CAIRO // When Egyptians protest against perceived injustices, they often demonstrate outside the People's Council, the country's lower house of parliament. When people protest outside the People's Council, they buy their felafel sandwiches next door at the Abu Hamdy Cafeteria.
"There are more of them than usual because they don't have money and their salaries are poor. So we give them discounts," said Mohammed Khalaf, the cafeteria's chef, who spoke, as if on an altar, from a raised platform behind piles of crispy felafel and pre-made salads. "They all want beans. It's even better than meat. You can protest all day on two bean sandwiches." In the past two months, with hundreds of protesters chanting, shouting, sleeping and eating within a short distance of his small restaurant, business has been brisk, said Mr Khalaf.
The expanding demonstrations here are only the latest manifestation of rising discontent among Egyptian workers, many of whom have found themselves on the sharp end of Egypt's liberalising economic reforms and the privatisation of the state-owned firms that have historically employed the bulk of Egypt's workforce, political observers say. But the trend may also reflect a growing willingness among Egypt's disenchanted to voice their concerns directly to those in charge - even if that means camping out on the pavement for weeks at a time.
Issandr al Amrani, an independent political analyst and author of the Arabist blog, said: "I think it's fair to say that we're seeing an increase in this type [of protest]. In those industrial towns that are the hardest hit, there's not a lot of media attention. By protesting in front of parliament, you grab people's attention." Discontent among Egyptian workers has been growing for years, Mr al Amrani said, and its recent successes have further galvanised a workers' movement that is now making itself heard in Egypt's capital.
Two years ago, about 10,000 property tax collectors camped on pavements outside the People's Assembly for 12 days, a strategy that protesters have mimicked over the past several months, before parliamentarians gave them a 325 per cent increase in their base pay plus the right to form what remains Egypt's only independent union. Last Sunday, hundreds of workers from the once publicly-owned Amonsito textile company ended their three-week protest outside Egypt's Shura Council, the lower house of parliament, whose chambers are several blocks away from the People's Assembly. The protesters were able to strike a deal with Egypt's national textiles union after the company's profligate Syrian owner absconded nearly two years ago, leaving many employees out of work. "It seems that now, the fact that the regime has not repressed people has become reasonably enough known so that all sorts of groups of people who have grievances are willing to use this" method of protest, said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University in the United States.
Prof Beinin published a report on Egyptian workers' movements last month for The Solidarity Center, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation that focuses on workers' rights. "The vast majority of workers have not called for regime change and democratisation. This has been about bread and butter issues." The city centre protests are echoes of rising anger far from the halls of power, said Ibrahim el Eissawy, a professor of economics at the government-funded Institute of National Planning.
Between 2005 and 2006, Prof el Eissawy said there were slightly more than 200 workers' protests. The following year, that number rose to 600 workers' actions nationwide before expanding once again to 700 protests during 2009. "The reasons are well-known. They are mostly related to deteriorating economic conditions for workers, civil servants, private sector employees and even peasants," said Prof el Eissawy. "It's the ill-consequences of the neoliberal economic policies. They are becoming increasingly felt by the lower classes, working classes, government employees and private sector employees. They are feeling the pinch."
For its part, Egypt's government says its liberal economic policies - which have led to a sharp decrease in government investment and sweeping privatisation of government-owned companies - are working and that the proof is in the numbers. Economic growth has hovered around an unprecedented seven per cent in 2006, 2007 and 2008 before the global financial crisis curbed growth to around five per cent last year.
The government has also increased pay for public sector employees in a bid to quell anger over rising prices. But critics - even those who support the privatisation of Egypt's bloated public sector - contend that growth has come at a huge cost for Egypt's poorest, many of whom face unemployment in a job market that has left about 10 per cent of the population out of work. Meanwhile, prices continue to rise at a rate of more than 12 per cent, while food prices increased last month by more than 21 per cent, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
At those prices, even Mr Khalaf's bean sandwiches - which he sells to protesters at a special rate of 75 Egyptian piastres (Dh0.5) - are too pricey. Employees at Egypt's information centres, who on Wednesday said they had been sleeping outside the People's Assembly for two weeks demanding benefits and higher pay, earn only 99 Egyptian pounds (Dh66) per month. "We have no job security, no pensions," said a desperate-looking Saeed Mungi Mustafa, who compiles statistics in the office of the governorate of Beni Suef. "We are coming and going every day, but the government isn't paying attention to us."