Egypt: Lessons from the labor movement

Since the beginning of the last century, the Egyptian Labor Movement had close relations with leftist movements in the country. After the first Egyptian Communist Party was established along with the General Labor Union in 1921, the al-Wafd governing party issued a law criminalizing communism, banning the Communist Party and dissolved the Union. After remaining dormant for some time, Egyptian labor movements came back to life – though they still remain marginal when it comes to the media.
By OMAR SAID (translated from the original Arabic)
Egypt Protests

CAIRO, August 26, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Despite this law, the organizational bond between the left and the labor movement continued, with the establishment of more than 400 labor syndicates in different Egyptian cities. It wasn’t until the events of July 1952 that both were dissolved. During the revolution of 1952, Mostafa Khamis and Abdul Rahman Al-Baqri were executed on the accusation of leading the workers’ strike in Kfar al-Douwar. Around the same time,  communist militant Shahdi Attiah al-Shafii was executed. It wasn't long after that that the prisons were filled with workers and communists.

From reform to dependency

Throughout the history of Egyptian politics, leftist and labor movements prospered and regressed alike. But the 1990s triggered a long period of latency after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of structural adjustment programs in Egypt, which led to temporary economic prosperity.

Adel Zakaria, an activist in the Syndicate and Labor Services Center (SLSC) said, “One of the major reasons for the regression of the labor movement in the mid-1990s until 2005 was the theoretical divisions in the leftist movement and its dispersion. This doesn’t mean that the reactivation of the labor movement now is due to the activity of the leftist currents alone. The leftist movement has taken diverse steps to revive the labor movement, but most of them failed.”

The leftist movement have joined the General Union for Labor Syndicates in Egypt, which is affiliated with the ruling party, and hence, many leaders in the Leftist Assembly Party took on leadership positions in the union.

Zakaria, however, says that this hasn’t affect the labor movement, but was an intentional fusion as a result of the corruption in the organization of the General Labor Union.

In fact, when it comes to the appearance of the current labor movement and its opposition to the neo-liberal policies in Egypt, leftist leaders in the labor union were walking another line. Here, came the cry of Abdul Rahman Kheir, the leader of the Assembly Party and the head of the general syndicate of workers in the military industry, before President Hosni Moubarrak on Labor Day 2008, when he praised the President’s economical plans and stressed the unity of workers, as he says, concerning the regime’s policies. “We are Egyptian workers and we are not traitors,” he ended his speech by saying.

The workers’ strike: the return to life

In the same year, reports for the Labor and Syndicate Observatory and the Children of the Earth Center for Human Rights revealed that the number of workers’ complaints exceeded 800 in one year.

A study by the Socialist Studies Center (SSC) revealed that during a nine month period  (the period between the two strikes of Ghazel al-Mahallah), 647,133,637 working hours passed with no production, due to workers’ strikes.

When the leftists in the labor union expressed their stance regarding the economical and social policies of the government, other leftist movements tried to connect with the labor movement - but from another side. Some labor movements established by activists and leftist parties appeared on the Egyptian political scene and tried to cooperate with the labor movement.

Mostafa al-Basiouni, member of the SSC thinks that the birth of movements such as Workers for Change, Workers Solidarity Committee and the Preparatory Committee for Workers was an essential step in building communication bridges between the leftist and labor movements.

One of these major actions took place on February 17, 2008 when 15,000 workers from Gazal al-Mahallah company and Workers for Change demanded that minimum wage be raised to about 215 USD. They continued to pressure the government until June 6, 2008, when security forces banned the strike after violent confrontations and many casualties.
Media, yes but…

The leftist movements in Egypt succeeded in issuing non-periodical publications, including the most common “al-Ishtiraki” (The Socialist) by the SSC, and “Kalam Sanayiah” (Industrial Talks) by the SLSC. These publications provide news of the syndicates, which al-Basiouni says give the workers confidence and strength.

He adds that the importance of these publications is that they try to collect the minor demands of the workers under a set of essential united demands, such as raising the minimum wage, or establishing independent syndicates or even putting an end to privatization in Egypt.

These demands influenced other workers mainly Gazal al-Mahallah (24,000 workers), the real estate taxes sector (55,000 workers) and Halwan for Steel (15,000 workers). At the same time factory publications aim to communicate between the different sections of a company. The workers used them on numerous occasions to announce their strikes and explain their aims to the workers and the government.

The last chance for the Egyptian left wing is to maintain the continuous labor strikes in Egypt. Zakaria concludes, “The left should learn unity, and only then can the labor movements give them lessons that only they can implement.”