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Chilled out and stunned to be there: Egypt's workers do May Day

Paul Mason | 18:19 UK time, Sunday, 1 May 2011

I've been in and around Tahrir Sq for most of the day - Egypt's first May Day for decades to be held in relatively free conditions. 

In the taxi there was the official trade union conference blaring from the radio, and it sounded like they, too were trying to come up with a tone differentiating their event from it's usual atmosphere - which was as befits a state run union full of factory managers in a dictatorship. Someone even denounced Mubarak.

On the square they've begun to go way beyond this.

From around 1pm there were contingents turning up usually as follows: about 60 people; home made banners congratulating the workers of District X for celebrating 1 May. Usually fronted by broad chested, well turned out - ie skilled and non precarious - middle aged manual workers. Then their sons and a few wives, or occasionally with the white collar workers, women employees. They would chant for a bit then join the throng, about 10,000 strong by the end.

I interviewed numerous people speaking in Arabic - I have still gotta get translations so I summarise: 

Maintenance manager from a small town wandering around with his son dressed in the football colours of Spain: nothing has changed economically but we're happy to be here.

Ticket collector from the subway: dressed in the t-shirt of the new independent union federation, linking arms with his buddies: we want the old bosses to be kicked out of the enterprises; a minimum wage and the reversal of privatisations. Almost word for word a guy - again a middle manager - from the Cairo Gas Co, who adds that the revolution is now "my whole life" as it will determine my children's fate.

There is no singing of the International, and the only people carrying red flags are the newly "out" Communist Party (are they Russians, asks one old geezer, adding: Are you Russian?) - and the newly formed Democratic Labour Party - which is a project involving the far left and the Indy union leaders.

Mostly people carry Egyptian flags: and sing the national anthem. Plus there is a bit of football regalia. A young ultra from Zamalek FC tells me how he came with four thousand football fans on the 28 January, in defiance of people in the club hierarchy who told them the protesters were foreign agents.

"Why don't you ask me about football?" he says, when I begin quizzing him on the social dynamics of urban poverty. OK then, I ask him how Zamalek are doing. "The problem is the fans are spending too much time talking about the revolution and not enough about football".

It's clear that the football ultras, who never got on well with the cops, were one of the conduIts for bringing the urban poor onto the streets.

I ask a couple of older workers what they did on Jan25th: "We came down here with our workmates. Gradually other industries came down here and the strange thing is, though we all work in separate industries, we now know each other's faces."

Despite this, the independent unions are at a very rudimentary stage. Most have this mixture of wage demands, demands against particular corrupt bosses and things they want to happen to the structure of their industry: they are hyper specific. They do not see themselves as opposed to, or separate from the educated professionals who led the revolution.

This latter group is, as I have written before, increasingly perturbed by the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, it's alleged close relationship with the army, and the benefit both derive from the speed of the elections.

One activist, a female human rights worker and part of the newly formed Social Democratic Party told me of the hurdles you have to jump to get on the ballot paper: register 5,000 members and publish the entire list in two national newspapers. The estimated cost is equivalent to 200,000 GBP.

She was not worried by the proliferation of new parties. Only the election timing, which seems to her designed to deliver a majority for the old elite and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Increasingly liberal intellectuals are beginning to talk about an "Ataturk model" - ie making the army the guarantor of the secular constitution as in Turkey; they look wistfully at Tunisia, whose transition is being more heavily influenced by the international community, NGOs etc. I recommend the novels of Orhan Pamuk to them, on the pros and cons of Turkish military secularism.

As the military police moved people off the central reservation at dusk, it was peaceful and jokey. One veteran traffic cop told us: "it's chaotic now, with all the traffic and the marchers; but we are saying nothing now; later we will impose order". He meant later in the political process, I think.

Few among the protesters and activists doubt an imposition of order is one potential outcome, hence some would rather have it Ataturk style than Ahmadinejad style. 

Among the workers though, the thinking remains for many at the horizon of their own lives and workplace. They are still stunned to be standing there amid communists, social democrats and everything in-between, totally free of their old bosses, who they allege used the state run union to spy on them and dispense corruption.

The doctors' strike has been called for 10 May after a rancourous mass meeting lasting 5 hours in which the Muslim Brotherhood argued against the strike but got overturned, amid acrimony, by the largely young, secular membership (including many female doctors), with a lot of pushing and shoving on the platform.

As far as I can tell that is they only trouble there's been here, though after I left there were reports on Twitter that some people objected to having a music party in the square out of respect for its martyrs. [Update 1900 local: it seems there was some trouble and the police intervened, leading the stage to be dismantled, as the crowd had swelled to around 50,000. Thanks to the non-effectiveness of loperamide against the bug I have caught, I could not stay.]

However up to the time I left the first May Day in Egypt was chilled out and its sheer ordinariness what was extraordinary.


  • Comment number 1.


    "I interviewed numerous people speaking in Arabic - I have still gotta get translations so I summarise"

    Global BBC - no one with the language and appropriate socio-political skills?

  • Comment number 2.

    May day in Egypt...that's nice......they have banned it here...oh to be an Egyptian!

  • Comment number 3.

    '1. At 20:18pm 1st May 2011, barriesingleton wrote:
    "I interviewed numerous people speaking in Arabic - I have still gotta get translations so I summarise"
    Global BBC - no one with the language and appropriate socio-political skills?

    Maybe Mr. Bowen and his team is on hand to oversee?

    With events unfurling as I write, one rather hopes that what we get via edited selections of translations of what some sources are saying may represent a fair cross section of opinion.

    Personally, I think I'll stick with actual news from reporters qualified to investigate and analyse the topic at hand.

    And Whatmighthavebeennighty guestlists over the next few days will be interesting. I hope not too predictable. Near unrepresentative talking heads from minute political parties or ABC-embarrassing 'publications' whose main qualifications are to be on speed dial, nearby and ready to stir things up might not be appropriate.

    At times like this I tend to prefer what is and is known, as opposed to what might have been and is 'felt'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Wonderful to hear that so many have turned out for May Day in Egypt.

    People power being held up by the Egyptian military (backed by the US) in the hope that they can con them with so-called representative democracy that let's private enterprise to continue to rape the workers & nature.

    Egyptians - don't get taken in by the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else who wants to 'repesent' you. Form your own workers' councils & take over.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    no body...buried at sea...pull the other one, reminds me of the passport 'found' in the rubble at 9/11

  • Comment number 7.

    CUI BONO (#6)

    We ain’t seen nothin' yet stevie. America has a plethora of 'truth' movements of professional membership. But all the BBC can find is 'the grieving duped'.

    Nicky Campbell had one caller sowing some low-key doubt. He was given 'the voice' and sent packing.

    The truth is out there - and is due here. Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (Richard Gage) speaking across UK in June.

    Can anyone name a Westminster politician who knows (and will acknowledge) that on 9/11 THREE TOWERS WERE DEMOLISHED BY EXPLOSIVES in a false flag operation?

    Lucky Barack! No one's interested in the birth certificate now!

    Not nuff sed!

  • Comment number 8.


    Bin Laden characterised as a 'charismatic, who caused the death of a vast number of civilians in furtherance of fanatical, false belief'.

    Such men are dangerous.

    Now we have to stop the other one, before he can do any more harm. But we must realise these evildoers don't all hide behind walls - adjustable laws can be every bit as effective.

  • Comment number 9.


    Delivered to the camera, with an unblinking stare; President Obama could not have made a more chilling statement.

    It is to be hoped, that Bin Laden's death will bring hours of reprise of the destruction of the THREE towers, on our TVs, and that this time people will see the values that make Obama's People (not Americans generally) WHO THEY ARE, writ large in the images of ejection of steel girders, like lolly sticks, from EXPLODING towers.

    IT'S THE GIRDERS STUPID. (And a lot more besides.)

  • Comment number 10.

    'we want ... the reversal of privatisations.'

    A few light years in front of us then!

    The popular desire for secularism is encouraging - if this is accurately observed.

    Interesting how commentators manage to miss the centrality of women's rights in all the reporting on Arab uprisings, how this is the crux issue.

    The Saudis must be getting nervous about loss of power over people and mystique, being brought down to earth as just another repressive regime

  • Comment number 11.

    the BBC (and I love it) want us to believe the 'sanitized' version, I have tried to put an opposing point of view to 5live for days now and all I get is the bums rush, if I go with the 'sanitized version'...I get on...


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