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Egyptian Uprising Fueled by Striking Workers Across Nation

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Since the popular uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of employees across Egypt have walked out on strike. Their demands range from rising wages to removing corrupt officials affiliated with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat speaks to Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 14, 2011“There is a Pre-History to this Revolt”: As Egypt’s Military Bans Labor Strikes, Mona El-Ghobashy Examines How Egyptian Labor and Social Movements Laid the Foundation for Revolution
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Since the uprising toppled Mubarak, thousands of employees across Egypt have walked out on strike. They include workers from textile mills and a pharmaceutical plant in Alexandria. Employees are also on strike at Cairo’s airports and banks. This is an interview that Anjali Kamat did with a leader of the labor movement.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, we’re turning right now to Khaled Ali to talk about how labor organized.

KHALED ALI: [translated] Strikes across Egypt did not stop after Mubarak’s resignation. On the contrary, the strikes escalated, and new sectors began participating in the strikes, including the police force and bank workers, who protested wage disparities and corruption. The public transport workers started a strike for four days. Medical ambulance workers in the Health Ministry began a strike. In Mahalla, a textile town just north of Cairo, workers came out to demand a minimum wage of 1,200 pounds a month. The average number of strikes taking place from February 12th until the present is between 30 and 60 strikes per day, to the extent that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have issued a communiqué asking strikers to stop walking off the job. So those who were part of the previous regime are now asking strikers to go home and stop striking. Despite the fact that this communiqué was issued last Sunday, strikes have not stopped. There were even strikes the following day.

Many political activists have ended their protest and left Midan Tahrir and settled for the demands of the movement up 'til now for democracy and freedom, and there are even suspicions that some political activists have been sitting with members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, cutting deals behind closed doors. But the success of the revolution for the workers is not simply the departure of key officials from the old regime. Its success means an improvement in their living standards, the existence of social justice and guaranteed steps that their lives will get better in the future. That's why worker protests across different sectors are calling for a removal of corrupt officials in these institutions and companies. And they see the presence of these officials as a continuation of the old regime. The workers’ actions right now are the best means of preserving the gains of the revolution.

ANJALI KAMAT: The role of middle-class youth has been highlighted in this Egyptian uprising that’s taken place. What do you believe to be the role of workers leading up to the uprising, making it possible, and also what role did economic factors play in this uprising?

KHALED ALI: [translated] This is an incorrect analysis of the revolution, a misreading of what happened in the past years. You can’t deny the role of middle-class youth in the revolution, and you can’t deny that youth are the ones who sparked this revolution. But there’s a big difference between those who sparked the revolution and those who continued on with the revolution and are still continuing on until all its demands are met. There is no revolution in the world that doesn’t take place without reasons. And we had many reasons — economic and political and social — which pushed people to take to the streets and remain steadfast for 18 days. I agree that youth played an important role, and I say that this revolution represented the desires of all the Egyptian people across different classes.

When they tried to occupy — when the government forces tried to occupy in Tahrir Square with their camels and their pro-government thugs, the government spread rumors about the protesters in Tahrir Square that they’re taking money from foreign sources and that they’re following foreign agendas. In response, Tahrir Square began to respond, and the middle class was important in this, that we have money, we’re comfortable, and we don’t need money from any foreign sources.

But the workers were part of this revolution, as well. The workers have successfully launched and sustained the largest wave of labor mobilizations this county has seen, from 2004 until 2011. The workers are the ones who brought down the structures of this regime in the past years. They are the ones that have been fighting for independent organizing on the ground, and they’re the ones who created Egypt’s first de facto independent trade union. And they insisted on the right to have pluralistic trade unions, not just unions that are stacked with government supporters. They’re the ones who brought their grievances to the streets. Last spring, workers were protesting in large numbers in front of the upper and lower houses of the Egyptian parliament, bringing their grievances to the streets. Workers laid the ground for the emergence of this revolution, and I believe that any analysis which says otherwise is superficial.

We are in the process of collecting documents about the numbers of people who died and who are injured. Among them — among the questions that we’re asking people is, “Where did the deceased live? Was he a worker, or was he unemployed? And do they work on a temporary basis? Are they government employees? Are they permanent workers? How much was their salary?” Until now, most of the cases we have encountered are cases of people who were poor and lived in poor neighborhoods. They’re the ones who came out and joined these street battles during the revolution. They’re the ones who are not afraid of being shot. They’re the ones who are killed. These people gave their lives without ever claiming that they were the owners of this revolution. We need real documentation to know how this revolution truly succeeded.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Special thanks to Ahmad Shokr for his help in translating, and, of course, to Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat.

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