Erica in Cairo

Erica is a junior majoring in art history in Meadows School of the Arts and international studies in Dedman College, with a minor in Italian. She also is a Hatton W. Sumners Scholar. In fall 2010, Erica will be taking classes in Egyptology and Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo with SMU-in-Cairo. She hopes to learn as much Arabic as possible while traveling throughout the region.

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Our first Egyptian strike

School today feels similar to those days with tornado scares or massive blizzards – everything’s just a little “off.” This feeling, however, is not due to a natural disaster, but rather a worker’s strike. To be honest, I’m rather surprised that I haven’t seen more since I’ve been in Egypt – “strike” was one of the first words I learned in Italian.

Everyone seems to be a bit confused over the specifics of the strike, the language barrier making it difficult to deduce exactly what is being shouted and the rumors that fly in such situations making all reports of questionable veracity. I have heard that the wages of the workers were cut in half, from 1200 to 600 Egyptian Pounds/month (roughly $207 down to $103), and that the workers are upset that they can no longer hire family members (for those in management positions). My Egyptology professor told us the second report this morning; I had not heard it before. I think it’s a mix of everything. CNN ireport says that the workers’ contracts promise a salary between 600 and 1200 Egyptian pounds, but workers are receiving paychecks in the 400s (roughly $70). Find the article here

So the story goes … yesterday, in the middle of a very long Arabic class, we were set free to observe the cultural experience that is a strike. Everyone had congregated outside of the HUSS building, yelling around people who, I was told, were lying on the ground in protest. Apparently the workers (to clarify, it is not the food staff or teachers striking, just the janitor figures) were asked to come negotiate indoors, but were refusing to leave the area until the appropriate representative came and talked to them in public. The workers seem to have a considerable amount of student support, and for fear of not being readmitted to campus tomorrow seem to have slept outside the HUSS building last night, joined by a number of students.

The school is a dump today because, as previously noted, Egyptians don’t pick up after themselves and now no one is cleaning up after them. Furthermore, I believe the janitors have purposefully made things messier by, for example, knocking over trash cans in the bathrooms so that toilet paper and tissues are everywhere. However, aside from the mess, the temperature of the school seems to have cooled considerably – the area in front of the HUSS now simply has a bunch of people sitting in chairs in protest and a bunch of students milling about.

Though the workers do seem to have substantial student support, one Egyptian was explaining to me that the workers never really work, and therefore their wages are being lowered. I believe wage assigning is difficult in this area of employment, at least in Egypt, for it is unfeasible to pay a worker based on the number of pieces of trash they pick up as if on commission – are they going to count? And when paid by the hour, there is the option of going to the roof of the library and chatting and smoking (which I always see when I want to study there in between classes). It becomes a self-destructive cycle when the workers proceed to work less because they feel they are not being paid fairly, and then the university wants to lower their wages because it feels that the workers are not doing their jobs.

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