A Democratic Egypt: Worker Justice and Civilian Rule
After months of good-faith reforms and patience, the drama is back in Egypt's Tahrir Square as protesters are preparing for a potential showdown with the state's military rule. The movement, among other things, is demanding an end to military rule -- a more radical call that reflects both the frustration with the status quo and the hope for a better way.
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Two weeks ago, at the "Day of Persistence," Egypt saw its largest resurgence of public protest since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February. The nation-wide protests show Egyptians camping out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, staging sit-ins and blocking traffic in Alexandria, and threatening to shut down Suez's tunnel access to Sinai. So why are the people confronting -- albeit nonviolently -- an interim government that has promised elections and a new constitution? A glance at the collective demands drafted in Tahrir Square make clear that the movement's demands -- both political and economic -- have not progressed much under the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The political demands involve fair, civilian trials for the hundreds of #Jan25 supporters who are imprisoned and/or sentenced by military courts post-Mubarak. Related is the demand for accountability for police-sponsored murders of activists, indictments of the Mubarak regime's leadership, and the replacement of current key political leaders with civilians. Less politically-oriented -- but garnering more attention despite its lack of specificity -- is the demand for economic reform. Central to the importance of new economic policy, no doubt, are Egypt's vibrant labor unions that have found themselves under increased scrutiny and criticism by government officials and members of the Egyptian liberal class. The Mubarak regime lost its grasp when a general strike swept across Egypt. Egyptian workers were celebrated for their part in the movement to topple Mubarak. But now Egypt's workers are catching heat from some compatriots for their continued protests that demand economic justice and workers' rights, as explained in this news article:
"There is total class warfare going on in Egypt right now that I don't even think [the liberal movements] can see," says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University. "If middle upper class, urban people in Cairo and Alexandria get some of their demands met, they could care less about minimum wage, or the fact that the healthcare system is complete crap," he says of the competing array of post-revolutionary demands. "The dominant discourse that's coming out on TV is that it's not the right time to protest for these things. Like 'You shouldn't have a living wage right now, you're being greedy.
There is little debate that Egyptian workers -- both organized and unorganized -- wield tremendous power for the political and economic future of the country. The Christian Science Monitor reports that:
The labor movement, at a time of populist economic anger and, could become one of the most influential forces during this critical period of transition in Egypt. 'The labor force is the only social force acting on a daily basis,' says activist and journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy. "You can bomb Tahrir Square if you want to, but if there's a general strike, what can you do?"
Such a perspective highlights the importance of the mainstream workforce to join in nonviolent social change. While the history of nonviolent social movement has been politically successful in bringing down dictators, throwing out occupiers, and gaining political rights, the struggle for economic justice has been one where nonviolent action has lagged behind -- particularly after a revolutionary victory. It is clear that there remain class divisions in Egypt -- splitting the country into those who demand political reform as the urgent need while disregarding those who see the prescient reality of low (and in some cases no) pay and high unemployment suffered by the poor and the working class as fundamental to a New Egypt. Jadaliyya's Hesham Sallam, in his article "Striking Back at Egyptian Workers," offers an in-depth look at the different narratives playing out in this struggle between the workers and Egypt's political elite and interim government. Workers, activists, organizers, and bloggers have clearly defined the movement for a people's Egypt to not be over, but it remains uncertain how their demands and desires will materialize into a constructive paradigm of new economic policies, laws, and social welfare programs when the political process itself remains tenuous at best.
Jake Olzen is a member of the Kairos Chicago community and a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago.