Up to 40,000 teachers from across Egypt demonstrated outside the parliament buildings on Saturday 10 September, calling for the resignation of the Minister of Education and pay increases. They came in huge delegations from practically every town and city in the country to take their message to the government. One banner summed up the militant mood: “A message to the military council and the government: the minister must resign and increase our pay … or no-one is going to school.”
The prospect of a national strike on the first day of the school year, 17 September, is very real, unless the government makes significant concessions. The majority of teachers are extremely low-paid, and for several years the graduates of Teacher Training Colleges have not been appointed to permanent positions, trapping most of them in the treadmill of hourly-paid work. The fight for a decent minimum wage and job security has been a powerful motor behind teachers’ strikes since the uprising against Mubarak in February this year.
“I’ve been working for 20 years and my pay is 950 Egyptian pounds [about £95]” Ahmad Abd-al-Muhsin, a teacher from Beni Sueif explained on the 10 September protest. “I have a sick daughter and need to pay for her X-rays at a cost of 50 Egyptian pounds, how can I afford that?”, added a colleague. “I have a daughter who is studying medicine, and another in secondary school: where can I get the money to support them, on a salary of 1000 Egyptian pounds a month [£100]?” said Mahmud Khalil who teaches in a girls’ secondary school in Kafr al-Shaikh governorate.
The old teaching union, dominated for years by leaders tied to the government, is “no good”, teachers on the protest insisted. “All the officials in the old union are appointed,” said one teacher. “We had Hosny Mubarak for 30 years, but the old union hasn’t had any change of leadership for 36 years”, added a colleague. Things are changing now that independent teachers’ unions are springing up all over the place. “Independent unions have been set up since the revolution, since we’ve been able to raise our voices and demand freedom”
Decent pay won’t just benefit teachers themselves. “First thing to say it that isn’t true that we teachers are against Egypt,,” insisted one teacher. “We want to see a rebirth of education. We are on the side of ordinary people who have to spend up to 50% percent of the money in their pockets on private lessons. We’re standing with them, with the Egyptian economy and with the Egyptian people. But we’ve also got the right to be able to go home at the end of the day and spend time with our kids. This is so that I can have time to sit with my son. In Britain teachers get paid around £50 a day – here many of us don’t make that much in a month.”
Getting rid of corruption at the top is a key demand. The education minister sat on the old ruling party’s powerful Policy Committee. As one teacher on the protest put it: “Number one, we need dignity. We need the man who represents us in the Ministry to be one of us. The one we’ve got at the moment isn’t one of us. We ought to all agree on a representative from every governorate, and from those 27 a new minister should be chosen. And the remaining 26 should stay on and become an advisory council for the minister.”
The scale of the protest on 10 September and the degree of organisation it represents shows how quickly teachers are building new networks from below. “We don’t have a leader. We’ve all organised ourselves on Facebook to come in groups from our home towns,” teachers on the protest said.
After the demonstration, the next step will be a national strike on the first day of term. But some teachers are already planning even more militant direct action: “the last stage in our campaign will be the storming of Education Ministry offices across the country”, said one.
Solidarity will be crucial
Egypt’s ruling military council has threatened to implement new laws banning strikes and demonstrations, and to use live bullets against protestors.
Egypt’s independent unions are mobilising to back the teachers’ demands. Read Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions’ statement here.
Help build the biggest possible campaign of intnerational solidarity with the teachers’ struggles: send messages of support to EFITU email@example.com (copied to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can make sure the message gets through).