Egypt’s former army chief Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi is all but guaranteed to win presidential elections later this month, formalizing his role as the country’s de facto ruler since leading the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last summer. As Sisi prepares to take office and consolidate his regime, he will have to contend with a wave of labor unrest that has gripped the country for the first time since the July coup, with tens of thousands of workers going on strike for higher wages and improved working conditions.
Bus drivers, postal workers, garbage collectors, dock workers, doctors, pharmacists and steel and textile workers have staged walk-outs, factory occupations, sit-ins and other stoppages over the past several months, crippling a number of industries and adding to the turmoil of an already chaotic and violent political transition. According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, labor actions account for 70 percent of all documented protests in the first quarter of 2014.
Soon after the army ouster of Morsi following mass protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule, the interim government launched a sweeping crackdown on its opponents, imprisoning at least 16,000 people—many of them rounded up in mass sweeps—and killing up to 2,500. A court in southern Egypt recently sentenced more than 1,100 alleged Brotherhood members to death—among the largest death-penalty rulings in modern history—in trials that lacked even the most basic standards of due process. While the Brotherhood and its allies were the primary victims of the re-empowered security apparatus, the crackdown quickly widened beyond the Islamists to target any dissenting voices. Protesting workers have not been spared.
Over the past few months, strike leaders have been arrested at their homes in dawn raids, worker sit-ins have come under attack by riot police and union leaders have been summoned by the military and threatened with terrorism probes.
The repressive political environment and its effect on the labor movement was never more evident than on May 1, when, for the first time since the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, labor organizers, activists and members of Egypt’s independent trade unions did not commemorate Labor Day in Tahrir Square, constrained by a draconian new anti-protest law that grants police forces sweeping powers to disperse and arrest anyone taking part in unauthorized public gatherings of more than ten people.
“There is an attempt by the regime and those allied with it to return things to the way they were before the January 25  revolution,” said Fatma Ramadan, a civil service trade union leader and a member of the executive bureau of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).
Egypt’s workers were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the 2011 uprising that not only toppled Mubarak but held the promise of sweeping political, social and economic change. In the decade leading up to the revolution, well over 2 million workers participated in thousands of strikes, sit-ins and other acts of dissent, helping to popularize a culture of protest. In the three days before Mubarak was ousted, tens of thousands of workers across a range of industries went on strike, dealing what many believe was the decisive blow to his thirty-year rule.
After the revolution, the independent labor movement flourished, with workers establishing hundreds of new, independent enterprise-level unions. At the same time, thousands were laid off as the economy went into recession, and hundreds were imprisoned as strikes, demonstrations and other collective actions reached unprecedented levels.