Skip to content

Cairos chants of dissent

  • by

Two demonstrations this week called on the government to increase wages and pursue genuine reform. But are the authorities listening?

By Amira Howeidy

(source: Al-Ahram Weekly Online)

The heart of Cairo — its central nervous system, politically and administratively — was the venue for loud opposition against the ruling regime twice this week. In Hussein Hegazi Street, which hosts Egypt’s cabinet, and Tahrir Square, a kilometre or two away, representatives of the country’s expanding dissent movement demonstrated two days in a row against the government’s economic and political policies, the three-decade old state of emergency, and the rule of President Hosni Mubarak..

The first demonstration, dubbed by its organisers as the "2 May strike" occupied Hussein Hegazi Street for three hours Sunday afternoon, where approximately 1,000 political activists and labour workers rallied against the regime. Opposition leaders who participated said the event was unique with political movements and workers united in action. The strike came in response to government apathy towards a court order of 30 April requiring the president, the prime minister and the National Wages Council to set a minimum "fair" wage.

The official minimum wage per month of LE35 ($6.25) hasn't changed since 1984. The court ruling was hailed as "historic" by labour unions and rights activists because it stipulated that the criteria for setting a national minimum wage should consider existing living costs and the balance between prices and wages. The ruling is especially important in light of the fact that 40 per cent of Egypt's population lives well below the international poverty line, according to recent statistics by the Egyptian Investment Authority (EIA). An individual who lives on $2 or less per day is considered poor by international standards. According to the EIA, the average income of a government employee in Egypt is LE394 ($70) a month. The plaintiffs (labour activist and worker Nagui Rashad and the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights) who filed the minimum wage case demanded a minimum wage of LE1,008 ($180). Since, labour unions and activists have been demanding a minimum wage of LE1,200 ($214) and gave the government a one-month deadline to achieve it. When the demand was ignored, they responded with the 2 May strike. "We want a minimum fair wage that lasts a month," and "Egypt, get up and rise," protesters chanted. The sloganeering, made to the beat of drums and frequent applause, was angry, passionate and scathing: "Oh you backward and cowardly government, tomorrow we shall have our arms," and "A minimum wage for those who live in cemeteries and a maximum wage for those living in palaces," in reference to the salaries of some state officials who reportedly make six figure incomes according to opposition MPs who raised the issue in parliament in February. Protestors also shouted, "Down, down with Hosni Mubarak" and were equally frustrated with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Finance Minister Yousef Boutros Ghali, who "Sold and plundered Egypt," as per the chanting, and "rendered us bankrupt".. Opposition figures from the Kifaya (Enough) movement, the left-wing Tagammu Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nasserist would-be Karama (Dignity) Party, socialist activists, the 6 April Youth Movement, independent labour unions and the National Association for Change (NAC) — formed by possible presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baradei — participated in the demonstration. Hussein Hegazi Street, where the protest took place, was sealed off by batteries of anti-riot police. With the exception of a few moments of tension when some of the younger demonstrators attempted to break through police lines, it was generally peaceful. The protest comes against a backdrop of unremitting strikes and sit-ins for better working conditions and better wages that swept Egypt since 2006. Their frequency accelerated to a daily basis in 2009. According to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, there have been 2,026 workers' protests — including strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations — since December 2006. This would be a rate of at least one or more strikes daily. A shift in the pattern of these protests occurred in November 2007 when real estate tax collectors went on strike for 11 days, ending when their demands were met. In February workers from the public sector Tanta Flax and Oils Company, privatised to a Saudi businessman, staged a strike on the sidewalk near the cabinet building in downtown Cairo for 15 days. This was followed by a series of strikes on the sidewalk near the People's Assembly by workers from several public sector institutions demanding their financial rights. While some of these strikes were called off, many continue until now in front of the parliament and have become a near permanent fixture, with sidewalks strewn with strikers' blankets, plastic bags, clothes and other amenities. The sidewalk strikers include a large group of physically disabled people on wheel chairs who demand the right to housing, employment, special