Building Egypt's new labor movement

In the five years prior to Egypt's popular uprising, Egyptian workers have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to fight against their employers and Hosni Mubarak's police state. While textile workers have led the way with dramatic, high-profile strikes, the new labor activism has involved workers in several industries.

Fatma Ramadan, a trade unionist, labor researcher and socialist in Egypt, has been deeply involved in the new workers' movement. In an interview conducted shortly before the the mass demonstrations took off at the end of January, she spoke with spoke with Lee Sustar at the recent Other Davos conference in Basel, Switzerland.

Workers at the Tora Cement factory celebrate after a successful sit-in over pay and conditions in 2009 (Sarah Carr)Workers at the Tora Cement factory celebrate after a successful sit-in over pay and conditions in 2009 (Sarah Carr)

CAN YOU summarize the dynamic and the impact of the strike waves in Egypt over the past few years?

THERE HAVE always been strikes among workers, and as everywhere else, you have ups and downs in the movement. There was a previous wave or cycle of workers' strikes in the 1980s, which was repressed--two major stages in 1986 and 1989--after which there was a decline in workers' militancy in the 1990s.

By the end of the '90s and in the early years of this new century--as the result of the neoliberal reforms, and also the compulsion for workers to go on early retirement and other such measures--there has been a new rise in workers' militancy and struggles, which peaked in 2006 with the strike of the textile workers of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra north of Cairo, which involved 24,000 workers.

The strike in Mahalla was a real turning point because it came after a decade of suffering--a decrease in the living standard for workers due to the hike in prices of all kinds and unemployment. So there was real resentment building up. But at the same time, people didn't see any perspective. Then this strike came. It was victorious, and that was really an inspiration for the rest of the movement.

So the strikers in Mahalla had won major demands, like getting 10 percent of the profits, getting refunds for lunches--for their meals during the workday. This was an inspiration throughout the textile sector. In particular, there has been a wave of strike in the textile sector in several locations, involving thousands of workers. One of them involved up to 11,000 workers on strike. That was the effect of Mahalla's victory.

The movement then moved from textile to the transport sector. Railway workers and bus drivers--even those in private buses--also went on strike.

At this point, the government got more repressive with the strikes and made fewer concessions. The movement then spread from transport to the public sector--to the civil servants who, because of their job security, envisaged struggle more easily than those who are in the private sector.

The situation now is that there's no center of gravity of struggle. The struggles are quite scattered. There are no more concentrations of struggles like those that you had after 2006.

WHAT ARE the links between these struggles? Were the left and trade union activists able to make direct connections?

MILITANTS PLAYED a role, although one should say that the contacts between different movement sectors of struggle improved through these struggles because they got to meet many people. But this isn't the main factor.

The main factor is the deterioration of conditions for people on the one hand, and on the other hand, the fact that people saw forms of protest developing--early protests in 2001 and 2003, political protests in solidarity with the second Intifada in Palestine and against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These early protests, although they didn't involve masses, were nevertheless visible. The repercussions in the media emboldened people and gave them an example of fighting or expressing anger publicly.

CAN YOU give us some idea of the dynamic between various opposition parties--from the Muslim Brotherhood to the socialist left--in these struggles?

BASICALLY, YOU have on the one hand the regime and its institutions--the ruling party. On the other, in the opposition, the banned Muslim Brotherhood is a main opposition force. It's one of the main political forces in Egypt.

But there are also over 20 parties in the opposition--parties tolerated and legally recognized by the regime. And you have organizations that haven't received legal acknowledgement from the regime, so they don't have a legal status. Some of them have asked for that. But they are tolerated. I mean, they exist. They are active, but without legal status.

The radical left groups also exist in the same way. But they wouldn't envisage requesting any legalization, because they consider that this is something they won't get. With this kind of regime, they won't get any legal status.

So in the last years, those who were mostly connected with, or intervening in, these struggles were radical left groups and some of the progressive organizations of the so-called civil society.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, wherever they have members in locations where you have struggles, their members take part. But they don't intervene as the Muslim Brotherhood as such--as an organized force. Where you have struggles, their members usually join in. They don't interfere as a movement.

The only kind of political support they would give is when they used to have members of parliament, and there were sit-ins or whatever organized in front of the parliament building--which is now no longer allowed anyway. Their members of parliament would come and mingle with the people and say nice things in support, but that's it. It wouldn't go beyond that.

Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood has not been involved in the workers' unions, but in unions of professionals--lawyers, engineers and doctors. They have been very active among professionals, but not in the working class.

OVER THE past two years or so, there has been an effort to revive the pro-democracy movement around Mohamed ElBaradei. Then the regime closed that space for the parliamentary elections. What is the dynamic between the pro-democracy efforts, the working-class movement and the regime's response?

AS FOR the movement for democratic change, due to the decline of the workers' movement and the weakness and scattered state of the left and radical left, this movement is dominated by liberals.

The liberals, of course, are not putting forward working-class demands. I can tell a story in this regard. In a debate with ElBaradei, I put to him the question, "You always mention the workers, the workers, the workers. So if you're keen on defending the workers, why don't you add working-class demands to your program?" And his answer was, "Let us first be in power and have a representative government, and then we will cater to all these demands." So these guys won't put forward the demands of workers.

That said, the ElBaradei campaign created real hope in vast sectors. In the middle class, there were hopes of democratic regime change in Egypt, but even among workers. One could see the hopes built on that.

For instance, I would go to a meeting with some workers on strike, and they would ask me, "Did you hear ElBaradei's speech last night?" So there was some interest and hopes built on that.

So when ElBaradei came back to Egypt, you had a renewed momentum of hope. But of course, there was a big frustration with the last parliamentary elections in November 2010, which were completely rigged. Nevertheless, the movement is continuing with a project that has been creating what you could describe as a shadow parliament--or, let's say, a parallel parliament that would claim to be the real representative of the people. They are saying that the official parliament is based on rigged elections and therefore not legitimate--that it isn't really a democratic representation of the country.

Despite the fact that the liberal leadership nor any liberal group within this democratic movement was willing to mobilize the workers, or even take their demands on board, we were, nevertheless, despite the ebb in the social movements and the working-class movement, keen on having workers' representation in the movement for democratic change.

What we believe as radicals is that we shouldn't isolate ourselves from the real movement. Here, I'm speaking in the name of the current to which I belong, the Current for Socialist Renewal--on this point there are different views among the radical left. We believe that the radical left should not isolate itself from this Movement for Democratic Change.

The working class is scattered, and it has no representation because the official union federation is an appendage of the state. With the three or four years of intensive struggle we have seen, there has been the first emergence of a nuclei of workers' organization in the factories here and there. But they weren't strong enough to be able to organize on the national scale and in a lasting manner.

ARE THE nuclei in the different factories able to sustain their organization?

THE NUCLEI have been targeted for repression. The state tried to get them fired or rotated far from the plants and factories where they were leading the fight. That was successful. State repression, in most instances, was able to cut off those leaderships from the rest of the workers who they had been leading.

Some of these workers who were playing a leading role, in response to repression, organized in a small kind of campaign called, literally, "We Won't Be Afraid." They are maintaining themselves, but we can't describe them as an actual leadership of the movement. They are trying to get back to their workplaces, but they are cut off for now.

There have been a certain number of attempts at creating organizations uniting workers with lawyers and people supportive of the struggle. One association was called the Coordinating Committee for Union Rights and Freedoms. There have been other such organizations, with representation of several sectors from the working class--for example, a group called Solidarity.

But the major step has been the creation of the first independent union since the middle of the last century in Egypt: the tax collectors. This is a sector with 55,000 employees that has built a 30,000-member union. So it's quite dominant in the sector. That was followed by the creation of a union of pensioners. And very recently, a union of technical workers formed in the health care sector.

These are very early and very initial steps. We are really at the very beginning of change in the conditions and organization of the working class. So the most important thing is that these new structures maintain their links with the rank and file, and the grassroots, and that they maintain a democratic character, and not degenerate into caricature form of organization.

The key point is to create organizations with a grassroots democratic character. That is the key condition, and you adapt that to the local conditions without any preconceived scheme, but with the aim maintaining these goals.

HOW CAN international solidarity activists help labor struggles in Egypt?

IT IS important for us is to learn about and take advantage of the experience of others. We believe that is quite important. And when we have actual struggles going on, we know that international pressure on the government is quite effective. The government in Egypt is quite sensitive to external pressure.

Translation by Gilbert Achcar. Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke.