All for 10 pounds life is cheap and costly

International Herald Tribune  Daily News Egypt

August 18 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The young man who was mutilated and crippled a few feet from me on Sunday wasn’t a martyr like Khaled Said or Mohamed Bouazizi who self immolated in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia on December 17 or the two young men aged 15 and 20 killed during the Mahalla textile strike on April 6 2008; or the Syrian kid Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13, who was arrested in Dara’a on April 29 only to be mutilated and murdered by the police and shoved into a morgue a month later.

The youngster lying immobile in front of me was trying to earn 10 pounds on Lebanon Street, laboring for a firm building an office tower.

I was pegging socks on the line matching them in pairs on the washing line on the back balcony. The construction crew maneuvered one of those huge mechanical crawler cranes the men call Goliaths onto the lot they’ve been clearing and mixing cement for the foundations.

Like they do, eight men were watching two working. One was manipulating Goliath’s levers to ready the giant for action. Something required the young man to climb onto the boom that was about three meters horizontally off the ground.

The motor was stuttering and in an instant he was hurled, or hurled himself, to the ground, shaking and shuddering. Then he was lifeless.

Everyone gathered round. Two burly men picked him up and carried him unconscious to their car and cleared some tools off the back seat and lay him across the leather. Then they took off for the hospital.

He won’t work again, if he ever recovers.

Is he a martyr? I say yes. He was doing what was right: up early for work, volunteering to fix something that was needed on the job, willing to accept a pittance.

There are those who call Egypt’s revolt a youth-led Facebook Revolution. That’s only a part of the narrative. Workers are the soul of the revolt, the heart of a complexity of collaborative efforts by workers, academics, students; Egyptians in Egypt and Egyptians abroad.

Kids not begun shaving yet have been cut down by snipers. Little girls have had their knickers pulled down.

Women workers are pivotal in the revolution. It was 3,000 women garment workers who went on strike and marched into the company compound the Ghazl el-Mahalla textile mill demanding their male colleagues join their strike when the current cycle of labor unrest began in December 2006. They had been on about 35 Egyptian pounds a month since 1984. They were asking for a raise, food allowances and better safety conditions. The government had welched on the deal to up their annual bonus – the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The government met the strikers with tear gas and live ammunition, which cut down two young men, ages 15 and 20 and left them dead.

These basic rights being fought over to overturn an unjust labor system, tend to be forgotten in the political schmozzle  – until you’re confronted by the devastating consequences of a young man maimed for life on a building site. How many others will share his fate this week?

Egypt’s revolution bifurcates into two branches: Freedom – constitutional and political reform, and Justice: social and economic.

The freedom criers are heard above the justice demanders. They’re more articulate, PR-savvy and good-looking on TV. The justice advocates wear hard hats, have grit under their fingernails, aren’t as articulate as their counterparts and live a ways away near the big industrial centers such as Mahalla, 100 kilometers from Cairo.

But they heeded the call and came to Cairo to brave the Camel Charge, the Molotov cocktails raining down on their heads in Tahrir Square and they advanced into the live fire range and shooed off the frightened police on the bridges over the Nile.

Labor is a mailed fist in the velvet glove of the non-violence movement, there when mental and physical courage is needed to face up to armed oppressors.

They’re unwaveringly loyal to each other under fire. They are the reliable stalwarts, the men and women that form the backbone of a backbreaking industrial society.

Politically they span the gamut of parties gearing up for the elections: right, left and center; secular, religious and none; highly educated and illiterate.

For all that the government threw at them in the past 12 years more than two million workers participated in more than 3,000 collective actions, according to Professor Joel Beinin, the principal author of The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt.

In 2006 alone they organized 222 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations, in the first five months of 2007 a new labor action nearly every day. The citizen group Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch documented 56 incidents during the month of April, and another 15 during the first week of May alone. Benin described it as “the biggest, longest strike-wave at least since 1951…  the most substantial and broad-based kind of resistance to the regime.”

Beinin, the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University says about 40 percent of all the collective actions in recent years have been in the private sector, which is a big change.

Industrial action forced the government to raise the basic monthly minimum wage to 400 Egyptian pounds – nearly four times what it had been before. The workers’ indefatigable stamina has encouraged others to get over the barrier of fear.

The tipping point that doomed Mubarak’s regime was the people’s defiance of a ban on entering Tahrir Square on January 28. At 2 pm 20,000 protestors broke through the blockades and took over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. Two hours later the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was ablaze. The edifice supporting oppression was gutted.

More honorable monuments remain. The pyramids are perdurable tributes to the immortality of the dignity of labor.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator

 

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