Egyptian protestors tackle joblessness for first time

Egyptian protestors tackle joblessness for first time 
  Egypt in recent months has witnessed a spate of protests by opposition groups voicing a broad range of complaints ranging from the 24-year-old Emergency Law, to changes in electoral rules, to President Hosni Mubarak’s grooming of his son Gamal to replace him. But last week, pro-reform activists tackled the issue of unemployment for the first time.

Some 2,000 members and supporters of the Kifaya [Enough] political movement and other groups staged a demonstration in downtown Cairo to protest against the skyrocketing unemployment rate as well as revisit their previous demands for other reforms.

Jobless young men and women demonstrators expressed their frustration at having little hope of work. Unemployment has been on the rise in the past decade and is now officially at 9.9 percent, although unofficial estimates put it as high as 25 percent.

Encircled by several layers of security police at the July 14 demo, protestors shouted: “Down with Mubarak,” while they held up a banner that read, “Big boss, I want to work.”

“I am already 33 years old, I don’t have a job, and I am still not married,” Saeed Radi, one of the protestors, complained. “I am happy to join this demonstration because I can express myself. I am shouting and spilling it out.”

Opposition members and reform movements blame the government for poor economic performance and mismanagement of resources.

“The problem of unemployment will not be solved while the current government remains in power, because the government has not only been political oppressive but it has also failed economically,” Abdel Halim Qandil, spokesman of the Kifaya movement, told the Middle East Times. “Mubarak is responsible for the unemployment, economic failure and public corruption,” he added.

Egypt’s domestic and foreign public debt currently stands at LE614 billion. Qandil estimated the number of unemployed Egyptians to be 7 million.

Mubarak, 77, has been in power since 1981 and is widely expected to run for a fifth term in the upcoming presidential elections slated for September. He declared on February 26 that multiple candidates would be allowed to run for president, but opposition members dismiss the reforms as hollow.

In early June, 500 teachers were fired from a school in the Dakahliya governorate. Abdel Hamid Arafa, a school teacher, said he was dismissed from his post despite holding a legal contract with the school.

“We knocked on all doors, but all officials ignored us,” Arafa said. “When we went to the governor [of Dakahliya], he sarcastically told us to join Kifaya. So I did. Today, I, along with my fellow teachers who were fired, declare our membership in Kifaya.”

The Kifaya movement has made significant headway in rallying Egyptians, especially youth, who have grown frustrated from a shortage of jobs.

This July 14 demo was the first time Kifaya has endorsed a social issue. Thus far, demonstrations in Egypt have been largely a reaction to the top-down constitutional and political reforms proposed by the government. Demands had included repealing emergency laws, elimination of torture and freedom of expression.

“The right to work is no less important than the right to form political parties,” Qandil said, adding, “We are trying to expand the rights of the Egyptian people that we should be defending.”

An ongoing series of weekly demonstrations were triggered by the police assaults and sexual harassment of female protestors on referendum day on May 25.

Demonstrations are usually held outside government institutions and professional syndicates. But recently, protestors have gathered in residential areas.

Wael Tawfik, a journalist and political activist, said that this trend of speaking up in residential areas has been more successful in gathering public support than have demonstrations at government buildings in downtown Cairo.

“Demonstrating in residential areas is more effective because we go to where the people live to inform them about their rights and our struggle,” Tawfik said.

The unemployment demonstration was aired on government TV channels, a rare occurrence for the state-controlled media that famously ignores coverage of opposition protests.
The protesters had planned to march to Abdeen Palace in downtown Cairo, but security police hindered them with an impenetrable ’human barrier’ of soldiers and riot police.

Witnesses said that they had seen two beaten and bruised protestors being taken to hospital. Other witnesses said several other people had been injured in scuffles with security forces. Among them was Magdi Ahmed Hussein, secretary-general of the banned Islamist Labor Party.

George Ishak, one of the founders of Kifaya, said that at least 30 of its members had been arrested on the way to the demonstrations.

Ola Galal
Middle East Times