Egyptian Workers After June 30
- *Egyptian Workers After June 30
by Joel Beinin
August 23, 2013
The independent labor movement that has flourished in Egypt since the
ouster of former president Husni Mubarak enthusiastically supported the
Tamarrud (Rebel) campaign for the huge June 30 demonstrations asserting
a popular vote of no confidence in President Muhammad Mursi. The Center
for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), Egypt's most experienced
(and during the 1990s only) labor-oriented NGO, claims to have gathered
200,000 signatures for the Tamarrud petition through its six regional
offices. Three independent trade union organizations -- the Egyptian
Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), the Egyptian Democratic
Labor Congress (EDLC) and the Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers
(PCAW) -- also collected signatures and monitored workers' participation
in the demonstrations.
These independent federations and hundreds of their constituent local
unions have been established since the ejection of Mubarak because the
Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) created in 1957 has always
functioned as an arm of the state.
The Tamarrud campaign demanded early presidential elections, but the
Egyptian army seized the opportunity of the mass gathering to depose
Mursi on July 3, claiming, with some justification, that its coup was
the will of the people. The army has invoked this supposed popular
mandate for all of its actions since, including the killings of some
1,000 pro-Mursi demonstrators since the Muslim Brother's removal. Most
of these people died in the army's violent dispersal of two sit-ins on
The number of anti-Mursi protesters on June 30 was at least 2 million.
Some estimates are much higher. Hence, a large number of workers must
have participated. After the military issued its July 1 ultimatum to
Mursi to resolve the crisis, the EFITU and EDLC called for a nationwide
general strike on July 2. The strike never materialized. The reason is
that the independent trade union movement is primarily a local, not a
Despite the limited capacity of the EFITU and EDLC to mobilize at the
national level, for the last two and a half years, workers have
escalated the protest movement that began in the late 1990s. In the
decade before Mubarak's ouster well over 2 million workers participated
in some 3,400 strikes and other collective actions. The total number of
workers collective actions in 2011 was 1,400; in 2012 it reached 1,969.
According to the Egyptian Center for Social Rights (ECESR), in the first
quarter of 2013 there were 2,400 social and economic protests. At least
half involved workers and publicly employed professionals -- doctors,
engineers and teachers.
This unprecedented social movement contributed substantially to
delegitimizing the regimes of both Mursi and Mubarak. Mursi's Muslim
Brothers have historically had little support among industrial or
service workers. Moreover, the Brothers are just as committed to the
free-market fundamentalism promoted by the international financial
institutions as the Mubarak regime was. When workers continued to strike
and protest, Mursi's administration, like the Mubarak regime, often
granted their economic demands but ignored their political demands and
undermined their organizational autonomy. Its repressive measures were
often more severe than those of the late Mubarak era.
Workers clearly hoped for better treatment with Mursi gone, particularly
since one of their own, veteran trade unionist Kamal Abu Eita, accepted
a post in the interim cabinet. One month later, those hopes are dashed.
Abu Eita stood by while security forces crushed a militant strike at the
Suez Steel Company, located in the Canal Zone city that, not
coincidentally, was in the vanguard of the revolutionary forces that
compelled Mubarak to step down. "Champions of Production"
After Mubarak's demise, Ahmad Hasan al-Bur�i, a specialist in labor law
at Cairo University's Faculty of Law and a proponent of independent
trade unionism, served as minister of manpower and migration for nine
months. With input from independent trade unionists and labor-oriented
NGOs, his ministry drafted a Trade Union Freedoms Law. It would have
fully legalized independent trade unions. Al-Bur�i had already directed
the ministry to register such unions on the grounds that Egypt's
international treaty commitments, including ratified conventions of the
International Labor Organization, overrode national legislation granting
a trade union monopoly to the ETUF. The military, the Muslim
Brother-dominated parliament, which met from January to June 2012, and
the Mursi administration all refused to enact the legislation.
Interim prime minister Hazim al-Biblawi, who was installed after the
army deposed Mursi on July 3, named al-Bur�i as his minister of social
solidarity. Al-Bur�i announced that his first priority was enacting the
Trade Union Freedoms Law. But his ministry does not have direct
responsibility for the matter. Nonetheless, the appointment was an olive
branch extended to independent trade unionists to win their support for
the transitional government.
