Alternate Approaches

Here’s What Democracy, Economically, Looks Like

The global media spotlight may be gone, but Egypt’s revolutionaries are still making history, with a spirited campaign for a ‘maximum wage.’

By Sam Pizzigati

The global press corps is no longer hanging out on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The media have moved on. But Egypt’s revolutionaries, insurgents who range from doctors to tax collectors, are still making news of significance, even if few outside Egypt seem to be paying much attention.

These Egyptians merit our attention. At a time of global austerity — and ever louder demands for “sacrifice” from low- and moderate-income people — the Egyptian revolution is blazing a new path. Egypt’s revolutionaries are demanding sacrifice from the top — via a “maximum wage” — and they’ve shoved this notion of income limits onto their nation’s political center stage.

Indeed, almost every major demonstration in Tahrir Square, ever since earlier this year, has sounded the call for compensation limits.

“We had a slogan before the revolution,” says one labor activist, “A maximum wage for those who live in palaces, a minimum wage for those who live in the graveyards.”

“How can we talk about social justice,” as former activist parliamentarian Ashraf Badr Eddin asked last month, “without mentioning a maximum wage?”

Egypt’s maximum wage drumbeat actually began well before Tahrir Square emerged as a global inspiration. The local labor protests that set Egypt on the road to Tahrir Square, protests that started back in 2004, gave the “maximum wage” notion its first public airing.

“We had a slogan before the revolution,” Kamal Abu Aita, president of the independent Property Tax Collectors Union, explained in an interview this past March, “A maximum wage for those who live in palaces, a minimum wage for those who live in the graveyards.”

This past January, Aita’s union joined with other labor groupings to launch a new Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions. Their founding declaration called for “a new fair minimum wage that guarantees decent living for all workers” and a “maximum wage” set at no more than ten times the minimum.

All Egyptians, the new federation’s declaration added, have the right to “to a democratic society for all, offering every single citizen a share in its wealth,” a society “that does not allow the few to buy private jets while the rest of the population cannot even afford public transportation.”

Workers around the country would pick up that call. In February, employees at Telecom Egypt blocked streets and sat in at telephone exchange centers. They demanded “an adequate minimum wage” for workers and a “maximum wage” for bosses.

These workers, news reports indicated, were making 600 Egyptian pounds a month, the equivalent of about $100. Their top bosses at Telecom Egypt were pulling in 250,000 pounds, about $42,000, or over 400 times worker pay.

Egyptian workers are organizing to gain control over their economic future, and they consider the introduction of a meaningful income floor — and ceiling — as crucial to creating a just one.

Egypt’s revolutionary students would also pick up the maximum wage demand and keep sounding the call for it after President Mubarak fell. In April, the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution demanded a higher minimum wage and a maximum set at 15 times the minimum.

More broadly based Egyptian protest groupings, the Popular Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, would keep up the pressure. In May, this insurgent structure leveled demands that included a minimum wage “no less than 1,500 Egyptian pounds” and a maximum no higher than 15 times the minimum.

On May’s last Friday Egyptian protestors would once again jam Tahrir Square, this time with a call for a “second revolution.” They sounded five economic demands. First on the list: putting in place “a minimum and maximum limit.”

A few days later, Egypt’s interim government would finally respond — with a series of economic moves that labor leaders would quickly dismiss as a “joke.”

The government’s response did raise the public sector minimum wage, but only to 700 pounds, or less than $120 per month. And government ministers did set a public sector compensation ratio between top and bottom, at 36 to 1.  But they left the compensation to be included in that ratio vague and refused to even discuss a maximum for the private sector, “saying the government should not tell businessmen how to spend their money.”

“The ministers won’t do a maximum wage limit because they know they can’t give up their inflated pay checks,” responded Saber Barakat, a union leader at Egypt’s Delta Steel. “Only then will they recognize that we are living like animals.”

So what’s next for the Egyptian maximum wage campaign? Activists like Mohamed Shafiq, a Cairo medical doctor involved in physician strikes earlier this spring, are vowing no let-up. They’re organizing, Shafiq noted in an interview last month, hospital by hospital.

Sign up for To MuchFor the first time, Shafiq enthuses, doctors, nurses, and aides are talking together about how to deal with everything from supply shortages to “corrupt old managers” who’ve been “taking thousands of Egyptian pounds while we are taking pennies.”

These hospital workers are organizing, in effect, to gain control over their economic future, and they consider the introduction of a meaningful income floor — and ceiling — as crucial to creating a just one. And these activists, adds Dr. Shafiq, want this “wage structure not only for doctors and nurses and health care providers but for all the workers of Egypt.”

If these activists get what they seek, or even come close, all the workers of the world — not to mention their employers — will surely take notice.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up at Inequality.Org to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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