Sunday, February 20, 2011

Feb 20: A day in the early life of revolutionary Egypt – worker demonstrations, petition drives, volunteer cleaning crews

After weeks now of military efforts to enforce ‘normalcy’, life in Cairo is anything but. Leading up to the first day of the work week (today, Sunday), the military’s Supreme Council issued a statement threatening worker activism with a “no tolerance” edict. Were workers intimidated? Maybe some, but not all.

What would have been a ‘normal’ hop on the metro (underground transport) to Cairo University and then to the Main Post Office, to take care of errands today, turned out to be quite different…

The metro stopped, passengers got off and waited. The Sayeda Zeinab platform filled with hundreds and with no metro in sight, hundreds left the station, streaming out of the metro, from Sayeda Zeinab to Saad Zaghloul. In my two and a half years in Cairo, at times relying heavily on the metro, never before has the metro stopped for thirty plus minutes.

At Saad Zaghloul there was a large gathering in front and along the street of the Ministry of Housing. It was a well organized petition drive, attracting hundreds. I didn’t quite understand what the petition concerned (and maybe it could not even be called a ‘petition’?), but I understood that their efforts concerned apartments. This would not be surprising considering that buying and renting apartments is out of reach for many.

And then I caught a cab to Cairo University, picking up a famous TV personality on the way. (We didn’t know from which channel, but the driver assured me she was ‘known’.) Back to zahma, zahma, zahma (crowds, traffic) – Qasr el-Aini, Tahrir, Dokki were full of cars, for the first time since the uprising perhaps.

Then at Cairo University I try to go to the student bookstore to pick up textbooks and am told that the workers are demonstrating. It is closed today!

Trying my luck at the metro again, I head by foot to a metro station and find a crew of uniformed volunteer youth cleaners painting the street curb black and white, painting over faded colors. The metro is working and I then head to the Ramsis (main) post office. Knowing that they close at 2, I arrive a little after 1 and find a group of workers demonstrating with signs, shouting slogans, in front of one of the main entrances. And the office is not ‘open’. The employee informs me that they close at 1 – definitely a new ‘policy’ as I have been there before at closing time, at 2. Sounds like it could be new, shorter working hours, self-determined perhaps.

I take the metro back to Maadi, to take care of a couple of more errands, planning to mail a letter via the post office there. I get to the post office after 3, but as far as I know it is usually open until 5. Today, though, it is closed.

The military, in its statement that it will confront workers who are striking or demonstrating, declared that those participating in labor activism are damaging the economy. Yeah, well, the economy does depend on worker exploitation to thrive. The army high command has said it itself.

And today workers are saying – and have been saying since 1996 in Egypt – that the economy is damaging them. This international order that has reduced public employees to the working poor in Egypt over the last twenty years is harshly exploiting them. The only gains that they have won have been through strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations.

‘Normalcy’ means convenience for some and drudgery for many more.

1 comment:

  1. Labour activism is damaging the economy, but corruption and mismanagement aren't? Please.