Workers have long sought to bring change to the Egyptian system, yet the independent labor movement has only recently begun to find a nationwide voice. As Egypt’s sole legal trade union organization and an arm of the state for nearly sixty years, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has had a monopoly on representing workers. Though its mission is to control workers as much as it is to represent them, ETUF has been unable to prevent the militant labor dissidence that has escalated since the late 1990s. Workers were by far the largest component of the burgeoning culture of protest in the 2000s that undermined the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime.
Workers have largely been concerned about economic issues that gained salience as Egypt accelerated the privatization of public enterprises. Until 2010, only a small minority of labor activists advanced democratization as a strategic objective. Commonly seeking to co-opt rather than openly contest the regime’s power, the independent labor movement was unprepared to take the lead when unrest swept through the Arab world in January 2011. It had no nationally recognized leadership, few organizational or financial resources, limited international support, no political program, and only a minimal economic program.
Despite this, workers were quick to mobilize in the early stages of the groundswell that eventually unseated Hosni Mubarak, and they deserve more credit for his ouster than they typically receive. Soon after the uprising began, workers violated ETUF’s legal monopoly on trade union organization and formed the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU)—the first new institution to emerge from the revolt. Labor mobilization continued at an unprecedented level during 2011 and early 2012, and workers established hundreds of new, independent enterprise-level unions. They also secured a substantially higher minimum wage.
Yet, though the labor movement has made headway, problems persist. New unions face funding difficulties and the independent labor movement is internally divided. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the ultimate power in Egypt since Mubarak’s demise—and ETUF have both repeatedly asserted their power to oppose independent unions and have scored some successes. The movement has a very limited presence in the emerging institutions of the post-Mubarak state and is thus left without much leverage to fend off attacks from its political opponents.
Going forward, the independent labor movement should consider looking beyond street protests over immediate grievances, where it has achieved its greatest successes, and begin training enterprise-level leaderships and forging political coalitions with sympathetic sections of the intelligentsia. Independent trade unions remain the strongest nationally organized force confronting the autocratic tendencies of the old order. If they can solidify and expand their gains, they could be an important force leading Egypt toward a more democratic future.
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