EGYPT: Academics warn of new strike over wages

Months after going on strike for the first time, professors at Egypt's public universities have threatened to take "escalatory measures" unless the government releases performance-related bonuses owed to them. Last December, academics in state-run universities received the first part of bonuses approved after gruelling negotiations with the government. They reacted angrily last week when they learned that universities would have to pay for the bonuses from their resources.

"Presidents of the [public] universities received an official letter from the Minister of Finance, asking them to fund these bonuses from their own resources. This is unrealistic and ridiculous," said Hussein Eweidah, chief of Al Azhar University's Teaching Staff Club, an independent union advocating the interests of academics. "This statement virtually cancels these bonuses because no university can afford to pay them from its resources."

Heads of the public universities' teaching staff clubs held an emergency meeting in Cairo where they gave the government a 10-day ultimatum, demanding it pay the bonuses by Tuesday, 10 March.

"If the deadline passes without the government responding to our demand, professors will take action," said Al Azhar's Eweidah. These would include going on strike, refraining from attending classes or setting and correcting examinations. The protesters have also threatened a lawsuit against the government over the bonus issue and a government decision to link pay increases to performance.

Under a deal struck with the government last year, professors were obliged to fill in forms proving that they had done extra work - at least 28 hours per week - if they were to be eligible to receive a bonus ranging from LE1,200 (US$215) to LE2,000.

"We have filled out those forms in return for peanuts. We got the first round of the bonus last December, and that's all," said Mahmoud Abdel Fatah, a professor at the University of Assiut, one of Egypt's 18 public universities. "It is high time the wages of professors were substantially improved."

Academics say that starting salaries for assistant professors at public universities are a meagre LE500 (US$90), while a senior professor gets LE3,000 on average per month. Apparently discouraged by their pay, many professors have left for lucrative jobs in the oil-rich Gulf countries or joined private universities which have sprung up over the past few years.

Members of university research centres, who have not received bonuses at all, are joining the new protests and demanding they have regular access to the money.

The moves to improve their financial status are not politically motivated, said Maghawri Diab, a spokesman for the permanent bureau of public universities' teaching staff clubs. "They are just steps aimed at protecting our rights so that we'll be able to do a good job. Strikes are a legal right enshrined in international conventions to which Egypt is a signatory."

In recent years Egypt has seen a spate of strikes staged by professionals and labourers over low wages. On 17 April last year, three civilians were killed in violent clashes with police over price rises in the Nile Delta industrial city of Al Mahla Al Koubra. A few weeks later, President Hosni Mubarak ordered a 30% rise in the salaries of public sector employees. Still, many in this country of 80 million people, where around 40% live on US$2 per day, find it hard to cope with soaring prices.

"We hold constant meetings these days to ponder the next move if university professors do not get a clear answer from the Prime Minister by 10 March," said Diab, the spokesman for the teaching staff clubs. "We will not allow the government to take us for granted."

The crisis prompted the Higher Council for Universities, a government body overseeing higher education institutions in Egypt, to meet to consider a way out. No official statement was released after the meeting.

Local newspapers, however, quoted what they termed well-informed sources as saying that Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal had asked university presidents during the meeting to compile lists of the academics who deserved the bonuses for the last three months.

"He will forward these lists to the Prime Minister in a bid to convince him of the importance of paying at least the second round of the bonuses in order to abort the strike threatened by the professors," added these sources. The bonuses were the brainchild of Helal, who has been criticised for allegedly doing little to substantially increase academic wages.