Victory in Egypt: The fight for social rights at the core of the fight for democracy

After 18 days of revolution, Mubarak has resigned today. Time will tell the specifics about when elections will be held, about how the military will lead the transition, how this shift will affect the process in Middle East… Nonetheless, this is a victory for Egypt, it is a victory for democracy and peaceful mobilisation of people. And Egypt is giving a lesson to countries that are still suffering the burden of dictatorship. What is it?

Protesters in Egypt, REUTERS

This social revolution exemplifies what ordinary people are able to do in order to get their socioeconomic rights back. Social disparities between men and women and between youth and adults in access to health, education, labour and adequate standards of living underlie the popular revolt in Egypt. The International Labour Organization noted last January that North Africa has the highest rate of unemployment in the world, with a youth unemployment that is nearly four time the one of older adults. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, whose headquarters recently suffered attacks from police officers, denounced that “the Egyptian economy has been affected by the global economic crisis and the country’s poor people have paid the price, especially since the only beneficiaries of [Egypt’s economic] policies are those close to decision-makers”.

As Joel Beinin, professor at Stanford University and the principle author of The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, wrote in the early stages of this revolution:

This has been an insurrection inspired largely by youth. Over half of Egypt’s population is younger than the thirty years Hosni Mubarak has been in power. Middle class youth cannot easily marry and raise a family by relying solely on the wages they earn from jobs in Egypt, if they are employed at all. Unemployment is concentrated among first-time job seekers with a tertiary education. Such unemployed and underemployed youth typically work abroad for several years to save enough money to buy and furnish an apartment, the sine qua non of middle class marriage.

In the last days, labour has played a more protagonist role in the revolts in Egypt. In fact, workers have increased their activity over the last decade or so with the creation of some independent trade unions and the organisation of more than 3,000 strikes, sit-ins and other protests. That mobilisation frames the background of the current revolution.

Moroccan authorities must take good note of what’s happening now in Egypt, notably but not only as regards to Western Sahara. A 2007 report by the International Crisis Group reflected the economic cost of the military occupation. The report denounces that the exploitation of natural resources (notably, phosphates and fisheries) do not revert to the Saharawi population, but rather remains in the hands of a few Moroccan elites, the military and the Moroccan establishment (Makhzen). The violation of socioeconomic rights explains to a large degree the movement of thousands of Saharawis in the vicinity of El-Ayoun (the main city of Western Sahara) last November, which ended up with the harsh repression by Moroccan forces.

It is estimated that Morocco spends half of its military budget in Western Sahara. The Moroccan defense budget has risen dramatically over the last years, and it reached the 16% of the national budget (€3.11 billion) in 2009. In the meantime, the standards of living for the general Moroccan population are not much better than the ones in Egypt. In fact, according to the UNDP Human Development Index 2010, Morocco holds the position 114 while Egypt is the number 101 in the global ranking.

Egyptians have reminded the rest of the world that democracy is something worth fighting and dying for. And they have also told us that there must be an alternative to Neoliberal policies that undermine our standards of living. To fight for socioeconomic rights is to fight for democracy.

Koldo Casla


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