Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With protests and labor strikes spreading across Egypt in recent weeks, former government ministers speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the last two governments.
Strikes and protests by workers in a number of sectors and professions, including factory workers, doctors and taxi drivers, have compounded some of the political protests.
Egypt’s economy remains sluggish and wages low.
Rising unemployment, a widening budget deficit and plummeting foreign reserves are just some of the myriad problems facing Egypt’s economy. In a country already blighted by high poverty levels, unemployment is on the rise, especially among the young, and prices of basic goods have been rising since the 2011 uprising, with inflation making its biggest jump since January 2010 last November to almost 13 percent from 10.4 percent in October, according to the state-run statistics agency CAPMAS. Many of those striking had been demanding implementing the new minimum wage rate of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (172 US dollars) a month set by the outgoing government, but which has not been put into effect.
The outgoing government, headed by Hazem El-Beblawi, resigned on Monday in a surprise move which some speculated was due to the country’s economic performance and the recent effects of the widespread strikes.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, former Minister for Administrative Development Ahmed Darwish said the country’s current economic performance was “not good” and that the labor market was “suffering from the countless problems which placed have Egypt in 146th position out of the 148 countries included in the Work Climate Index.”
Speaking at the ninth annual conference of the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council, he said that despite some efforts made to strengthen the competitiveness of the Egyptian economy during the last three years, these efforts “were born and died in closed rooms and were not implemented on the ground, as the practical mechanisms were absent and decision-making abilities lacking at most government departments.”
Former Minister of Finance Samir Radwan said the strikes were “caused by the failure of institutions to manage the conflict and provide the space for consultation and cooperation between opposing sectors of society who play an important role in transitional periods,” and that amid the absence of these institutions tension could rise and turn into protests, chaos, violence and social disturbances.
Radwan added that the spread of industrial action was evidence of the absence of institutional mechanisms to manage industrial conflicts in Egypt. “Protesting workers represent the critical sectors of factional protests that make demands linked to the distribution of wealth, whether they were blue- or white-collar workers, and whether they were demanding a rise in wages or improvement in working conditions or the replacement of corrupt management,” he said.
A report published by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), ‘The Labor Protests in Egypt in 2012,’ says this labor activity has appeared in reaction to the economic policies of the government of Ahmed Nazif (2004–2011) at the expense of social justice, leading to a deterioration in social equality.
The report also said that striking workers have often faced a crackdown from the authorities, who have restricted the right to protest and sometimes reacted violently to those on strike.
Reactions to the protests from the wider public have ranged from anger to sympathy, and even to accusations that the protesters were committing “treason.”
But Yousef Al-Qaryouti, regional manager of World Labor Organization (WLO), said seeing the strikes as just a minimum wage issue may be a mistake. He said the labor protests in the streets were a result of the irregular practices in the labor market in the last four decades, which in turn have created a tense relationship between the main players in the labor system: the government, the workers and employers.
Majida Ghunaim, a spokesperson for the Labor Ministry in Egypt, said dealing with the protests as one homogeneous phenomenon was inappropriate, because there are protesters who make legitimate demands and others who make demands to which they have no right.
She said the ministry always insisted on opening the door for dialogue with the protesters to their find out what their demands were, and to ascertain whether they were legitimate or not in order to make a decision on them.
The recent strikes began on February 10, when 20,000 spinning and weaving factory workers in Mahalla—the heart of Egypt’s strategic textiles industry—precipitated a wave of industrial action throughout the country in other sectors.
Industrial strikes have plagued Egypt during its transition following the 2011 uprising, with events reaching a head during the Mursi administration when workers from core areas such as the police, doctors and teachers held strikes.