Egypt: Workers' hopes dashed after military coup

"The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions supports the demands of the people's revolution and calls for a general strike of Egyptian workers", reads a banner at an anti-Mubarak demonstration in Tahrir Square. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.

By Joel Beinin

August 23, 2013 -- Middle East Research and Information Project -- The independent labour movement that has flourished in Egypt since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak enthusiastically supported the Tamarrud (Rebel) campaign for the huge June 30 demonstrations asserting a popular vote of no confidence in President Mohammad Morsi.

The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), Egypt’s most experienced (and during the 1990s only) labour-oriented NGO, claims to have gathered 200,000 signatures for the Tamarrud petition through its six regional offices. Three independent trade union organisations -- 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 Morsi 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 1000 pro-Morsi demonstrators since the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal. Most of these people died in the army’s violent dispersal of two sit-ins on August 14.

The number of anti-Morsi 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 Morsi to resolve the crisis, the EFITU and EDLC called for a nationwide general strike on July 2. The strike never materialised. 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 mobilise 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 3400 strikes and other collective actions. The total number of workers collective actions in 2011 was 1400; in 2012 it reached 1969. According to the Egyptian Center for Social Rights (ECESR), in the first quarter of 2013 there were 2400 social and economic protests. At least half involved workers and publicly employed professionals -- doctors, engineers and teachers.

This unprecedented social movement contributed substantially to delegitimising the regimes of both Morsi and Mubarak. Morsi’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, Morsi’s administration, like the Mubarak regime, often granted their economic demands but ignored their political demands and undermined their organisational autonomy. Its repressive measures were often more severe than those of the late Mubarak era.

Workers clearly hoped for better treatment with Morsi 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 labour 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 labour-oriented NGOs, his ministry drafted a Trade Union Freedoms Law. It would have fully legalised 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 Brotherhood-dominated parliament, which met from January to June 2012, and the Morsi administration all refused to enact the legislation.

Interim prime minister Hazim al-Biblawi, who was installed after the army deposed Morsi 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 Morsi. After Morsi’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 criticised 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 (unrecognised by the Mubarak regime). Karama participated in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as part of the Democratic Alliance led by the Muslim Brotherhood's 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 decentralised 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 labour 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 neoliberalism.

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 Brotherhood’s anti-worker policies.

The CTUWS has historically prioritised 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 organising, on April 24, 2013, it 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 1500 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 Morsi 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 lynchpins 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 defence and commander of the armed forces, General ‘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 Morsi administration. They have continued to do so since its dissolution.

The July 26 demonstrations (and counter-demonstrations by supporters of ousted president Morsi) 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 mobilised 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 Morsi now find themselves uncomfortably close to a key institution of the Mubarak regime.

In December 2012 Morsi 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 behaviour 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 US$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 Morsi, 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 1500 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 mobilisation than by reliance on a government installed by the military.

[Joel Beinin is Donald J. McLachlan professor of history and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and a contributing editor of Middle East Report.]