The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The struggle to survive in Egypt

Apr 14, 2008

In this past week, protests over high food prices and low wages continued in Ghasl al-Mahalla, a northern industrial city, leaving two people dead after clashes with police. In Mahalla, home to the Middle East’s largest textile factory, there have been a series of strikes over the last year.

This article is about Egypt – but it could be about Haiti, India, Ivory Coast, Mozambique... it could be about dozens and dozens of countries – for in the last several weeks, there have been fights around the world, protesting the astronomical increases in food and energy costs.

Since the beginning of 2008, the prices of basic foods have increased enormously in Egypt. A large part of the population has been forced to reduce their consumption, and have had to rely more heavily on bread as their only food.

And even the price of bread has exploded, due to the increased price of flour. Millions of Egyptians with low incomes have to wait in long lines in front of the bakeries that still sell bread at state subsidized prices.

So at 6:00 a.m., mothers, children, and workers wait in long lines just to obtain this bread. And often there isn’t enough bread, resulting in shoving and conflicts in the lines. An estimated 15 people have been killed in different regions of the country during fights that have broken out over bread.

When there is no subsidy, the bread is sold at 10 to 12 times the state-subsidized price. U.N. observers state the average price of food has doubled in the last three months. The wages of millions of Egyptians equal about $36 a month. That won’t cover the cost of a family’s housing, transportation and food. Much of the population struggles just to survive.

Demonstrations are more and more frequent. In February, thousands of textile workers gathered in Ghasl al-Mahalla, north of Cairo, to protest the increase in basic food prices and to demand that the minimum wage go up to $216 a month. Even the official union federation tied to the government has demanded an increase in the minimum wage, to $150 a month.

In December, workers in tax offices held a sit-in to demand that their wages be increased to $216. And doctors, whose base salary is just $20 a month, demanded a new minimum of $100.

The only response from Prime Minister Nazif was to declare that strikes were illegal in Egypt. President Mubarak called on the army to guard the distribution of bread.

The rich parasites surrounding the Mubarak family, holding government positions or heading up companies, need to be reminded of the hunger riots that broke out in 1977. Then President Anwar el-Sadat, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, announced an end to state-subsidized food prices. Rioters rapidly forced him to change his decision.