Philip Rizk writes:
When an online petition urged Egyptians to protest on January 25, the call was not only taken up by an internet savvy minority. The demonstrators who took to the streets on that day – many of whom remained there until they forced Hosni Mubarak, the country’s autocratic ruler, to step down – transcended the divisions of class, age, religion and political affiliation. The true force behind the Egyptian people’s uprising rested in its leaderless and spontaneous nature. A widely-felt wound had been poked and festering at the centre of that wound was decades of economic exploitation and corruption made tenable by police violence against any form of public dissent.
One sign held up by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square read: “Tell them to remove the plague and price increases Mubarak.” It was signed: “A citizen that loves Egypt.” That simple message conveyed the essence of the uprising, for the 18 days of protests were, in many ways, the culmination of a wave of much smaller and more localised strikes and demonstrations that had been taking place across the country since 2006.
It all began on December 7, 2006 when workers in the industrial city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra broke the country’s 20-year strike hiatus over the government’s failure to fulfill promises it had made about bonuses. For three days the strikers occupied a factory, calling for the government-backed Labor Federation to be dismantled. The government buckled under the pressure and gave in to the workers’ demands, but the event opened a Pandora’s Box of strikes and protests across the country.
The strikers were responding to the fast-track imposition of neo-liberal economic policies by a cabinet led by Ahmed Nazif, the then prime minister who relentlessly implemented the demands of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These measures included the privatisation of public factories, the liberalisation of markets, decreasing tariffs and import taxes and the introduction of subsidies for agri-businesses in place of those for small farmers with the aim of increasing agricultural exports.
Such economic policies, which are by no means unique to Egypt, are the fruitful soil of neo-colonialism, whereby multi-national corporations are able to capitalise on economies run by regimes that impose low standards of corporate responsibility towards their labour force, have few environmental protection laws and, in the case of Egypt, subsidise natural resources for big industry. This is coupled with the shrinking of the public sector, which is precisely where most of the labour action in Egypt has been concentrated.
These policies benefitted a small Egyptian elite and foreign corporations, while condemning the country’s working class to a new form of labour-slavery – many public sector employees held up their wage slips during protests, showing meagre monthly earnings of $50 to $90 – and the broader population to the consequences of a shrinking public sector and increased commodity prices.
Samir Amin on the Egyptian challenge to neoliberalism
The Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, President of the World Forum for Alternatives, spoke to World Social Forum TV about the situation in Egypt. The interview was recorded on February 7. A partial transcript of Samir Amin’s remarks can be found here.