Setting the stage for Egypt’s uprising

One of the largest strike waves in Middle East history swept across Egypt in the years before the mighty demonstrations that erupted in Tahrir Square in January 2011, part of the ‘Arab spring’. As a new mood of protest begins to develop, DAVID JOHNSON reviews two timely books outlining how the confidence to resist vicious security forces had grown from those earlier workers’ movements – and had weakened the regime.

Contesting Authoritarianism: labor challenges to the state of Egypt

By Dina Bishara

Published by Cambridge University Press, 2018, £21.99

Trade Unions and Arab Revolutions: challenging the regime in Egypt

By Heba F El-Shazli

Published by Routledge, 2019, £115

How did Egypt’s workers break the shackles of state, management and corrupt trade union leaders? How did independent unions emerge in some areas while other workers stayed in state-run organisations? These are vital questions for workers in many parts of the world with similar restrictions on the right to organise – not least in Egypt itself. Gains briefly won after the 2011 uprising were snatched back, particularly by the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi and current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s dictatorial regime.

Both books, written by Egypt-born academics now based in American universities, examine these questions. They contain much valuable information, drawing on published material and interviewing participants in key strikes and in the formation of independent trade unions. The interviews were mostly conducted between 2011 and 2013, prior to al-Sisi stamping down on the movement.

Heba El-Shazli makes her outlook clear: “In a democratic nation-state, generally, freedom of association is respected and promoted, thus paving the way for an independent democratic trade union movement to exist and flourish”.

As much of her subsequent account shows, however, the opposite is the case! A strong independent trade union movement is essential for real democracy. The capitalist class only concedes democratic rights under pressure of an aroused working class that threatens its rule. It will try to reclaim them as the pressure eases. Even in long-established capitalist democracies, rights can be eroded if not challenged by effective workers’ action, as the anti-union legislation in Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s government shows. This is even more the case in countries where capitalism developed much later.

Egyptian capitalism was born when the world was already divided up by powerful imperialist states. El-Shazli writes: “The Banque Misr [Bank of Egypt] group was… led by its outspoken nationalist chairman, Tala’at Harb. Harb and his associates symbolised the partnership of an aspiring Egyptian industrial bourgeoisie whose mission was to create a purely Egyptian-owned industrial sector, quite to the dismay of the British, who wanted to keep Egypt primarily an agricultural country with resources to boost British industrial needs… However, the Misr group had to engage in partnerships with foreign capital, primarily British corporations, to survive in the late 1930s, at which point the Misr group ceased to be ‘national in character’.”

As capitalism developed, so did the working class. Port Said coal heavers went on strike in 1882. Union organisation began in 1903, after an Alexandria cigarette workers’ three-month strike. Only 7,000-strong before the first world war, unions grew playing an important role in the 1919 revolution. Industrial workers were concentrated in large factories and workplaces. An independent, organised labour movement continued to develop.

The biggest single strike in Egyptian history took place in 1947 at the giant Misr Spinning and Weaving textile works, established by Harb in 1927 in the Nile delta city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra. Twenty-five thousand struck for 16 days calling for the reinstatement of three workers sacked for demanding better conditions. Tanks entered Mahalla – three workers were killed and 17 injured. This and later strikes established Mahalla’s reputation as the most militant section of the working class.

State-controlled unions but reforms

The Revolutionary Free Officers Movement seized power in 1952, overthrowing King Farouk, British imperialism’s stooge. Under Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser the new regime attempted to build the economy with widespread nationalisation and state control of key industries, notably the Suez Canal in 1956 and Misr Spinning and Weaving in 1960. The public sector accounted for nearly 40% of total output by 1965.

However, capitalism continued despite the large state sector. Although Nasser called his regime and government party ‘socialist’, socialism cannot exist without democratic workers’ control and management of the economy with public ownership of all big companies and banks. Nasser’s regime balanced between capitalist USA and western Europe, and the ‘deformed workers’ states’ of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Like these Stalinist states, he stamped out independent trade unions and workers’ political parties. Some workers’ leaders were hanged.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was established in 1957. Representing 310,000 members, its executive was entirely appointed by the state, including one of the most militant activists of the time. This foreshadowed al-Sisi’s appointment in 2013 of Kamal Abu Eita, leader of the newly-formed independent trade unions, as Minister of Manpower and Immigration after the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi.

