Egypt has experienced more than 3,000 labor protests since 2004, dwarfing Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence. This growing labor movement is the result of increased citizen access to a variety of independent media, which allow easier communication and disseminate information rapidly to potential protestors and supporters, and has achieved concessions from the government unthinkable only decades ago.
Dr. Joel Beinin of Stanford University presented findings from his new report, The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, at an event hosted by Carnegie and the Solidarity Center. Beinin was joined by Kamal Abbas, executive director of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services in Egypt, and Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. Carnegie's Michele Dunne moderated the discussion.
Egypt's Labor Repression
For many decades, Whitson explained, Egypt has operated under a form of martial law. This has kept Egypt in an officially sanctioned “state of emergency,” which the government has used to make arrests without warrants, hold prisoners indefinitely without charges, and deny citizens the right to appeal or to trial by independent judges. It has also allowed the government to oppress labor activists with impunity. Under this system, Beinin argued, Egypt has engaged in massive and often systemic labor rights violations.
The Egyptian government has also placed restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Whitson described how the government decides what organization can become legally registered, who can be on its board, and whether or not their funding can be approved. These legal restrictions on NGOs enabled the government to target trade and labor organizations, sometimes even forcibly shutting them down.
Due to this governmental oversight and outright oppression, the trade union federation that exists in Egypt is not independent. Beinin explained that it functions essentially as an arm of the government. Membership is often mandatory, and any new local unions are required to be affiliated with the government-controlled national federation.
Egyptian Labor's New Success
In spite of such obstacles, Beinin stated that there have been more than 3,000 collective labor actions, such as strikes or demonstrations, involving as many as two million Egyptian workers, since 2004. He noted that this is the largest modern labor movement in Egypt and the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.
Abbas suggested that, in many ways, the labor situation has changed quite dramatically for the better. He cited some of the recent successes of the labor movement, including:
- Basic Rights: Only twenty years ago, employees who went on strike risked facing police armed with tear gas and bullets. Today, workers can hold strikes and the government responds with negotiations instead of violence.
- Participation: More than two million workers have participated in various strikes in the past years.
- Results: The government has been forced to negotiate with strikers and grant workers more rights and even wage increases.
- Organization: The labor movement has been able to develop better organization. For example, recently there has been the successful creation of an independent union of the real estate tax collectors.
A Foundation for Democratic Reform
Discussions of democratization in Egypt are often overly focused on elite politics and the educated intelligentsia, Beinin contended. Real democratization is occurring in the labor movement, which is a ground-up process of citizens coming together to jointly decide on goals and tactics and peacefully voicing their demands.
Abbas agreed with Beinin, noting that over a single year, more than 40,000 employees had local elections in twenty-eight different provinces, for their representative labor committees. He pointed to a meeting in December 2008, where 3,000 representatives met at the headquarters of the journalist’s union to publicly elect their national leadership. It was the first creation of an independent, democratic union in Egypt.
Whitson noted that the United States government can have a strong influence on the conduct and policies of the Egyptian government. It can have a direct impact in supporting the growing labor movement by conditioning its aid on the enactment of real human rights reforms, particularly the right to speech, free assembly, and due process.