My husband graduated among the top of his class in medical school. He got the best possible position a doctor could get in Egypt: a residency at Cairo University Hospital in the specialty of his choice and a stable medical career for life. We started our life together as a married couple just after he started his residency.
His salary was 200 LE a month; roughly US $30.
Those first few years of marriage were very difficult. Our families did not fully realize – it seems – the tough financial situation we were in. We very rarely got help in the first couple of years, so those 200 LE were basically it. Our dignity would not allow us to ask our families to help us through the tough times.
There were times when friends would stop over for a visit and I did not even have tea to serve them. Once, a very good friend of mine got married and I could not attend her wedding because I did not even have 25 piasters to take a bus to the wedding. There were times when I went hungry as a pregnant and later breast-feeding mother.
Having lived through that, I was cautiously happy to hear that workers in Egypt were going on strike on May 2 to call for a minimum wage in Egypt of 1200 LE. Cautiously, I say, because I’m among the pessimistic majority in the country that thinks change is still far away in the future, if it will ever come at all.
But I’ve been observing from afar the nascent movements rising in the country and wondering whether this new generation has what it takes to lift Egypt out of the darkness.
Most of my observations have been through the mass media and recently through social media. It would appear to the bystander that something different was happening in the country. Voices not heard before were reaching my ears. Words not heard before were being said. Anger not expressed before was palpable.
Could change really be coming to Egypt, I’ve been asking myself? I was an optimistic youth some 25 years ago. Was it time to shed the pessimistic moss that had grown on me since and regain hope in Egypt’s future?
I decided to go to the May 2 strike and take a look for myself.
I haven’t been to a strike as far as I can remember since my university years. In the 1980s when I was in medical school, the Muslim Brotherhood had the ability to amass hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students from all over Egypt in one university campus to protest against whatever it was that was fashionable to demonstrate against at the time. The student demonstrators moved together like a huge, well-orchestrated army. They had leaders among the students and university professors and moved to their beat and only their beat. If they were directed to try to break through the university walls, they did. If they were told by their leaders to disperse, they did.
Those were the days when demonstrating students were water-hosed, tear-gassed, and rubber-bulleted by the Egyptian police and army.
This is what I had in mind when I walked down Al-Qasr Al-Eini St. in Cairo towards the designated place of gathering for the May 2 Strike. I went with the wrong expectations.
By the time the strike was most lively, about three hundred people had gathered. I am told by fellow journalists who have been closely monitoring Egypt’s strikes that this number is much higher than previous strikes. The people I spoke with were impressed with the turn-out. The numbers are growing, I was told.
I cannot say I was impressed.
Egypt has a population of more than 80 million people. Most of those 80 million, including highly qualified medical professionals like my husband, get despicable salaries. Cairo, the city where the strike was held, has a population around 18 million. Where was everybody?? For goodness sake, the streets of Egypt went absolutely, down-right crazy when we won the African Cup in soccer this year. Why can’t even a fraction of those Egyptians turn out to ask for a fairer minimum wage?
You’ll see great media coverage of the strike. Heck, I’ll show you some great shots myself. But I know how things work. I’m a journalist. We’ll show you the close-up shots of lots of people doing something interesting. But just outside that shot is a lot of emptiness (well, lots of Egyptian security police and then the normal, bustling streets of Cairo).
Another thing that struck me was that I had seen the faces of so many of the strikers before from previous media coverage. I learned from a fellow journalist that many of the demonstrators I saw today go from one demonstration to the next, chanting against the Egyptian regime. They’ll go to workers’ strikes, demonstrations about Palestine, anything. Some of the demonstrators were even semi-professional cheerleaders/chanters; they had the ability to come up with a rhyming chant suitable to the occasion within seconds.
At one point during the strike, the demonstrators created a commotion. They were pushing the police barricade rather roughly. I edged my way towards them. As far as I could tell, it looked like the demonstrators had not been provoked. The police were pretty much doing nothing in return. They were simply standing their ground and preventing the demonstrators from spilling out into the main street. Can you imagine the great pictures the journalists got, though? This was one of the demonstrators’ tactics, I was told by a journalist, to get media attention. Well, they did get it.
The demonstrators had no clear leadership. They argued amongst each other whether to have a peaceful demonstration or to get a bit rowdy. There was no clear “what happens next” as the demonstration came to an end. And there were hardly any Muslim Brotherhood members to be seen, with the exception perhaps of one or two who had come on an individual basis.
After observing today’s workers’ strike, I now clearly understand why the government hasn’t really been doing much about this and similar strikes that have been happening around the country. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Let them vent off some steam, they are probably telling themselves. In a country of 80 million, three hundred are hardly anything to fret about. I also clearly understand why they have been dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood with an iron hand. In comparison with these unruly small-timer protestors, it is only the Brotherhood – and soccer – that has the ability to blow in a horn and call to life vast zombie armies.
I don’t think change is going to happen at the hands of the first group and I can’t say I want it to happen at the hands of the second.
So I’m just going to slither back under my blanket of mossy pessimism and wait for another generation or two before I stick my head back out again.
For more pictures from the strike, take a look at these taken from my mobile phone.