Egypt moves towards austerity, as labour battles flare

October 1, 2012
Egyptian transport workers on strike.

Egypt is being hit by a strike wave as the government comes under pressure to push austerity measures. However, the protests getting the most international attention are the ones against The Innocence of Muslims film.

Like countries across the world, Egypt Islamaphobic film. But the Egyptian protests, which targetted the US embassy, took on a different dynamic due to the revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The protests lasted for several days, with many skirmishes occurring with police and the army. The protests were believed to be originally called by the Islamic fundamentalist Salafaists but also involved football “ultras”. These are groups of mostly unemployed young men who fanatically support particular football teams.

The ultras, who fought off police attacks during the uprising that overthrew Mubarak, have continued to battle police. The New York Times said on September 20: “Eyewitnesses report seeing soccer fans and young radicals among [the protesters], which may explain why, amid the religious slogans graffitied on the walls of the embassy, are the initials “A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards).”

The protests involved police repression, but were not put down nearly as harshly as they were in other countries. As a result, on September 11 protesters were able to breach the walls of the embassy, tear down the US flag and replace it with a black flag with the words: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”

Soon after the protests died down, Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, from the Muin which he said: “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

Morsi added: “As long as peace and justice are not fulfilled for the Palestinians, then the [1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel] treaty remains unfulfilled.”

US president Barack Obama told the television network Telemundo on the 12th of September that ""I don't think that we would consider [Egypt] an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy.”

Despite this, the US government is proposing a US$1 billion debt write off for Egypt. The US is pressing Egypt to improve its relationship with Israel as part of the deal.

The US, which lost a strong ally when Mubarak fell, wants to ensure that Egypt can be relied upon to not threaten Israel and US interests in the region. For its part, the Egyptian government desperately needs money to deal with a worsening economic situation.

In August, Morsi requested a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is asking for austerity in return.

The Digital Journal said: "The IMF are concerned to ensure that Egypt will adopt and implement a serious austerity programme in order to reduce the deficit. Such a programme would inevitably result in public expenditure cuts and rises in energy costs."

Egypt's debt levels stand at over $200 billion.

All of this is occurring in the context of a workers' movement in Egypt that is becoming more assertive.

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights counted 300 protests occurring in the first half of September. It said most were to “demand better living and working conditions, long-term contracts and appointments”.

The latest strike wave has been widespread and involved a wide range of different sectors. Of the 300 protests, 61 were by factory workers, 41 by teachers and 38 by government workers.

Albawaba reported on September 17: “Egypt saw a fresh wave of strikes on Sunday as transport and education sector employees downed tools to push for financial and administrative reform.

“In separate bouts of industrial action, workers at the Cairo Transportation Authority (CTA) and non-academic staff at universities across Egypt walked off the job.”

A top-ranking official from the Muslim Brotherhood's political party described the strike by public transport workers as “treason to the country”.

Doctors are planning to go on strike. Ahram Online reported: “The major demands include increasing health appropriations to 15 per cent of the state budget, providing better health services to citizens, ensuring police guard health facilities as well as higher pay.”

To deal with the rise of an independent labour movement, the government is proposing strict repressive laws restricting unions. The draft laws have been leaked to state TV. By law, only one union committee would be allowed in each workplace or factory.

Brotherhood officials argued that allowing more than one union committee would serve to divide the ranks of Egypt’s trade union unity.

The law would deal a significant blow to independent trade unions, which have begun to flourish with the fall of Mubarak.

Mohamed Abdeen, executive board member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said: “The Brotherhood may strive to maintain one monolithic trade union federation, because in this way it is easier to monopolize and manipulate the union movement for their benefit, to shape it according to their own political interests, just like [former President Hosni] Mubarak’s party did.”

The old, corrupt state-sponsored trade unions organised under the banner of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) continue to exist. The proposed law seek to empower them. In return, the federation has promised to suspend all strikes for a year.

However, in its 55 year existence, the ETUF has supported only two strikes. All the current strikes have been organised independently.

Economic justice seems to be moving to centre stage as the next struggle for the revolution. For now, Morsi and the Brotherhood remain popular. A recent poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research showed Morsi's approval rating at 80%.

If, however, Morsi goes through with plans for austerity and tries to and repress dissent, as he seems intent on doing, then this support could rapidly fall.

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