The fast-spreading strikes amount to a serious test for the interim government over the parameters of freedom of expression in the new Egypt. The strikes are threatening the fragile economy, described by observers as a ticking time bomb, with the government bleeding cash reserves and Egypt losing foreign investment. Economists are warning against granting broad public-sector raises to satisfy labor demands given that Egypt’s gaping budget deficit is now as large as the one in troubled Greece.
But the military council is being forced to calculate whether a crackdown on the strikes would simply ignite more unrest, while lending truth to charges that little has changed since Mubarak fell in February.
Still, observers say, the fact that such a diverse wave of strikes is happening at all speaks to just how much Egypt has already changed since the Mubarak years, when attempts to unionize were largely, and often brutally, suppressed.
Now, doctors are staging sit-ins at hospitals, demanding pay raises and a trebling of public health spending. Teachers, on strike for the first time since 1951, are shutting down tens of thousands of schools, calling for the ouster of the education minister — one of the many remnants of the Mubarak era — and a ninefold hike in pay.
Transit workers have partially stalled the bus fleet in this teaming capital of 23 million, calling for a 200 percent pay raise. Dockworkers stopped work at the key port of Ain Al Sokhna, run by Dubai port operator DP World, disrupting Egypt’s vital sea links to the Far East. Further unnerving jittery foreign investors, the nascent labor movement appears to be spreading to private factories and farms, fueled by the breaking of a barrier of fear that served to curb union activity here for decades.
“This is a social revolution to complete the political revolution,” said Abdel Aziz El Bialy, deputy director of the Independent Teachers’ Union, which drew thousands of educators to the streets of downtown Cairo on Saturday. “The government must now meet our goals of a just salary.”
The labor unrest here underscores the duality of the revolutions that have upended the Arab world with uprisings sparked as much by a hunger for economic change as a thirst for political freedom and democracy. In Egypt, it is becoming increasingly clear that the interim government — along with a new, democratically elected one that would follow after promised elections — now faces a massive challenge: A flood of heightened economic expectations that defy the reality of the nation’s severely stretched coffers and stagnant economy.