On Friday morning, the “Day of Leaving” began in Cairo as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahir Square to demand that President Hosni Mubarak leave office. The crowd was made up of many ordinary Egyptians, who before last week’s demonstrations had never been involved in politics or mass political action.
But many of the protestors had taken to the streets before. There were young people, who belong to the April 6 Youth Movement, who three years ago led a general strike “to protest deteriorating living conditions,” that mobilized tens of thousands in Cairo and places like Mahalla, Egypt’s industrial center.
There were feminists like Nawal El Saadawi, who returned from exile to be with the people in Tarhir Square and who told Democracy Now, “we are calling for justice, freedom, equality, and real democracy and a new constitution with no discrimination between men and women (or) between Muslims and Christians.”
And there were union members, who just six days ago formed an independent trade union confederation, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, whose members called for a general strike and told workers to form workplace committees.
“The labor movement is the heart and soul of the Egyptian people’s revolution,” said a statement from the Center Trade Unions and Workers Services, a worker center that provides legal aid and advice to the new confederation.
Two of the unions at the center of the new independent confederation are public worker unions: the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA), which in 2008 led a successful strike and became the first independent union since the 1950’s to be recognized by the government, and the General Union of Health Technicians, which became Egypt’s second independent union last year. Their independent status was challenged unsuccessfully by the old labor confederation, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which has remained loyal to President Mubarak.
But many of the unions that formed the new confederation have no legal status and are made up of rank-and-file workers who organized a wave of unauthorized strikes and labor protest during the last decade.
Between 2004 and 2008 more than 1.7 million Egyptian workers participated in more than 1,900 worker protests such as strikes, sit-ins, gatherings, and demonstrations.
These rank-and-file actions became more intense at the end of the decade as economic conditions of the working class deteriorated. According to Joel Beinin, author of Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, a wave of strikes beginning in 2007 and continuing through 2009 “spread from their center of gravity in the textile and clothing industry to encompass building materials workers, transport workers, the Cairo underground Metro workers, food processing workers, bakers, sanitation workers, oil workers in Suez and many others.”
These rank-and-file actions were spawned by President Mubarak’s neoliberal economic policies that weakened job security by accelerating the pace of privatization and promoting the use of temporary workers.
Workers wages were also kept low to attract foreign investment. Before the wave of labor protests began, the average worker wage in the manufacturing sector was $44.50 per month; in the public sector, it was $75 per month.
The strikes and demonstrations resulted in some gains, but the economic situation for most Egyptians remains grim. “More than 40 percent of all Egyptians live at or near the poverty line,” Beinin writes. “The price of food has skyrocketed. Consequently, the wages of most blue and white-collar workers are insufficient to sustain a family. The cutbacks in government social spending have shredded the social safety net. . . What is left is an authoritarian kleptocracy”–which is why the people of Egypt have made today President Mubarak’s Day of Leaving.