Egyptian labour movement faces new challenges


Strikes in Egypt this February, which forced the resignation of Hazem el-Beblawi’s government, should have been a turning point for the workers’ movement.

For the first time since President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from office in July 2013, there were mass strikes in public services and state-owned industries: workers in textiles, cleaning and public transport took action, as did postal and health service workers and members of the judicial system.

There was also industrial action in the private sector. The El-Mahrousa Centre for Socioeconomic Development recorded more than a thousand sit-ins, stoppages and demonstrations, involving 250,000 workers, in February, where there had been fewer than 50 in January (and under 400 in March). Overall, during the first-quarter of 2014, the Centre recorded 1420 labour protests.

The importance of this protest goes beyond size: its context is also significant.

Between January and May 2013, the workers’ movement had been particularly active, mobilising hundreds of thousands, but it declined after the fall of Morsi.

Thereafter, unrest was sporadic and violently repressed by the regime that emerged from the July coup. Demonstrations were broken up and strikers accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This campaign of intimidation was so effective that after the publication of a roadmap for a new constitution and presidential and legislative elections, the main unions gave written guarantees of support for the new regime and agreed to contribute to the “fight against terrorism” by renouncing strikes.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), under de facto state control, signed, as did the main independent unions: the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), created during the 2011 revolution, and the Democratic Labour Congress.
The appointment of EFITU president Kamal Abu Eita as labour minister provoked internal criticism. He kept quiet during the authorities’ crackdown on strikes.


Breaking the ideological barrier

So the resumption of the struggle earlier this year was significant. The workers’ movement succeeded in breaking the polarisation that had pitted the state against the Muslim Brothers.

For the first time, popular protests targeted the government without Brotherhood involvement, though the authorities are still trying, unconvincingly, to claim otherwise.

The protests were precisely in the sectors where there had been anti-Morsi strikes in 2012 and 2013. The workers’ movement highlighted the new government’s failure to tackle economic and social issues, and its attempts evade its responsibilities by invoking the “fight against terrorism”.

A minimum wage is the central demand. This policy has already been implemented, but in such a biased and piecemeal fashion that workers regard it as a provocation rather than a genuine gain.

Last September the minimum wage was set at 1,200 Egyptian pounds (US$168) - the workers’ demand since 2008. But only civil servants were eligible to receive it, and, according to Egypt’s Central Statistics Agency, barely a third of Egypt’s six million civil servants were beneath that minimum.

Egypt has 24 million public sector employees, not just those who work directly for the state, but also those who work for institutions that depend on it, such as the postal service, the railways and public transport.

The salaries of private sector employees have fallen, with average weekly pay peaking at 300 Egyptian pounds (US$42), so a substantial proportion of the workforce earns far less than the minimum demanded by the unions. The introduction of the minimum wage was a pretext for price rises, further penalising those whose incomes had not improved.

The workers’ movement has got attention, but results have not matched expectations. The el-Beblawi government was succeeded by yet another in which ministers from the old regime predominate.

When the new Prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, visited Mahallah, a major industrial city north of Cairo, he asked people to be patient: “The state does not have a magic wand to solve all the workers’ problems”.

The employment minister, Nahed Ashry, a veteran of the Mubarak government known for siding with the bosses, has been criticised by the Suez-based unions. Workers at Cristal, a company that employs 1,400 in Shubra al-Kheima (Greater Cairo), condemned her bias during their strike in May over the implementation of an agreement signed under her predecessor.

Since the new government, repression has increased and many union leaders have been arrested and charged with public order offences, incitement to violence and national security violations.

Postal workers’ representatives were arrested in dawn raids, beaten and tortured. After a strike for higher wages at a ceramics factory owned by a member of Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, the security forces intimidated and threatened workers to force 25 of their leaders to resign.

But the worst incident was at the Egyptian Propylene and Polypropylene Company in Port Said; as the law requires, three workers’ representatives went to the police station to notify a sit-in about improved working conditions and back pay. They were arrested and held for four days. On their release they joined their striking colleagues, who were protesting over their imprisonment.


Moves to ban strike action

There is nothing new about the gap between the size of the workers’ movement and its modest victories. It has pushed the revolutionary process, but without lasting positive change in the balance of power.

Before the January 2011 revolution it was especially active, and successfully called out almost two million strikers. It played a determining role in the fall of the Mubarak regime, with site occupations, holding state officials hostage and calling for a general strike.

Yet since Mubarak’s departure, it has been targeted relentlessly on the pretext that strikes harm the revolution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control in February 2011, legislated to outlaw strike action and try strike leaders in military courts. This was repeated under Morsi, with a similar lack of success.

There are even more discontented workers now. In 2012 there were more strikes than in the 10 years before the revolution, according a report from the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights. And there were more strikes in the first five months of 2013 than in the whole of the previous year, according to a study by the International Development Research Centre.

Protestors also have to contend with the caution of their own central organisations.

The unions have been trying to lower strikers’ appetite for action rather than back their members’ demands. Unions have been dominated since 1957 by ETUF, which was founded by President Nasser. It is entirely state-controlled and has played no part in the development of the workers’ movement. It has often condemned strikers and demonstrations.

The creation of independent unions in 2008 ended ETUF’s monopoly. The new organisations came from grassroots workers’ committees that joined forces and were in a strong position to win the trust of employees. The choice of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 revolution, for the founding of EFITU held great symbolic value.


Internal divisions

This trend towards greater autonomy grew stronger, but hopes were short-lived. There was soon disagreement between EFITU’s leaders, and a split, with the creation of the Democratic Labour Congress. Competition to represent all Egyptian workers in international bodies and negotiations with the state heightened tensions. Then the call to support the new regime led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi caused fresh internal divisions.

Taking advantage of its links with the state, the official federation was able to strengthen its position. In the public transport sector, the railways, the postal service, and in Mahallah, the local branches of the independent unions (and sometimes the official union) have taken the active role, while the confederations stayed in the background.

At the top level, the tendency within the unions has been to bureaucratic stagnation, loss of impetus and dwindling contact with grassroots concerns.

By lending their support to the new regime and renouncing strike action, the leaders of the independent unions run a significant risk of becoming copies of their counterparts in the official federation.

The weakness of its union organisations explains the course of political events in Egypt after the revolution. During the uprising in Tunisia, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), after initial hesitation, responded to grassroots pressure and took decisive political action.

Nothing similar has happened in Egypt, where the huge numbers of workers mobilised before and after the revolution failed to exert lasting influence or bring a genuine alternative to the old regime.

Since the investiture of Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as Egyptian president on 8 June, it has been clear that the government had no intention of improving the workers’ lot. Al-Sisi uses populist rhetoric that calls on people to get up early, work hard and forget all narrower “sectoral” demands.

At the same time he has opted for radical austerity. He has demanded that the government budget be re-examined to reduce public debt, through cuts in energy subsidies and new taxes. The price of fuel has rocketed and increases have been unevenly distributed: the cost of natural gas has gone up by 175 per cent for public transport vehicles, but only 30-40 per cent for factories. Low-grade fuel for taxis and cars has gone up by 75 per cent, but higher-grade fuel by only 40 per cent.

The consequence has been an uncontrolled hike in the price of public transport and manufacturing costs. And already taxi drivers have stopped work. New waves of protest are likely to follow.


This article was initially published in Le Monde Diplomatique. Copyright © 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique. Used by permission of Agence Global.