Karem Yehia: No dreams for Egypt’s working class

On May 1, 2014 — coincidently, the same month voting is to begin for the presidential elections, scheduled on May 26 and 27 — I was keen to speak with these three workers, who have now reached their 50th year of age

I spent a few hours with Ahmed. He insisted on taking Labor Day off and not going to his job as ticket collector. He was bored, however, because the day went by without any significant events in the streets revealing Egyptian workers’ anger over their living conditions and the diminishing margin of freedoms.

The celebratory rally that we caught up with in downtown Cairo at the statue of Talaat Harb, the symbol of Egypt’s national capitalism, just worsened his discontent. There were only a few dozen participants, while official statistics state that the number of workers in the country is around 23 million.

Ahmed preferred to return to his family — which includes his wife, who does not work, and six children, all living in a modest two bedroom apartment in the Shubra al-Kheima neighborhood north of Cairo — rather than accompany me to the conference at the Trade Syndicate. The conference was co-organized by the Union of Independent Syndicates under the slogan "Union Freedoms = Social Justice.”

Neither of the presidential candidates, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi nor journalist and politician Hamdeen Sabahi, spoke in the conference. During a conference filled with attacks and criticism of the official Trade Union and its leadership, which is appointed by the government, the impending presidential elections were not mentioned, nor was the name of any of the candidates. This, despite the fact that the official Trade Union has endorsed Sisi in the race, continuing in its tradition of supporting the authorities since 1957.

As for Hesham and Ali, they told me over the phone that on Labor Day, they visited the grave of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser that morning, as he is seen as the supporter of workers and the founder of Egypt's modern industry in the 60s. They were satisfied with this visit and did not seek to participate in other events in the streets or in meeting halls.

They had participated in a session of discussion and promises with Sabbahi about two weeks earlier, though. They told me that along with their colleagues, they were still waiting for Sisi's campaign to give them a similar appointment, whether with the field marshal himself or with one of his assistants.

All three workers were born during Nasser's time. The 60s witnessed a combination of economic and social achievements, as well as the construction of a one-party, one-leader state. By 1965, the regime launched a harsh security crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood under the pretext that it was a terrorist organization, exactly as is the case today.

I tried to find an explanation for the differences in attitude among the three workers towards Nasser, who has become a symbol for championing the poor and national independence — even if the former president had in fact hurt that very independence with the defeat of 1967 and Israeli’s subsequent occupation of Sinai.

I ended up attributing this difference to Hesham and Ali’s dream of reclaiming the right to work in their factories, which owe a debt of gratitude to Nasser's development of the public sector. The Steam Boilers Company was established in 1962, and at the beginning of 60s Tanta Flax and Oil Company, established by Levantian businessmen in 1954, was nationalized and expanded.

Both companies later went through the process of privatization, which was tough on the workers, and which ended with Ali being forced to quit in 1997 in exchange for a compensation of LE7,000 (less than US$3,000 according to the exchange rate at the time).

Hesham also ended up unemployed, working different day jobs here and there after he was forced to retire in 2008. The fact of the matter is that Hesham and Ali have joined 12 million irregular laborers — laborers without rights. These constitute 55 percent of Egyptian workers, according to Ministry of Planning estimates. Irregular labor does not provide Hesham and Ali with any set income to help provide for their families. Hesham has a wife and a child in high school, and Ali is also married with three children — the eldest is an unemployed graduate of law, and the youngest in the first year of primary school.

Ahmed supports a wife and six children — the youngest 3 years old and the oldest 15 years old — with a monthly income of LE600. His rent costs LE300, and the other LE300 goes to installments and interest on loans.

After living through a year of ousted President Mohamed Morsi's rule, in which the workers did not gain anything, Ahmed no longer trusts the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he shows noticeable sympathy with the victims of the demonstrations against the military’s removal of Morsi from power on July 3, 2013, and finds the collective death sentences against Brotherhood members ghastly. He thus appears to be concerned with political and public freedoms.

Ahmed and his colleagues in the Public Transportation Authority organized a strike in February to demand the implementation of a governmental decree setting the minimum wage at LE1200 (US$170), and other economic and social demands.  Also in February, Hesham, Ali and their colleagues picketed at the headquarters of the official Trade Union, demanding that their respective companies resume operations and workers be allowed to return to their work.

What were the results? None of the demands have been realized yet. The strike ended after the Armed Forces, led by Sisi in his previous role as defense minister, deployed a convoy of buses to transport passengers through the streets of Cairo. And the demonstration was crushed after the leaders of the official union, which supports Sisi, pushed thugs to chase out the striking workers from the union headquarters.