services, transportation and healthcare. "The strikes on the sidewalk are a manifestation of the government's failure to address the problem, which is a crisis," Kifaya's general coordinator Abdel-Halim Qandil told Al-Ahram Weekly. Clearly the strike movement is a development the opposition wants to invest in. The presence of dozens of opposition figures at the 2 May strike was "deliberate", according to George Ishaq of the NAC. "The workers are the backbone of our tent in the next stage," he told the Weekly. Strikers from the parliament sidewalk were also present in Sunday's demonstration that witnessed a very high media turnout. Mahrousa Salem, a 30-year-old physically disabled mother who has been on strike for the past 86 days at the parliament sidewalk told the Weekly, "since our demands for basic rights have been ignored by the MPs who see us every day, I needed to come here to make our voice heard. We're not beggars, we're humans and it's a shame that we've become a fixed item on the sidewalk of Egypt's parliament." Following the demonstration, workers and labour activists held a meeting at the Press Syndicate where they decided to wait for President Mubarak's postponed Labour Day speech (due today, Thursday) to decide on their next step regarding demands for a realistic minimum wage. The next day, on 3 May, some 100 political activists, politicians and opposition MPs gathered in Tahrir Square for a planned march to the People's Assembly 300 metres away. The march, originally called for by Muslim Brotherhood MPs and adopted by El-Baradei's NAC, aimed to draw public and media attention to their demands for political reform. But a warning issued by parliament speaker Fathi Sorour to all the MPs who were planning to join the March, to the effect of facing possible arrest and the lifting of their parliamentary immunity, cast a shadow on subsequent events. On Monday morning, dozens of media representatives and some 80 activists gathered in Tahrir Square opposite the Omar Makram Mosque where the proposed march was due to commence at 11am. Soon they ended up in a police cordoned bloc in the public garden facing the mosque after the organisers of the march decided to cancel it. Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan justified this change of plan as an endeavour to avert an expected escalation with security forces adamant on preventing the march. A day before, Interior Minister Habib El-Adli issued a statement saying the ministry had not given permission for the march, which is required under emergency law. The march-turned-protest lasted for more than two hours under a blazing sun and seemed divided between its participants. On one side stood dozens of angry young protesters, mainly from the 6 April movement, chanting slogans against the state of emergency and demanding constitutional amendments to allow for genuine reform. On the other side stood the "elite" — members of El-Baradei's NAC (university professors, doctors, writers, pubic figures and political analysts) and over 30 opposition MPs, watching the demonstration. While chanting protesters sung out, "Egypt is under occupation!" and "We shall march! We shall march against poverty and hunger!" and attempted, several times, to break through the police lines, the latter responding with batons and shields, the political heavyweights opted for making statements to the press. At one point a young protester broke away from the demonstration and shouted: "What are you here for? To be filmed?" According to independent MP Hamdeen Sabahi, founder of the unlicensed pan-Arab Karama (Dignity) Party, who spoke to the Weekly : "These elitist figures are here to demonstrate their presence in the street." Upon cancelling the march, its organisers announced they would send a delegation comprising of participating MPs and some public figures present in the demonstration with a statement of four points (demanding an end to emergency law, the release of Egypt's prisoners of conscience, parliamentary discussion on their draft law on political participation, and the amendment of articles 76, 77 and 88 of the constitution) to speaker Sorour. But Sorour refused to meet with the delegation because it comprised of public figures; he would only meet with MPs. The delegation, too, was cancelled. The march that wasn't drew criticism from all sides, including those who put hope in it happening. Its organisers appeared to put very little effort — if any — into mobilising for the event, provoking questions as to the seriousness of the march. But according to Hassan, the protest scored a victory, because it "seized the right to demonstrate in public again" in face of a ban on street protests since 2006. On the other hand, the presence of many NAC members highlighted the conspicuous absence of its leader, El-Baradei, who is abroad for the third time since he announced the possibility of contesting the 2011 presidential elections. Hassan Nafaa, a founding NAC member and professor of political science in Cairo University, said El-Baradei had "planned commitments" that prevented him from being in Egypt, although "his presence would have definitely made an impact." He added, "political action should continue in his absence."