(Washington, DC) Two critical forces behind the Egyptian Revolution are missing from the front pages, or any pages, of the corporate media. They are the critical role of Egypt’s union movement and the universal desire of all people to live in peace, freedom and dignity. Rarely mentioned are the grievances of Egypt’s workers and their struggle to unionize. As a result, we’ve missed the connection between the struggle to unionize and the right to assemble.
The Egyptian people were poised for a mass celebration following what was supposed to be a farewell speech by former President Hosni Mubarak. For seventeen days, Egyptians massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. There were protests in Alexandria, Port Suez, and other cities. The G-20 sates have been tentative in their support for the full set of demands by protesters and the broader Egyptian public. For example, President Barack Obama said Mubarak needed a, “credible, concrete and unequivocal path to democracy.” What does a “path to democracy” look like? How long does it take to walk the path? Egypt’s military leaders may have acted already.
Mubarak’s contact with reality was extremely weak. He didn’t get the message from the Egypt’s Supreme Council of military leaders. Aljazeera reported that the council promised, “measures and arrangements … to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people.” The news service concluded that a military coup had likely taken place already based on the announcement that the council will be in session indefinitely.
What role did the union movement play and how was that connected to the right to assemble and other fundamental human rights?
Egypt‘s Labor Movement
The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has been a part of the Egyptian government since 1957. The anti-worker organization created problems for workers when many enterprises were state owned. Things got worse with the introduction of a “market economy.”
Egypt began a series of reforms in the 1990’s that stacked the deck against workers and farmers. The government sold off the large state enterprises. New owners had little incentive to keep people in jobs or jobs in Egypt. The government enacted new measures to protect large farmers, with peasant farmers left on their own.
When conservative Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif, took power in 2004, the situation became desperate. With the help of a new anti labor law, pressure mounted on Egypt’s industrial workers. The ETUF had little to offer in support and frequently overruled the votes to strike of local chapters.
Two strikes drew the battle lines between workers and the government. In 2006, local union officials overturned a vote by 24,000 textile workers to strike in Ghazl al-Mahalla. When workers appealed to the EFTU, the official government union organization reminded workers that a 2003 labor reform law made it illegal to form unions independent of official government labor organization. The strike took place but was eventually broken.
The same labor movement that staged the 2006 strike and a follow up in 2007, called for a national strike on April 6, 2008 to raise the nation’s minimum wage and protest high food prices. Mubarak’s government sent in police who took over the factory in hopes of preventing the strike. Conflict broke out with violence on the part of police toward the union members calling for the strike. Police arrested workers. Trials, convictions and prison sentences followed quickly. Other members continued to protest.
An Egyptian writer noted, “In the 6 April uprising, the demands of the workers and the general population overlapped. People called for lower food prices as workers called for a minimum wage.”
In addition, the April 6 Youth Movement emerged as a key player advancing the aims of the national strike. This is the same organization that has been central to rallying crowds throughout the country.
Food was a critical issue in 2008. The solution to that issue would have addressed food and other problems of economic exploitation in Egypt, a national living wage.
We didn’t hear about the 2008 strike, however. We did about the 2008 “food riots.” CNN News reported, Riots instability spread as food prices skyrocket, April 14, 2008. The words “strike” and “union” were never used, nor was there any reference to the basis for the strikes, a demand for a living wage. Huffington Post carried a lengthy article on the events, Egypt Grants Bonuses After Deadly Food Riots, April 8, 2008. The word “strike” appeared just once but the article failed to include anything mentioning a “union” or labor conflict.
Food is critical. But the desire to earn a living wage to afford food is more fundamental to the Egyptian people. They don’t want a handout from their leaders, they want the right to determine their own future by organizing an independent labor movement. That desire flowed into the streets of Egypt in a movement larger than the union effort but the history of worker struggles is a key part of the history of this revolution. On January 30, 2010, workers in Tahrir Square formed the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions. The organization is separate from the official union and in full defiance of current labor law adopted by the Mubarak regime.
Why Fundamental Rights Matter
The Egyptian people didn’t require any special training to know what they deserved. The ability to assemble, plan, organize, and attempt to effect change in a civilized fashion emerged before conditions became intolerable.
The workers in Mahalla didn’t need a year at the Harvard School of Government to learn their rights. The desire was fundamental. No study of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was required to tell them that there was more than just survival at stake. They knew that meeting the basic needs required an exercise of the more fundamental rights of freedom of association and action in a society that respected their rights as citizens.
Finishing the Work
There are great powers and commercial interests lurking at the edges of this remarkable movement. The call for an “orderly transition” is just another form of paternalism. What is orderly? Time enough for Mubarak or his proxy to stay long enough to rig another election? Time enough for things to cool down enough to walk just a few steps forward rather than a revolution? Time enough for U.S. and European Union leaders to install a new leader to deliver what Mubarak did so well for 30 years?
The fundamental rights and the exercise of those rights by a sovereign people should be inviolable, particularly in a part of the world where the West claims that it is promoting democracy. The Egyptian revolution has at it’s core, the demand for the elimination of a massively corrupt government and the opportunity to create an honest one in its place. That is a goal of people everywhere, a goal that will be met if those few obsessed with control for their own purposes would just step aside.
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