Thank You, Sir, for Letting Us Strike

Six luxurious Mercedes-Benz were purchased this week in Egypt for top judicial officials. The recipients included Moqbel Shaker, chairman of the Court of Cassation and of the Supreme Judicial Council; Maher Abdel Wahed, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court and Samir Badawi, president of the Administrative Court. These officials, according to Egyptian criteria, are entitled to luxury cars costing some 200,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) apiece. But these judicial members oversee judges and prosecutors who have to use public transportation to get to work - and often don't even get a seat.

The gap between the top echelon of public administration in Egypt and the middle and lower rungs of the same system is what in the past year, and even more so in the past two months, has given rise to a plethora of strikes and demonstrations. This kind of activity hasn't been seen in Egypt for decades.

The most recent strike was held by property tax collectors. They gathered in the thousands in Cairo to protest their miserable pay and demanded that their salaries be linked to those of Finance Ministry employees. The tax collectors are employed by the local councils and earn about $50 a month, unlike their counterparts at the Finance Ministry, who earn $250 to $300 a month. Even the latter salaries can't support a dignified existence, but at least they keep the employees above the poverty line - set at an income of $2 a day.

Meanwhile, 200 safety maintenance workers in the national railway administration have also decided to strike.

The safety maintenance workers are demanding better working conditions, a pay rise and travel allowances that other railway employees receive. Striking worker Muhammad Mahmoud, who was interviewed for the newspaper Al Misri al Yawm, "has been working for three years now and is still not getting tenure and his entire salary is 130 EGP a month [about $20]."

The biggest wave of strikes began in September, when 27,000 employees of a textile plant in the town of Mahala in the Nile Delta went out on strike, demanding profit-sharing and a wage hike. This is the largest public-sector factory in Egypt and the strike there, which has earned it the nickname "the Mahala intifada," marked a turning point in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's policies.

The workers of the textile factory claimed that the plant management, which is appointed by the government, had promised them a bonus of 150 workdays if the plant's profits exceeded 60 million EGP. In the past year, it has earned 200 million EGP, but the workers received a bonus of only 20 workdays. The negotiations with the management and the representatives of the government led nowhere; as a result, the workers turned to striking as a weapon. The Egyptian media, including the state media, supported the strikers and believed the government had to fulfill its commitments and accede to the strikers' demands. The security forces sent to Mahala were ordered to show restraint and government ministers were told to quickly solve the problem. The government feared the strike could ignite all of Egypt, if it were to last a long time.

Within a week, the sides reached an agreement. The workers received a bonus of 70 workdays and promised to make up the days in the course of the year.

Now thousands of property tax collectors are expecting a similar compromise. In a twist, pictures from the past, in which police were seen beating up demonstrators, arresting them or dispersing their processions by force, have disappeared. Officials instructed security forces to protect the strikers; Interior Minister Habib al-Adli even received a large poster from the workers, thanking him for the good treatment. At the same time, slogans calling for Mubarak to intervene referred to him as "Abu Gamal," Gamal's father. And with good reason.

Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, is in charge of drafting the strategic policies of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party. Together with Finance Minister Yusuf Butrus Ghali and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, he launced a policy of privatization, which created "nearly an economic miracle" in Egypt. On the one hand, economic growth has reached 7 percent, the capital market has grown by 44 percent and the World Bank ranked Egypt as the country with the greatest improvement in conditions for investors. On the other hand, the World Bank also made it clear in its last report that between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of citizens living below the poverty line rose from 16.7 to 19.6 percent. When 15 million people are living below the poverty line, even the most impressive growth is liable to see civil economic revolt.

Mubarak doubtless understands the danger of growth and is making every effort to balance the demands of the free market and the need to reassure his country's poor. This month, for example, after Prime Minister Nazif announced his intention to gradually eliminate some of the subsidies that cost the government about $1 billion, Mubarak, who was on a visit to Portugal, hastened to declare that the prime minister had no authority to cancel subsidies without the president's approval. He added that he himself did not intend to cancel the subsidies.

Nazif did not, in fact, intend to cancel the subsidies, but rather to replace with a monetary payment the aid coupons given to the needy. But even this move encountered strong opposition, which made it clear to the president that any further reduction in the public's standard of living would be intolerable.

The public's welfare took a hit in 2003 when the EGP was devalued by about 40 percent after the government decided to lift supervision of the dollar exchange rate. This caused a huge increase in prices, as a large proportion of the consumer goods are imported and some basic commodities became 30 to 60 percent more expensive.

The feeling in Egypt is that this rise in prices is not only the result of worldwide price increase or the change in EGP-dollar exchange rate. Rather, they see it as the direct result of the exploitation of the fragile situation by Egyptian merchants and importers. The newspapers are full of stories about acts of fraud and deception by importers of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals and about the breaks these importers are getting from the government.

"No one is going to let Egypt collapse economically. The U.S. cannot allow itself to let Egypt get swept into the vortex of poor countries that is nurturing Islamic fundamentalism," an Egyptian academic tried to reassure Haaretz in a telephone conversation. He may be right, but when the Egyptians read about how the Saudi Arabian government, which has a budgetary surplus of $40 billion, intends to raise workers' pay by about 15 to 25 percent; and how the United Arab Emirates government has raised salaries by about 70 percent - it is hard for them to accept the miserable wages that do not allow them to lead a decent, dignified life or provide their children with an education that will take them out of the cycle of unemployment.