|Workers demand a raise in the monthly minimum wage from about US$70 to US$200 [Mona Dohle/Al Jazeera]
Red flags were waving eagerly as thousands of Egyptians celebrated Labour Day at Tahrir Square. Workers from factories across Egypt, the newly founded Federation of Independent Labour Unions, as well several leftist parties rallied to celebrate their new freedoms.
Ahmed El-Borai, Egypt's minister of manpower and immigration, announced last month that Egyptian workers will have the right to establish independent labour unions. This marks an unprecedented level of organisational freedom in Egypt's long history of labour struggle. However, despite the first Labour Day celebration after the resignation of Mubarak, many challenges for workers remain.
While demonstrators shouted enthusiastically, many bystanders felt confronted with an unfamiliar idea. "What is this communism, is it a religion?" asked an older man sceptically. However, after he learned about the demands of the protest, he appeared to embrace them zealously.
Although leftist groups have been a central part of the opposition movement, it is unique that they can rally so openly for their cause. Noha Wagdi, a pharmacy student, followed the developments with interest. "I think I am rather leftist, and I am here to inform myself about the political parties so that I can decide which party I would like to join," she explained. Noha will have a wide variety of parties to choose from, as the number of socialist parties is growing rapidly.
Among the parties present at the rally were the Workers Democratic Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Egyptian Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialists. One of the key issues of debate concerns the role of the state within economic development. Whereas the Workers Democratic Party pledges for the re-nationalisation of large parts of the formerly privatised industry, others are demanding a limited role of the private sector in autonomous development.
However, beyond those abstract debates, many workers are, above all, interested in an immediate improvement of their living conditions. One of the key demands is to raise the monthly minimum wage, currently set at 400 Egyptian Pounds (about US$70) to 1200 Egyptian Pounds (about US$200). They wanted wages to be tied to the rising inflation, with protesters demanding a maximum salary set at about 15 times the minimum wage.
These demands stand in the tradition of Labour Day, which is celebrated to commemorate a general strike in the US in 1886, starting on May 1. The strike was largely led by immigrant workers from Germany, Ireland, Bohemia, France, Poland and Russia. It was part of a wider series of uprisings inspired by the Paris Commune in 1872. One of the slogans at that time was "bread or blood". The protesters got the latter, as the state clamped down on the movement - killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Exactly 125 years after the US army brutally crushed the uprisings, the key demand of the workers in 1886, "a day on which to begin to enjoy eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will", has still not materialised for many Egyptian workers.
While the radicalisation of millions of Egyptians during the revolution offers an unprecedented opportunity for the left to mobilise, it also struggles to connect with the large sections of protestors that remain deeply distrustful of political organisations.
"Neither the government nor the political parties, the revolution is from the people" is one of the chants that were shouted yesterday. A group of protesters attacked the construction of a large stage that was provided by the Labour Union for musical entertainment. Many people felt alienated from an organisation providing relatively expensive infrastructure. Tensions were eventually eased, but the incident seemed to illustrate a gap between the organised left and many newly radicalised demonstrators, a divide which has yet to be bridged.
Salma Said, an activist involved in the Mayday mobilisation, concluded: "I think this is a good lesson for politicians to be closer to the streets. When we are talking about workers we need to look like workers, we have to be workers."