|At times some of Cairo’s poorest families have had to resort to living in cemeteries [GALLO/GETTY]|
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.
Neo-liberalism and crony-capitalism
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.
Two examples highlight the impact of this coupling of neo-liberalism and crony-capitalism in Egypt.
According to economist Ahmed Al-Naggar of the Al-Ahram Strategic Studies Center, the Egyptian government spends just 1.4 per cent of its national annual budget on health care in comparison with a global average of 5.8 per cent. This translates into dramatically underpaid public sector medical staff and extremely poor conditions in public health care facilities. Consequently, the majority of Egyptians, who cannot afford private medical care, are left with practically no health care to speak of.
Meanwhile, the 2004 cabinet implemented a tax cut – from 42 per cent to 20 per cent – for the highest earners. This while the average private sector worker earns just $120 to $400 a month in exchange for six day working weeks and 12 hour working days.
The 2006 labour strike was the first offensive against this previously unchallenged pillar of corrupt political power. But by September 2007, the labour action had begun to take on a more political bent, with some of the strikers publicly denouncing the president.
In 2008, the government succeeded in foiling further mass labour action in El-Mahalla El-Kubra by co-opting or intimidating a majority of the independent labour leaders. But the example set by the strikers had already spilled over to the citizens of the town and on April 6, 2008 a protest was sparked by rocketing food prices.
Fearing labour action, the government had virtually besieged the city with security forces. When a police officer assaulted a woman in the city centre, protests broke out which lasted for days and were only quelled by extreme police force, mass arrests and the use of government-hired thugs to loot and burn public institutions with the aim of sowing division among the protesters.
A leaked classified document, published on Wikileaks, from the US embassy in Cairo entitled “Mahalla riots: Isolated incident or tip of the iceberg?” reveals US concerns over the protests and fears that they might impact the implementation of a neo-liberal economic model in the country: “Another result of Mahalla is that Mubarak will even more strongly resist both economic and political reform initiatives … We are also hearing that unrest over prices has strengthened the security ministers in the cabinet in resisting privatisation and other efforts towards liberalisation.”
What started with workers in El-Mahalla El-Kobra soon expanded to include students, health workers and lawyers across the country. The protesters’ grievances included economic exploitation, corruption and police impunity – the latter again coming to the fore in June 2010, when police officers beat 28-year-old Khaled Said to death in Alexandria.
During one period in early 2010, sit-ins around the parliament in downtown Cairo lasted for weeks. At first the government used these to highlight widespread freedom of speech, only to later have the police violently clamp down on the protesters and ban any further show of public dissent at the site.
Whether or not it has been directly articulated, the recent demonstrations on Egypt’s streets are in large part a protest against crony-capitalism driven by the agenda of neo-colonial economic institutions. The protests are a denunciation of capitalism and the political suppression required to impose it.
But as the Supreme Military Council seeks to re-impose “stability” by, for example, banning labour strikes, Egyptians must be alert to the alarm bells that are ringing. The military, which has played its hand with great care throughout the protests – winning the trust and respect of many of the demonstrators – receives an annual $1.3bn in aid from the US, the same country that has been pushing the implementation of the economic model that has been so damaging to Egyptians.
The demonstrators must not now be fooled into believing that overthrowing the face of a corrupt and repressive regime is sufficient. They must prevent the military from propping up an economic order that only benefits the few and can be maintained only through iron-fisted rule.
Philip Rizk is an independent filmmaker who is currently based in Cairo, Egypt. He recently completed a documentary on the food price crisis in Egypt. He blogs at www.tabulagaza.blogspot.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.