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The economic measures that the Egyptian state recently implemented are the harshest since Anwar al-Sadat’s lifting of price controls in January 1977, which resulted in the bread riots. However, the public’s reaction does not coincide with the magnitude of these recent changes.
With every price hike and each decision to increase the price of goods or services, one cannot but wonder, “why isn’t the public taking action?” The repetition of this question is a reminder of a similar one that perplexed the world before the January 2011 revolution, “Why don’t Egyptians revolt?” It wasn’t long before that question was answered.
The shocking or frustrating public inaction towards the social and economic situation may in fact be itself the justification.
The latest economic measures, ranging from repeatedly cutting subsidies on fuel while raising the prices of electricity, gas and water, as well as public transportation, in addition to implementing VAT (Value Added Tax) and floating the exchange rate, have led to successive waves of inflation whilst wages stagnated. Spending on wages only rose by 4.5 percent in the 2016/2017 budget, resulting in an actual decrease in real wages and the deterioration in the living standards of most, across classes.
Perhaps the report published in the Financial Times about Egyptians’ increased bread consumption as a result of the price hike will help clarify the picture. Numerous media outlets have been addressing the impact of these economic policies on the living conditions of the poor.
The report highlights an increase in the consumption of subsidized bread with a drop in the consumption of other foods due to their inflation in March 2017 by up to forty percent. It does not only reveal the effect of the crisis on the poor, but also the coping mechanism which takes the form of a change in consumption patterns to deal with the price hikes.
However, the change in consumption patterns is not the only factor discouraging the rise of a popular movement in opposition to these impoverishment policies. The regime’s security policies also play a part. The organized repression of any social or labor protest has been a main feature of the regime’s security policy; from the Alexandria Shipyard workers being tried in military courts, to arresting public transportation workers, prosecuting IFFCO employees and arresting the employees of Telecom Egypt, etc… these are just a few examples. In addition to the regime’s oppressive policies, social activism has been affected by the governments’ absolute media control and its constant use of the threat of terrorism and chaos.
Despite the clear impact of the regime’s oppressive measures, labor and social protests have not ceased. According to a report by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights more than 1700 protests were held in 2016, and most of them had to do with labor or opposition.
There were also spontaneous reactions when subsidies were delayed in some provinces, and when bread rations were cut. However, the decision was quickly retracted after protests flared up.
What has been stated above does not suffice to understand the popular movement and its reactions to the social and economic situation. Public action, in general, cannot be understood at a certain point in time without context.
The most important public outbursts in Egypt took place with a backdrop of a rise in both labor and political movements simultaneously. The January 1977 bread riots, for example, were preceded by a series of workers strikes from the public transportation authority, Helwan and Al-Mahalla. It was also preceded by a political movement where the national cause was key, and universities were the main stage of protests.
A wave of unprecedented labor strikes broke out in Egypt and lasted for around five years, ultimately leading to the January 2011 revolution. The strikes were also the result of the rise of political and democratic reform which represented remarkable developments in political movements in Egypt.
The social and popular movements have reached their current stagnant state due to the backdrop of a counter-revolution that was able to set back the public and political situation to the days before the revolution, or even worse. There is no comparison between the situation of the social and popular movement now and before 2013. January 2011 was a turning point in which the popular movement witnessed its most significant rise. But its general setback is due, in large, to the unprecedented oppressive measures of the counter-revolution in Egypt.
It is important to note that the social movement did not give in to the counter-revolution without a fight. In the wake of the victory of the counter-revolution in 2013, labor and social movements struggled to maintain their right to protest. Main labor centers witnessed remarkable protests such as in Al-Mahalla, Helwan, Alexandria, Suez and others. However, with the counter-revolution, labor strikes were forcibly and violently dispersed, with their leaders arrested and their houses raided. Nonetheless, labor strikes persisted even if on a less frequent basis and the regime was not able to silence them completely.
The question that arises from time to time, with frustration and lack of faith in people’s movements, is “why aren’t the people taking action against these economic measures?” What this question ignores is that the decline in popular reactions to the economic situation cannot be understood except within the context of the general political stalemate, it cannot be excluded from it.
This in no way means that the labor and social movements will not gain momentum until a new political movement emerges or the general situation changes. On the contrary, general change depends on the development of social and labor mobility.
The dynamic between the social and political movements has never been on par at any point in time.
Before the revolution, for example, the labor movement was positively influenced by the political movement that called for democracy. When the democratic movement witnessed a setback in 2006, the labor movement took several key steps forward and played a key role in reviving the democratic movement.
The question should be about the absence or weakness in the public’s reaction to the economic policies, and what it brought on in terms of impoverishment and suffering on vast sectors, as well as frustration and mistrust in any popular mass movement. But at the same time it can also be understood to represent an understanding of the importance of a people’s movement and its ability to break this state of oppression and bring about change.
The popular movement is not seeking to confirm or deny any expectations, or prove sociological theories. It does not function according to the simple saying, “every action has a reaction.” There are many factors that interact and affect its course of action and reaction, insomuch that the popular movement’s reaction is different every time.
This does not mean that attempts to understand popular movements and their reactions is not important, on the contrary, it is important to try and understand the popular movement and its reactions by looking at its experience, communicating with it and taking part in it. This is the only way to benefit from public action and contribute to its growth. After all, the public always has the last say.
This piece was first published on The Revolutionary Socialists on 12 May 2017.