The New Middle East: Democratic Accountability And The Role Of Trade Unions

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Since the shock of 9/11 and the tragedy that ensued, many policy analysts have questioned whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, while  ignoring countries such as Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world) as well as  India, Turkey, and  others with large Muslim populations.

Now, in the aftermath of Arab Spring, Islamist political parties have gained political power through elections in the Middle East and, for many analysts, the jury is still out: Can Islamist governments be responsive to the people who elected them? Will it be one person, one vote, one time?  It appears that these questions are about to be answered:  The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which governs Turkey, has been in the forefront for many years. In Morocco, a majority of voters also handed power to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a party inspired by Turkey's moderate Islamists. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda (Renaissance) party and its prime minister were elected to office after free and fair elections.  In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood, won the Presidential elections and his new prime minister has formed a cabinet.

Against this background, the fundamental challenge to these governments in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is economic and not religious. The newly-minted Islamist governments are going to be tested daily and this time held accountable by voters who are no longer afraid to speak out.

The Islamists’ economic policies are examined in a recent paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in which the authors outline the  economic challenges facing these countries – “high rates of poverty and unemployment, declining productivity and competitiveness, low levels of integration with the global economy, acute disparities between classes and regions, corruption, high domestic and foreign debt, and more."

These challenges may require dramatic measures to quickly improve poor and declining economic performance.  At the moment, these Islamist political parties are not advocating radical economic re-structuring. Rather, they are emphasizing pragmatic solutions with a focus on improved management of the economy.  According to the Carnegie authors:

They do not call for the nationalization of industries or the renationalization of privatized state-owned enterprises and demonstrate respect for private property rights. … [they]  welcome partnerships with the private sector … particularly when it comes to public utilities and infrastructure. They consistently agree on the need to combat corruption, strengthen the foundations of good governance, eliminate financial and economic waste, and enact socially just policies. And all demonstrate a commitment to international economic agreements […]
No longer in the opposition, these Islamist parties are taking on incredibly difficult challenges directly.  The buck will stop with them.  Those who elected them are suffering from high consumer prices, low-paying jobs (if they can find them), less security on the streets and nervousness about the future.  These issues naturally lead us to labor.  Where are the trade unions?  In Egypt, strikes are on the rise, with more taking place daily and thousands of workers participating.   Workers are still very suspicious of the political parties, particularly the Islamists. Unfortunately, in Egypt, the Mubarak-era trade union organization still exists, in competition with at least  two independent trade union federations.  Workers are still divided and protesting without coordinated action and without any significant political influence.  However, it is worth noting that many of these same workers protested under Mubarak’s reign when such activity carried more serious consequences.

In Tunisia, the main trade union federation, the UGTT, still wields considerable political clout.  It was always active in the “bread and butter” challenges facing workers, even during the former Ben Ali regime.  UGTT remains a prominent player despite being faced with increased competition, as new trade unions split off to form their own organizations.  In Morocco, the trade unions have many years of experience in working with and protesting against the ruling party on economic issues; their situation appears more secure, at least for the time being.

Throughout the MENA region, there is, first, a need for labor law reform based on international standards highlighting freedom of association and respect for the rule of law.  Second, there is a need for effective union organizing, cohesion and solidarity and, third, better communication is needed with the political policy makers – the Islamists who have always called for social justice as one of their main political pillars.

The political and economic role of trade unions today in the MENA region is critical.   Trade unions, when given the opportunity, play the  important role  of representing and communicating the interests of their members and other grassroots workers.  This is the time for labor to step up, to become more active in policy-making councils and fora,  while maintaining the “grassroots street pressure” lest the new ruling parties forget who elected them in the first place.  It would be unfortunate for these countries if this communication, and the mutual respect it demands, do not develop. In this context, these unions will need the support of the international labor movement and of democratic governments in the weeks and months ahead.

- Heba F. El-Shazli