Transportation strikes force Egypt's military to get behind the wheel

Strikes by Egypt's powerful labor movement pushed the military to offer bus service – and may have driven mass cabinet resignations this week.

By , Correspondent

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    This Feb. 15 strike was just the most recent in a series of strikes by workers in Mahallah, north of Cairo, demanding a national minimum wage for Egypt. Labor unrest is a growing challenge for the country's rulers.
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Labor strikes across Egypt have piled pressure on the interim government, highlighting the serious economic problems that the next president will have to tackle.

This week, a transportation strike led the military to man public buses to prevent Cairo from grinding to a standstill. Khaki-clad soldiers were drafted in to drive the white vehicles, in what the army's spokesman described as an attempt to "decrease the suffering of the citizens." 

Around 100,000 public sector workers, including textile workers, doctors, and garbage collectors, have staged strikes this year, most calling for a minimum wage to be rolled out across both the public and private sector. 

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Egypt’s labor movement has grown in power over the past decade – a general strike called during the final days of the 2011 revolution hastened the end of former President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. Economists say that economic problems run so deep that the next government, due to be elected this spring and likely heading by popular strongman defense minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el Sisi, is unlikely to be able to satisfy the mounting demands – an end to corruption, nepotism, and low pay.

The latest wave of strikes is one among several pressures bearing down on Egypt and may have contributed to the mass resignation of the interim cabinet this week. The strikes are a symptom of growing economic pain for millions of Egyptians that the next government will be hard pressed to improve.

“The cabinet didn’t resign, they escaped,” says Aly Fotouh, a strike leader at Cairo’s public transport authority. “They had promised things that they couldn’t achieve." 

In a defensive resignation statement on Monday, outgoing Prime Minister Hazem el Beblawi implied that the government's failures were not solely the fault of politicians. “It is time we all sacrificed for the good of the country," he said.

Striking workers have been quick to take credit for Beblawi’s downfall, but many also say he is ducking his responsibilities by heading for the door. Fotouh, like many of Cairo’s bus drivers, is angry that most of Egypt’s workers will not have access to a new minimum wage trumpeted by the new government. The average monthly income of Cairo's bus drivers can be as low as $86, strike leaders estimate.

Rolled out in January, the minimum wage – roughly $172 per month – has only been allocated to around a third of public sector employees, and doesn't affect the majority of the country’s 27 million workers, most of whom are employed in the informal sector.

Even those who have been awarded the new wage say it is too low. The sum of $172 was first demanded in 2008, and has not been increased to reflect steep increases in prices. There are also questions about whether the increase is sustainable: its allocation in next year’s budget is entirely funded by aid from sympathetic Gulf states.

“The government continues to fail to address the grievances of the public, and this view is reinforced by the rapid increase in the number of labor strikes and protests recently – all of which are exacerbated by other problems such as fuel shortage, power cuts, and security concern,” says Moustafa Bassiouny, an economist at the Cairo-based Signet Institute.

Protests and strikes had already doubled under the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi, according to statistics from the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. At one point, even performers at the Cairo opera house went on strike.

“Those grievances were made even worse still when…  doctors, amongst others, saw the state increase salaries and hazard pay to policy and army personnel while ignoring the rest of the population’s wage demands," Mr. Bassiouny says.

The military maintains a privileged position in Egypt's economy, something widely cited as a major impediment to the achievement of social justice for Egypt’s workers. The military's role in mitigating the effects of the drivers strike did not go unnoticed in the garages.

“The army are trying to help the people, and that is a patriotic act. But I wish they would try to help the workers as well,” says Fotouh.

Analysts predict that the next government, most likely headed by a military man, will respond weakly.

“The government will likely approach this issue in the same way they have in the past, which is to concede to some demands and ask the workers to suspend their strikes,” says Karim el Assir, the Signet Institute’s political analyst. The partially rolled out minimum wage was a demand of striking Mahalla textile workers, back in 2006. Company bosses have often threatened striking workers with pay cuts or job losses.

He predicts that "band-aid" temporary solutions will be favored over the deep-rooted change that is needed, but would be unpopular in the short term. 

Any future attempts at change will also be limited by the weak economy. Egypt's economy has nose-dived in the years since the 2011 revolution, and sporadic unrest has repeatedly derailed tentative steps toward recovery.

So while strikes look set to play a destabilizing role in Egyptian politics for some time to come, the country’s emboldened workers remain hopeful about their power.

“We win concessions each time… but the root causes of these problems do not change,” says Abdallah Hamam, a textile worker from Mahalla. “We only ever win on an incremental level.”

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