State’s union control keeps Egyptian labor quiet

A recurrence of Tunisia's uprising in unlikely to occur in Egypt because the country lacks a strong independent labor movement, experts said.

The general strikes and mass mobilizations led by the country's largest trade union body, the UGTT [Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, or Tunisian General Labor Union] not only helped topple President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, but are also serving to determine the future of the Tunisian interim government and civil society.

The Egyptian context is different.

The power of the country's trade union movement is consolidated in the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the only such federation allowed by law. The federation, experts say, is dominated by the state and the ruling party. Egypt had a small, but independent trade union movement prior to the military coup of 1952. However, in 1957 the country's military junta grouped these unions together within a single federation, which has remained under the tutelage of the state ever since.

"The most important difference between the UGTT and the ETUF is that the representatives of the former are chosen via direct elections," said Kamal Abbas, director of the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services.

The highest union offices within the ETUF structure are chosen via indirect elections–unionized Egyptian workers are only allowed to vote for the representatives of their local union councils, he said.

"Representatives of political parties including leftists, Islamists, and pan-Arab nationalists, among other opposition groups, are found in nearly all levels of the UGTT structure," he said. This is not the case with the ETUF, where 22 of 24 unions presidents hail from the ruling National Democratic Party, while the other two presidents are closely allied to the regime.

According to Abbas, the state's control of ETUF does not mean that Egyptian workers are incapable of independently organizing. "While Egypt's official trade union movement is controlled by the state, its labor movement is organized and mobilized by the workers themselves; and this labor movement is becoming increasingly independent.”

Egyptian workers and independent trade union organizers have praised Tunisia's working class for their successful overthrow of Ben Ali. Other Arab workers and labor activists from Morocco to Iraq have sent messages of support and solidarity to the UGTT. Official Arab trade unions have remained tight-lipped, however.

When asked whether Egypt's official trade union representatives support the UGTT's actions, the ETUF's media spokesman Ali Othman said “we have no comment on the events in Tunisia, or the actions of their union movement.” 

Karam Saber, director of the independent Land Center for Human Rights, said that the structure of Egypt’s ETUF would hinder large-scale mobilization for labor or more general political demands.  

"The ETUF is an official governmental body. For decades it has been towing the ruling party's line, not that of workers. With its current leadership and structure, the ETUF will never mobilize its workers in any sort of reformist actions, let alone any general strikes, uprisings or revolutionary actions," Saber said.

Yet at critical historical moments, some experts argue, the leadership of any state-controlled trade union could find themselves losing their grip over workers.

"Historically, the UGTT has not always maintained its independence as a union movement,” said Abbas. “It's Secretary General Abdessalem Jrad was a vocal supporter of Ben Ali during the presidential elections of 2009. While his predecessor was a close business associate of Trabulsi family [Ben Ali’s wife’s family]. And like so many other trade unions around the world, the UGTT leadership was at times very bureaucratic and corrupt."

Abbas, however, said that the internal discipline of the Tunisian trade union was suddenly lost following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid on 17 December.

"Workers at the lower and middle rungs of the UGTT structure began applying pressure upon the union's leadership to support economic reforms." Along with police crackdowns and shootings, "this in turn led up to political demands, and eventually to the revolutionary demands of ousting Ben Ali and his regime from power."

Following the ousting of Ben Ali last week, an interim government was formed, which included ministerial posts for three representatives of the UGTT. However, on January 18, these three ministers pulled out of the government, upon realizing that members of Ben Ali's ruling party would be included.

Jerad, who had previously supported the Ben Ali regime, changed his line and denounced the interim government for including "barons of the old regime who participated in the repression and in the system of dictatorship."

With a membership of some 600,000 blue-collar workers, the UGTT along with smaller trade unions and white-collar professional associations, will be determining the future of Tunisian politics and civil society. Members on the middle and lower rungs of the UGTT have also called to pull out of all local and city councils until all ruling party members are removed from governmental institutions.

In contrast, the ETUF, which has a membership of over 4 million, is trying to postpone its nationwide elections scheduled for the end of this year until 2012, because they overlap with presidential elections.

Last October, ETUF President Hussein Megawer announced that this delay will enable members of the labor community to lend their full support to president Hosni Mubarak's 2011 presidential bid.

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