The role of workers in Egypt’s revolution

Posted on February 18, 2011


One of the major — and generally little publicised — factors that forced Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak out of office, was the wave of strikes that erupted throughout the country. Workers in industry, banks, agriculture and even the Stock Exchange stopped work — and most remain on strike this week.

With less than 25 per cent of the labour force unionised, a high proportion of workers in the public sector, and the official labour federation little more than a conveyor belt for the regime, such massive mobilisation by workers was completely unexpected, certainly by those in power.

Even two days into the January 25 uprising, the official trade union organisation confidently announced that workers would not be joining “a protest that they oppose”. Like the government, the union leaders were clearly out of touch with the feeling on the ground, in their case the anger of both their members and the broader mass of workers.

However, at the same time that this announcement was made, police units were turning back busloads of workers from the textile plants at Mehalla, the Nile delta town north of Cairo, that were heading for Tahrir Square. Mehalla is a textile centre and is home to the largest public sector textile company in the country.

In recent years, workers from Mehalla developed a reputation for defying both the government and the official union movement and they provided the trigger for what became the rebellion of January 25. The April 6 Movement that took the most prominent role in organising the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square took its name from a strike in 2008 by workers in Mehalla.

Hearing that a strike was being called on that day, a young civil engineer, Ahmed Maher and a friend, created a Facebook group to support the strikers. Out of this grew the near 100 000-strong Facebook community that morphed into the April 6 Movement that largely controlled the mass protest in Tahrir Square.

As the January 25 “police day” public holiday dawned, a call for a general strike went out to even in the most remote areas of Egypt’s 29 governorates, and the economy began grinding to a halt. In the meantime, worker delegates met and announced the establishment of a new, independent labour movement, the Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).

It was the outcome of 20 years and more of worker education by groups such as the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services . It was they who sowed the seeds of hope for a democratic future. The events in Tunisia, followed by January 25, provided the catalyst that saw those seeds sprout into a vast united force.

It did not take long for the regime to become aware that the official union movement had lost control of the most potent civilian force in the country. Mubarak responded by announcing a pay rise for all public sector workers. The International Trade Union Confederation described this as “a desperate act”. It was. And it didn’t work.

On January 31, the newly formed EFITU drew up its nine-point list of popular demands. Topping the list is the right to work or to be “compensated for unemployment” followed by the demand for a national minimum wage of E£1 200 a month.

The unions also want guaranteed annual wage rises based on inflation, bonuses and “special compensation” for hazardous work. Included in these “decent work” demands is an insistence on “decent” health care, housing and pensions as well as training to be provided in “new technologies” and in “foreign languages”.

After Mubarak stepped down last week almost the entire labour force of more than 20 million was on strike and guarantees were being sought from the interim government for a prompt move to free and fair elections and the adoption of the EFITU demands. Last weekend even saw several police units walking out to stage a protest outside the interior ministry before marching to Tahrir Square to pledge support to the protestors who remained camped there.

The idea of “workers in uniform”, primarily in the army, is widely accepted in Egypt since every citizen between the ages of 18 and 30 is liable to serve between one to three years in the army, followed by nine years in the military reserve. In a country where the majority of the population is under 30 years of age, this means that almost every family has at least one family member or relative connected with the army.

However, senior officers, like the leadership of the now virtually extinct official trade union movement, are almost certainly unsympathetic to the democratic demands being made by “the street”. Appealing to patriotism, the military high command last Sunday — a working day in Egypt — urged workers to “get Egypt back to work”.

To a large extent, the plea fell on deaf ears. By Tuesday, a public holiday in Egypt, even the Stock Exchange had to announce that its scheduled reopening on Wednesday had been delayed to Sunday.

Several independent unions have also demanded that the leaders of the official trade union federation to be arrested and put on trial. And an increasingly confident EFITU has called on all workers to join the “millions-strong” marches planned for this afternoon (subs: Friday).

In a communique, the new federation noted: “Now that the republic of fear, despotism and corruption has fallen, it is incumbent upon us, we workers, to purge the country of the remnants of the regime and its servants.”

It added: “Today is the day on which these people should pay the price of their crimes against workers. We will not remain silent regarding those who stole workers’ money, who facilitated and profited from the sell-off the public sector. We will pursue them through all legal means.”

Egyptian workers are clearly not ready to “put Egypt back to work” until they get guarantees that most — if not all — their demands will be met.

(With thanks to Eva Haroun, TUC (UK) and the activists of April 6 and EFITU)