Egypt's workers rise

Submitted by Matthew on 15 April, 2010 - 4:55 Author: Dan Katz

Mohamed El Baradei’s return to Egypt on 19 February was marked by mass demonstrations in defiance of laws restricting political demonstrations.

El Baradei, former head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Authority, remains an undeclared candidate in Egypt’s 2011 presidential election. Without a party, or a clear programme, but with 220,000 Facebook supporters, he has alarmed the unpopular regime.

After meeting with opposition party leaders and Muslim Brotherhood members, El Baradei announced the establishment of the National Association for Change to fight for “constitutional reforms and social justice”. A petition has been launched demanding seven changes, among them a scrapping of Egypt’s notorious Emergency Law, provisions for independent monitoring of the polls and use of national identity cards for voting.

El Baradei has been able to hold public rallies calling for democratic change. In Mansoura in the Nile Delta he was met by 1,500 people who were asked to back changes to the constitution which would make it easier for independent presidential candidates to run.

President Hosni Mubarak has ruled brutally for the last 29 years. Mubarak, who came to power following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, is now 81 years old and in poor health following a gall bladder operation. However he has been promoting his son, Gamal Mubarak, as his successor.

Hosni Mubarak has manipulated the constitution to restrict opposition parties and independents seeking to run in the presidential election. The government has added 35 new clauses to the constitution in the last five years.

Under a 2005 constitutional amendment presidential candidates must be a member of one of the “official parliamentary parties” for one year, and occupy a high ranking position in that party. Independent candidates need the backing of a large number of national and local council members.

Under the current rules El Baradei is likely to be prevented from running as an independent, and seems reluctant to accept an endorsement from an official opposition party. The last person who ran against Mubarak, Ayman Nour, a young, secular politician who was the runner-up to Mr Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, was thrown in jail on fabricated charges of forgery.

Egyptian political parties operate under the restrictions of the Political Parties Committee (PPC) that, by law, can decide whether or not a party can be formed, intervene in internal disputes, and suspend its functioning. The PPC is headed by Safwat al-Sherif, who is also the secretary-general of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In practice the NDP can pick its own opposition.

The restrictions on political life are such that the NDP ran unopposed in 80% of districts in 2008 local elections, winning all but 1,000 of the 52,000 seats. And disgust with the charade meant that voter turnout was estimated at less than 5%.

The only opposition party with real strength, and the largest opposition bloc in parliament is the right-wing, Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Secular opponents of Mubarak are — rightly — alarmed at the possibility that the Brothers could use El Baradei’s initiative to benefit themselves.

The government banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. However, Muslim Brotherhood members running as independents managed to win 88 of 454 seats of the parliamentary seats in the 2005 election.

Egypt is scheduled to hold elections for both chambers of parliament this year. The country’s Emergency Law is up for renewal in May. It is routine for the security forces to detain hundreds of Brotherhood members without charge in the periods before elections. On 8 February 16 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, including their deputy leader. These are in addition to at least 41 others since the beginning of the year.

Egyptian human rights organisations estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 people — mainly Islamists — are held without charge.

Mubarak tightens the law

Many human rights NGOs and single-issue campaigns have been able to escape government restrictions by existing as non-profit organisations.

A bill drafted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity that could become law within months would, “limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalising all forms of unregistered civic organisation... [with] ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others)” (From a statement by a coalition of NGOs).

The proposed law could also be used to target El Baradei’s new organisation.

Policing the workers

A new US Solidarity Centre publication (The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt) comments: “Article 54 of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to hold public meetings, processions, and gatherings ‘within the limits of the law.’

“But advance permission from the Ministry of the Interior is required and is rarely given.

“Demonstrations and other public gatherings are routinely surrounded by large numbers of Central Security Forces [a force of over 400,000] and, more recently, plainclothes thugs who beat and harass demonstrators and journalists, especially women.

“Opposition political figures and independent newspaper editors have repeatedly been detained without trial or hauled into court on spurious charges. When opposition figures are tried, they are often brought before State Security Emergency Criminal Courts or military courts, which rarely rule in favor of defendants and from which only procedural appeals are possible.”

In 1957 the government permitted the establishment of a union federation, which subsequently became the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), under the supervision of the Ministry of Labor and the security forces. Although the ETUF is not formally part of the government, it has always been closely aligned with the state. Its leadership has always been firmly in the hands of the ruling party. During a strike by rail workers in 1976 the president of the General Federation of Railworkers said the strikers, “should be beaten around the head with iron fists.”

