Labor Woes in an Islamist Parliament

From the March issue of Business Today Egypt.

Sipping tea on his living room couch, Mamdouh Al Habashi’s eyes light up as he recalls the start of his long career in activism.

“It was 1972, in the student movement, which shook the country at that time,” he explains, his voice rising. “Cairo University, Faculty of Engineers. It started in our faculty. And then spread out to the entire country. That was the first time I [was] arrested, by Sadat.”

It’s the day before the much-hyped general strike to mark the one-year anniversary of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and up the pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to step aside. But the leftist crusader who cofounded the Egyptian Socialist Party (ESP) last year seems less enthused when the conversation turns to the next day’s events.

For one thing, his expectations aren’t exactly sky-high.

“It will not turn to be a real general disobedience, at least not in the foreseeable future, because everything is now liquid and in motion. Perhaps something will happen that will change the atmosphere. Under these circumstances, it will start, but it will not be followed 100%. And not all over the country.”

Habashi’s caution is well-founded. Since 1957, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser incorporated all of Egypt’s trade unions under a single government-run entity — the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) — and stocked its leadership with party stalwarts, organized labor has rarely made more than a ripple in an otherwise tidy sea of state-enforced obeisance.

Nevertheless, workers gained momentum in the last decade or so of Mubarak’s reign. Protests routinely targeted low wages, poor workplace conditions, and the regime’s privatization agenda. Between 1998 and the 2011 revolution, more than 2 million workers joined some 3,500 labor actions throughout the country. The best-known, a strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla Al Kubra in 2006, exacted unprecedented concessions from the government. Mahalla became a hotbed for labor unrest; on April 6, 2008, another flare-up left three workers dead at the hands of security forces.

Meanwhile, for the first time since 1957, independent unions began to challenge the ETUF’s monopoly. An open strike launched by employees of the real estate tax authority in December 2007 culminated the next year in the formation of a new syndicate, wholly autonomous of the ETUF. By the 2011 uprising, independent unions representing pension department workers, teachers and health technicians had formed.

Against this backdrop, organized labor seized the opening presented by last year’s upheaval. On January 30, five days after demonstrators first flooded Tahrir Square, the independent unions announced the creation of the first rival to the ETUF: the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU).

Invigorated in the uprising’s final days by strikes across all sectors of the Egyptian economy — textiles, media, transportation — the movement struck a death knell to the ancien régime. And in the weeks and months that followed, it continued to press its demands. A wave of labor actions swept the nation, trying Egypt’s already fragile economy, but resulting in a series of previously unthinkable victories.

In March, Minister of Manpower and Immigration Ahmed Hassan El Boraie recognized Egyptian workers’ right to establish independent labor
syndicates. Then in July, the government approved a LE 700 monthly minimum wage for public sector employees. The next month, the Cabinet agreed to enforce a 2006 court order calling for the dissolution of the ETUF board.

Perhaps most significantly, two months later in October, the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC) became Egypt’s second independent labor federation. At present, the FITU and EDLC together represent more than 300 trade unions, both older unions that have defected from the ETUF and new unions that have formed since the revolution.

Joel Beinin, the former Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo and an expert on Egyptian labor, views this as a significant step forward for Egypt’s nascent democracy.

“The extent to which labor’s needs are satisfied and labor’s right to independently organize and put forward demands in its own name are satisfied will say a great deal about the extent of substantive democracy and social justice that Egypt will enjoy in the coming period,” he says. “[And] on the most basic issue of trade unionism, there’s been huge success.”

In Egypt’s factories and shops, then, organized labor is at its strongest since at least the 1950s. But it is a different story in the corridors of power, where Islamist parties’ resounding victory in the parliamentary elections and the anemic performances of their leftist rivals, particularly socialist parties like Habashi’s, have left labor activists feeling left out in the cold.

Mostafa Bassiouni, a prominent socialist journalist, is blunt in his assessment of the current parliament. “There’s no political power that represents the labor movement,” he says. In the Islamist majority, labor sees an antagonist nearly as great as the former regime.

“The Islamists — and I am now [using] their own wording — declared, many of their leaders, the economic line of the Mubarak regime was just perfect,” says Habashi. “The problem wasn’t the economic policies of the Mubarak regime. It was just the corruption that made them fail. So they are insisting on continuing the same policies of the Mubarak regime.”

According to Beinin, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) controls nearly half the seats in the People’s Assembly, has long been a foe of organized labor. As far back as the 1940s, he says, it has been involved in breaking strikes. In the 1980s, the Brotherhood rallied behind Mubarak’s rollback of rent control on agricultural land while in Parliament on the grounds that Islam supports private property rights.

“Their national leadership now, as pretty much always, consists of wealthy, or at least upper middle class people,” he explains. “These are not people who are personally inclined to be sympathetic to the needs of workers.”

