Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Striking contrast

The proposed strike of 4 May failed, but with government announcements of prices going up, many wish now it hadn't, Dina Ezzat and Dena Rashed report

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Business as usual in downtown Cairo on 4 May while Mubarak toured several factories where he spoke with workers

Business as usual in downtown Cairo on 4 May while Mubarak toured several factories where he spoke with workers

"It is our fault. If we had went on strike 4 May this rise in prices would not have happened," said Ahmed, a 25-year-old Cairo driver.

Ahmed spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly hours after the National Democratic Party (NDP) government got its parliamentary majority to endorse a set of economic measures that increased the price of oil, which has a direct effect on the cost of transportation and an indirect impact on the prices of staple commodities, especially food, and services in general.

The announced economic package is not popular, to say the least. It prompted immediate public anger. Many are now wondering if 4 May was an opportunity missed to pass a message to the government. Individuals who spoke to the Weekly claimed that the government passed a 30 per cent pay rise for all civil servants to contain unrest evident from the 6 April strike.

The willingness of individuals to respond to Weekly questions Monday evening, after the announcement of the rise in prices, was markedly in contrast to the reluctance to speak Sunday morning, the day set for the strike. "Strike? What strike?" was the common response of many across Greater Cairo when asked why they were going about their business as usual.

The date of 4 May was set by a group of young political activists of no particular partisan association. "Keep to your house" was the call made. However, on Sunday morning there did not seem to be that many who obliged. And despite the visible and heavy security presence there was hardly any noticeable sign of political dissent. It was actually rather busier than usual.

"I know nothing about a strike. There was no announcement on TV last night. I sent the kids to school," said Nahed, a banker resident in Mohandessin.

On the eve of the 6 April strike, the Ministry of Interior issued a warning against the public taking part in the strike that was initially promoted by labour activists and then picked up by the now dubbed "Facebook activists". The ministry announcement was repeatedly broadcast on all state-run media, including the widely watched Channel 1 nine o'clock news.

This was not the case with the 4 May strike. The state-run media was instructed, insiders say, to "completely overlook the issue". "We received clear directives to that effect," said one TV editor who asked for her name to be withheld.

The alarming warnings and clear security presence built up on the evening of 5 April were accredited by many commentators for making the 6 April strike a considerable success, many individuals choosing to skip work more out of fear of being caught in potential clashes between activists and security than out of solidarity with the strike to protest against spiralling commodity prices, especially of basic foodstuffs.

On 3 and 4 May, the state played it different ly. Instead of issuing warnings, it broadcast news and analysis on the "unprecedented salaries raise" that President Hosni Mubarak announced in his pre-Labour Day speech 30 April. It also allocated much airtime and column space to celebrating the president's birthday on 4 May. The president himself went on a tour of several factories in Menoufiya where he spoke with workers, attending their shifts and issuing statements.

On 4 May, the nation was still ebullient with news of the salaries raise while others remained shocked by the wave of arrests targeting young men and women involved in calling for the 6 April strike. There were no black flags draped over the balconies and no demonstrations in factories. Rather, there were billboards all over the city carrying the message, "The youth should build, not deconstruct its country's hopes", a message almost identical to that promoted by youth affiliated to the ruling NDP who surged to Facebook in the wake of the 6 April strike.

Government supporters and opponents alike admitted that on 4 May President Mubarak celebrated his 80th birthday with no hint of public contempt. "An aborted strike", "business as usual" and "Egyptians mark Mubarak's birthday with joy" were messages that the press, independent and state-run, carried on 5 May. This was the case despite the announcement made by the outlawed but influential Muslim Brotherhood that it supported the call for the 4 May strike, in contrast to its indifference towards the 6 April strike.

"Well, I did not expect the strike to be [very visible]," said Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. According to Abul- Fotouh, there were many reasons for the 4 May flop. First was its close proximity to the 6 April strike. Second was the public containment exercise of the state in the wake of the 30 per cent increase in salaries. Abul-Fotouh added that the inability of activists to properly promote the 4 May strike was in part a result of harsh security measures, including the arrest of many activists, the suspension of hundreds of thousands of mobile phone lines, and the blocking of several websites, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike the political parties who refrained from endorsing the 4 May strike on the account that it was not organised under the umbrella of national syndicates and unions, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to join what it sensed was the desire of the masses to speak up against social injustice "in a peaceful way" that is consistent with the constitution, "even if still lacking in wide popularity".

For political analyst Diaa Rashwan, Egyptian society has never been consistent in relation to strikes. In January 1977, he argued, there were food riots to protest against increased food prices followed in November by wide, if staged, celebrations of the visit of President Anwar El-Sadat to Jerusalem. Now, however, things may have changed. "It was not in the diction before. Now it is there," he said. "When you talk to the average individual -- say a housewife or an attendant at a car park -- they are familiar with the word," said Rashwan. "It is not just about those who log onto Facebook, despite the significance and influence of the young men and women who mobilise through Facebook," he added.