Until 1986, the ETUF president was a government minister. “ETUF was a transmission belt of the ruling regime from its foundation until the present day. Its role was to implement government policy regarding workers and their wages and benefits”. (El-Shazli) By 2011, it had nearly four million members, mostly in nationalised industries and the civil service. ETUF national leaders were lavishly rewarded with money, houses and cars. Some of this trickled down to local leaders. Nonetheless, El-Shazli writes: “At the local level, union elections were generally free and fair. The local leaders were closer to the rank-and-file members, and it was much more difficult to ignore their needs”.

While reforms were delivered, workers mostly accepted this ‘social contract’: “Until 1967, worker protests disappeared, partly because most communist trade unionists were jailed until 1965. State security, factory security, the trade union and the [Arab] Socialist Union [the party Nasser established] strongly controlled the workers and channelled their claims. The workers accepted this partly because the system provided an increase in their welfare and social position. Real wages increased by 60% between 1952 and 1966”.

‘Social contract’ breaks down

In the early 1970s, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, started shifting towards US imperialism. He attempted to strengthen Egyptian capitalism, starting a privatisation programme. Hosni Mubarak quickened this after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. The social contract was broken. New owners – often foreign corporations – attacked pay, job security and workers’ benefits to boost profits. The collapse of Stalinism and capitalist restoration of the former Stalinist states after 1989/90 boosted capitalists’ confidence.

Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, a US banker, joined the government. Between 1996 and 2006 the proportion of workers with a permanent contract fell from 62% to 42%. In 2004, Gamal – increasingly, the regime’s heir apparent – brought in younger neoliberal businessmen who accelerated this process. This had two major consequences. Senior armed forces officers, often appointed as directors of state-owned industries on retirement, saw Gamal’s clique as a threat to their wealth, power and prestige. Meanwhile, workers in privatised industries began to fight the new owners’ attacks and those in the state sector resisted privatisation.

Key struggles stand out from this period: the Misr Spinning and Weaving strikes in Mahalla 2006-07, the Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) strike of 2007, and the 6 April 2008 Mahalla city uprising. They broke new ground in challenging the regime and inspired many others to follow. Both authors examine these events and attempt to explain why the tax collectors broke away to form the first independent trade union in Egypt for over 50 years, while the Mahalla workers mostly stayed with their state-run union, despite widespread support for an independent organisation.

The textile and garment workers, among the lowest paid in Egypt, were fighting for higher pay, but the trigger was rigged union elections. ETUF local and regional elections were held every five years. The October 2006 elections were much more widely rigged as the regime tried to halt growing militancy. ETUF national leaders, company managers and security forces prevented between 10,000 and 30,000 candidates from standing or distributing literature – showing the scale of opposition building up within the unions.

A prominent leader of the RETA struggle, who stood for a local committee position in 2006, told Bishara: “Security vehicles and forces came into workplaces. This never used to happen before. In the first polling station, I got the most votes with a margin of 186 votes. Then, the security forces got candidate representatives out of the room and took things over. But they made me turn out number 12. Since then, I realised that there was no point in [participating in the system]”.

“This unprecedented level of state interference in union elections produced a situation where rank-and-file workers felt ever more alienated from their elected representatives”, writes Bishara.

Workers learn through experience. Marxists need to share these experiences to win workers’ confidence and help build an understanding of the need to organise as an independent class and fight for a socialist programme. Less than a month after the union elections, Mahalla workers went on strike. The new union committee failed to deliver its promise of a bonus payment made during the election campaign.

On 7 December 2006, “production ground to a halt when around 3,000 female garment workers left their stations and marched over to the spinning and weaving sections, where their male colleagues had not yet stopped their machines. The female workers stormed in chanting, ‘Where are the men? Here are the women!’ Ashamed, the men joined the strike”. Within a few hours 10,000 were out, growing to 24,000 within a day.

The scale of the strike stunned the security forces and regime. An unofficial leadership emerged. The Mahalla factory was occupied until the government caved in after four days, meeting the workers’ demand of a bonus of two months’ wages – although in two instalments. This had a massive impact throughout Egypt, prompting hundreds of strikes to take place.

When management reneged on their promise to pay the second instalment in September 2007 another strike took place, even more militant than the first. A workers’ security force was established. Support came from other textile mills, rail workers, city residents and youth. Thirteen thousand Mahalla workers signed an (ultimately unsuccessful) petition to the ETUF national leadership demanding the removal of the local union committee or face mass resignations.

