Egypt’s workers: On the political precipice

“We joined [the union] because our rights are lost,” says Fahmy Adel Fahmy, a member of the Independent Bakers’ Union. “We never resorted to protesting or having strikes; we demand retirement plans and a better minimum wage.”

Fahmy’s union is one of 12 that have already joined the newly founded Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions, which stands in parallel to the official Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, a state-controlled entity.

Fahmy, who works at a bakery in Cairo’s Shubra al-Khaima, says that his demands and those of his fellow workers could be more effectively addressed with better organization. “We joined the [independent] union because no one listens to us. We’ve been mistreated by the [official] federation. Membership fees are automatically deducted from our pay slips and we get nothing in return.”

Fahmy’s pleas, like those of millions of Egyptian workers, have been on the forefront of the 25 January revolution, whose seminal chant was “dignity, freedom, social justice.” But for many, the plea remains outside the framework of political discourse in Egypt, as the current military rulers insist that the workers’ demands are “class-based” and do not concern the wider nation. For the workers themselves, they walk the fine line between effectively applying pressure on politicians and honoring their pledge to stay out of politics.

“Before the revolution, workers were wary of the separation between the political and the economic,” says Nadine Abdalla, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Political Science in Grenoble, France. The common belief was that the fallen regime was more tolerant of workers calling for better working conditions than they were of those calling for political reform. The workers “distanced themselves from calling for political change because they would be punished,” adds Abdalla, who studies the labor movement in the Delta of Egypt.

“This is what happened on 6 April 2008 when the demands got political, which led to the violent dispersal of the Mahalla strike.”

In 2008, workers on strike in a Delta-based state-run textile factory coordinated with political groups outside Mahalla. They chanted against rising food prices and low wages before the police violently broke up the protest and arrested many of them. Attempts to promote national solidarity on behalf of the workers, by staging protests and enacting a day of civil disobedience, failed due to the staunch security response. Union leaders recall the experience with bitterness, attributing it to the absence of a strong political party caring about workers’ issues.

But Abdalla reckons that after the 25 January revolution, workers were emboldened and hence became more politicized. For her, there is a sense of recognition that worker strikes in the last days of the uprising significantly contributed to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Since 9 February, worker strikes have erupted throughout Egypt. Employees in public and private sectors – public transportation employees, communication technicians, nurses, and others – also staged protests, bringing the nation’s economy at halt. In a reversal of longstanding tendencies to keep out of politics, protesters chanted against corrupt leadership in addition to calling for improved working conditions.

Beyond its demands, the labor movement seeks better organization. The Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions was quick to act as a truly representative body, in contrast to the state-controlled Egyptian Federation for Trade Unions.

“The union and its members are independent from political parties, the state-controlled federation, the government and employers,” says Kamal Abbas, a co-founder of the independent union and a worker himself. He reiterates that independence from all such bodies is a key element of the new union.

The decision to distance itself from politics is a strategic choice by the labor movement, according to Akram Ismail, a member of the Association of Progressive Youth, which has embraced workers’ pursuit for independent unions. “The independent union is wary of not engaging in political issues such as the toppling of the official state-run federation,” notes Ismail. “The real battle now is to create an independent union on the ground that embraces workers’ causes, organizes them and strategically negotiates on their behalf.”

The choice to remain apolitical has come at a cost, and some accuse the movement of lacking appeal to the broader public. Khaled Ali, head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and an advocate for workers rights, believes one must differentiate between politics and political parties. “The independence of labor unions from political parties, which could direct them one way or the other, is indispensable,” says Ali, pointing to the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of how political parties may evolve to control professional syndicates.

For years, the Muslim Brotherhood, once banned but tolerated by Egypt’s toppled regime, has worked to penetrate professional syndicates and transform them into loyal strongholds, especially during elections time.

“However, there needs to be a link between the workers’ discourse and that of political groups,” Ali adds. “For years, labor constituted the social heart of the progressive political movement, which in turn served as the political brain for labor. That was important for the labor movement to articulate its discourse and negotiate its demands.”

What’s uncontested, beyond the movement’s self-perception of being either economic or political, is that the act of creating a union is political by nature.

Behind the Independent Bakers’ Unions stands a long history of bread riots in 1977 when masses took to the streets against the cancellation of government subsidies on basic foodstuffs. In 2007, shortages in subsidized bread and rising food prices spearheaded instability and led to deadly feuds in bread queues.

“The bread supply can only be improved when our conditions are improved,” Fahmy concluded confidently.

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