Abu Eita, the founding president of the EFITU, accepted the military's
embrace. He warmly welcomed its July 1 ultimatum to Mursi. After Mursi's
removal, Abu Eita proclaimed, "Workers who were champions of the strike
under the previous regime should now become champions of production."
The EFITU later issued a "clarification" saying that it did not intend
to forgo the strike weapon.
Abu Eita has long been involved in national politics and has been
criticized for playing that game according to norms that have changed
little since the toppling of Mubarak. He was a founding member of the
Nasserist Karama (Dignity) Party (unrecognized by the Mubarak regime).
Karama participated in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as part of
the Democratic Alliance led by the Muslim Brothers' Freedom and Justice
Party. Abu Eita won a seat in the parliament -- the only worker to do so.
Interim premier al-Biblawi named Abu Eita minister of manpower and
migration. In order to accept the post, Abu Eita resigned as EFITU
president. He now has direct responsibility for the future of the Trade
Union Freedoms Law. But neither a majority of the business-friendly
cabinet, which includes some Mubarak-era figures, nor the military, the
ultimate source of power, are likely to support the legislation drafted
by al-Bur�i. Coup or Cooptation
Even before the Suez steel strike, there was sharp debate over Abu
Eita's acceptance of the ministry and the army's transitional "road
map." Some believed that his presence in the cabinet represented a
victory for the workers' movement and that Abu Eita would ensure that
workers' main demands were met. This was the position of a majority of
the EFITU leadership. Its executive board issued a statement supporting
the "road map." Others worried that Abu Eita's appointment was an effort
to coopt the movement.
Both claims contain elements of truth. Abu Eita would never have been
appointed were it not for the mass social movement in which he has been
a prominent leader. Yet neither the government nor the army can
countenance the decentralized direct democracy from below that is the
strength of the workers' movement.
EFITU executive board member Fatma Ramadan sees Abu Eita's appointment
as cooptation. According to her, he did not consult with other EFITU
leaders before suggesting that workers would abandon the strike weapon.
On July 10 she stated, "As a union federation our role must be to uphold
all workers' rights, including the right to strike�. We cannot possibly
call on workers to protect the interests of businessmen by forfeiting
labor rights under the pretext of bolstering the national economy."
Ramadan believes that "the military and the fuloul (old regime remnants)
kidnapped [the June 30 movement]."
The Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers, an independent regional
federation not affiliated with the EFITU or EDLC, also issued a
statement rejecting Abu Eita's apparent support for a hiatus in the
Ramadan, the PCAW and the ECESR supported the June 30 demonstrations.
But they also openly opposed interim president �Adli Mansour's July 8
constitutional declaration and the military's "road map." The Alexandria
trade unionists expressed their distrust of al-Biblawi because he had
been a minister in the first post-Mubarak transitional government
appointed by the military chiefs and is known as a proponent of
The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights posted a detailed
critique on its website entitled "A Constitutional Coup Against the
Principles of the Revolution." It protests that there was no
consultation with the political forces that spearheaded the June 30
demonstrations over the contents of the constitutional declaration.
Moreover, it says, the charter "ignored�economic and social rights, such
as the right to housing, health, medical treatment, food, drink,
clothes, insurance, pensions, social security and the minimum and
maximum wage. It failed to link wages to prices or to specify the right
to worker representation on corporate boards and in profit sharing."
The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services also supported the June
30 demonstrations. Since then, it has refrained from open expressions of
support or criticism of the military regime while issuing research
papers documenting the Muslim Brothers' anti-worker policies.
The CTUWS has historically prioritized building a broad-based workers
movement over participating in national politics. Partly for this
reason, unions aligned with the CTUWS withdrew from the EFITU in the
summer of 2011. After a year and a half of grassroots organizing, on
April 24, 2013, they established the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress
with 186 affiliated unions.
