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Egyptian Workers After June 30

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  • Cort Greene
    *Egyptian Workers After June 30 by Joel Beinin MERIP August 23, 2013 The independent labor movement that has flourished in Egypt since the ouster of former
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2013
      *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
      August 14.

      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
      national force.

      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
      strike movement.

      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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