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Egypt's Invisible Labor Movement

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Police demanding better wages and conditions
(Image by Aljazeera)
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I get a very different picture of the Egyptian "revolution" from Al Jazeera and other international new sources than from the US media. The latter seems to focus exclusively on the massive street protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, ignoring the critical role of major strike actions across Egypt in the days before Mubarak's resignation.

The fairy tale version promoted by the mainstream media goes as follows: the Egyptian people won a Facebook revolution that lasted just eighteen days. As a result of massive street protests, the military junta ousted Mubarak, suspended the old constitution, and dissolved parliament and is negotiating with the "opposition" to write a new constitution leading to "democratic" elections in six months time. According to the US press, this consists of opposition leaders like expatriate Mohamed Elbaradei, members of the youth movement and "bloggers," like Google executive Wael Ghonim.

Unfortunately this narrative overlooks four important facts:

  1. Forty percent of Egyptians are illiterate (http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/beininegypt), and only the sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite have access to the Internet.
  2. The April 6th Youth Movement, the driving force behind the January 25th Day of Anger, was born out of Egypt's labor movement and named after the momentous April 6, 2008 Mahalla Strike.
  3. Many foreign analysts believe that strike action by 200,000 workers across Egypt on February 8, 2011 was the final factor leading the military to pressure Mubarak to step down (owing to fears of an imminent general strike, and the resulting damage to Egypt's economy).
  4. Although middle class doctors, lawyers and managers eventually joined the protest in Tahrir Square, they were also the first to try to persuade the other demonstrators to go home and wait for elections.

The Role of World Bank/IMF Structural Adjustment

Also omitted from mainstream media coverage is the root cause of the massive labor unrest that accompanied the street protests, namely the draconian "structural adjustments" the World Bank and IMF imposed on Egypt in 1991. Twenty years of these neoliberal reforms (think Reaganomics on steroids) have created a society in which 44% of the population lives below the poverty line of $2 per day per person (http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/beininegypt). The average Egyptian worker makes $70 a month. With two parents working, the average Egyptian family of five struggles to get by on less than $1 per day per person. In Cairo, it's not unusual for homeless families to take up residence in the cemetery (see http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/20112148356117884.html).

Three Thousand Strikes Since 1998

The foreign press, on the other hand, tends to be more accurate in reporting that the true balance of power rests with the Egyptian independent trade union movement, consisting of more than thirty independent unions (including those representing workers in Egypt's two most important sources of foreign currency: the Suez Canal and the tourism industry). The omission of this powerful movement from US mainstream coverage is quite significant, given that a general strike (which was clearly imminent in the days prior to Mubarak's resignation) has the potential to shut down the entire Egyptian economy and is much more difficult to derail than street protests (you can't really force people to work by shooting them).

Although the only legal union in Egypt is the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation, approximately two million workers have engaged in over 3,000 illegal strikes (only two strikes were authorized by the government-run union) since 1998. These strikes are typically greeted with brutal government repression, consisting of extrajudicial assassination of strikers, beatings by paramilitary thugs and arrest and torture. This brutal repression, in turn, has led independent Egyptian trade unions to make political demands (such as Mubarak's resignation, democratic elections, legalization of non-government unions and an end to violent repression), in addition to demanding better pay and working conditions.

The strength of Egypt's labor movement, which has grown by leaps and bounds since winning a few wage concessions in 2006, means that the Egyptian revolution is by no means over. Even though traffic has resumed flowing through Tahrir Square and despite the imposition of martial law (and a ban on strikes) by the military junta, widespread labor unrest continues. According to Al Jazeera English (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/02/2011216141815340645.html), workers in banking, transport, oil tourism, textiles and state owned media were all on strike last week to demand higher wages and working conditions.

Even more significant is the February 19th declaration by Egyptian independent trade unionists (representing over 30 unions):

Demands of the workers in the revolution

O heroes of the 25 January revolution! We, workers and trade unionists from different workplaces which have seen strikes, occupations and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of workers across Egypt during the current period, feel it is right to unite the demands of striking workers that they may become an integral part of the goals of our revolution, which the people of Egypt made, and for which the martyrs shed their blood. We present to you a workers' program which brings together our just demands, in order to reaffirm the social aspect of this revolution and to prevent the revolution being taken away from at its base who should be its beneficiaries."

For complete text go to http://www.arabawy.org/2011/02/21/jan25-egyworkers-egyptian-independent-trade-unionists%E2%80%99-declaration/

The Refusal of the US Media to Cover Labor Issues

On reflection, I guess the media distortions around the Egyptian revolution are no surprise, given the typically poor coverage strikes and union issues receive in the US. Presumably the omission of the role played by strikes and labor unrest in the massive street protests in Europe, as well as Egypt and China, is part and parcel of a sophisticated, decades-old public relations strategy (promoted by Wall Street, the corporate media and various left gatekeeping foundations that receive funding from US intelligence). See "A Short History of Left Gatekeeping Foundations" click here).

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http://www.stuartbramhall.com
I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
 

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