Egypt's Islamist Government Reaches For Control Of The Unions

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

It is becoming uncomfortably clear that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is to take control of many of Egypt’s major civil society organizations. While everyone’s attention is focused on the assault on the constitution and the judiciary, President Mohammed Morsi has strategically revised a trade union law that will affect millions of Egyptian workers.

If successful, this move will affect the lives, jobs, and political freedom of millions of Egyptian workers, as well as renew the Egyptian Trade Union Federation’s (ETUF) longstanding role as an enforcer of government labor policy.

The ETUF is the official government-controlled trade union federation. Founded in 1957, it remains in existence despite efforts to dismantle it during the immediate post-Mubarak period. It claims a membership of over 4 million workers mostly in the public sector.  Under Mubarak, ETUF was notorious for its failure to protect worker rights. In recent years, a courageous – and illegal -- independent trade union movement has challenged ETUF’s supremacy, and dared to press for freedom of association, using strikes and protests in all the major sectors of the economy.  First established in December 2008, the independent union movement has grown enormously since the January 2011 uprising. Hundreds of independent trade unions have been established and Egypt now has two independent trade union federations representing almost 2 million workers.

Against this background, on the 26th of November, Morsi endorsed revisions to the trade union law ensuring that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party loyalists can be appointed to the ETUF and its affiliated unions’ executive boards.   This move took place a few days after Morsi's sweeping decree to grant himself immunity against any judicial oversight - basically granting himself absolute powers. That decree has now been withdrawn and a hastily-called referendum on the new constitution is scheduled for December 15.

These political maneuvers have not affected the new labor law, which gives the government the power to fill vacancies on these union governing boards by forcing all who are over 60 years of age to retire.  It also extends by six months the time a union member serves on a trade union's executive board.  These changes were made without any consultation with the ETUF’s current leadership, who remain Mubarak loyalists.

Not surprisingly, the reaction of the current ETUF leadership was negative.  Chairman Ahmed Abdel Zaher is openly critical of the new law and, with some irony, now cites the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) core principles on union rights.  This was unheard of in 2008, when Egypt was placed on the ILO’s black list of countries in violation of the ILO’s conventions, and when ETUF was in collusion with the Mubarak regime.

For his part, the head of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) said that the attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new government was “even more hostile” to “workers, trade unions and economic and social rights” than that of the Mubarak regime.

In that light, the new independent unions now face the challenge of a Brotherhood-dominated official trade union structure. The new labor law will enable the Minister of Manpower, a member of the MB’s political party, to install President Morsi’s supporters in the unions’ leadership positions. This change will stop any effort by the old guard to use ETUF as an alternative power center, while, ironically, giving renewed life to the ETUF as an instrument of government policy.  It is a shrewd and revealing move by Morsi. His government has extended its control over an organization that is mass-based and possesses local and regional structures that reach deeply into many sectors of the Egyptian economy.  It also appears to endorse the Mubarak-era rejection of freedom of association – the right of workers to organize their own unions, free of government control.

During the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood was never able to gain a strong foothold within the blue collar trade unions. Historically, the Brothers focused on Egypt’s professional unions and associations, referred to as “syndicates”, although interest in their "working-class cousins sharply rose after the revolution."  Within professional unions, politics and political identity have a high profile and the Brotherhood controls professional syndicates representing doctors, engineers, pharmacists, scientists, and lawyers.  There are 22 professional syndicates in Egypt with a total of 3.5 million members.

The political implications of Morsi’s move remain unclear.  Morsi may have bitten off more than he can chew in his attempted usurpation of the right of judicial review, but the changes in the labor law may trigger even more unrest. Egypt’s workers have never hesitated to protest over bread and butter issues, and it is unclear how the rank-and-file, let alone the ETUF regional and local structures, will respond to this government action.  This ETUF takeover confirms suspicions that the MB is seeking to dominate all aspects of government and civil society. It also raises concerns for independent union leaders who occupy a very vulnerable political and legal position. Will they be next?

Finally, this takeover of a major labor organization – however tarnished its past – is creating much anxiety within broader civil society.  It adds to worries that, in Egypt, authoritarianism looks the same whether it is military or Islamist rule.

- Heba F. El-Shazli