A wave of strikes across Egypt is rapidly broadening and deepening the revolution there. A national teachers strike has rallied round the slogan “Meet our demands or forget school this year.”
Some 46,000 schools in Egypt employ 1.5 million workers. Last Saturday tens of thousands of teachers from cities all over the Nile Delta demonstrated outside the Cabinet Office in Cairo.
Teachers are angry that the education minister and the government have broken repeated promises to improve teachers’ wages and conditions.
Many teachers earn such low wages that they have to take second jobs, waiting tables or driving taxis.
Delegations arrived from 10am, many marching through central Cairo to join the protest. Each delegation was welcomed with greetings and celebrations.
People came from Tanta, Banha, Ismailia and Mansoura. Every major city in the north of Egypt was represented. In the south, rallies expressed support for the demonstrators in Cairo.
For ten hours teachers laid siege to the Cabinet Office in Kasr al-Aini Street near Tahrir Square. They pulled barriers across the road, closing a large part of the city centre for the day. Police stood by nervously—they did not intervene.
Echoing the slogans of Tahrir Square before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, demonstrators chanted, “The teachers demand the fall of the minister”, and “He must go!”
When an official offered to take in a delegation of five to meet the minister, demonstrators refused, chanting “Come down [minister] and talk to all of us!”
Sections of the media want to make the teachers look greedy and claim only a small percentage of teachers are on strike.
Strikers are furious. They know that up to 80 percent of teachers are on strike. In some areas all teachers have joined the dispute.
Khalid Noamani of the Independent Teachers’ Union, said “We have gone through all the legal channels to try and get our rights and all to no avail. We are desperate.” Teachers have suspended their action for a week for negotiations.
For state employees like teachers to take any sort of collective action would have been unthinkable under Mubarak. Now strikes are widespread. New layers of the population are forming independent unions.
Government officials and parts of the Egyptian media argue that the revolution did its job by getting rid of Mubarak. They say “order” must be restored for elections to take place and that a new government will act in the interests of the people.
But for millions of people the hopes of the revolution are not being fulfilled. They will not tolerate lies and broken promises. New-found freedoms enable them to take collective action, which often wins key demands.
The government insists it will use Egypt’s repressive Emergency Laws against strikers. The teachers’ demonstration in Cairo shows that workers have the power to defy such threats.