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.
The formation of independent trade unions and the enactment of an increased minimum wage mark two important achievements for workers’ rights since the revolution, but there have been few other recent gains for Egyptian workers, as the successive regimes since Mubarak have all endeavored to stifle and contain the labor movement. The labor protests themselves have remained fragmented; they are unable to coordinate, much less unify, their demands and are largely confined to specific socio-economic grievances.
“Whether it’s in the era of the military council, Morsi or these days, in all three stages there has been a war on workers’ rights,” said Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services. “The overall situation for workers is now worse than before the revolution.”
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The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled Egypt from Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 until Morsi’s election in the summer of 2012, took a harsh stance against organized labor, criminalizing strikes and work stoppages, arresting protesters and labor activists, and even using the military’s own labor force to undermine strikes.
The other juggernaut in Egypt’s recent politics, the Muslim Brotherhood, often smeared worker protests during its brief time in power, accusing labor activists of undermining the revolution and working to maintain state control over organized labor. When it had a plurality in Parliament, the Brotherhood spurned a draft law that would have guaranteed the right to form independent unions; Morsi’s government did the same. The issue goes to the very heart of worker rights in Egypt, where, until the revolution, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was the sole legal labor organization, an arm of the state working as much to suppress the demands of workers as to represent them.
In the run-up to the June 30 protest last year against the Morsi regime, the independent labor movement enthusiastically supported the mass demonstrations that helped pave the way for his overthrow. The two main independent trade union organizations, EFITU and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC), collected signatures for the Tamarod petition campaign that declared a vote of no confidence in Morsi’s presidency and called for early presidential elections.
After Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the military-backed transitional government that came into power was mostly filled with liberal, business-friendly technocrats. But the cabinet did include one figure from the very heart of the labor movement: veteran trade unionist Kamal Abu Eita, who was tapped as minister of manpower and migration.
In 2009, Abu Eita was instrumental in establishing the Real Estate Tax Authority Employees Union, which broke away from the state-controlled ETUF after weeks of strikes and sit-ins to become the first independent union in Egypt since 1954. Soon after the 2011 uprising began, Abu Eita helped establish EFITU, intentionally violating ETUF’s legal monopoly on trade union organization.
Yet Abu Eita embodied the twin contradictions of being a unionist and champion of independent labor organizing while also being a committed Nasserist, the nationalist political ideology based on the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who strongly undermined independent union action and formed ETUF to consolidate state control over organized labor.
A founding member of the Nasserist Karama Party, Abu Eita vocally called last year for the military to step in and force Morsi out of office. Soon after the coup, he came under harsh criticism by labor activists when he issued a statement as president of EFITU calling on workers to put industrial actions on hold and forfeit their right to strike.
When he was appointed minister of manpower and migration, Abu Eita resigned from EFITU. Fears that his appointment was part of an effort to co-opt labor appeared to be well-founded when he did little to protect workers from harsh crackdowns against two strikes in mid-August, at the Suez Steel Company and at Scimitar Petroleum Company.
“Kamal Abu Eita’s role in the ministry was negative. He took steps against worker interests,” said Ramadan, his former colleague at EFITU before his resignation. She points to moves by Abu Eita that reduced workers’ rights in the public sector with respect to annual pay raises as well as a draft amendment he submitted to a highly criticized 2003 labor code that would have weakened Egypt’s already lax labor laws.
“The worst thing that happened to the independent unions movement was the presence of Kamal Abu Eita in the ministry of manpower,” Abbas said. “The government was able to say, ‘We brought in your guy and he will work for you,’ but in reality he worked against us.”
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The resurgence of mass labor unrest in February posed a new challenge to the financially strapped military-backed government. Among workers’ principal demands was the implementation of a higher monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (about $170), which interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi had announced in mid-September would be enforced in the public sector by January 2014. (The higher minimum wage only applies to 4.9 million of the roughly 7 million public sector workers, completely excluding the much larger private sector, which employees some 20 million.)
