Protest rally of Egyptian workers, December 2011
Dina Bishara writes for Foreign Policy:
Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution gave the country's workers a golden opportunity to press their agenda. Workers played a key role in the wave of societal unrest that led to Hosni Mubarak's downfall, and after the long-time president's departure many restrictions on political organization and dissent were relaxed. But workers have not been able to seize that opportunity to cohesively advance their demands. Instead, fragmentation has emerged as the dominant feature of post-Mubarak labor politics. Egyptian workers have struggled to find their own voice as they navigate the legacy of state control over labor organizations and a complicated new political situation.
In the years preceding the revolution and in the lead-up to Mubarak's ousting, Egyptian workers demonstrated their willingness to pioneer new forms of collective action, take risks to engage in collective action, and push the boundaries of their relationship to the state. Workers have become even more emboldened in the post-Mubarak period. Egypt's political leadership will thus need to take workers' concerns seriously if it is to avoid continued social and political unrest. One of the key questions for Egypt's transition is precisely what system will be used to regulate workers' representation.
On the eve of the Egyptian revolution, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was the country's sole trade union federation. ETUF's leadership was increasingly seen as loyal to the Mubarak regime and unwilling to defend workers' interests. In the five years preceding the removal of Mubarak, Egypt witnessed the largest wave of workers' protests since WWII. These strikes and protests occurred largely outside the framework of the ETUF. According to some estimates, over 2 million workers engaged in more than 2,100 strikes and other forms of protest from 2006 to 2009. There were at least 530 labor-related incidents including strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations in 2010 alone. On January 30, 2011, in the midst of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, a group of four "independent unions" announced the establishment of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU). Today, EFITU boasts a membership of 281 unions and more than 2 million workers. These newly-formed unions have received international recognition from organizations such as the International Labor Organization, the International Trade Union Confederation, and Public Services International. In addition, they boast that their members have democratically elected their leaderships, which makes them legitimate representatives of their members' interests.
The contest over workers' representation has only intensified in the 19 months since Mubarak's ousting. All of Egypt's trade union organizations are in a state of legal limbo. In the absence of any clear legal framework.