Yusri Ma�rouf was elected president of the EDLC, a signal highlighting
its commitment to defend the right to strike. He had been sentenced to
three years in prison for leading a strike of 1,500 workers at the
Alexandria Container and Cargo Handling Company in October 2011. On June
17, 2013, an appeals court overturned his conviction, ruling that
"sit-ins and strikes are guaranteed by the constitution, and the
defendants simply exercised this right." The judiciary first articulated
that principle in 1986. The Mubarak regime, the military and the Mursi
government all ignored it.
Criticism of Abu Eita has become sharper as the new government's
intentions become more obvious. Fatma Ramadan issued a statement in
early August referring sarcastically to the "present" the new minister
had given the strikers in Suez: After pledging repeatedly to back them
in the cabinet, he did nothing of the kind, going so far as to lend
rhetorical support to the strikebreaking "thugs" by invoking the
"champions of production" line. The statement lamented that the working
families of Suez would spend a "gloomy feast" at the close of Islam's
holy month of Ramadan.
The interim vice president for international affairs, Mohamed ElBaradei,
resigned in protest over the August 14 massacre. He was the interim
government's most credible liberal figure despite his political
ineptitude. His departure underscored that Egypt's army and internal
security forces are the linchpins of the present regime, as they were
under Mubarak. No matter how popular the army may be at the moment,
workers now face an emboldened authoritarian state that is openly
hostile to their rights and aspirations. Too Close for Comfort
The minister of defense and commander of the armed forces, Gen. �Abd
al-Fattah al-Sisi, called for nationwide demonstrations on July 26 to
give him a mandate to confront "violence and terrorism" -- a thinly
veiled reference to the Muslim Brothers. Several human rights NGOs,
including the ECESR, issued a declaration expressing concern about
al-Sisi's intentions. The EFITU released a statement affirming workers'
rights to freedom of expression, to demonstrate peacefully and to
strike, while simultaneously supporting "the right of all the
apparatuses of the Egyptian state to confront terror and violence."
Those same apparatuses were breaking strikes and attacking demonstrators
during the Mursi administration. They have continued to do so since its
The July 26 demonstrations (and counter-demonstrations by supporters of
ousted president Mursi) were massive. Among those who answered al-Sisi's
call was the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which pledged to muster
all of its 5 million members. In fact, the ETUF has no more than 3.8
million members, and most of them cannot be mobilized because the ETUF's
structure is thoroughly undemocratic and unrepresentative. The ETUF
opposed all but one of the strikes that occurred during the last 15
years. Independent trade unionists who expressed support for military
intervention in ousting Mursi now find themselves uncomfortably close to
a key institution of the Mubarak regime.
In December 2012 Mursi installed al-Gibali al-Maraghi, a Mubarak-era
union apparatchik, as ETUF president and appointed him a member of the
upper house of Parliament (the Shura Council). This move was widely
viewed as an offer by the Muslim Brothers to share control of the ETUF
with former Mubarak supporters. That bargain is now defunct. Although
the ETUF's future is uncertain, its leadership has indicated willingness
to line up behind the government and the army.
That government, however, now includes Kamal Abu Eita, whose appointment
those same ETUF leaders strenuously opposed. They previously accused him
of criminal behavior for establishing an illegal union federation in
contravention of the existing trade union law, which technically remains
in force. Meanwhile, Abu Eita's first public promise -- that a new
minimum wage law would be issued by July 21 -- was not fulfilled.
The main victories of the workers' movement since Mubarak's ouster are
the establishment of independent trade unions and federations and the
enactment of a monthly minimum wage of 700 pounds (about $100), although
enforcement of the latter is uncertain. These gains were won by direct
action on the street. Since Mubarak's demise, thousands of workers have
been jailed, fired or disciplined for engaging in strikes, sit-ins and
demonstrations, many more than in the last decade of the Mubarak era.
Nearly all of these actions were local. As was the case under Mubarak
and Mursi, the priorities of the independent trade union movement and
its supporters are: reinstatement of fired workers; permanent status for
many others who have worked for years on "temporary" contracts without
benefits; a raise in the monthly minimum basic wage to 1,500 pounds;
establishment of a maximum wage; protection of the right to strike; and
adoption of the Trade Union Freedoms Law. These priorities are more
likely to be achieved by continued popular mobilization than by reliance
on a government installed by the military.
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