The largest industrial action was in Mahalla, a gritty industrial town in the Delta that is home to the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company (known as Ghazl al-Mahalla), Egypt’s largest textile mill, which employs 22,000 workers. Topping their strike demands was the application of the new minimum wage, rooting out corruption and the removal of the government-operated Textile Holding Company’s president, Fouad Abdel Aleem, whom they accuse of financial mismanagement.
The demand for a national minimum wage originated at Ghazl al-Mahalla during a thwarted strike on April 6, 2008 (the April 6 Youth Movement, one of Egypt’s largest activist groups that went on to play a key role in the 2011 revolution, was formed in spring 2008 in support of the planned strike). Over six years later, their demands have not been met. “Are we in a state, or are we in a collection of interests for businessmen in Egypt?” asked Kamal al-Fayoumi, a strike leader in Mahalla.
Public-sector employees excluded from the wage increase, including doctors, pharmacists, factory workers, public-transport workers and even policemen, have staged work stoppages over the past several weeks. Aside from the minimum wage, many of the protests were also aimed at ending corruption and mismanagement.
Amid the strike wave, Beblawi unexpectedly announced the resignation of his government on February 24, saying the decision was taken “in light of what the country is going through.” In his televised address, he did not give a clear reason for the cabinet’s resignation but did acknowledge that Egypt had witnessed a sharp rise in strikes. “This is neither the time for demands by public workers nor the time for personal interests, but the time for us to put our country’s interests above others,” he said.
Housing Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, a former member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, was tapped to replace Beblawi as prime minister. In his first speech in office, Mehleb resorted to conventional nationalist rhetoric to undermine the labor protests. “Making demands that exceed logic will destroy the country,” he said. “Production is the road to prosperity, and we are betting on the patriotism of the Egyptian workers.”
Mehleb appointed Nahed al-Ashry, a career civil servant and Mubarak-era stalwart, to replace Abu Eita as manpower minister. On March 9, al-Ashry put forward a controversial initiative banning work stoppages for twelve months. The proposal was denounced by a host of independent labor unions and workers’ organizations.
“Nahed al-Ashry always stands with the businessmen and factory owners against the workers,” Fayoumi said. “We don’t want just a change of faces, we want a change of regime and a change of politics.”
The reshuffling of cabinet ministers has done little to abate worker protests. For the past four months, dozens of workers at the National Vegetable Oil Company, a soybean processing plant owned by US food giant Cargill, have been taking part in a sit-in in the parking lot of their company headquarters, located in the industrial city of Borg El Arab, near Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. The workers began their sit-in on December 15 to protest arbitrary punishments and a deteriorating work environment following the appointment of a new management team last summer that suspended the collective agreement negotiated by the independent union workers had formed in March 2012. The company responded by shutting down the factory and putting the workers on extended leave.
“Management withdrew recognition of the independent union chosen by workers; this is a violation,” said Mohamed Taraboulsi, the International Labor Organization’s representative in the Middle East. “These are not financial demands; these are demands related to the very essence of worker rights.”
A week later, the sit-in was assaulted by thugs with attack dogs. Cargill reopened the plant on January 13, hired replacement workers and started mailing dismissal letters to the locked-out employees. The company has since laid siege to the sit-in by cutting off access to electricity, water, food and medicine, according to workers.
“The doors are locked and there are dogs standing guard at the gate,” said Wafaa Hamdy, the wife of Mohamed Gomaa, one of the Cargill workers taking part in the sit-in. “For four months we’ve had no salary, no health insurance. Everything has stopped.”
Unionists and workers’ rights advocates say the Cargill case is symptomatic of the harsher tactics being used against labor protests under the new military-backed regime, which is brooking no dissent under the guise of a “war on terrorism.”
