Hundreds of Egyptian workers demonstrated Saturday in downtown Cairo, calling for raising the national minimum wage.
Protesters assembled in front of the ministerial cabinet in Hussein Hegazi Street, from 11 AM to roughly 2 PM. Central Security Forces soldiers and senior police officers were present, but did not intervene.
The demonstration comes on the heels of an administrative court order, stating the government "must set a minimum wage in line with rising prices of basic commodities," without defining a figure. The national minimum wage stands at LE35 a month, unchanged from 1984. A coalition of labor groups and NGOs, that organized Saturday’s protest, is pressing the government to raise it to LE1,200.
The court order was instigated by a lawsuit filed by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a human rights NGO, against the president and the prime minister, demanding they narrow the gap between wages and soaring prices. The center provided the court with economic studies to support their request, mainly conducted by celebrity economist Ahmed el-Naggar.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif received the lion share of the demonstrators’ wrath on Saturday. "Nazif gives some of his close employees hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pounds a month, but gives other civil servants, like the information center employees LE99 a month," shouted Kamal Abu Eita, the head of the independent union of property tax collectors. "Is that fair?" The crowd roared, "No! No!"
Hussein Hegazi Street is a familiar scene for Abu Eita and his comrades, who staged a national strike in December 2007, and occupied that street for a couple of weeks over pay and work conditions.
Not far away from Abu Eita, a contingent of Mahalla textile workers led by Kamal el-Fayoumi raised banners against privatization, and joined the chants against the state-backed union officials. Two years ago, in February 2008, he and other labor activists mobilized 10,000 workers from the Mahalla textile mill into the streets, demanding LE1200 as a national minimum wage. Two months later, he tried to organize a strike over the same demand, but it was aborted and he ended up in prison together with other workers, while the Nile Delta town of Mahalla erupted in a two-day uprising.
"I’ve come from Mahalla today to say that the least we deserve is LE1,200," Fayoumi told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "The government wants to treat the workers as slaves. How can the govt (officials) go to bed, knowing there are workers who receive LE100 a month?" he exclaimed.
Over the course of three hours, delegations from different provinces joined the demonstration: Telephony and steel workers from Helwan, flax workers from Tanta, postal workers from Fayoum and Bani Sweif, food oil workers form Suez, textile workers from Alexandria, workers, tax collectors from Alexandria, Minya, Suez, Daqahliya and Giza, and others.
The protesters chanted against the president and the government, and accused the state-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation of corruption.
A delegation that included lawyer Khaled Ali of the ECESR, Hamdeen Sabbahi, a parliamentarian with the Nasserist Karama Party and other representatives, tried to enter the ministerial cabinet headquarters around noon to hand in a copy of the administrative court order to Nazif in person, accompanied with an official request for its immediate implementation.
The delegation, however, was told the prime minister was not present in the building. The delegation refused to meet with any other officials, and left a copy of their memorandum with the prime minister’s office director.
"The government has one month to get back to us," Ali addressed the crowd. "If the court order is not implemented, we will return with a bigger protest on 1 May."
Ramadan Mohamed Morsi, a worker from a private food company in Suez, looked jubilant as he moved through the crowd, while talking on the mobile phone with one of his colleagues. "Listen to the chants," he said as he stretched his arm, raising his mobile phone as close as he could to Abu Eita’ microphone for few moments. "Tell the people back home not to be afraid. We are demonstrating here in Cairo and no one touched us."