Friday, June 13, 2008

Strikes in Egypt - Gaining Ground or Losing Out?

There seems to be two distinct views of the recent waves of strikes in Egypt. One side cites the relatively low turnout of the planned strikes that took place several weeks ago. This side also points to the decline of the public sector (where most union activity historically took place) and the resentment of the official state-sponsored labor unions run by discredited regime touts. The private sector, so goes the reasoning, is much less amenable to unionization not only because it can be grounds for dismissal, but also because these factories are often isolated (far away from city centers where political activity is at its highest) and smaller than their public sector predecessors. They also claim that the government has given in to public sector strikers (usually for an increase in wages) in attempts to mollify the workers before the plant is privatized - thus paving the way for the disappearance of the unions altogether.

The alternative view is that the wave of strikes is something new (not seen since the middle of the century) and combined with the bread riots and the skyrocketing cost of living, presents a generally new direction in state-labor relations. The decline in standards of living, combined with the increasing poverty level (from 16% in 2000 to almost 20% in 2005), the police presence and repression of political dissent, and the regime's unpopular policy to police the border with Gaza (to buttress the Israeli regimes blockade of Palestinians) seems enough to spark major social unrest, whether in the form of labor strikes or protests with the main political opposition, the Muslim Brothers.

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