Despite all that, it will a matter of public record that February 2014 represented an escalation in social and labor protests, after eight months of recession starting from July 2013.

According to Al-Mahrousa Center statistics, February alone witnessed around 1,044 protests, including strikes, rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, closure of buildings and human chains. Foremost among the demands was the implementation of the minimum and maximum wages, and the termination of corruption inside the companies and authorities. Protesters also called for the re-operation of public sector companies that have been restored from the corruption of privatization.

Some equally important demands weren’t cited, such as the issuance of a labor freedoms law and the amendment of the unjust Labor Law which is biased against labor rights.

This escalation is contrary to the official trade union’s announcement in March 2014 of a year-long truce to help ensure a peaceful transition period in the wake of July 3. Such social and labor protests have become a bad omen for the stability of the regime. During the year of Morsi’s administration, the number of protests peaked at around 4,500, far more than the 3,817 workers’ protests documented for the entire decade before Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, between 2000 and 2010. The peak of these protests was in 2007, in which 692 protests took place, according to a study by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights in Cairo.

This clear escalation should firmly situate workers issues on the agendas of the presidential candidates. At the time of the writing of this article, Sisi and Sabbahi’s electoral platforms were yet to be released.

But more important is Ahmed, Hesham and Ali’s understanding of these candidates, of the electoral process as a whole and what it represents for the future of economic and social rights in Egypt.

Ahmed’s position appears to be the most radical and decisive — he says that he will not go to the ballot box again. He went to the polls five times after the January 25 revolution — for the March 2011 and December 2012 constitutional referendums, the parliamentary elections in November 2011, the Shura Council elections in 2012, and the presidential elections in May-June 2011. In each case, the vote was overturned. And more importantly, in each of these cases casting his vote did not translate into improved living conditions, or improved conditions for the workers and the poor.

So Ahmed chose to boycott the elections this May. He no longer trusts the political process. He also does not trust the seriousness of the presidential elections, calling them a performance, when everyone knows that Sisi will win. He describes Sisi as a top army official biased towards businessmen and supported by Mubarak’s men. He goes so far as to call the Sabbahi an “extra” in that performance, even though he continues to respect him as a politician who cares about the poor. Ahmed told me that he had voted for Sabbahi in the first round of the presidential elections in May 2012, while he had to vote for Morsi in the run offs.

As for Ali and Hesham, they never told me if they intended to boycott the elections. In 2012, Ali voted just like Ahmed — first going for Sabbahi, and then Morsi in the run offs, while Hesham voted for the ill-fated leftist candidate Aboul Ezz al-Hariry in the first round, and then former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in the second.

Both Ali and Hesham both agreed they must be careful about declaring their support for either candidate. They are monitoring the behavior of both, and the promises they make to the workers’ delegations that negotiate with them. They have not lost hope in the birth of a leader who would champion their rights.

But their hopes are marred by doubts. When I asked Ali if Sabbahi or Sisi could get the Steam Boilers to work again, he said, “I hope. I hope. People have no trust anymore. But its important that those who make promises fulfill them. We met Hamdeen and we’re waiting to meet Sisi. Hamdeen is a Nasserist, and he’s supposed to be close to Nasser. Sisi says he is a Nasserist and Nasser’s family supports him, and so does the Nasserist Party. I hope that whoever rules can end the corruption that has spread in the country like cancer.”

Hesham’s answer does not differ much from Ali’s. But he appears more careful when he says, “We got promises from Hamdeen and we are waiting for Sisi’s reply. Most probably we will leave those among us free to choose whom to vote for.”

But Hesham also rushes to say, “What we want are policies in reality. There’s no doubt that we are afraid of electoral promises that are never fulfilled. Honestly, we are used to receiving promises that are never fulfilled.”

Before speaking to Ahmed, Hesham and Ali on Labor Day, I had already met with them about a week prior, along with several others, for a round table discussion about workers’ conditions at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights in Cairo.

The presidential elections were not discussed in that meeting, but these workers were concerned with establishing a new movement called The Struggle of Egypt’s Workers. There was a belief that protests have slowed down, but would return stronger than before, since no leader, party or movement has appeared on the horizon with solutions to the growing economic and social problems.

The achievement of social justice was one of the slogans of the January 25 revolution, even though the Egyptian working class does not aspire to reach such a heaven. Recalling Nasser, who declared May 1 an official holiday 50 years ago, is not devoid of symbolism, but it is a symbolism that does not unite everyone.