By Mai Shams El-Din
CAIRO — In many respects, the popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak began on April 6, 2008 in Mahalla, Egypt.
Security forces unleashed a torrent of violence against 30,000 striking textile workers and thousands of their supporters, killing several demonstrators and injuring hundreds. The April 6 Youth Movement emerged from that mass action when engineer Ahmed Maher co-founded the group that would slowly galvanize millions of workers and ultimately help touch off the revolution.
Three years after Mahalla, worker Shaaban Hegaz stood in front of the cameras during a rally on International Labor Day — May 1 — holding a banner and appealing to journalists: “Would you take a photo of our demands? We have come all the way from Suez.”
Although Egypt’s labor movement has been born anew in the days and months since the January 25 uprising, wooing workers from the official government union to a growing network of independent ones, activists like Hegaz, 40, are finding an impatient audience these days.
The country’s economy took a massive hit following the fall of Mubarak and voters are hungry for relief. Last year the ruling military implemented a law criminalizing labor strikes that disturb production, imposing penalties of years in prison or thousands of Egyptian pounds in fines.
The nascent Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions — formed during the uprising as the country’s first independent union — wants to repeal the law, balancing workers‘ right to organize against economic concerns. Ultimately, organizers hope to again bring the power of labor to bear on the Egypt’s entrenched political leadership.
“The ruling military practices are the legacy of their teacher [Mubarak],” said Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services.
As Egyptians vote this week on their first-ever civilian president, four leftist candidates who have presented ideas to improve the socioeconomic conditions of workers are polling well below frontrunners like Amr Moussa and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
Some labor leaders have called on the four pro-labor candidates, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abul Ezz El-Hariri, Hisham El-Bastawisi and Khaled Ali to form a united front representing workers.
“These are all wishes,” Abbas said. “This is a new-born movement, with independent labor syndicates formed only one year ago, so it is too hard for the movement to shift its struggle from a direct economic struggle to a political one. The movement lacks the awareness.”
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has put Egypt on the blacklist of countries violating labor rights since 1957, when the Egyptian government told millions of Egyptian workers that the only legal union would be the state-sponsored Egyptian Workers Federation, which later became the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).
Then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser summarized the regime’s longstanding approach to labor rights when he said, “The workers don’t demand; We give.”
In 1976, the law governing the formation of labor unions was amended, depriving Egyptian workers from the right to form labor unions only upon state approval, giving huge authority to ETUF.
ETUF became Mubarak’s tool to keep workers in check and also allegedly a gateway for financial corruption — especially under Hussein Megawer, a leading figure in Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
Megawer is now facing trial for his alleged involvement in attacking Tahrir protesters on February 2, 2011 during the popular uprising that left 13 dead and hundreds injured.
Labor movement leaders and advocates say that when it comes to suppressing labor organization, the ruling military junta has picked up right where Mubarak left off.
According to a report released by Sons of the Land Human Rights Association, over 20,000 workers were fired from their jobs since last year for protesting, and 30 others committed suicide as they were unable to provide basic support for their families. So far in 2012, the country has witnessed 1,398 labor strikes in both government and private sectors, including those by teachers, doctors, public transportation workers, post offices workers and public taxation authority workers.
Many of the strikers have joined the upstart Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which has grown to more than 1.6 million workers and has aligned with more than 100 other new unions.
The coordinator Abbas, who was imprisoned for many times by Mubarak regime, was sentenced to a six-month sentence by an Egyptian misdemeanor court in March for chanting against the head of the official labor union during a speech at the ILO in June 2011.
“This is the attack of counter-revolutionary forces against activists, whether labor activists or political activists, and a continuation of the practices of the ousted regime,” Abbas told Daily News Egypt last March.
The average Egyptian worker, Abbas said, is not aware of the fact that he or she represents the strongest social class that can affect politics if it is properly moderated and organized.
“The labor movement cannot yet understand that it is the capitalist political regime that needs to be changed so that its economic demands are met,” Abbas said.
Leftist lawyer and member of the Popular Alliance Socialist Party Magda Fathy agreed, recalling the days before the revolution when the leftist political elite used to protest in front of the doorsteps of the Journalists Syndicate against the oppressive labor laws.
“Workers back then, and till now, are not aware that this law is the reason of their suffering. I cannot blame them alone, the political elite is also responsible for not educating the working class,” Fathy explained.
Fathy said that hopes are high that candidates with agendas favoring the labor movement can unite to achieve social justice.
“We are trying to organize our efforts,” Fathy said.
Fear of an elitist constitution
The major demands of the labor movement in the new constitution have two major dimensions: The first calls for giving constitutional grants for syndicate freedoms while the other stipulates granting social and economic rights with no restrictions like the right of free education in all stages, health care and the right to work.
Workers’ advocates want Egyptian labor law to adhere to ILO standards, which by grant labor unions the right to organize without state approval and ban disbanding unions under any circumstances, among many other protections for labor unions.
The real battle lies in the laws that organize constitutional rights, the Syndicate Freedoms Law is the perfect example, Fathy said.
In May 2011, the Egyptian government initiated a dialogue among the shareholders in the work relationship including government officials, businessmen, and workers to draft a law for syndicate freedoms and labor.
The dialogue also included a wide range of representatives from all political forces and reached a draft law that most of the political forces had some reservations upon, but according to Abbas, it met the basic standards when it comes to labor rights.
But the surprise, Abbas said, came when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) presented a totally different draft law in the parliament that further restricts labor freedoms.
“The Brotherhood’s draft law stipulated that labor organizations should be designed so the top of the syndicate leadership controls the bylaws without giving the lower ranking members of the syndicate power to directly elect its leaders,” Abbas said.
The law also prevents workers from forming more than one syndicate in one industry.
Khaled Azhari, a member of parliament representing the FJP, said the law’s intention is to avoid redundancy, not to limit the right to organize.
“Syndicate and workers’ unions should be established freely and not built on party or religious bases,” Azhari said in a statement.
The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has not typically had a warm relationship with Egypt’s working class, said Joel Beinin, the former director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo to Business Today.
“Their national leadership now, as pretty much always, consists of wealthy, or at least upper middle class people,” he said. “These are not people who are personally inclined to be sympathetic to the needs of workers.”