Labor Unrest Spreads Across Egypt

Labor Unrest Spreads Across Egypt

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CAIRO -- In the wake of the popular uprising that overthrew a 30-year dictatorship, labor unrest is now spreading across Egypt.

Employees at banks, airports, communication companies, and hospitals have walked out on strike. Others have staged noisy protests, demanding higher salaries, better work conditions, and healthcare.

While nowhere near the size of the demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak presidency, the strikes and protests have caused great inconvenience to a nation staggering from weeks of massive unrest. And many fear it could lead to much worse.

On Wednesday, millions of bus passengers across the nation had to find alternative means of transport for a sixth day as drivers for the state-owned companies refused to return to work.
The buses are creaky and crowded, yet undeniably cheap and the main form of transportation in a country where a shocking 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

“We will continue to strike until our demands are met,” Salah Hassan, a 45-year-old Cairo bus driver told New America Media. “We have been suffering bleak work conditions for a long time now.”

After working for Egypt’s Public Transport Authority for 24 years now, Hassan, the father of five children, earns a meager 390 Egyptian pounds (US$ 66) a month. Every evening, when he finishes his 10-hour shift, he goes to a second job in order to scrape together the money he needs to feed his family.

A few kilometers away, outside Egypt’s Cassation Court in central Cairo, thousands of court workers protested this week and chanted slogans against what they called their deteriorating living conditions and the absence of proper healthcare.They too vowed to continue their protest until their complaints are heard by the transitional government that was formed when Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.

“I have had a skin disease for a long time now, but I cannot go to a hospital because I do not have enough money to pay for the treatment,” said Khalid al-Shorbagi, a 46-year-old court worker. “The health insurance we have is nothing.”

Egypt’s labor unrest has compelled the Supreme Armed Forces Council, which now governs Egypt, to warn against it and call it “dangerous”. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq appealed to the protestors and asked them to have patience. He also asked them to go home.

The continued unrest worries many experts who fear the threats these strikes and protests pose to the national economy which suffered billions of US dollars in losses as a result of its inability to function normally while anti-Mubarak demonstrations spread everywhere for around three weeks.

The military has not used force to end the labor strikes, but some people express fears that the military might deal violently with the protestors and the striking workers in ways that wreak havoc on Egypt even more.

The military is now deployed everywhere on the nation’s streets and squares. Their relationship with the public is very friendly so far, but nobody knows how the military can react if the strikes and the protests persist in the future.

This is why many Egyptians seem to be running out of patience with the protesters. They look at this growing number of labor strikes and protests and call for a firm stance so that life can go back to normal in this country.

“The time is not appropriate for these strikes and protests at all,” said Vivian Ahmed, a leading psychiatrist. “These workers have this new sense of empowerment, but they need to make sure that this empowerment is used at the right time.”

In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, thousands of the city’s poorest stormed into the Governorate building this week, smashing the front of the building, and setting fire to the governor‘s car, demanding better homes than the slums they live in now. The same happened in the upper Egyptian Governorate of Beni Suef where thousands of ordinary people occupied empty housing blocks built by the government years ago.

In Cairo, thousands of men and women staged a protest Wednesday outside the Cairo Governorate building to demand subsidized housing.

“I have been living in a one-room flat for ten years with my wife and three children now,” said one of the protestors. “The government must help us.”

Across the city, a continued strike by bank clerks compelled Egypt’s Central Bank to extend the closure of the nation’s banks and the stock exchange indefinitely.

And outside the ministries of electricity, military production, and housing, thousands of unemployed men and women stood in long lines and held documents in their hands, hoping to apply for jobs in these ministries.

Many Egyptians called on their compatriots to stop striking, and crowding outside government offices to give the new government the chance to work and redress the mistakes of the Mubarak presidency.

“People should have patience and give priority to Egypt’s interests and forget about their personal interests a little bit,” said Ahmed Zayed, a political sociology expert. “Egypt needs to go back to normal, or we’ll all be losers,” he told Egyptian TV in a telephone call.

But many of these protestors and striking workers say they have little in their lives, and what patience they once had is now spent.

Hassan, the 45-year-old bus driver, lives in one of Cairo’s vast cemeteries and fears for the future of his five children. “I only want to lead a dignified life,” he said.

Amr Emam is the senior correspondent for the Egyptian Gazette, Cairo's only English language daily newspaper.