of public protests by workers and others that have severely eroded the legitimacy of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Since February workers from over a dozen workplaces have sat-in nearly continuously in front of Egypt's parliament. Each group has its own demands related to wages and working conditions in their workplace. Collectively, they have established a permanent presence of working-class dissent in downtown Cairo targeting the neoliberal economic policies the government headed by Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif Egypt has implemented with renewed vigor since taking office in July 2004.
The success of the sit-in tactic was established in December 2007, when 3,000 municipal real estate tax collectors occupied the street in front of the Ministry of Finance for 11 days. They won a 325% salary increase; and their action led to creating the first independent trade union since the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was established in 1957.
Since 1998 over 2 million workers have participated in more than 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations, or other collective actions protesting low wages, non-payment of bonuses, wage supplements, and social benefits, and private investors' failure to uphold their contractual obligations to their workers. The protests spiked sharply since the Nazif government accelerated the pace of privatization of public-sector enterprises in 2004. According to a recent report published by the Solidarity Center, The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, privatization has usually meant less job security, longer hours, and a lower standard of social services for workers, while ETUF rarely defends their interests.
The character of worker protests has been changing since late March. Supported by NGOs like the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services and the recently established Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a growing number of workers, are coalescing around the demand for a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds(about $215). That proposal was first advanced in 2008 by workers at the giant Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., in the Nile Delta. Security forces prevented Misr workers from striking in support of this demand on April 8, 2008.
The demand for a living minimum wage was revived when Nagi Rashad, a worker at the South Cairo Grain Mill and a leading figure in the workers' protest movement, sued the government over its 2008 decision not to increase the national minimum wage. The basic monthly minimum wage, equivalent to about $6.35 at the current exchange rate, was established in 1984. With cost of living increases, it reached nearly $25.00 in 2008. Bonuses and supplements to the basic wage - if they are paid - make it difficult to calculate actual wages precisely. Khaled ‘Ali, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, was the lead attorney on Rashad's case. On March 30 he won an administrative court ruling ordering the president, the prime minister, and the National Council for Wages to set a "fair" minimum wage reflecting the current cost of living.
Wages of most Egyptian workers are inadequate to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and education. Even with two wage earners, the typical monthly wage of textile workers, which ranges from $45-$107 a month, is below the World Bank's poverty line of $2 a day for the average Egyptian family of 3.7 people. According to the World Bank, nearly 44 percent of Egyptians are "extremely poor" (unable to meet minimum food needs), "poor" (unable to meet basic food needs), or "near-poor" (able to meet some basic food needs).
On April 3 workers rallied in Cairo while a delegation sought to present a copy of the court ruling ordering the government to implement a minimum wage to cabinet members. After cabinet representatives refused to meet with them, they called another demonstration to support a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds for May 2. Hundreds of workers gathered in downtown Cairo that day, demanding that the government implement the court order. They were confronted by a massive deployment of security forces attempting to intimidate them.
Protesters chanted "A fair minimum wage, or let this government go home" and "Down with Mubarak and all those who raise prices!" Khaled ‘Ali told the press, "The government represents the marriage between authority and money - and this marriage needs to be broken up."
The court order, which the government is loathe to implement fearing that it will reduce foreign investment, and the potential for a workers movement united around a single national demand apparently unsettled the regime. President Mubarak, who had not appeared in public since undergoing gall bladder surgery in March, made a rare Cairo appearance to address a tame audience of ETUF officials about the rising tide of protest. "There is no place at this critical stage for those who can't distinguish between change and chaos," he said. This has been Mubarak's traditional gambit at home and to his western patrons whenever democratic demands are raised - better the autocracy you know than instability. This may signal that the parliamentary elections scheduled for the later this year will be even less free and fair than those of 2005.
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. He is the principle author of The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Washington, DC: Solidarity Center, 2010).