Emad in IHT: Will Smiles Last for Egyptian Labor?

Our colleague Emad Mekay has a piece on Egyptian labor in today’s International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.

The role of labor was crucial in Egyptians’ popular efforts to oust Hosni Mubarak, perhaps the bale of straw that broke the U.S.-supported dictator’s back. Naturally, organizers and activists are glowing. But will it last?

With continued military rule in Egypt, at least until elections in the fall, the recent kingbreakers find themselves at odds with the newly-elevated junta, who have asked them to calm things down.

Here’s an excerpt of Mekay’s report from Egypt’s textile hub El Mahalla, home to a long-oppressed labor movement:

[Organizer Hamdi] Hussein was all smiles as he announced that he was heading to Cairo to attend a meeting to chart out future labor demands after the stunning success of the Egyptian revolution.

“Yesterday, this meeting would have been secret and I would have been forced to sneak in and out of El Mahalla,” Mr. Hussein said during an interview.

“Now, the labor movement that helped topple Mubarak will take its rightful place in protecting the revolution.”

But will it? This newfound labor empowerment has startled the interim government, which was originally appointed by Mr. Mubarak, and challenges the efforts by the military, which is effectively in charge, to protect Egypt’s existing institutions and return the country to a more normal life.

“All ministers here are displeased with the strikes,” Magdy Radi, the cabinet’s spokesman, said by telephone. “It is hampering our work as a caretaker government. But it is an issue for the supreme council to take care of, not us.”

The military council, despite initial reports that it would move to ban strikes altogether, has so far taken a more measured approach. On Tuesday, it issued a communiqué urging Egyptians to tone down their labor protests, citing the consequences for the economy and the supply of everyday needs.

The new government and the military may have a more profound reason to be worried about a new wave of strikes, which played a critical role in bringing down the Mubarak regime.

Earlier this month, as the world was riveted by the young “Internet generation” demonstrating in huge numbers in Tahrir Square, Mr. Hussein and 20 other labor leaders were busy using their mobile phones to plan a nationwide series of strikes and sit-ins.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

2 Comments

  1. Jon, as you point out this is a decade long malaise in Egypt, I doubt their conditions could be much worse. I imagine this should improve things marginally for Egyptians, far more than they had cause to hope for prior to this month. You will most likely be correct in the short run, but over the longer window, they have more reasons to hope.

  2. It will be little short of a miracle if the Egyptians make the transition to democracy in a few short months. Should they succeed, they will then be faced with the enormous social and economic problems which have plagued Egypt and the Arab world as a whole for generations. One cannot but think that in a year or two the people will find themselves butting their heads against a stone wall.

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