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Workers' strikes: the ongoing revolution from below

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With disputes between the liberal, Islamist and military forces stealing the show, the battle against the horrendous inequality that casts a deep shadow over Egyptian society constitutes the last chance to push the revolution forward before being strangled by the capitalist forces dominating the economy.

Soha Farouk
22 July 2012

"Undoubtedly, the economic chaos witnessed by Egypt today is an inevitable outcome of the sins of a bygone era that reigned over the country for many years, spreading all kinds of corruption, fraudulence and neglect, disregarding the citizen, annihilating the economy and haemorrhaging the country's human and natural resources leading us to the brink of explosion which accelerated the glorious January, 25 revolution"

This excerpt praising the Egyptian revolution and harshly attacking the former regime is not from a revolutionary activist’s exposé, as it may seem, but by one of the Mubarak regime business tycoons, an influential ex-member of the former ruling National Democratic Party. He was invited to a businessmen’s meeting by Morsi, the new president, to discuss investment sector reform. Ironically, in his suggested four-step action plan to reform the industry, protecting workers' rights was briefly mentioned at the end, in a very schematic and unconvincing way.

In fact, either before or after Mubarak, workers' rights have rarely been placed at the top of the political agenda. Although their several strikes and protests since the 2000s are considered one of the first sparks of January 25 revolution, they failed to reap its fruits. Soon after the outbreak of the revolution, they succeeded in retrieving, partially, their right to organize and form independent trade unions by founding the Egyptian federation of independent trade unions enclosing thousands of new free unions. However, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) with the same old corrupt figures striving to contain the independent unionists, was not dissolved. Divided and self-organized, with very poor financial and human resources, the newly formed unions are unable to counter bureaucratic ETUF power. Hence, empowered by the revolution, workers protests and sit-ins continue apace.

Nevertheless, they have been accused by the media of disrupting the production cycle by protesting for their own rights as a sector, when what is required is the sacrifice of our own selfish interests in order to go back to work to rebuild the country's economy. Furthermore, SCAF has issued a new law to criminalize anyone participating in or calling for a strike or a sit-in that negatively affects the work of public institutions and threaten the country's security. Moreover, new trade union legislation, giving workers more freedom to form free associations and syndicates, was also blocked.

On another note, although half of the parliament's seats are reserved for workers and peasants as stipulated by the constitution, workers, voicing labour demands, have so far had very weak representation in the post-Mubarak, democratically elected, and recently dissolved, People's Assembly, with 4% only of the total seats. Their interests were also neglected in the debates of the legislative and presidential electoral campaigns of both the liberal and Islamist forces. Support from the Freedom and Justice party, retaining the parliamentarian majority and presidential power, was limited to a few controversial statements, mediation to end strikes and even attempts to break them by force. Rather, the free-market-oriented party managed by liberal businessmen is more active now, and determined in the syndicates' elections to gain a good majority and control their boards. As for the constitution-drafting committee, ETUF members are the sole representatives of the workers interests, against a background of gathering calls for the abolition of the workers’ and peasants’ parliamentarian quota in the new constitution.

 The recent Mahallah textile workers strike has been followed by many other protests, all raising the same demands of a minimum wage, permanent contracts, health insurance and purge of the factories’ corrupt managers. This has revived the tug-of-war between Facebook-less protestors and the SCAF working alongside figures of the former regime. It has returned public attention to their struggle.

While the bickering over power continues, with disputes between the liberal, Islamist and military forces stealing the show, the battle against the horrendous inequality that casts a deep shadow over Egyptian society, constitutes the last chance to push the revolution forward before being strangled by the capitalist forces dominating the economy. The more active and robust becomes the revolution from below, the closer we are to the rewards which lie in social justice.       

This is the weekly-featured-column in This Week's Window on the Middle East; to stay up to date with our columnists, bookmark our You Tell Us page and follow the columnists on twitter.

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