In Alexandria, police conducted dawn raids in March on the homes of five post office workers leading a strike, detaining them on charges of forming a terrorist cell. The move came a day after the head of the postal bureau filed charges claiming they were instigating work stoppages and were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Port Said, three workers from the Propylene and Polypropylene Company were immediately arrested when they visited a police station in April to notify police of their plans to strike. Detained because of a complaint filed against them by management, they face accusations of inciting a strike, stirring riots and threatening national security. The same month, riot police and army troops fired teargas canisters at hundreds of striking dock workers in the Red Sea port of Ain Sokhna. At least one was arrested and several injured in the crackdown. Nearly 800 workers from the Platinum Maritime Services Company had staged a work stoppage after management failed to uphold a labor agreement.
In Suez, the army helped eliminate the union leadership at a local factory belonging to Cleopatra Ceramics, which is owned by former Mubarak crony Mohamed Aboul Enein, according to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights. The workers had been locked in a dispute with management over salaries and overtime pay stemming from a 2012 collective-bargaining agreement. In March, a senior army commander summoned twenty-one union leaders to the local army headquarters and threatened to have them jailed and investigated on terrorism charges if they did not sign resignation letters and leave the company.
“They are trying to break the organized unions that are standing up to business owners; there is an attempt to move backwards,” Ramadan said, pointing out that many of the labor protests since June 30 are aimed at restoring rights that have been taken away rather than actually improving conditions.
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Most workers taking part in the recent wave of strikes and other industrial actions are from the public sector; typically, they disassociate themselves from overt political demands or affiliations. “Workers are convinced that if politics enters into anything it will corrupt it. But the life of the worker is entirely political,” Fayoumi said.
“Being the most prone to undertake strikes does not indicate any willingness to challenge the state politically,” says Amr Adly, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University focusing on political economy in the Middle East. “The labor movement is very fragmented and segmented, and their demands have been confined by and large to the economic and social spheres.”
This is a far cry from early 2011, when tens of thousands of workers not only went on strike but openly contested the Mubarak regime and called for democratic reforms when they joined protesters in Tahrir Square—a move that many attribute to forcing Mubarak’s ouster.
“Workers and political groups must think about how to bridge the gap between their movements, like the one we reached during the eighteen days,” Ramadan said, in reference to the January–February 2011 period. “All the regimes from Mubarak until today have been very eager to keep this separation, because when that gap is closed, regimes fall.”
The presidential elections scheduled for May 26–27 are further polarizing the ranks of Egypt’s trade unions. Sisi, who enjoys widespread popularity and is supported by the army and state bureaucracy, is widely expected to beat the only other candidate in the race, Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist who is trying to rally support from within the non-Islamist opposition.
ETUF, the state-controlled trade federation, is openly backing Sisi’s campaign, as are a number of unions and professional associations. For its part, EFITU announced it would not officially back either candidate, while the other main independent trade union organization, the EDLC, did the same, though its decision appears to have led to internal conflict and may have contributed to the unseating of the EDLC’s president, Yousri Maarouf, a vocal Sisi supporter, in January.
One of the few political figures with strong credentials in the labor movement, Khaled Ali, announced in a March press conference that he would not run for president, calling the elections a “farce.” A renowned labor lawyer and anti-corruption crusader who came in a distant seventh in the 2012 presidential race, Ali said, “Social justice for us is not just a slogan used to trick people.… Has any politician thought about sitting down with the workers and understanding why their protests have grown?”
There continues to be little worker representation among the political elite, which has largely occupied itself over the past three years with issues of religious identity rather than people’s economic and social needs. “There is a very thorny relationship between the political movement and the worker movement,” said Abbas. “The liberals are far removed from workers’ issues and the workers see them as businessmen. Meanwhile, the left deals with workers as a means to an end. They think, ‘How do I benefit from this?’, not ‘How can I help the movement and develop it?’ ”
Most of the labor movement’s priorities have been forsaken since the toppling of Mubarak: a higher national minimum wage for all workers and the establishment of a maximum wage; the adoption of a Trade Union Freedoms Law to institutionalize independent, democratic trade unions; protection of the right to strike; reinstatement of fired workers; and permanent status for workers on temporary contracts.
“I do have hope, but I thought after the revolution that we were close to realizing our demands,” Abbas said. “I found out that we haven’t gotten close at all. Quite the opposite—we have a long fight ahead of us.”