Egypt: Workers hold key to uprising

Pro-democracy protesters confront police in Suez.

By Jeff Kaye

January 31, 2011 -- MyFDL -- While much analysis has focused on the youth-social network driven aspects of the recent uprising in Egypt, or on diplomatic and political maneuvers that thus far have left President Mubarak in office, and given even more power to the state repressive apparatus through the appointment of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to the vice-presidency, it is the Egyptian working class that holds the future of its country in its hands.

The organised workers' movement saw its unions gutted by state privatisation and the gutting of union independence though the hated Law No. 100, which guaranteed that union representation would be strongly controlled by the state. However, recent events, particularly in strategic Suez, have shown that when the social weight of the workers is thrown into the balance, even all the machinations of Hillary Clinton’s State Department will not be able to patch together Mubarak’s state apparatus. The question then will be, what will follow it?

End of hated anti-union Law No. 100 preceded uprising

Barely reported in the West, among the crowds at Tahrir Square, a new trade union confederation was announced, the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions (FETU), which immediately issued a call for a general strike. The call has been widely taken up, and many reports now link the uprising to unity with the workers, particularly in Suez, where the battle has been fought most intensely with state police. The new confederation has the support of the International Trades Union Confederation and the AFL-CIO.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the general strike call initiated from workers in Suez. Whoever initiated it, the new trade union organisations are jumping on board.

Law No. 100 has regulated union internal activities since 1993, by setting quotas for attendance for elections to union offices, and putting judicial controls on unions that cannot meet the stringent requirements. The FETU leadership includes the head of the Real Estate Tax Authority Workers union, or RETA, the first independent union in Egypt in more than 50 years. RETA itself is not recognised by the Egyptian state. The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), also a part of the new FETU, had its headquarters closed by the government in 2007, and was only allowed to reopen in July 2008.

In a judicial action that threw Egyptian union politics into turmoil, the Egyptian Gazette reported on January 6 of this year that Egypt’s constitutional court had recently thrown out Law No. 100, “citing legal and logical reasons for its verdict”.

The annulment of the law, however, has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the professional unions as some members called for the cancellation of the latest election results in their associations, while others stuck firmly to these election results and said the law could not be applied in retrospect.

"Law No. 100 was so bad that the professional unions suffered extreme stagnation because of it,” said Mohamed Abul Nour, a veteran Bar Association member.

“The law did away with all chances for holding fair elections inside these unions,” he told the Egyptian Gazette in an interview. [Due to the fact that internet access to the Gazette site appears blocked, I am relying on Google cache pages, which may become outdated in the near future.]

Meanwhile, layoffs of Egyptian workers in the Suez industrial zone have been increasing of late, with international companies replacing these workers with foreign imported workers from India and Thailand, causing much resentment, and even supposed notice from the Egyptian government. Now, companies are starting to pull foreign workers out of the area, as the uprising and protest in Egypt does not appear to be dying down and thousands of foreign workers and other foreign nationals, including from the US, are crowding Cairo airport trying to get out of the country before a feared explosion.

Suez centre of workers' protests

The contradictions of Egyptian society are most intense in the port city of Suez, home to the Suez Canal, and a major industrial centre. As a recent Associated Press story put it:

… Mostafa Khaled, 21, said he wasn’t looking forward to graduating from school this year, even in a city where 100 factories produce everything from steel to fabrics, generating $5 billion a year in tax revenue for the national government.

“Suez brings in the highest profit of all the cities in Egypt to the country and yet look at us – we are close to begging. We have no jobs, we scrounge to feed our families,” Khaled said. “We don’t want Mubarak, we don’t want this government, we want our basic human rights.”

While some are looking to the new Egyptian unions to lead the way, their linkages to the AFL-CIO may amount to an attempt to rein in or control militancy among workers, especially as news accounts note the presence of leftists, and not just Islamists, among the protesters. The purges of the Egyptian unions themselves were meant to limit the influence of not just the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups, but of radicals in the union movement.

US military in close contact with Egyptian officers

The situation in Egypt is quite fluid, and the US government is certain to be a major player in events, or try to be. The LA Times reported January 30 that “top Pentagon officials” were in close telephone contact with “their Egyptian counterparts”. It is not out of the question that sooner or later the US will call upon their Egyptian military associates to forcibly quell the demonstrators and lockdown the society, either under Mubarak, or under some other new puppet leader, possibly Suleiman himself.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke to Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who would not provide details of their conversation.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke with Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces.

In the 10-minute call, “both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue,” said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman.

The US has been a primary economic and military backer of Mubarak’s government, seeing it as a central pillar of its Middle Eastern policy, even if that meant turning a mostly blind eye, or making perfunctory complaints about human rights abuses. Perfunctory they certainly were, because the US itself utilised Egyptian torturers as part of the rendition program involved in the interrogation and torture of hundreds, if not thousands, of “war on terror” prisoners caught by the US and its allies.

The last thing the US wants to see is the rebirth of a strong and fully independent workers' movement in the Middle East. In this they may be joined by the autocrats of the other regimes, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, where trade unions and strikes are banned. Nor, despite some cheering from afar, would trade union leaders in the United States like to see any kind of union militancy spill back past US borders, where the complacency and unimaginative leadership of the US labour movement has presided over the long-term decline in workers' salaries and standard of living, as overall union membership continues to shrink.

As we watch events unfold in Egypt, watch closely what happens in the labour movement. While the “street” may move according to news from Twitter and other social networking sites, the only social force with both the economic and social leverage to combat the military, given the power of the latter, is the labour movement, which has the potential to provide leadership to the workers in the oilfields, the factories, the ports and the Canal itself.

The leadership of that movement was eviscerated by the government over many years, but that may mean that new leaders and forces, ones dedicated to completely rooting out the brutal, torture-loving dictatorship once and for all, can come to the fore.

[This article first appeared at Jeff Kaye's FDL page. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Jeff Kaye's permission.]