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The workers' movement in Egypt

Feature by Anne Alexander, March 2012

A call for a general strike in Egypt on 11 February didn't produce the desired effect. Yet the current strike wave shows no signs of abating. Anne Alexander looks at the strengths and weaknesses of Egypt's new workers' movement and the different forces attempting to shape it

Just over a year after the fall of Mubarak, the landscape of the Egyptian workers' movement has changed dramatically. The strike wave shows little sign of running out of energy: the numbers ebb and flow but each month brings new explosions of action. The old state-run union federation has been wounded and weakened but not destroyed.

The new independent unions have grown rapidly, drawing hundreds of thousands of workers into their orbit, many in sectors with little tradition of organisation. However, this growth has also been uneven, and building organisation beyond the workplace which retains authority within it has been difficult.

The growth of workers' organisations is interlaced with the development of a revolutionary movement. Out of the waves of massive street protests and sit-ins a new generation of radical activists has emerged. The main target for their anger has been the ruling generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and more recently the reformist Islamist parties who dominate the newly elected parliament. Despite the image presented in the Western media of a liberal elite in revolt, in reality the mass movement in the streets is largely made up of young people from working class and poor backgrounds.

On 11 February, in response to a call for a general strike to bring down the military council, it was the sons and daughters of factory workers and civil servants who marched in their thousands at provincial universities like Helwan and Mansoura. But there remains a gap between the revolutionary mood in the workplaces and the streets, with only a very small response to the strike call from workers, despite the large student mobilisation.

The hope that this gap can be overcome lies in the fact that it is likely that the main battles are still to come. Workers' expectations of social change are written into their strike demands: they want job security, to be paid enough to live in dignity, and an end to corrupt, bullying management. Politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the various Salafist parties repeatedly make vague promises that these hopes will be fulfilled by the new parliament.

Little room for manoeure

On the other hand they are also promising Egypt's business elite, the global financial institutions and the Mubarak regime's old backers in Washington that they will stop strikes. Moreover, the context of global economic crisis gives the new government precious little room to manoeuvre: Egypt may not have reached a Greek-style financial meltdown yet, but its debt is already nearly 70 percent of GDP and credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's has downgraded the country's rating three times in the last four months.

To understand how the workers' movement is developing it is vital to look at it from two perspectives. The first is the view from below, where strike action is pushing workers' self-confidence and organisation to new levels within the workplace. In some sectors coordination between workplaces is beginning to develop into powerful organisation which can mobilise action across entire sectors of industry. However, we also need to look at the movement "from above", taking into account how the actions of the state and the parliamentary parties change the landscape in which workers' organisations are developing. It is particularly important to see the newly formed independent unions from these two perspectives, in order to understand that there are gaps within them, particularly between the newly developing national and federation leaderships and workplace organisation.

The motor of strike action is still working very hard. The numbers of workers involved in strike action stand at extremely high levels compared to before the revolution. In September alone between 500,000 and 750,000 joined strikes. This included large coordinated strikes for the first time, for example a national strike by teachers, but also coordinated action by bus workers, postal workers and sugar refinery workers. Airport workers struck at the end of December demanding civilian rather than military managers. At the end of February another wave of big strikes paralysed bus services across the Delta, and tens of thousands of workers employed by the Ministry of Justice in the courts organised a national strike.

The old Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) played a central role for decades in propping up the Mubarak regime. It both policed and contained workers' discontent in the workplace. It acted as a conduit for the distribution of welfare benefits. It was a gigantic electoral machine for the ruling party in the 50 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for "workers and peasants". For a long time the ETUF provided the semblance of "mass popular support" for the regime by bussing members to rallies and demonstrations during elections or for particular campaigns.

The Egyptian government's privatisation policies before the revolution undermined the ETUF from two directions - it lost hundreds of thousands of members to the private sector and those who remained saw that the federation had done little to protect their interests.

Even more importantly, the strike wave, which the ETUF actively opposed, gave workers experience of organising themselves and further broke down the ETUF's ability to mobilise workers. In the uprising against Mubarak, the ETUF leadership was the last line of defence for the regime. It played a key role in organising thugs to attack Tahrir Square during the "battle of the camel" and in calls for "mass protests" in support of Mubarak. Both of these attempts failed, and instead hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, sealing the dictator's fate.

Reining in the strikes

However, the ETUF did not completely disintegrate. The federation appears now to be playing an increasingly important role in the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to rein in the strike wave. Senior Brotherhood members were appointed to a caretaker executive for the ETUF in August 2011, along with pro-Mubarak officials and a small number of leftists and worker representatives. By late February 2012 the first two groups were working together on draft legislation on trade union freedoms and had proposed an initiative to parliament to "solve workers' problems" by creating a special committee to negotiate with management on their behalf.

Some unions affiliated to the ETUF are still strong in the workplaces, such as the Land Transport Union (LTU), which has been involved in fierce competition with the new independent union in the Public Transport Authority in Cairo. The LTU played a key role in aborting attempts to win support for strike action on the buses in solidarity with the call for a general strike on 11 February.

The other significant development "from above" has been the partial recognition by the state of the independent unions. There has been a process created for the legal registration of independent unions, although this essentially contradicts existing Egyptian law which only recognises ETUF-affiliated unions. Two federations of independent unions have come into existence since the fall of Mubarak. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) claims an affiliated membership of around 1.4 million workers. Its president is Kamal Abu Aita, the leader of the Tax Collectors' Union, the first independent union to emerge before the revolution. The smaller Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress claims the affiliation of 246 unions. Leading figures in the EDLC are affiliated to an NGO established by former steel-worker Kamal Abbas, which withdrew from the EFITU last summer after a bitter controversy over the role over NGO employees in the democratic decision-making bodies of the new federation.

The strongest independent unions have generally been built directly out of strike action. The independent union of the Public Transport Authority Workers in Cairo led four strikes between May and September 2011, for example. The independent teachers' unions played a crucial role in organising and providing a degree of national leadership for the teachers' strike, although the number of teachers participating in the strike was much bigger than the new unions' combined membership.

However, the legal registration process for establishing independent unions has also made it possible to build unions "on paper" or with a handful of members. In addition, a narrow space has opened up for the emergence of a layer of officials who can escape from the immediate pressures of the workplace. The bureaucracy of the independent unions is very small and has far fewer material resources and full-time officials than a single region of a medium-sized British trade union like UCU, but it is still under pressure to act as a mediator between striking workers and employers. The mechanisms at the disposal of these officials to sell out strikes are still very weak, but manoeuvres and attempts to do deals may increase union members' passivity and frustration rather than building their self-confidence and self-organisation.

Building roots in the workplaces

When it comes to connecting the independent unions to the wider political questions raised by the confrontations over military rule, the disconnection between the independent union leadership and the workplaces shows itself in a different way. Leading activists in the independent unions have been strongly supportive of revolutionary activists' calls for strike action against the military council, but have not been able to deliver anything on the ground.

This was underlined by the call for a general strike on 11 February, the anniversary of Mubarak's fall from power. The call, which came from revolutionary activists who have been radicalised by the experience of the huge protests and street clashes over the past year, shows that wide layers of people beyond the revolutionary left see strikes as an extremely powerful weapon. However, the revolutionary movement does not as yet have strong enough roots in the workplaces to be able to win the argument for political strikes, particularly in the face of a concerted anti-strike campaign by the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood. Winning those arguments will require a much bigger network of revolutionary activists who can begin to build connections between the wider revolutionary movement and workers' ongoing struggles.

For more information and updates go to www.menasolidaritynetwork.com


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