The Brotherhood has underscored its pro-business, free market credentials in a slew of statements in recent months. “We have sought to reassure people that a free market in Egypt is the only way forward,” spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan told The National in December. And Deputy General Guide Khairat Al Shater told Bloomberg last summer, “We believe in a very big role for the private sector.”

FJP parliamentarian, Saber Abou El Fetouh, who chairs Parliament’s labor committee, acknowledges his party’s free market bent but insists that the FJP is an ally of labor, pointing to several reforms on the party agenda.

On the all-important question of the minimum wage — labor activists want to see it increased to at least LE 1,200 and applied to all workers — Fetouh claims that studies are first needed to determine the proper rate. But, he says, “LE 1,200 for the minimum wage is a proposal to which we wouldn’t object; we would like to see it set even higher than that.”

As for a maximum wage, another demand of labor, his embrace is wholehearted. “It’s important that we set a maximum wage because studies show that the money saved by a maximum wage, once reinvested into the payroll, allows for the minimum wage to be raised by up to 60%.”

He adds that the FJP is looking to bolster corporate regulation as well. “Egypt is the only country in the world that has no oversight over its stock market transactions, and of course that was in the interests of [Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party’s businessmen.” All of which should be music to labor’s ears. Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Count Beinin a skeptic. Within the last month, he claims, the Brotherhood has betrayed its pro-management sympathies. In a recent labor dispute in Helwan over wages and disputed firings, cement workers complained that the local MP, Ramadan Omar of the FJP, dismissed their grievances out of hand.

In incidents like this, Beinin sees an opportunity for labor to capitalize on disenchantment with Islamist representatives, many of whom won their seats thanks to strong working class support.

The key tests still lie ahead. The most critical revolves around a draft law approved by the Cabinet in November but since shelved by SCAF. The act would nullify the provisions of a 1976 law enshrining state control over Egyptian unions and officially recognize workers’ right to form independent unions. In early February, leftist MP and potential presidential candidate Abu El Ezz El Hariri introduced the law before the People’s Assembly.

Fetouh says the FJP supports the draft law, albeit with a few reservations — “firstly that the financing of the unions must come from the workers themselves, and they must prove that there is no external funding, be it foreign or domestic. Second, there needs to be some oversight to make sure that the moneyed business men do not set up unions, because although these unions claim to guarantee workers rights, they do the opposite. We would like to see more diversification of the unions, and so we are waiting for the summit on the amending the draft law.”

None of that is enough to satisfy Habashi, who dismisses the Brotherhood’s economic policies as “neoliberal par excellence.” After the left’s dismal showing in the election — the Revolution Continues Alliance to which the Egyptian Socialist Party belonged won just seven seats in the People’s Assembly (versus 235 for the FJP) — he says that labor’s fight will have to be waged from the outside.

“What we need besides the Parliament is organizing the people — raising the degree of organization in the entire society, raising the capacities of independent unions, of people’s committees, of unions in the different factories or peasant organizations or student organizations so that they control the work of the government.”

While that strategy has proven fruitful this past year, labor is still fighting a decidedly uphill battle. Even as it has registered historic triumphs, setbacks have come in equal supply. In response to the post-revolution surge of strikes and sit-ins, the Cabinet issued a law in March prohibiting labor actions that “damage the economy.” Military police have repeatedly been called on to break strikes.

And after dissolving the ETUF board in August and introducing a steering committee consisting of a mix of independent, state-affiliated and Brotherhood unionists to audit the federation’s finances, the government quickly backtracked. Facing resistance from a coalition of unions unhappy with the new setup, El-Boraie dissolved the committee and replaced it with yet another one headlined by figures from the old board.

Habashi isn’t giving up on winning in the political arena. He’s just taking the long view. The strategy, he says, is based on close collaboration with the as yet unproven independent labor movement, which Habashi calls “weak” and “inexperienced.” However, he adds, “They are the future. And we count on them. And we help them. And we support them.” Befitting the party he calls “the best and the biggest and most influential group of left intellectuals in the entire political arena in Egypt,” that means holding regular seminars and lectures to educate and mobilize workers.

In time, Habashi insists, organized labor will prevail politically. How much time? That he’s not saying.

“We are sure this point will come. But it’s not about us, we — the parties. It’s about the people who are going to recognize the fake, the façade of this Muslim Brotherhood.”

For the moment, he’s right to check his enthusiasm. Despite the endorsement of at least 120 labor groups, the general strike comes and goes almost unnoticed. Shops and businesses stay open. The Brotherhood — alongside fellow opponents of the strike — declares victory. Its official website cites the strike’s failure as “proof of the decline of revolutionary momentum versus popular concerns for security, stability and the economy.”

Argues Fetouh, “This stage requires that we give the parliament and the presidential elections a full chance to build a proper government and working economy in the interest of the Egyptian people.”

Barring any unforeseen shocks to the political system, it looks like he’ll get his wish. A full hand over of power by the SCAF to the president and Parliament could take place as early as June.

And that’s when the real struggle will surely begin.

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