The ETUF often polices the workers for the employers. For example, in 2008, Adel Haleem Atta Alla was punished (allowances cut by half and transfered to a different department) by management at the request of a representative of the official union, for leading a protest against the employers’ decision to remove their right to health care at the Iron and Steel Company.

However the law makes it difficult for workers to join even the government-policed unions. Workers are prohibited from joining if they are employed by a small enterprise of less than 50 workers, immediately disqualifying over half of all Egyptian workers.

Workers organising outside of ETUF can be — and are — sacked. Collective bargaining is almost impossible in the private sector. The 2003 Labour Law makes it legal for an employer to fire someone without giving any reason at all.

“Pentagonal committees” made up of government representatives, bosses and union representatives have been set up to decide in labour disputes. During 2005 they received over 250,000 complaints, and issued verdicts in only 10% of the cases.

Legal strikes are almost impossible. Two-thirds of the ETUF board has to agree to any strike, which has to be declared 10 days in advance, with its intended duration stated. The Prime Minister can ban strikes in “strategic services”, defined so widely it includes transport and bakeries.

And ETUF unions are banned from all political activity.

The workers’ movement

In 1991 Egypt signed Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) agreements with the IMF and World Bank. 314 public-sector enterprises became eligible for privatisation.

By mid-2002, 190 firms had been privatised.

The privatisation programme speeded up rapidly after the appointment of a new cabinet under Ahmad Nazif and closely associated with the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak.

The government’s liberalisation of price controls left workers with no alternative but to demand higher wages to compensate. Pressed by job cuts and the unwillingness of new private capitalists to pay benefits or contributions to pensions, a rising wave of strikes began in the early 2000s, accelerating after the Nazif government came into office in July 2004.

Despite government repression more than two million Egyptian workers have been involved in 3000 strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins since 2004. Increasingly private-sector workers have been involved in action, forming as many as 40% of the participants in recent years.

Strikes have even taken place in sectors where action is banned — in hospitals, the post, military factories, and among ambulance and transport workers.

Workers fight and win

The two breakthrough strikes were the actions in textiles and among tax collectors.

In December 2006 and again in September 2007 the 25 000 workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving (Mahalla) won substantial economic gains after militant strike action.

The December strike, started by women workers, lasted for three days and the September action lasted for six. By striking for several days at a time — rather than organising a (previously more common) work-in — and by being seen to defy the state (violence was threatened but not used) the textile workers broke new ground.

Following the Mahalla strike workers actions became better organised and planned. And workers began to be able to negotiate to conclude agreements with bosses and end strikes. During the September 2007 Mahalla strike a delegation composed of the textile workers’ union federation president and the company chief executive negotiated with a delegation of strikers, which did not include a single member of the official union committee. These negotiations went on for more than four hours before reaching an agreement.

Then, in December 2007, 3000 municipal tax collectors held an 11-day sit-in strike in front of the Egyptian Ministry of Finance. The strike ended with the collectors being granted a bonus equal to two months pay and a pay rise of 325%.

Lifted by their success, their strike committee and its supporters gathered 30,000 signatures endorsing a new union and elected local union committees. In April 2009 IGURETA applied to become an independent union. The government eventually accepted the application.

The upsurge of worker protests since 2000 is uncoordinated on a national or regional scale. It also has little direct connection to any of the opposition movements in Egypt, including, thankfully, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt today

The official unemployment rate stood at 9% at the start of 2008, but began to rise with the impact of the global economic crisis.

Real unemployment is between 20-30 percent and is compounded by chronic underemployment.

The Budget deficit rose from 11.8 to 20.2 billion Egyptian pounds in just three months after January 2009. Direct investment fell sharply and lay-offs continued throughout 2009. Official inflation runs at over 10%.

44% of all Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Over two million do not have enough income to pay for food, let alone other expenses.

Egypt’s minimum wage has been 35 Egyptian pounds (£8.10) per month since 1984, decreasing from 60% of GNP per capita in 1984 to 13% in 2007. On Saturday 3 April 300 protesters assembled outside the Egyptian parliament demanding 1200 Egyptian pounds per month (£142). One demonstrator commented, “We’re going to get rid of this dictatorship not via Facebook, not via El Baradei. It’s going to be by independent action by ordinary Egyptians.”

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