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Civil servants strike, protest in Egypt

Published Dec 16, 2007 10:24 PM

Many of the workers in local tax collection offices in Egypt are no longer youths, but they have been coming out into the streets, confronting the cops, trying to occupy the office of the official union that is supposed to represent all the workers in Egypt, and carrying out a hunger strike in front of Cabinet offices. This militancy is a sure sign that their living conditions are harsh and worsening.

The tax workers told reporters that they make $50 to $80 a month after decades of employment at jobs that can often be dangerous—because farmers bitterly resent the taxes they are forced to pay. Inflation is high in Egypt; independent economists put the real rate around 16 percent yearly.

This tax collectors’ struggle is part of a wave of strikes and workers’ protests in Egypt over the past two years. Hundreds of actions have taken place, at times involving tens of thousands of workers, particularly in the textile mills in the delta south of Alexandria.

Workers have won some significant victories. The government has hesitated to engage in the kind of mass repression it has used against students and intellectuals demanding democracy. The regime focuses more on picking off workers’ leaders and closing organizing centers.

The tax collectors are all state employees who work for the property tax department. They began their struggle in October when 55,000 tax workers struck. In early December, tax workers from all over Egypt—variously estimated at a few hundred by the AP to thousands by an Egyptian journalist—began an “indefinite picket and hunger strike” in front of Cabinet offices in Cairo. They have done this despite the refusal of the official union to support the strike.

One of the protesters told the German Press Agency (DPA), “We could be dismissed from work, we could be imprisoned or beaten up by security police, but we don’t care any more.”

“We fear nothing. We just want our rights back,” another cried out.

The protesters say they will collect no taxes until their demands are met. Such a stoppage could have a serious impact on the finances of Egypt’s provinces and rural communities.

Calling the finance minister, the head of the official labor union, and even members of the Cabinet “liars, scoundrels and thieves,” the protesters said they stood alone, “poor, hungry and no better than beggars.”

Leaders of the strike say the government has so far not responded to demands that they be treated like their colleagues in departments run by the Ministry of Finance.

“They have no hearts, no children or wives or parents,” a protester told DPA, describing how “inhuman” the authorities were. “We are spending our days here on the bare pavement and they feel nothing for us. Where is the mercy?”

Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak is the most important ally of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, after Israel. A major question for progressives outside of Egypt is how this strike wave is going to affect the U.S. drive to dominate the oil, and profits derived from this oil, in the region.

Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy wrote in an article about a strike in the textile industry, “Some of the strike leaders contacted leftist Kifaya activists in Cairo to ask for their support ... suggesting that they are beginning to consider political issues beyond their immediate economic demands, perhaps including regime change.” (MERIP online, May 9)

The authors concluded, “The mere fact that a workers’ movement has persisted and achieved as much as it has is eloquent testimony that the struggle between labor and capital is alive and well—and likely to intensify as the neoliberal project in Egypt advances.”