Will Egyptian Workers Get a New Deal?

For the next few days, I’ll be sharing notes from a recent trip to Egypt (April 22 - May 1).

Standing in front of the Great Pyramid at Giza last Sunday, I imagined –  as have many before me — the incredible human energy that must have poured into the construction. Popular lore and Hollywood films have taught us that the pharaohs forced slaves to build their monumental works, but scholarship suggests that builders may actually have been farm laborers and villagers who worked during the agricultural off-season as part of a New Deal-style program to keep them from starving while the Nile flooded their fields. They may have been very glad to get both work and reasonable rations while creating majestic works for the benefit of their country and for the glory of their gods.

So it seems fitting that Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann conceived a story set in ancient Egypt inspired by his personal acquaintance with FDR and his admiration for the New Deal, which became the four-part masterpiece Joseph and His Brothers. Mann, persecuted by the Nazis for his criticism of their regime, found refuge in the United States, where he campaigned for Roosevelt and publicly endorsed the New Deal. He considered the social democratic ideals of the program to be a refutation of Nazism, and his presentation of Joseph’s administration in Egypt was influenced by his view of the new rights that workers achieved under Roosevelt’s leadership.

Today, the world is watching as modern Egyptians struggle to reconnect their government with the lives of workers and ordinary folks. In the post-Mubarak era, will they finally get a New Deal?

In the 21st century, labor conditions in Egypt have so far been atrocious, thanks in part, as I mentioned yesterday, to the eagerness of Mubarak to adopt Neoliberal policies centered on the privitization of public companies. Across the land, once-profitable companies have been sold below market prices and driven into ruin. For example, in 2004, the government sold a profitable publicly-owned glucose factory to a private group. In April 2010, the management claimed that it would shut down the factory for renovations, but instead dismantled the plant, laid off the workers with a miserable $100 severance, and began turning the grounds into a tourism development. Since Feburary 2011, workers have occupied the factory, demanding either their jobs or a decent severance.

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This new sense of empowerment can be felt across the country. Recently, Ahmed El-Borai, minister of manpower and immigration, let it be known that Egyptian workers would have the right to establish their own labor unions and federations. That’s a big step in the right direction, and on Sunday, thousands of Egyptians waving red flags gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate their new freedoms. Under Mubarak, such an open gathering for the cause of workers’ rights would have been unthinkable. The date chosen for the celebrations marked the anniversary of a General Strike in the United States in 1886, which began on May 1 (and subsequently called ‘May Day’). The strikers, led by immigrant workers from around the globe, focused on securing the 8-hour work day and organized themselves as part of a wider series of rallies inspired by the Paris Commune in 1872.

The global solidarity among workers exhibited in the last few months has been a ray of sunshine during a stormy economic period fraught with widespread uncertainty. Sunday’s Egyptian workers were galvanized by a strike in America in the 19th century, and they were also fully aware of and energized by the recent Wisconsin uprising. More than once, when I mentioned to an Egyptian that I was a blogger writing about American politics, a spontaneous cry of “Wisconsin!” followed. Back in February, in a flurry of cross-pollination, Egyptians carried signs celebrating Wisconsin in Tahrir Square and sent pizza to Wisconsin protesters, as those same protesters shouted out their support for the Egyptian revolution. Yesterday, when they gathered once again, Egyptian union members, students, and maligned workers felt themselves connected to their counterparts in every corner of the Earth.

Sunday’s crowd in Tahrir Square included factory workers, members of the newly founded Federation of Independent Labor Unions, and members of newly-visible political parties, including the Workers Democratic Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Egyptian Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialists.  Workers voiced their goal to raise the minimum wage (now set at $67 per month) and set the maximum salary at no more than 15 times that amount. They demanded permanent contracts for temporary workers and a repeal of laws banning strikes and protests. Most of all, they called for the opportunity to work hard, to be treated fairly, and to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. These are fundamentally the same things American workers wanted under FDR. They are the same thing the French wanted during the Paris Commune. And they are the very same things that the Nile laborer desired as he watched the sun god Ra make his journey across the sky, beyond the pinnacle of the Great Pyramid his labor helped erect.

Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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BM