Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

In Egypt, a second life for independent trade unions

Union members in a crowded assembly hall lashed out against the Egyptian regime’s latest efforts to suppress workers, writes Giulio Regeni

February 7, 2016
5 min read

giulioThe writer of this article, Giulio Regeni, was an Il Manifesto contributor based in Cairo while researching his doctoral thesis. On Wednesday, his tortured body was discovered in a ditch in the city. Il Manifesto published his last article posthumously and Red Pepper is re-publishing it here.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presides over the Egyptian parliament with the highest number of police and military personnel in the history of the country, and Egypt ranks among the worst offenders with respect to press freedom. Yet independent trade unions are refusing to give up. The Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), a beacon of independent Egyptian trade unionism, has just held a vibrant meeting.

Although the largest room at the centre has 100 seats, the meeting hall could not contain the number of activists who came from all over Egypt for an assembly that was extraordinary in the current context of the country. On the agenda was a recommendation from Sisi’s ministers for close cooperation between the government and the country’s only official union, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, with the explicit order to counter the role of independent trade unions and to further marginalise workers.

Although today the CTUWS is not representative of the complex galaxy of Egypt’s independent trade unionism, its call was heard, perhaps unexpectedly, by a significant number of unions. By the end of the meeting, there were about 50 acronyms that signed on to the closing statement, representing various sectors from all over the country — from transportation to schools, from agriculture to the large informal sector, from Sinai to Upper Egypt, from the Delta to Alexandria to Cairo.

Movement in crisis

The government’s policy represents a further attack on workers’ rights and trade union freedoms, greatly restricted after the military coup of July 3, 2013, and so has been the catalyst of widespread discontent among workers. But until now, the unions have found it difficult to turn their frustration into concrete initiatives.

After the 2011 revolution, Egypt experienced a surprising expansion of political freedom. It saw the emergence of hundreds of new trade unions, a true movement, of which the CTUWS was among the main protagonists, through its support and training activities.

But over the past two years, repression and co-optation by the Sisi regime have seriously weakened these initiatives, so that the two major federations (the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress and Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions) have not convened a general assembly since 2013.

Virtually every union acts only on its own, within its locale and industry. The need to unite and coordinate efforts, however, is deeply felt. That accounts for the great participation in the CTUWS meeting, as well as the many attendees who lamented the fragmentation of the movement and called for the need to work together, regardless of affiliation.

Comments from attendees came in by the dozen, concise, often passionate, and with a very pragmatic approach: The purpose was to decide together ‘what to do by tomorrow morning’, an appeal repeated like a mantra during the meeting, given the urgency of the moment and the need to draw up a short and medium-term action plan.

Notable was the presence of a large number of women, whose actions were sometimes among the most appreciated and applauded by the predominantly male audience. The assembly concluded with a decision to form a committee, as representative as possible, to take charge of laying the groundwork for a national campaign on issues of labor and trade union freedom.

Regional conferences

The idea is to organize a series of regional conferences that, every few months, would convene in a large national assembly and possibly a unified protest. (‘In Tahrir!’ offered some of those present, invoking the square which was the scene of the revolutionary period of 2011-2013 but for more than two years has been off limits to any form of protest.)

The agenda seems very broad but includes an underlying objective to counter Law 18 of 2015, which has recently targeted public sector workers and has been strongly contested in the past few months.

Meanwhile, in recent days, in different regions of the country, from Asyut to Suez to the Delta, board workers in the textile, cement and construction industries, went on strike for as long as they could. Mostly their demands concern the extension of wage rights and indemnities to public companies.

New wave of strikes

These are benefits that workers have ceased to enjoy following the massive wave of privatisations during the last period of the Mubarak era. Many of these privatisations after the 2011 revolution have been brought before the courts, which have often nullified them, noting several cases of irregularities and corruption.

Strikes against the revocation of benefits are mostly unrelated to each other, and largely disconnected from the independent trade unions that met in Cairo. But still they represent a significant development, for at least two reasons: For one, albeit in a manner not entirely explicit, they challenge the heart of the neoliberal transformation of the country, which has undergone a major acceleration since 2004, and which the 2011 popular uprisings and their slogan, ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’, have substantially dented.

The other aspect is that in an authoritarian and repressive context under General Sisi, the simple fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is itself a major spur for change.

The unions’ defiance of the state of emergency and the regime’s appeals for stability and social order — justified by the ‘war on terrorism’ — signifies, even if indirectly, a bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence and its repression of civil society.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun


52