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Home » Clarion » 2011 » August 2011 » Egyptian Workers Play Crucial Role in Fight for Democracy

Egyptian Workers Play Crucial Role in Fight for Democracy

More than 20,000 workers went on strike at the Ghazl al-Mahalla textile plant in December 2006.

One of the less noticed events of the “January 25 Revolution,” as Egyptians call the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, is the formation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU). Its existence was announced at a press conference on January 30, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the popular movement – while Mubarak still held power. Independent unions of Real Estate Tax Authority workers, healthcare technicians, and teachers initiated the new federation, joined by representatives of textile, pharmaceutical, chemical, iron and steel, and automotive workers from industrial zones in Cairo, Helwan, Mahalla al-Kubra, Tenth of Ramadan, and Sadat City. This independent trade union federation was the first new institution to emerge from the popular uprising, and it linked the cause of workers to what had become an explicitly revolutionary movement.

Labor-oriented nongovernmental organizations and trade unionists had been debating establishing independent unions for several years. Such unions are necessary because the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), with a legal monopoly on union organization, has been an institution of the state since its establishment in 1957. Its mission has always been to control workers rather than to mobilize them to improve their working conditions or standard of living.


After over a decade of resistance, the ETUF leadership accepted the IMF’s harsh program for Egypt in 1991. In 2004 it raised no objection to the installation of the “government of businessmen” led by Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, which accelerated the neoliberal transformation of the Egyptian economy and the sell-off of the public sector. Not coincidentally, they were cronies of Egypt’s first son, Gamal Mubarak. This is the cabinet Hosni Mubarak dismissed days before his own departure.

Independent strikes, sit-ins, and other collective actions had been generally trending upward since 1998 – and working people responded to the Nazif government with an immediate escalation. In 2004 there were 265 collective actions – more than double the 1998-2003 average. By 2007 the movement encompassed virtually every industrial sector, public services, and civil servants. University professors, K-12 teachers, doctors and other professionals joined in.

The first substantial attempt to form an independent trade union since 1957 came at the giant Misr Spinning and Weaving Company (Ghazl al-Mahalla) in the central Delta city of Mahalla al-Kubra. After a successful strike in December 2006 – one of the most politically significant labor actions in the last decade – nearly 13,000 workers signed petitions calling for impeachment of their local trade union committee (which did not support the strike) and formation of an independent union. These demands were rejected – but to end the strike the regime was compelled to negotiate with the workers’ elected strike committee. Using extreme repression against the Ghazl al-Mahalla workers, as frequently occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, might have disrupted the Mubarak regime’s program of encouraging foreign direct investment. Instead, it responded with a combination of moderate repression and cooptation.

From 1998 to 2010, well over two million workers participated in at least 3,400 strikes and other collective actions – the largest social movement in the Arab world in six decades, except for the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). These collective actions were largely motivated by threatened or actual loss of jobs or social benefits after privatization of public-sector enterprises, low wages, and delays or nonpayment of bonuses or incentive pay.

Workers’ collective actions were spreading in private enterprise. In 2009 37% of all collective actions were in the private sector; in 2010 the figure reached 46%.

In December 2007 Real Estate Tax Authority workers had struck and occupied the street in front of the Ministry of Finance for ten days. They won a stunning victory – a 325% wage increase – and strike leaders went on to organize an independent union, which was recognized in April 2009 over the strenuous opposition of ETUF.

Independent unions of healthcare technicians and teachers were established in 2010.

There were setbacks as well, such as the government’s largely successful effort to thwart a national strike planned for April 6, 2008 (a protest for which the April 6 Youth Movement is named). But years before the “January 25 Revolution,” a social movement of workers had established its presence. Economic gains won through strikes and other actions taught many Egyptians a crucial lesson: Engaging in collective action, previously regarded as a losing game by all but committed middle-class activists, could achieve something of value.

When I lived in Cairo during 2004-2005 and 2006-2008, Western journalists – who typically viewed “Islamic fundamentalism,” the nonexistent “peace process,” and economic “reform” as the main stories in Egypt – persistently asked if workers would transition from “bread-and-butter” to “political” demands. But in an autocracy like Mubarak’s Egypt, the capacity to organize large numbers of people to do anything is a potential political challenge to the regime. Workers electing strike committees and debating whether or not to accept strike settlement terms was one of the most democratic public activities during the Mubarak era.

