- Performers among 1.5m workers to oppose reform
- Wave of action since 2004 'almost unprecedented'
-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - April 2009
-Photo courtesy of Sara Sanad and El-Youm El-Sabea newspaper
A typical Sunday afternoon for Refat El-Grasy involves oiling a unicycle and unpacking some spinning plates in preparation for an evening's show at the Egyptian National Circus. Yet this weekend El-Grasy, the circus clown, will find himself out on the street, holding a placard and shouting slogans at passing cars.
"We can't live on our current wages and we don't want to see this place privatised," explains the 52-year-old. "We'll keep on walking out here for as long as it takes for our voices to be heard."
El-Grasy is the latest Egyptian to join a wave of strikes that has seen almost 1.5 million workers down tools in the last five years. Since the start of the government's tough economic reforms in 2004 almost every industrial sector has seen walkouts and protests as part of what Joel Beinin, director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, calls "the largest social movement the Middle East has seen in half a century".
Industrial action has intensified as the global economic downturn has taken hold. Dissatisfaction with government policies and spiralling prices has resulted in walkouts by everybody from railway drivers to TV producers and pharmacists. Although Egypt is no stranger to strikes - the first recorded sit-in was held by Theban graveyard workers, protesting against a shortage of burying ointments during the reign of Ramses III - the latest dissent has few parallels. "It's almost unprecedented," says Beinin, "it's the most democratic thing happening in Egypt."
Although few of the striking workers are as colourful as El-Grasy, his concerns are shared by many who feel left behind by the regime of Hosni Mubarak, now in his 28th year as president. All the circus performers are employees of the state and have not seen salaries rise in 10 years.
Staff at the circus are only too aware of the fate of workers in other industries who have suddenly found themselves in the private sector. A well-known example is the Indorama Shebeen el-Kom spinning factory, which has witnessed 95 strikes since being privatised in 2006 after the new owners refused to pay up to 10m Egyptian pounds in bonuses to staff. "We're proud to work for the state," said El-Grasy, who has been with the circus since 1969. "We just want enough money to live on."
The government has responded to the strikes by trying to appease workers' calls for higher wages while suppressing any political demands, often brutally. A factory walkout in the textile town of Mahalla al-Kubra last year, which turned into a mass demonstration, was met with a violent response and left three dead.
One of the more successful strikes has been that of the government's property tax collectors. They broke off from the state-run general workers syndicate and formed their own private trade union, the first of its kind since the 1952 revolution - potentially a dramatic development in a country where going on strike without the authorisation of a recognised union is punishable by up to a year in jail.
Back at the faded circus tent by the Nile in Cairo, El-Grasy remains unsure about the future. "This is our circus and our art," he said. "Everyone here cares a lot about what happens to this place, and we'll be out again if our demands aren't met."