Egypt In Crisis: Independent Unions Emerge As Leaders

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own. This is the first of several posts on events in Egypt.

January 25, 2011 was the beginning of a peoples’ revolt in Egypt, a revolt whose outcome is still unclear. What is clear is that, after a smothering 30-year rule, Egyptians have broken the stifling collar of oppression to demonstrate for democracy and freedom. Also at issue are the corruption, high unemployment rates, inflation, and low minimum wages that impoverish even the hardest working, most educated people.

All of this has become fairly well known to Americans over recent days. What is far less known is the role of the small, repressed independent Egyptian labor movement in keeping Egyptian hopes and spirits alive. On January 30, in the middle of Tahrir Square, those workers and their representatives announced the formation of the new "Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation."

These were not mere words. Until recently, the only union model in Egypt was the pro-Mubarak Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), whose real role was to enforce government policy in the workplace. By contrast, the organizations that form the core of the new umbrella group were “independent” when being independent was even more dangerous than it is today. The new federation is made up of a variety of workers: real estate tax collectors, health professionals, industrial workers, and white collar professionals in sectors such as education, government, garment/textiles, iron/steel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and many others.

The new federation’s roadmap for the formation of a democratic Egypt includes:  

  1. End the Mubarak’s regime
  2. Dissolve the People's Assembly and Shura Council
  3. Form a national salvation government with the participation of all political   interests
  4. End the state of emergency law
  5. Form a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution
  6. Release political detainees
  7. Prosecute those responsible for shooting and harming demonstrators
  8. Prosecute those responsible for corruption
Perhaps the organization most responsible for nurturing the fragile flame of independent unionism over the past decade is the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS)—an organization focused on grassroots labor education, training and legal representation. CTUWS provides Egyptians with direct daily legal advice related to the rights of workers and the trade union rights. Its programs are designed to increase and develop workers’ ability to recognize their economic and social rights, to express them and develop the necessary tools to defend them. For years, the organization’s staff, volunteers, and organizers have been harassed, imprisoned, and beaten for defending worker rights and promoting independent unions.

The pressure was relentless. In the spring of 2007, Egyptian security authorities shut down CTUWS’s main office in Helwan (an industrial suburb south of Cairo) and its branches the country. The CTUWS resisted. With the help of Egyptian opposition groups and the international trade union movement, it convinced an Egyptian court to reverse the government crackdown. The CTUWS and its branches re-opened in July 2008.

The Egyptian revolt is the culmination of many years of serious economic, social and political grievances and Egyptian workers have been in the forefront of this struggle. Egyptian workers (including teachers, by the way) have been protesting for years. "The Struggle of Worker Rights in Egypt," a 2010 report by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, stated prophetically:

The upsurge of worker protests since 2000 is unorganized on a national or regional scale. Strikes and other actions have been locally initiated, with some copycat actions following major successful actions that receive national publicity.…[T]he militancy of tax collectors, school administrative personnel, and teachers is a new and significant phenomenon, since they occupy strategic locations in the government apparatus.
The report also noted that the government of Egypt is facing “a crisis of legitimacy” because of failed economic policies and because its much-advertised democratic reforms have lacked substance. It observed that, in recent years and especially after the 2005 elections, “the government escalated its repression against oppositional elements of all stripes," including the workers’ movement.  

Egyptians, were angered to the boiling point following the questionable 2005 presidential/parliamentary elections and fraudulent 2010 elections, which were marred by violence and widespread vote-rigging. The ongoing political charade only exacerbated the anger caused by widespread corruption, unemployment, and poverty.

At the same time, democratic political reform in Egypt and in the rest of the Arab world—briefly a subject of serious concern for the international community after the September 11 attacks—was no longer high on the list of international concerns. As a result, the Egyptian regime, with few exceptions, faced no serious international rebuke for the sham 2005 and 2010 elections.

It was time for Egyptians finally to take matters into their own hands and for independent Egyptian trade unionists to find their voice.