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Workers and Women Fight for Their Share of Egypt’s Revolution

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Posted on Jun 5, 2011
© 2011 Reese Erlich

Some 100,000 protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on May 27 to demand civilian, not military, rule.

By Reese Erlich

CAIRO—As Dr. Mohammad Shafik stands in the chaotic emergency room of the Cairo hospital where he works, his biggest worry as patients are wheeled in is not about issues of medical care. What concerns him is the lack of police protection against the fights and even murders that occur all too often in the city’s hospitals. A dispute between two people might result in one coming to the hospital with a gunshot wound, and then the relatives of those involved “come in and fight here,” he says. “All the police disappear with the hint of danger.”

Egyptian police, once a key component in the repressive apparatus of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, now often refuse to carry out their jobs, according to Shafik and other doctors. That’s just one sign of the upheaval roiling Egypt since the revolution that forced Mubarak’s resignation in February.

The health care system has become an important battle ground. Shafik says, “Of course we haven’t totally changed the regime as we had hoped. They are trying to reinvent the regime with new faces. That’s what makes the health care struggle key in Egypt. Every percentage point for increasing health care will come from the budget of the Ministry of Interior and other parts of the oppressive machine.”

Dr. Milad Ismail. (Photo © 2011 Reese Erlich)

The government allocates 3.6 percent of the national budget for health care, while the repressive Ministry of Interior funds an armed force of 1.4 million police.

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Immediately after the revolution, doctors and other hospital staff members in various parts of Egypt formed independent unions. At Shafik’s hospital, Manshiet el Bakry, freshly organized workers threw out the old, pro-Mubarak hospital administrator and elected a new one.

Similar independent unions have sprung up spontaneously in textile, aluminum and other factories. Even the workers who issue marriage licenses have unionized and threatened to strike for higher pay.

Union members are asking for a minimum wage of $200 per month, among other demands. A hospital resident such as Shafik currently earns a base pay of only $50 per month.

Ellis J. Goldberg, a political science professor at the University of Washington and now visiting professor at American University in Cairo, says the current military government in Egypt is unwilling to meet such demands.

“They don’t want to make those hard decisions,” he says. “They might if there was some major political upheaval by the workers.”

Goldberg notes that hundreds of workplaces around the country have experienced strikes and demonstrations since February. A plethora of independent unions, worker federations and worker parties arose. To date, some have won local demands for wage increases or replacement of workplace administrators. But the government has resisted more thoroughgoing changes.

Goldberg says Mubarak cronies still control much of the economy through corruption and political patronage.

Some 40 “people formed the leadership of the ruling party and had significant economic interest in sectors of the economy benefiting from state contracts,” he says. “They used political power to maintain monopolies.”

Twenty years ago, the Mubarak regime began selling off state-owned enterprises to favored cronies, resulting in the layoff of tens of thousands of workers. Today, many workers want to re-nationalize some of the factories.

Fatma Ramadan, a researcher with the Union of Workers and Working Forces, says, “I favor re-nationalization. But workers should be part of the new management.”

Many organizations are competing for worker support. Conservative Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, have considerable backing among rural farmers, workers and the urban poor.

The Muslim Brotherhood has generally opposed strikes and demonstrations against the military government. It hopes to gain a substantial number of seats in the September parliamentary elections, and Brotherhood leaders are cooperating with the military in the meantime.

Brotherhood officials stress that strikes and demonstrations are too disruptive, a view that is shared by many ordinary Egyptians.

Interviewed after Friday prayers at a mosque, truck driver Ahmad Fathi says, “We should give the government some time. We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.”

But union leaders and Tahrir Square activists don’t want things to go back to normal. Women workers are demanding an end to discrimination in hiring and promotions, and want government-funded child care. Fatma Ramadan says, “A woman is supposed to feed the kids and take them to school—along with working. There’s a lot of pressure on women workers.”

Women played an important role in the occupation of Tahrir Square and in the subsequent demonstrations and strikes. Women in Egypt are more prominent in professions and society in general than those in many other Arab countries.

For example, says Dr. Nadia el Ebissy, about 60 percent of the 400 doctors at Manshiet el Bakry Hospital are women. That’s partly because of opportunities for women in medical education and partly because many male doctors leave the country to earn higher salaries.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, some 1,000 women and their male supporters rallied in Cairo to demand, among other things, that women be allowed to run for president and become judges. The rally was viciously attacked, some say by thugs of the former regime.

Salma Shukrallah, a journalist with Ahram Online, says the Women’s Day attack didn’t permanently set back the efforts for women’s equality. She says major politicians must now at least pay lip service to the idea that a woman could be president. “Women’s demands are very much central,” she says. “But the widespread social values are still very sexist.”

Back at Manshiet el Bakry Hospital, newly elected administrator Dr. Milad Ismail has found interim funding through outside donations. “We now depend on donations from civil society, NGOs, from doctors at the hospital,” he says. “We also rely on the spirit of the workers.” Some hospital profits will now be used to hire private security guards to protect the doctors and staff. Dr. Ismail says the battle continues to get adequate funding from the Ministry of Health.

Dr. Shafik says the Tahrir Square occupation changed medical workers’ lives forever. “Doctors had revolutionary experiences,” he says. “Protesters died in our hands. That experience which has been transferred to us cannot be taken away.”

Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich has covered the Middle East for 25 years. His reports from Egypt are funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Follow his blogs and read his other stories at the Pulitzer center’s website.


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By Time Management Tips, February 14, 2012 at 11:50 pm Link to this comment

“The government allocates 3.6 percent of the national budget for health care, while the repressive Ministry of Interior funds an armed force of 1.4 million police.”

