Egypt teachers strike for the first time since 1951

Mostafa Ali, Monday 19 Sep 2011

More teachers across the country boycott classrooms on the second day of a national strike that aims to force government to deliver on months-old promises

Teachers strike
Teachers strike (Photo by: Mai Shaheen)

For the second day, teachers across Egypt continue a national strike against the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

Teachers are demanding that Sharaf fire his interior minister and honour promises he made last spring to workers to raise wages and living standards.

Egypt’s educators want the government to implement a LE1200 monthly minimum wage, to release a 200 per cent productivity bonus promised to public sector workers and to discontinue merit tests, among other issues.

Grassroots organisations such as the Independent Teachers Union, who called for the strike, have been mobilising for work stoppage action for weeks, in the hope of pressuring Sharaf to concede to their demands.

Last week, tens of thousands of teachers protested at the Cabinet offices in downtown Cairo and set 17 September as the deadline, after which strikes would begin.

However, Sharaf and the minister of education, Ahmed Gamal Eddin Moussa, refused to meet teachers’ demands, citing economic difficulties.

Work stoppages began across the country on Saturday and were strongest in governorates such as Beni Suef in Upper Egypt.

The strike spread to Cairo and Giza on Sunday where the academic year officially begins a day later than the rest of the country.

Education ministry spokespersons announced that only 0.6 per cent of teachers heeded the strike call and that the overwhelming majority of Egypt’s one million teachers reported to work.

Most independent reports on strike activities, however, seem to suggest that estimates by the ministry of education are grossly deflated, at best.

According to several independent sources, activists and journalists, about 65 to 75 per cent of teachers did not report to classrooms in many parts of the country.

A recently formed group of labour solidarity activists, who have been visiting and monitoring strike sites across Egypt, are publishing minute by minute reports on the e-socialists’ Facebook page, indicating, through their images, a strong showing by strikers in governorate after another.

Moussa has denounced strikers in public statements, particularly for “prioritising sectional interests over the national good.”

Parents have kept many of the more than 13 million students in the system away from school in anticipation of the strike.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior has stationed police vehicles with three officers at schools around the country to maintain a readiness for emergency situations and protect unmonitored children.

In a number of locations, teachers on strike have reported that police and management have threatened them with jail time for striking or have incited parents to lash out against them.

The strike’s organisers, however, strongly believe in the universality of their demands. The Independent Teachers’ Union has stated, in a pamphlet it issued to the public, that it called the strike not only for economic gains but to improve conditions for students.

As of 3pm Sunday, activists reported a variety of strike news on their websites:

- More teachers in more schools join strike in Ismailiya, Suez Canal, raising the total number of idled schools from 10 Saturday to 19

- Director of education in Quaisna, Menoufuya, Nile Delta region threatens striking teachers but fails to scare them back to work

- Strike takes place in 119 schools in Menoufiya

- Military police and Central Security officers threaten strikers in Luxor, Upper Egypt but fail to end action

- Marsa Matrouh teachers ( near the Egypt-Libya border) strike and reach out to parents, and the two groups plan a joint protest Monday

- Officials and police reportedly threatened to implement newly expanded emergency laws against strikers in Tanta, Gharbiya, Nile Delta region but fail to break strike

- School officials in Port Said, Suez attempt to pit parents against strikers

- Governor of Fayoum in Upper Egypt listens to teachers’ demands but fails to make any commitment; the strike continues

- High school students in a number of Cairo districts organise groups to support their teachers on strike

Teachers say that they want higher wages and smaller class sizes in order to discontinue the decades old practice of administering fee-based private lessons for under-educated students.

Ahram Online was able to talk to a couple of striking teachers in two different neighbourhoods in the greater Cairo area.

Maha Hamdy, a primary school 6th grade Arabic language teacher in the Hawamdiya district of Giza, told Ahram Online that teachers’ participation levels in the strike in her area was much bigger than the official state media reported.

“Twenty-five out of 37 schools have joined the strike,” she said as she was joined by family members and supporters outside of her school.

Radi Salem Mohamed, a 16 year veteran teacher, told Ahram Online that teachers in his school in the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba have walked out with a number of colleagues in close by schools in the morning and marched through the streets.

“We marched from my school to five other schools in the area, chanting for living wages for ourselves and decent education for the children,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed explained that the ministry set near impossible conditions on teachers in order to release promised increases in wages.

“They want us to work a minimum of 18 days every month on a five days a week schedule. This means that we cannot take any sick or personal days off. That is not human,” he stated.

Mohamed added that teachers want to stop relying on private lessons to supplement what he described as low wages, and prefer instead to earn a decent minimum salary.

“I have been working for 16 years, I have a family and children of my own, and I make LE900. Everyone knows that no one in Egypt can live on less than 1200-1500 pounds per month,” he said.

Mohamed said that the interior minister is out of touch with teachers’ problems and is dead wrong in accusing teachers of apathy toward students.

“We teach 5000 girls in our schools. We care about our students’ welfare. The government and official media are lying when they say we are greedy. The public should not believe them.

“Last January, the state run media lied and said there was no revolution in Tahrir when millions were in the square. Today they are lying again,” he stressed.

On the other hand, activists have reported that some members of the Muslim Brotherhood influenced group, Teachers Without Rights, have been crossing picket lines.

Some leaders of the Brotherhood faction, who last week won a landslide victory in national union elections, said that while they sympathise with strikers demands, they would prefer to negotiate with Sharaf rather than confront him.

The teachers’ strike is the first time Egypt’s educators have collectively acted on a national scale since 1951, when the country was still under British colonial rule.

Mohamed Abdallah and Mai Shaheen contributed to this story 

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