The year 2007 witnessed heightened activism among the Egyptian workers and a record in the number of sit-ins, strikes and peaceful demonstrations. The common denominator is definitely an increasingly deteriorating situation of those workers who suffer from poverty, low wages, bad work conditions, the lack of safety measures, an ineffective insurance system, and a growing social and cultural marginalization. These conditions led for the first time to an unprecedented level of despair which caused Ahmed Idris, a worker in Cairo, to kill his two-year old daughter last May after he failed to buy her the medicine that her health condition required. The drama of Ahmed Idris was emulated by 26 other workers who committed suicide in the first six months of 2007 alone.
Whether these extreme cases rang an alarm bell to the authorities is now a settled matter. The Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady obviously failed to see these cases as signs of a growing discontent. Her era is described by members of the Free Union of Egyptian Workers (FUEW) as the worst ever in terms of workers rights. The FUEW is a dissident group of activist workers who have been denied the right to run in the 2006 elections of both the Egyptian General Union of Workers and the various syndicates. Aly Al-Badri, the President of the FUEW, stated that these workers who were denied the right to run for elections were the ones who criticized the government’s privatization measures and accused it of causing the deteriorating condition of Egyptianworkers, including unjustified mass lay offs, replacement of the local work force by an expatriate one, and endangering the strategic industrial section of the Egyptian economy.
The statement published by the FUEW upon its establishment indicated that the union aimed at working as a supervisory mechanism that oversees the work of the Egyptian General Union of Workers and that voices the real problems faced by Egyptian workers. The FUEW worked hard since its creation to achieve the goals of having an accurate account of the numbers of workers listed as a work force in each factory, improving the insurance systems, increasing the wages to reflect the market price increases, creating safety measures for the workers, and integrating the workers in the social and cultural environment inEgypt. What the FUEW tries to voice is obviously met with attempts to keep it quiet by frequent arrests of its members; however, these attempts failed to stop the wave of nationwide activism of workers from Alexandria to Aswan.
A recent publication of the FUEW entitled “Workers do not eat Fruits: Strikes, Sit-Ins and Demonstrations in the first half of 2007 estimated an amount of 100 sit-ins, 109 strikes and 33 demonstrations to have occurred in the first six months of 2007. The demonstrations of the workers in El Mahalla Al Kobra were by far the largest and worst. They also proved that the Egyptian workers represented an underprivileged segment that was kept for years in the periphery of national priorities. While the current Egyptian government follows a path of aggressive liberalization and economic reform, its strategies do not take into account the necessity to liberalize for all. The privileged sections managed to benefit from the reform measures while the underprivileged sections trailed behind. A growing discontent in the fashion of the Egyptian workers in 2007 is by no means benefiting the Egyptian national interest. On the one hand, its persistence continues to point at the inefficiency of the government to handle the needs of its work force. On the other hand, this discontent with its roots going back to years of poverty and social alienation, is nothing more than a legitimization of the growing radicalization of Islamist thought among the workers who find refuge in the haven of an ideology that promises more justice and equity.