Egypt's Revolution Could Hinge on Labor Groups

Will workers join political reformists in Egypt, or will they negotiate a separate deal with the post-Mubarak military regime?

cambanis sep27 p.jpg

Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- Strikes and protests are against the law in revolutionary Egypt, thanks to a March decree from the generals who run the country by fiat. Egypt's electrified workers, however, seem to have gotten the opposite message. A cascade of strikes has gripped almost every major labor sector this month. And unlike political activists, who were driven out of Tahrir Square this summer and since have had trouble mustering quorum at Friday rallies, the workers are encountering some surprisingly unqualified success.

The Democracy ReportOrganizers and political activists say that Labor's momentum could finally curtail the former regime; they point out that paralyzing strikes in February of this year put the Tahrir Square uprising over the top and spurred President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. Now, they say, months spent organizing independent trade unions beyond the control of the corrupt old state-run labor federation have yielded millions of active, politicized Egyptian workers.

"The heart of the revolution is the workers," says Kamal Khalil, a leader of the Workers Democratic Party. Since January, he has agitated for more independent labor unions; hundreds have been formed, while members of established unions like the doctors and engineers syndicate have pushed to replace mistrusted leaders and eliminate government control.

"The workers aren't afraid of being dragged before military courts," Khalil says. "If the strikes are strong, the military won't be able to stop them."

Right after Mubarak's resignation, the government increased public sector salaries and bonuses. The question now is whether workers will join their economic demands to the calls for radical reform of Egypt's political system - or whether labor unions will repeat modern Egyptian history, breaking ranks with political dissenters to negotiate a separate deal with the regime.

Egypt's dictators developed sophisticated tools to thwart strictly political dissent, and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has deployed those tactics regularly over the last nine months to discredit or silence critics, accusing them of taking foreign money or of sowing chaos, throwing some of them in jail.

Workers, however, are a harder target. Almost all Egyptians can relate to underpaid employees, whether in a factory or at a hospital. And the kind of corruption that really enrages the average Egyptian is the workaday sort that thrives in the centralized government bureaucracy and in the workplace, the kind of patronage and graft that saps the public treasury and leaves buses always breaking down, hospitals overcrowded, and basic goods unaffordable for working families.

There's an unmistakably bold, anti-authoritarian streak among the striking workers, most of whom take home around $100 per month.

On Saturday, jubilant teachers assembled in front of the Egyptian government's cabinet headquarters, demanding a minimum monthly salary of about $500 and the replacement of the Mubarak-holdover education minister.

The next day, the teachers decamped. "We're giving the government a week, maybe a month, to meet our demands," teacher and organizer Hala Talaat said. "I don't think they will, so we'll have to go back on strike."

The labor avalanche wasn't slowing though. Thousands of striking public transportation workers took the place of the teachers outside the cabinet building. All 47,000 of Cairo's public bus drivers and support staff have gone on strike. They are demanding better pay, health care, and professional uniforms. A parade of workers brandished their pay stubs, showing take home pay ranging from about $60 a month for a rookie to $120 for a 19-year veteran.

"We're just demanding our bread," said Adel Mahmoud, a driver with a missing front tooth and a soft, diffident voice. "Wages and prices are out of balance in Egypt."

Mahmoud and the cluster of striking drivers around him said they didn't trust the government; already, the prime minister had promised wage hikes in June, only to renege because he claimed the government couldn't afford it. The more simultaneous strikes, they all agreed, the greater the pressure on the government and the greater likelihood of success.

It's a separate and complicated question whether the government can afford a major overhaul in its treatment of public workers. Wages have stagnated, but the government faces its own crisis as foreign reserves dwindle, skittish investors pull money out of the country, and an economy that has contracted since the January 25 uprising. There's no doubt, however, that state enterprises were mismanaged and that nepotistic privatization deals distorted the balance sheets of companies that were made to appear money-losers so they could be sold to friends of the ruling elite.

cambanis sep27 inset.jpg

Labor organizer Kamal Fayoumi / Cambanis

Last week, lawsuits overturned the Mubarak-era privatization of three major state-run mills around the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, whose hard-scrabble strikes typically determine the fortunes of the nation's entire labor movement, for better or for worse. Mahalla workers clashed with the government in April 2008, ushering in a new era of aggressive labor activism with an overt political flavor. This year, they joined the Tahrir Square revolutionaries with massive strikes and street protests.

Mahalla workers, who consider themselves the avant garde of Egyptian labor, say they're finally enjoying the fruits of their efforts, not only in their own achievements but in the national wave of labor action.

Mill workers in Mahalla won concessions from management earlier this month. Last weekend, the Dubai Ports giant that runs the Suez Canal port of Ain Sokhna caved to worker demands. It's a good thing, as Dubai Ports' initial response was threatening to shut down operations for good, depriving Cairo of its main shipping point.

Teachers have put the ministry of education on the defensive. Doctors have gone on strike, treating only emergency cases and demanding not only better pay but better management of Egypt's struggling health care system.

All this overtly political labor activism has its avatar in Mahalla. The Middle East's largest textile mill, currently employing about 22,000 workers, still doesn't have an independent trade union. But its workers are using their bully pulpit -- and recent tactical victories -- to encourage other workers across the country.

Kamal Fayoumi, a worker at the Mahalla power plant, has been working to organize a new union free from the cronyism of the official union, which still works in tandem with the government. Even after Mubarak's fall, the official union has declined to hold internal elections until 2012.

Textile workers have proven fearless in confronting police, and earlier this summer the mere threat of a strike in Mahalla won major wage concessions. But Fayoumi says that the angry workers could play the pivotal role in unseating Egypt's military regime, which so far has survived Mubarak.

"The demands of the workers are the same as the demands of the revolution: freedom, honesty, and social justice," Fayoumi told me last week, before starting the evening shift. "Only the movement of workers will change the regime."