Labor Unorganized

10.23.13

Once Key Players in the Revolution, Egypt's Workers Stand Down

CAIRO-—Increasingly isolated, co-opted and paralyzed to act, Egypt’s labor movement has begun to unravel since the army ousted Mohammed Morsi from the presidency.

In February 2011, workers led general strikes that proved fatal to the regime of Hosni Mubarak during its final days. Independent union organization was galvanized by the revolution. But now a leading organizer is saying that the polarization between the army backed interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood has reset workers campaigns for social and economic rights to the days of dictatorship as the army forcefully takes the side of management.

“It’s a battle between the businessman with the beard and the businessman with the cap,” said Hoda Kamel, describing the current struggle between Islamists and the army. A middle aged executive committee member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) and head of the organization’s strike committee, she described the army’s role in breaking strikes in Suez while companies fire union activists from their jobs for organizing.

“Again the army is interfering in the workers issues ….We are getting back to the same situation of Mubarak and this is very bad for the workers,” she added, as she smoked shisha at a sidewalk café near Tahrir Square, the iconic symbol of the 2011popular uprising.

As F16 jets flew in formation overhead in a display of strength to commemorate the country’s national holiday celebrating the Air Force, Kamel said the army's message of a protracted fight with Islamists has had a profound effect on stunting labor action. The independent federation, one of two in Egypt, boasted over two million members when I met with them last February but now it is unwilling to disclose its membership.

“The army’s propaganda is very strong,” said Kamel in a dispirited tone. “[The EFITU leadership] are not doing anything.”

Although sporadic strikes have continued in Suez and the industrial center of Mahalla since July, unions have been internally divided by the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists with long records of labor activism have been shunned. Kamel described how union members are being distracted from their demands by nationalist slogans of the people and army being together.

“The workers are not yet able to see what is behind the propaganda,” she said. The army maintains ownership of a large part of the economy. Kamel went on to depict how the army is taking advantage of the current social division to crush the labor movement while it can.

“If they are having a battle with the [Islamists], why are they attacking the workers,” Kemal asked rhetorically. She questioned why soldiers have been stationed in industrial centers instead of being sent to counter the armed insurgency in Sinai. The workers, she noted, were unarmed.

Still, organized labor was largely absent from the anti-military demonstrations, put down by the military. According to Kamel, labor is now separated from the broader social movements, whether it is the original 2011 young revolutionaries, the pro-coup Tamarod movement or the anti-coup alliance. She said that the only non-union organization her federation now co-ordinates with is the small Troskyist Revolutionary Socialists.

As a result, while the current constitutional process neglects economic rights and looks very similar to the one composed under deposed president Mohammad Morsi, Kamel said the issue is no longer receiving broad attention.

“Everybody is waiting for the general battle with the [Brotherhood] and everybody is cooling things down till [the army] get rid of them,” she contended. “Under Morsi, the army let everybody strike to make him weaker.”   

During Morsi’s government, the labor movement responded to the spiraling economic crisis and threats of IMF imposed austerity with increased agitation. In February, then EFITU president and key labor activist during the revolution—Kamel Abu Eita, made fair wages, workplace safety and union organizing rights a rallying cry for workers against Morsi.

But in July he joined the army backed government as the interim labor minister and has defended the breaking of the Suez strikes. He was a key advocate of a law recognizing the right to organize and strike. The new government, however, has yet to table the legislation and seems reluctant to do so. According to Kamel, Abu Eita now refuses to meet with his former federation and has called in security forces against workers protests outside his ministry.  

Still, Kamel sees a silver lining in the betrayal and floor crossing since the military take-over. She is optimistic that the current process will demonstrate to workers who their enemy’s and allies really are and generate a new wave of mass labor action.

“I would like very much to have [General Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi as a president so people would realize that he is not with us,” she said. “That way we can eliminate [any hope] for him.”