-3.6%? I think much better if they make it 4% co’z you know nowadays there are many people who are sick. Just a thought..

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By Time Management, January 4, 2012 at 7:18 pm Link to this comment

Now that the Mubarak Regime has fallen, it does not mean only good things will happen in the country. One force falls, many others will attempt to fill the void. This creates a chaos that is not seen while Mubarak is still in power. However, I feel that this is a phase that the country has to undergo in order to emerge a stronger and more tightly-knit nation.

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By gerard, June 7, 2011 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

Two things to remember:  1. The Egyptian uprising was enormous and overwhelmingly nonviolent, thanks to previous knowledge, planning and consistency.
2.  It was the first.

Give things time, and with experience and determination, they may be able to win rights after years of oppression.  It’s the young people’s world from now on and self-important dictators and autocratic empire-builders had best step aside gracefully, keep their mouths shut and hope to escape without getting hanged for their sins.

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By ardee, June 7, 2011 at 4:48 am Link to this comment

Leefeller, June 6 at 11:48 pm Link to this comment


I find the statement below interesting, because in a way it emulates the recent attack on workers in the Republican states. Far wages and workers rights are fair requests. Labor as a human commodity should have a right to have collective Bargaining.

The workers of this world have much in common, and most are being exploited in many ways.

It does not sound like Egypt is going to come out of their revolution any better for it than Mexico did!... Ole Egypt meet new Egypt, hope I am wrong!

Too early for despair. The revolution there has only just begun. There are certain to be ups and downs along the way. I understand the many pitfalls to come but believe in this workers movement and hope it not only succeeds but spreads.

As far as the comments of Rico the misplaced comma

“Would that god the gift he gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Your one liner posts are trite, banal, self involved and utterly demeaning to your image. That they say nothing at all is obvious. That you restrict yourself to oneliners is a blessing to us all.

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, June 6, 2011 at 11:48 pm Link to this comment

I find the statement below interesting, because in a way it emulates the recent attack on workers in the Republican states. Far wages and workers rights are fair requests. Labor as a human commodity should have a right to have collective Bargaining.  Except opportunists do not like collective bargaining, they see it cutting into their bottom line and taking some of the plenty from their horn of plenty and of course We see those damn cronies every where!

“Twenty years ago, the Mubarak regime began selling off state-owned enterprises to favored cronies, resulting in the layoff of tens of thousands of workers. Today, many workers want to re-nationalize some of the factories.”

It does not sound like Egypt is going to come out of their revolution any better for it than Mexico did!... Ole Egypt meet new Egypt, hope I am wrong!

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By gerard, June 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment

Rico, you and I both know that the victimhoods don’t have the resources to rant effectively. Ranting effectively is the privilege of the big media gods of the plutocratranthoods and the tyranthoods. Internet neighborhoods like Truthdig offer material that invites rants from people with both time on their hands and ideas in their heads to rant in the hope that there are actually other ranters out there who have a rant or two to share. Sometimes the rants are ignorants, but that’s the price you pay to play.

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mindful's avatar

By mindful, June 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment

And through this all is America’s wonderful friend, the Saudi. Plutocrats and rule by devine order.

They protect their ilk and I can only hope this planet can find unity someday, but I suspect greed, raving resourses and materialisms will prevail until the Mother collapses and with it the cancerous growth, capitalism.

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, June 6, 2011 at 4:51 am Link to this comment

One of the oldest “organized” cultures in the world, Egypt’s, has resuscitated
to become the lantern for the modern world in people’s struggle for an
egalitarian world.  Egalitarian in this sense means whatever natural rights one
man has all humans have.  The phrase leftie euphemistic sense is a ridiculous
appellation and is obviously an intention to denigrate those who carry
Sisyphus’s stone against the torment of the tyrants who would have men
subjugated and crushed by other men. It is a sign of the sign of the disease of
elitism.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 6, 2011 at 3:54 am Link to this comment

When used in a generic sense like that, they are euphemisms for “those oppressed by capitalists or plutocrats or tyrants”. You can always expect a victimhood rant to follow.

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THX 1133 is not in the movie...'s avatar

By THX 1133 is not in the movie..., June 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm Link to this comment

Egypt’s revolution seems to have been masterfully
managed by the military. It remains to be seen just how
much real difference the sacrifices made by the people,
will be apparent.
I’m very skeptical at this point in time…

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By gerard, June 5, 2011 at 6:11 pm Link to this comment

My sense is that “workers” here means people of the middle, lower-middle and lower classes who under the old regime had no “workers’ rights” legally or otherwise.  And that “women” means women in general, many young educated women, who also had no Legal rights equal to th ose enjoyed by men in a traditionally male-dominated society. 

All the “Arab Spring” countries share these two inherent problems that will require years of work and social pain to solve:  Lack of rights of workers—even complete lack of jobs or possibilities for jobs. And the religious and social male supremacy characteristic of much of the Muslim world (with still-remaining tendencies in the same direction in many other places throughout the non-Muslim world).

PS What does “leftie euphemistic sense” mean?

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, June 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

People in the 10 happiest countries in the world say they are happy because they have “loads of social services without having to work too hard.”  These countries rank high on 11 quality of life indicators.  Needless to say the US is not on the list.  This is according to the Wall St Journal:
http://247wallst.com/2011/06/01/the-happiest-countries-in-the-world/

This is what Egyptians want - a high quality of life for all rather than for a privileged few.  The common good over private gain.  They don’t want to be an uncivilized country like the US.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm Link to this comment

Are we to understand from this headline that the “revolution” was carried out by a bunch of unemployed men? Or are you using “workers” and “women” in their leftie euphemistic sense?

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