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Egyptian regime: 'Scared that independent unions will succeed; scared a revolution will happen'
ONE OF the most important recent developments in the struggle of Egyptian workers for decent living standards and democratic rights was the formation of the first independent trade union (syndicate) for over 50 years, last December. A leading member of the new union of property (real estate) tax collectors, spoke to the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI).
"THERE ARE 55,000 property tax collectors, in every city and village. The official government union for public sector employees did not work for the workers, just its leaders' personal interests. We felt we couldn't fix the problem with the government union and make the leaders talk about our problems and rights.
"In 2007 we sent a message to every city and state. 15 agreed to be leaders of a strike committee. We did training and made a network, so that if the government arrested strike leaders there would be three or four others ready to step into their place.
"The strike started in September 2007 and 90% of the government's property tax collection stopped. In December, 5,000 strikers a day staged a sit-in outside the Ministry building in Cairo, which lasted 13 days. Strikers from different parts of the country took part in shifts. We caused no damage in the streets and gave no excuse to the police to arrest us. People living in the street gave water and food to the strikers. After the strike finished the workers gave the people a gift for the help they had received.
"Every evening there was a meeting to talk about the strike and discuss what was to be done the next day. One delegate from every city attended. Negotiators played a game with the government minister, telling him we needed to talk to all the leaders to settle, and then advising the meeting not to settle. In the end, the strike won a 325% pay rise.
"Every leader wanted to follow this by building an independent trade union. Since then, one leader from Mansoura has rejoined the government union, but another has stepped into his place.
"The government tax collectors' union has nine offices in 26 cities. We have one small office, but people talk to us in every city. We have over 30,000 members. The government union now has 4,500. Half of them are leaving to join us. The other half want to leave but have been threatened with losing their jobs if they do.
"There haven't been free trade unions in Egypt since the 1920s. The government philosophy has been to build unions to control the workers and so they've not allowed independent unions to start. They are scared more independent unions will succeed. They are scared a revolution will happen."
The interviewee agreed with the CWI that a political party to represent workers is needed in Egypt:
"We want to start a political party to join independent unions, students and farmers. Workers want a good salary, good health service and the right to be free; 80% of workers want socialism but don't know it.
"We've done the first step. We want change from the bottom to the top - not from the top to the bottom. The government unions and the state security forces try to break us to make the President safe. We are not scared of the police and security forces. Hosni Mubarak wants to stay in power with his son following on. Independent unions are a problem for them."
Doctors protest against low pay
DOCTORS PROTESTED outside the Ministry of Finance in Cairo on 31 March after the government broke a promise to raise their pay. The basic pay for a newly qualified doctor is only LE250 a month (US$44) while a consultant gets US$250 a month. To be able to live, they have to work long hours in private practice - often a 16-hour day. Many doctors are demanding a basic wage of LE1,200.
After protests last year, prime minister Ahmed Nazif promised a pay rise in two instalments. Some doctors have received the first, but the government now says that due to the world economic situation, it does not have the funds to pay the rest.
The doctors' syndicate (official trade union) is led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Their strategy is to ask for gradual pay rises until an acceptable level is reached. Other doctors on the protest, from the group Doctors Without Rights, felt the MB leadership were just organising a token protest and that strike action for the minimum of LE1,200 was needed.
One doctor spoke to the CWI about the general situation: "In 2005 there were lots of movements. Kefaya ('Enough') was launched as a broad democracy campaign. The government held a referendum for constitutional changes which were very restrictive. It was the first time in nearly thirty years that there had been such protests on the streets, under the umbrella of Kefaya. This ended in 2006 after the protests by judges. Mubarak was re-elected. The movement went into hibernation.
"It started again in 2007/08 with strikes by workers and movements of the professions, such as tax collectors, doctors and pharmacists. Doctors wanted to strike last year but the syndicate didn't approve. In 2004/05 more of the protests were with general demands - against the inheritance of power by Mubarak's son, Gamal. Now they are more related to economic questions.
"The protests have been quite successful in bringing out the difference between the professions and the government, but limited as to real change. There are barely 50 doctors here today, with five trucks of security forces (about 120 men) intimidating the protesters. The idea of resisting the state is quite scary. Doctors will be questioned by their hospital managers when they return about why they went on the protest."
In The Socialist 8 April 2009:
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news
Socialist Party workplace news