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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.

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