During the September 2007 strike at Ghazl al-Mahalla, strike committee member Muhammad al-’Attar told a crowd of workers, “Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable….What we are witnessing here right now, this is as democratic as it gets.” Independent labor leaders saw the workers’ movement as an incubator for substantive – not merely formal – democracy from below, something that NGOs led by middle-class professionals or the ineffectual opposition parties who participated in the regime’s parliamentary charade could never provide.

The most important weakness of the Egyptian workers’ movement of the 2000s was the absence of a national or regional organizational framework or a developed program. Workers thus participated in the “January 25 Revolution” from the start, but as individuals, not as organized workers.

On February 9, Kamal ‘Abbas of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), an independent NGO, called on workers to strike in support of the demand to oust Mubarak, abandoning his “bread-and-butter” emphasis of the previous decade. Thousands of workers did so in Suez, Ismailia, Helwan, Kafr al-Zayyat, Sadat City, Giza, and Cairo – a cross-section of lower Egypt. Cairo Public Transport Authority workers struck and announced their intention to form an independent union. These strikes, which paralyzed the economy, were likely a major factor in the army’s decision to ease Hosni Mubarak out of the presidency.


Despite repeated calls by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for labor peace and its threats to break up strikes, workers persisted in striking and demonstrating after Mubarak’s departure (and they continue to do so as of this writing in July). They seized the opportunity to pursue an agenda for social and economic justice beyond the Facebook youth’s demands for liberal democracy, and far beyond the military’s limited conception of political change.

On February 19, forty labor leaders affiliated with the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) issued a declaration embracing the revolution and demanding the right to form independent trade unions, the right to strike, and the dissolution of ETUF, “one of the most important symbols of corruption under the defunct regime.” Most importantly, they asserted, “if this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth it is not worth anything.”

On March 2, EFITU leaders convened a conference under the slogan “What Workers Want from the Revolution.” One of its key demands was that the army remove the man it had appointed as minister of manpower and migration, ETUF treasurer Isma’il Ibrahim Fathi. The independent trade unionists called for him to be replaced by Ahmad Hasan al-Bura’i, a professor of labor law at Cairo University who had for several years advocated trade union pluralism. Within two weeks both demands were met, and Al-Bura’i promptly announced that the ministry would draft a new trade union law based on recommendations of the CTUWS and the Egyptian Center for Economic & Social Rights.

On March 9, the generals forcefully indicated that it was time for the revolutionary process to end. The protesters who remained in Tahrir Square as a symbol of popular vigilance were attacked by stick-wielding thugs, as under Mubarak – and then arrested by the army, with many detainees subjected to beatings and torture. Eighteen of the women arrested were subjected to “virginity tests.”


More subtly, the army acted to bring a quick end to the revolutionary process by bringing nine narrowly drafted amendments to the 1971 constitution to a referendum last March 19. The CTUWS and EFITU called for a “no” vote in the referendum, along with a women’s coalition, the “Revolutionary Youth Coalition,” and most of the other political currents that participated in the “January 25 Revolution” – with the notable exception of the Muslim Brothers. The proposed amendments nonetheless passed with 77% of the vote, in the freest election in Egypt in over sixty years. “No” votes were heaviest in Egypt’s cities.

The election due to be held in November 2011 will favor those forces who are already organized on a national scale – the Muslim Brothers and the former ruling National Democratic Party (or whatever it may rename itself). This will likely result in a more conservative parliament than the January 25 revolutionaries hoped for.

The workers’ movement appears to be the largest and best-mobilized component of the more left-wing elements of the revolutionary coalition who have challenged the army’s efforts to limit the gains of the popular uprising and the continuation of practices such as torture and detention without trial. But neither the labor movement nor the left and liberal intelligentsia have shown adequate capacity to mobilize a nationwide grassroots constituency sufficient to challenge the army.

What comes next for Egypt’s unions? Will the army implement its threat to use force to disperse strikes, which show no sign of abating? Will the minimum wage be increased significantly above the poverty line? Will ETUF be dissolved, as the CTUWS and EFITU have demanded? The answers to these questions may indicate the extent to which workers can persuade or force the generals and the new parliament to adopt the labor movement’s agenda.

Joel Beinin is Donald McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. Adapted from a longer article forthcoming in International Labor & Working-Class History, Fall 2011, Issue 80, published by Cambridge University Press (

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