This attitudinal change has been hailed by many commentators as a positive advance on political passivity. Strikes seem now a political choice that the average citizen -- blue or white collar -- can contemplate and perhaps expect.

Sherine Ahmed, an NDP member of parliament, argues that strikes have positive and negative aspects to them. On the positive end, Ahmed acknowledges the ability of a strike to "draw the attention" of concerned officials to the demands of workers and professionals. On the negative side, Ahmed added, strikes could undermine national security if they undermine productivity or hamper traffic and social discipline.

Earlier in the year, Ahmed recalled, the labourers of Ghazl Al-Mahala "set a good example". Although their strike "slightly disrupted their productivity" it did not cause havoc. "They managed to fulfil their demands for a new head of the board and better pay, without vandalising their workplace." The same, he suggested, applied to the peaceful demonstration property tax workers, also a few months ago.

However, as far as Ahmed is concerned, if any strike, peaceful or not, is deemed by the state to be hazardous to security it should be immediately cancelled. "State security comes first," he said.

The labour law regulates the right of workers and labourers to go on a strike. While emergency law in effect since the assassination of Sadat prohibits the otherwise constitutional right of citizens to assemble for demonstrations, strikes are still seen as a way to protest against injustice.

Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr, a prominent leader of the leftist Tagammu Party, highlighted the surge in the number of strikes since the end of 2005. In 2006, he counts no more than 200 strikes nationwide. "Yet in 2007, 1,000 strikes took place," he asserts.

According to Shokr, the increase is not just in the number of strikes but in the number and scope of individuals who take part in these strikes, demonstrating what he qualifies as a sense of growing frustration over worsening socio-economic conditions -- not just for labourers but for professionals as well. "Prices are endlessly on the rise and salaries are practically stagnant," he said.

"What does the government think the people will do now? Does the government think that it is now inviting people to strike -- not just one but many?" asked Ahmed, the Cairene driver. "Of course there will be strikes and protests after this rise in prices. When and where, I don't know, but they will happen," he added.

At one of Cairo's trendiest cafژs sits a group of young Egyptians sipping their latte and diet cokes. Behind the unruffled look, there was a mood of political engagement. The expensively dressed young men and women were talking of the 4 May strike, and of strikes in general. "If it is for a cause," said Ahmed Said, a 30- year-old engineer, strikes are worthwhile. According to Said, going on a strike is about making a strong demand for justice, sending a message from the people to the government. It is another story whether the government receives or ignores the message, Said argued.

For Said, strikes must be organised. "No group of people can simply decide to go on strike on any given day," he argued. Sporadic and uncoordinated strikes can backfire, as was the case with 4 May, he added. "If it is not collective and well organised it could end up weakening rather than championing the cause."

For political activists who support strikes, it will take practice for Egyptians to develop the right skills in protest. According to Qadri Hefni, professor of political psychology at Ain Shams University, it will also take a change in political culture. Egyptians, he said, would need to get over the notion that strikes and treason are synonymous. If this happens, he argued, effective peaceful strikes could become part and parcel of expanded democratic rights. At any rate, Hefni argued, "people are starting to feel [more comfortable] about participating in a strike."

Hefni distinguishes between different types of protest and the ability of individuals of different socio-economic backgrounds to join them. He argues that a labourer whose entire income is based on daily wages might be reluctant to join a strike that keeps him from making his daily wages, unlike a civil servant. On the other hand, this same labourer may be more inclined to join a demonstration than a white-collar civil servant.

According to Saber Abul- Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood MP, "strikes have a stunning effect as they deliver a strong message to the state that the people are angry because of the tough living conditions, corruption, and the trials of civilians in military courts." This effect, he argued, is won almost as soon as the call for a strike is made public, whether heeded or not.

Farouk El-Ashri of the Nasserist Party, said the rise of the concept of strikes is a clear sign that social injustice has reached an unbearable level. "In the days following the 6 April strike there was a sense, rightly or wrongly, that the government is moving in the direction of acknowledging and addressing the huge social gap between the few excessively rich and the majority of the poor to extremely poor," he argued.

However, for El-Ashri as for others, Monday's economic package, that is likely to be followed by similar "harsh" economic measures, indicates that whatever moves the government took towards social justice were at best cosmetic and temporary. "Therefore, it is only a matter of time before the next strike happens. This as such is a victory achieved for the cause of social justice," he argued, though his party distanced itself from the 4 May strike.

For El-Ashri, strikes are not about "partisan" affiliation. "This is a national issue. The parties could play a role, but it is essentially the people and not the parties," he said. He added: "a strike is not about political opposition to the government, but rather about a societal demand to the government."

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