CAIRO — Here in a nation that long outlawed strikes and largely judged independent unions to be enemies of the state, a juggernaut labor movement is flourishing in the light of the Arab Spring.
The ruling military council, which assumed power after the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, issued a renewed ban on strikes in April. But in recent days, it has been resoundingly defied by empowered labor leaders and burgeoning bands of new Egyptian unionists who are striking in massive numbers not seen here since the first weeks of the revolution.
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.
“The genie is now out the bottle,” said Magda Kandil, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. “Now that fear is gone, the workers are demanding more. It’s become a culture of opportunism where they believe that strikes will result in an economic benefit, and the strikes are becoming more widespread, more difficult to contain. This is not what the economy needs right now.”
Yet for Egypt, the rise of the labor movement marks a revolution within a revolution. The Mubarak government for years recognized only the state-sanctioned General Federation of Trade Unions as the voice of Egyptian labor, an organization that elaborately glorified him at annual meetings and that worked behind the scenes to quell the stirrings of worker unrest.
But independent labor leaders nevertheless operated from the shadows, risking arrest and imprisonment for attempting to organize workers. They burst through the surface in earnest during large-scale — and illegal — strikes by 26,000 textile workers in 2006, which forced the Mubarak government to finally squeak open the door for organized labor.
Nevertheless, by the time Mubarak fell from power, only four independent unions had managed to organize here. Since then, however, the labor movement has undergone an awakening, with no fewer than 130 new unions formed over the past seven months. Everyone from employees of the finance and labor ministries to dock and auto industry workers have organized independent unions.
The change has left Egypt’s ruling military council appearing caught like a deer in the headlights. In March, the council bowed to pressure from the growing labor movement, effectively legalizing independent unions. But the council followed that a month later with a decree criminalizing strikes, thus far using it only to arrest five oil workers on picket lines in June and July, who were slapped with relatively light suspended sentences.
“On the one hand, there is economic panic and their gut instinct is to use repressive means,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt representative for Human Rights Watch. “But there is also a political recognition that they can’t afford to completely crack down on these strikes.”
In July, the government appeared to bow to pressure from labor groups, promising — as nations from Algeria to Saudi Arabia have already done to quell unrest — a hike in salaries. In Egypt’s case, officials vowed a phased-in higher minimum wage for state workers. But a host of fledgling unionists now complain the government has not started rolling out their raises, which are now seen as far too little anyway. Thus, they say, the current wave of strikes.
Few have captured the national attention as much as the strike by teachers, who have demonstrated their strength by forcing the partial or total shutdown of 85 percent of Egypt’s schools.
The school year’s first day of classes has already been delayed by more than a week, adding to a general sense of societal instability. On Saturday, thousands of teachers rallied in front of the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo, a stone’s throw away from Tahrir Square, the cradle of Egypt’s revolution. They are demanding an increase in their current minimum wage, from $62 to $500 a month. But they are also pressing for far-reaching changes in the national curriculum, calling for the teaching of new classes on democracy and human rights.
“The Arab leaders here and elsewhere do not want a free-thinking people who can challenge their will, but that is what the revolution was about,” said Galal Al Shaeief, 47, a Cairo teacher who after 23 years on the job earns $150 a month. “We are here to show them that what has started will not be stopped.”