Egypt: where economic pain and social mobilisation collide


Street kids and middle aged women from Cairo’s crumbling impoverished neighborhoods push past makeshift clothing stalls in the downtown Talet Harb Square, hawking cigarettes and tissue as traffic grinds to a halt.

Taxi drivers desperately on the lookout for a fare tangle together in gridlock, and while the fiery clashes between thousands of Egyptians fronted by masked youth and riot police explode blocks away, the sounds of honking and rhythmic sales pitches chanted by informal vendors fill the square.

As the tourism economy continues to collapse, Egyptian foreign currency reserves dwindle and the pound continues to drop.

Unemployment is on the rise and a continuously delayed IMF bailout and austerity deal threatens to eliminate state bread and fuel subsidies, which will send prices soaring.

For Egyptian workers and unemployed, the pain of this process has compounded with the unfilled demands of the 2011 revolution for bread and social justice and while hunger grows, there is the haunting feeling that the worst is yet to come.

“Before [President Mohamad] Morsi was elected I used to bring home 130 Egyptian pounds (19 US dollars) a day,” says Ziyad, a stocky Cairo taxi driver taking me from Talet Harb to the upscale island neighbourhood of Zamalek.

“Now I take home 30 pounds (4 US dollars) a day and I have a wife and two young daughters to support,” he notes as he rounds street clashes and bypasses the burnt-out former NDP building – deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak’s party HQ that was torched by protesters during the 2011 revolution.

“But that’s democracy,” sighs Ziyad. “All we can do is vote Morsi out next time.”


“Disbelief in democracy”

Mass opposition protests against Morsi, who heads the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing (The Freedom and Justice Party), have polarised the country and also regularly paralyse Cairo.

Since the protests kicked off on 25 January – the date marking the second anniversary of the revolution – Egypt’s largest round of unrest since the eighteen day popular uprising has focused on constitutional discontent over increased Islamic and military power, individual rights and police reform.

Yet, while the crumbling economy is a central concern for Egyptians, and discontent with the crisis is clearly visible amongst opposition protesters, demands for socio-economic rights remain off the political agenda.

“The main fear in Egypt at the moment is that the disbelief in democracy being able to satisfy socio-economic demands [will] increase. It’s dangerous,” says Mazen Hassan, a professor in Cairo University’s faculty of Economics and Political Science.

Sitting in his office overlooking a bustling commercial strip five floors below, the political science professor flatly contends that the governing Islamist bloc and the opposition leadership – The National Salvation Front (NSF) – don’t focus on the economy because they have few differences.

“The opposition really doesn’t have a strong counter argument [to Morsi on the economic crisis]. They do not have stronger ideas in terms of planning the economy,” says Hassan.

It is this sentiment that has prompted Egypt’s independent unions, a central social force in the NSF, to issue the opposition leadership with an ultimatum to take up the economic demands of workers or loose labour’s support.

Fresh from a fiery 16 February press conference of independent labour leaders who blasted the government for the crushing impact of rising prices, low wages and austerity, President of The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, Kamal Abou Aita, expresses growing disillusionment with the opposition leadership.

“The [opposition] elites keep issuing political demands but not our demands,” he says sitting in the Federation’s offices in the heart of the cluttered and decapitated working class Cairo neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab.

“They only issue demands about general freedoms, liberal issues of the elite.”



A middle aged man with a thick black moustache, Abou Aita was central in organising Egypt’s first independent trade unions after Mubarak’s fall and was a key figure in mobilising workers during the revolution.

Representing a wide cross-section of workers – from pilots and nurses to farmers and factory workers – Abou Aita says the situation for Egyptians is worse now than during the dictatorship because the economic policies haven’t changed.

Although general strikes and labour mobilisation paralysed the country and acted as a final nail in the coffin of the old regime, the economic demands of workers have been sidelined since Egypt’s transition began.

“[Morsi] must take the support being given to business and put it in social services and creating minimum wages,” says Abou Aita contending that the government has neglected the promises from the revolution that brought them to power.

Taking a long drag from a cigarette and leaning back in his chair below a French poster demanding women’s rights for child care, he issues his member’s prescription for ending the growing poverty, inequality and economic marginalisation.

“We don’t want the IMF loan and its Structural Adjustment policies. We want modified labour laws. We don’t want this constitution because there are no guarantees to the workers. We want nationalisation of factories.”

Still, no political force has fully embraced these demands and Abou Aita says labour does not currently have the capacity to launch another series of general strikes like in 2011.

As a result he notes the possibility of mass spontaneous bread riots, like those in 1977, growing as hunger mounts.

It’s this reality looming over the country that makes Hassan cringe.

“The bottom line is that now people, especially in Cairo, are especially mobilised and you cannot just give them this kind of [economic] pain with that level of social mobilisation,” he says.

Back in the alleyway near the shisha cafés that surround Talet Harb and Tahrir squares, skinny teenagers go from table to table, aggressively trying to sell packets of gum to the activists smoking and plotting their next move against Morsi.

“When the revolution happened in 2011 it delayed a hunger driven revolution,” says Abou Aita.

“Now people realise nothing has been accomplished, and the sellers in the streets – who we organise – are saying that there will be a new revolt because now they are only talking about politics and not economics.”