Has the Revolution Left Egypt's Workers Behind?

by Abigail Hauslohner / Zagazig
Thursday, Jun. 23, 2011


Employees of the transport authority rally in Cairo to demand better wages and working conditions on February 14, 2011.

No one in Zagazig wants to talk about what happened last week. The hundreds of railway workers who maintain the old, trash-ridden tracks and trains in this Nile Delta town whisper hurriedly about a strike that briefly disrupted rail traffic across the country of 80 million. But the workers won't give their names or discuss it at length for fear of retribution from the soldiers and security forces that so swiftly put an end to it. And the man they point to as their labor leader says nervously that he knows nothing about a strike.

But maybe it's better that way, say some Egyptians particularly political leaders and the railway's managers. "We're against stopping business like this, because we're trying to get stability back," says Mansour al-Shitry, an accountant for the state-run railways. "Of course the government can't meet the demands of all the people at once, and we don't want to give the military council more of a burden than they already have." (Lightbox Egypt In Flux: Photographs by Thomas Dworzak)

That's the rationale echoed by many of Tahrir Square's liberal, intellectual youth, politicians and, indeed, the military leadership. It's an opinion that predominates among the educated classes in the debate over where the line should be drawn between revolution and transition. Protests for political reform are crucial, many argue, because the system of governance will define Egypt's future on all levels. Labor strikes, on the other hand, can and should be postponed: it's not the right time, they say; Egypt's floundering post-revolution economy needs all the work it can get.

But the laboring classes many members of whom have not received their salaries in months feel otherwise. Dozens of strikes and sit-ins have stalled business across the public and private sectors in recent months. And to union leaders and labor activists, the core revolutionary demands of the working classes have yet to be acknowledged. Minimum wage has been raised and promises have been made, but most have yet to see concrete change on the ground. And indeed, amid the cracks, crevices, and gaping political and ideological fault lines that have shattered the early unity of the February revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, is a divide that increasingly seems to define other debates as well. It's about class.

"There is total class warfare going on in Egypt right now that I don't even think [the liberal movements] can see," says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University. "If middle upper class, urban people in Cairo and Alexandria get some of their demands met, they could care less about minimum wage, or the fact that the healthcare system is complete crap," he says of the competing array of post-revolutionary demands. "The dominant discourse that's coming out on TV is that it's not the right time to protest for these things. Like 'You shouldn't have a living wage right now, you're being greedy.'"

Instead, political elites have prioritized political reforms. And one of the most prominent debates to grip Cairo's political scene in recent weeks centers around the question of what needs to come first on the roadmap to a prosperous and democratic Egypt: a new constitution or a new, elected parliament. The debate has largely been split along Islamist versus liberal lines. The latter, fearing an Islamist majority in parliament, wants to ensure that certain rights and laws are guaranteed first. The Islamists argue that only an elected parliament can determine the next constitution, and a national referendum passed overwhelmingly in March specified as much. "Some people are trying to take a detour around the popular decision in the referendum," says Mohamed Ezzat, a local Muslim Brotherhood official in Zagazig. "But the people have chosen a road map for what happens next in this country, and they want that to be respected." (See TIME's Exclusive Photos: Turmoil in Egypt)

For others, however, it's not about religious ideology or road maps at all. "Mostly their demands are political like 'Freedom' and the debate over what comes first constitution or elections," says labor activist Adel Zakaria of the urban elite, who he describes as middle class. "Workers don't care about that. They have their own problems mainly they need to eat."

The April 6th Youth Movement, one of the most prominent liberal groups, say it recognizes the deep economic concerns felt by most Egyptians. And last month, in an effort to mobilize Egyptians for a "Second Revolution" protest in Tahrir, the group handed out a flier that promoted economic demands first. "The people just move with us if we talk about economics only," said the group's leader Ahmed Maher at the time. "We know the constitution is more important than the economic demands because we know that the things in the street are organized after that. But the people in the street don't know that."

The disconnect has emerged in the results of popular polls as well. Liberal political leader Mohamed ElBaradei topped a Facebook poll by Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces this week to gauge popular preferences for 18 prospective presidential candidates. To some, it suggests that the majority favors liberal, "Constitution First" politics, of which ElBaradei is an advocate. But in the streets and fields, and on the railway tracks, Egyptians suggest the poll may have more to do with who uses Facebook than with popular opinion.

A less publicized poll released the same week by the International Peace Institute offered a total reversal of rankings, listing former Arab League chief and popular icon Amr Moussa first among the contenders, followed by the country's top military general.

TIME's Complete Coverage: The Middle East in Revolt


Still, while they lack political clout, the lower class masses at least in the form of striking workers have been loud. A new $83 billion budget for fiscal year 2011-2012 released by the Egyptian finance ministry on June 22 says as much about reform priorities as it does about who's making noise. The budget pours money into social welfare spending and subsidies, apparently attempts to address working class unhappiness. And on Friday, workers groups that established the country's first independent labor union federation in March are calling for a million man protest to demand that the government crack down on cronyism in job hiring and uphold its promises to establish better worker rights.

In Zagazig, the railway workers say they want overtime compensation and better pay. Some say they make little more than 500 Egyptian Pounds ($84) a month hardly enough to raise a family on, and still 200 Egyptian Pounds below the new national minimum wage. "We normal people are calling for our rights," explains one train air conditioner technician plainly.

After security forces cleared the tracks last week, railway workers received a promise from the national Railway Committee, the governor, and the local security chief, that their demands would be met. "They've spoken, but we'll see if they'll pay," says one accountant at the Zagazig train station. "To be honest, how will they pay if there is no income? The economy is in a bad state."