In February 2008, as prices rose rapidly, Mahalla workers called for a monthly national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (LE) – a political demand on the government. A strike was planned for 6 April but was prevented when hundreds of security agents occupied the factory, escorting workers on and off shifts, stopping them assembling outside. Blocked from striking, a citywide uprising erupted. Thousands protested, resisting rubber bullets and live ammunition – as in Tahrir Square three years later.

First independent union in fifty years

The 50,000 RETA workers were municipal employees paid LE200-400 ($32-$64) per month, a quarter of the wages of finance ministry tax collectors in Cairo. Kamal Abu Eita, who played a key role becoming their national leader, was Giza branch president of the ETUF-affiliated Bank and Finance Workers Union until losing his seat in the rigged 2006 election. The first small protest was in Giza in September 2007. Activists from other offices started contacting them, building a national network and a one-day strike on 21 October.

Three thousand RETA tax collectors held a three-day sit-down protest in November outside ETUF headquarters, calling on the national leadership to negotiate with government on their behalf. They were ignored. In December, a twelve-day national strike took place, with 10,000 men and women occupying the street in front of the Council of Ministers building. Each night they saw deliveries of fresh flowers for ministers’ offices. “There are people who smell the flowers and there are people who are sitting on the ground smelling the dirt”, they chanted. One interviewee told El-Shazli: “Slowly but surely we were building for the big confrontation in Tahrir Square starting on 28 January 2011; we set the stage”.

The strike ended when the minister agreed to a bonus of two months’ pay and a 325% pay rise, bringing them level with central government tax collectors. El-Shazli writes: “The official Bank and Finance Workers Union… fought them every step of the way and tried to use tactics of fear with threats of firings to dissuade the rank-and-file workers from participating in these protests”. After the strike, activists organised a petition showing overwhelming support for a new union. Twelve months later, the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA) was formed with 55,000 members. Three more independent unions were founded by January 2011.

The leaders of IGURETA, teachers and health technicians, along with other workers’ representatives, announced the formation of a new federation in Tahrir Square on the fifth day of the 2011 uprising. While the ETUF ordered workers to stay at work, the new federation called for strikes and to join the protests that led to Mubarak’s downfall. Within eight months, the new federation had split but the two independent federations together had about 1,000 new unions affiliated (many just in one company) with about two million members.

Both authors discuss why an independent union did not win support from the mass of Mahalla workers. Only 300 out of 24,000 supported the idea of an ‘association’ as a step towards an independent union. One factor was the automatic deduction of ETUF dues from wages. Another was union membership benefits, including pensions and retirement bonusesthat workers had paid into, local hospitals, schools and holiday apartments. Moreover, the Mahalla union leaders were more entrenched and skilful than the Bank and Finance Workers Union, the weakest link in the ETUF bureaucracy and which provided fewer benefits.

Many of the RETA workers’ leaders had been or were political activists, with a broader picture of building opposition to the regime while the workers, paradoxically, had less experience of union activism. Bishara comments: “While some of these activists had held positions in local union committees within the ETUF, none of them had served in leadership positions at the higher levels of the ETUF. In fact, these ‘leaders’ derived much of their following by performing many of the duties neglected by the ETUF leadership – most importantly, advancing the demands of real estate tax collectors”.

Bishara adds that there was a degree of mutual distrust between worker and political activists during 2006-10. Some accused worker activists of advancing narrow demands, while workers accused political activists of adopting a condescending view. There was also a suspicion that political activists were attempting to capitalise on workers’ organisational capacity to advance their goals without consulting mobilised workers. The Revolutionary Socialist lawyers and journalists with useful practical skills were the exception.

Although both books are written for academic readers rather than union activists and socialists, key lessons emerge. Flexible tactics should be applied. Marxists need to be prepared to work in state-run unions, despite difficulties and dangers, while also taking independent initiatives – standing alongside workers, being sensitive to changing moods and being ready to take bold action when needed.

Neither book deals with the post-2013 situation, despite their recent publication. Al-Sisi calls strikers “terrorists” (and so subject to military trials) and has imprisoned union activists. An Italian student researching the workers’ movement was murdered, with state security forces implicated. Most independent unions have collapsed under this pressure. Socialists and union activists need to digest the experiences that led to the 2011 uprising and Mubarak’s downfall, and the reasons for the failure to keep the democratic or economic gains. Above all, a party is needed to bring militant workers and youth together to discuss these issues, and to develop and build support for a socialist programme that relates to workers’ daily lives.