SUEZ, Egypt — Strikes staged by thousands of Egyptian workers for higher wages and better working conditions in recent months are setting the stage for a possible confrontation between the impoverished laborers and a new president after elections this spring.
The rallies and sit-ins that have crippled the postal service, textile factories and even public hospitals are still fragmented, largely uncoordinated and lack unified demands. But as the cash-strapped government moves to quash labor unrest in places such as Suez, the strikes underscore a social discontent that is still festering among Egypt’s working class and could evolve into a more solid opposition to the military-backed administration.
“Businessmen in this country have sucked the blood of the people — and the one who is responsible is Abdel Fatah al-Sissi,” Ahmed Mahmoud, who heads the Cairo branch of the Independent Union for Public Transport Workers, said of the powerful former defense minister and now presidential hopeful.
Sissi, who spearheaded the coup against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer and recently resigned as military commander to run for the presidency, oversaw in February the mobilization of scores of army bus drivers to thwart a strike led by Mahmoud’s union. Sissi’s allies have included some of the corrupt businessmen and politicians who grew rich under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“The army and police are stronger than us,” Mahmoud, 49, said at a rally held by government postal workers outside the cabinet building in Cairo last month. Police had arrested and detained five postal employees in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, the week before for leading strikes for better pay.
“But our movement will spread in the face of this government,” he said.
Not all of Egypt’s striking workers are as quick to link their bread-and-butter issues in the workplace to a wider political struggle — or even to the shared pains of their fellow laborers.
Scattered strikes led by textile workers in the Nile Delta in the late 2000s laid the groundwork for the anti-regime activism that eventually toppled Mubarak in 2011. Later, sustained labor demonstrations across several industrial sectors also destabilized Morsi’s already embattled administration.
But decades of state control over workers’ unions and political parties with a weak grass-roots presence have hobbled the labor movement’s ability to organize effectively on a national level, activists and experts say.
The state-run Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, founded in 1957, has “always worked as the regime’s arm in suppressing labor strikes” by routinely siding with the government over the workers, said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent activist with Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists movement.
According to Hesham Sallam, co-editor of the Jadaliyya Web site published by the Washington-based Arab Studies Institute, workers’ needs have long been thwarted by regime-friendly opposition parties that claimed to speak for labor but “who sought to keep the workers quiet.”
Just 3.8 million of Egypt’s total workforce of 27 million people belong to the state-run unions, which this week endorsed Sissi's candidacy as “a lifeline for workers.” As a result, “there are still large sections of the working class that are not unionized,” Hamalawy said.
Both public- and private-sector strikers have so far focused their demands on higher salaries, increased hazard pay and, in some cases, implementation of a national minimum wage. In January, the government led by then-Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi failed to make good on its promise to grant all government workers a minimum monthly salary of about $172 — up from $100. Instead, one-third of civil servants received a pay bump.
More than a quarter of Egyptians live under the national poverty line of about $570 in annual income, according to the government’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Over the past three years of political turmoil, prices of basic goods have skyrocketed because of inflation, a sinking Egyptian currency and the depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves.
“We can’t survive through the month,” said Osama Rashed, a 38-year veteran of the postal service who said he receives a monthly salary of $143.
Rashed and his colleagues, who were demonstrating outside the cabinet building on the same day as the transport workers, say the government eats into their paychecks with fees for such things as uniforms, chairs and ceiling fans in the summer — goods that never materialize.
Arrests of workers, while sporadic, have sent some labor leaders underground and have angered their colleagues on the outside.
“The arrests scare the workers, but they also make them more defiant,” Fatma Ramadan, an independent labor activist, said.
In Suez province, a critical industrial center and strategic hub of global maritime trade, the military has been particularly involved in suppressing factory workers’ strikes, labor rights activists say. Those actions could indicate how a military-supported Sissi presidency would deal with the ongoing labor unrest.
In August, military police stormed a worker sit-in at the privately owned Suez Steel Company. The workers accused management of failing to honor an agreement that granted them hazard pay, health care and a share of the company’s profits.
Last month, a senior army commander in Suez helped eliminate the union leadership at a local factory belonging to international ceramics and porcelain producer Cleopatra Ceramics, according to workers.
On March 3, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Shams summoned 23 of the union’s first- and second-tier leaders to the area’s army headquarters and threatened to have Egypt’s secret police investigate them for terrorism if they did not sign resignation letters and leave the company, Cleopatra workers and labor activists said.
Factory owner Mohamed Aboul Enein — and former Mubarak heavyweight ally — had been locked in a years-long struggle with workers over a 2012 agreement for better salaries, overtime pay and food allowances. In a telephone interview, Enein said he was forced to sign the contract under duress, after employees barricaded him inside the factory overnight.
“These people belong to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Enein said of the workers. The Egyptian government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood and declared the group a terrorist organization. But there is no evidence the union was acting on behalf of the Islamist group.
“They always ask for money,” Enein said of the workers. “They are criminals.”
But company labor leaders said Shams’s and Enein’s close advisers threatened to bring the leaders’ wives and children to the military base until they promised to leave. A spokesman for the Egyptian armed forces did not respond to requests for comment.
“They kept saying that if we did not sign, we would go to prison,” said Ayman Nofal, one of the union members who was pushed out. The move has paralyzed worker organizing there, current employees said.
“Like any entity in power, the military does not want strikes,” Ramadan said.
If he becomes president, “Sissi will try to repress the workers, but that means there will be another revolution,” she said. “They want democracy, but they also want their economic rights.”
Sharaf Al-Hourani and Lara El-Gibaly contributed to this report.