Egyptians of all stripes and backgrounds ushered in a new era of political democracy last year, opening the channels of discourse in an historically repressive state. Widely seen as paving the way for last year’s uprising, Egypt’s industrial workers do not want to be left out of the equation. But without effective political representation, and with old regime figures still present in the upper echelons of industry management, it remains to be seen how Egyptian workers will fare under the new system.
In a recent speech on religious freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a generally applicable remark that in a society undergoing democratic transition, those groups who are unorganized and undetermined will not find success in achieving their goals. Egyptian workers know this.
During the past few weeks, Egypt has seen thousands of factory workers, gold miners, and even doctors involved in various labor actions. Most notably, 25,000 textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra grabbed headlines last week went they went on strike over unpaid profit-sharing payments, corrupt management, and a host of other issues. The workers of Mahalla have been notorious for decades because of their willingness to defy the political order in Egypt. In 2008, workers tore down and defaced a picture of Hosni Mubarak, a brave gesture that served as a precursor for more acts of defiance that would eventually force the former president to step down. In 2006 and 2007, massive strikes occurred in Mahalla as well. Even as far back as the 1980s, textile workers targeted their anger at Mubarak, carrying a coffin with his face draped over it.
It’s clear by now that Egyptian workers have both economic and political demands, and are willing to loudly voice them. After the uprising, the formation of independent labor unions was legalized in Egypt, and in theory, Egyptian workers no longer have to settle with being represented by state-dominated unions. Perhaps workers now sense that the opportunity is ripe for progress on labor issues. After all, the political landscape they are confronting has dramatically changed, or has it?
A recent strike among Ceramica Cleopatra workers revolved around work hazard compensation, unpaid profit shares, and dissatisfaction with the company’s top executive, Mohamed Abul Enein, who employees say is withholding wages and threatening the workforce with layoffs. Enein was formerly an MP in the National Democratic Party, and also happens to be on trial for his alleged role in the infamous “Battle of the Camel” during the uprising in 2011, in which stick-wielding pro-Mubarak thugs rushed into Tahrir Square on camels and horseback to beat down protesters. Enein is accused of having instigated this attack, and his employees say that he is now using their livelihood as a bargaining chip to get acquitted, that is, sending a message to the court that if he is convicted, he will close his factories, hurting Egypt’s already fragile economy. The operators of a gold mine which saw strikes recently have also been accused of having links to the former regime, and Egyptian media reported that 29 members of a new independent union there were fired during the unrest.
On the other hand, the government itself is now being run by ostensibly different people. The Muslim Brotherhood and the associated Freedom and Justice Party have made social justice a theme of their political program, and recently discussed that subject in meetings with union leaders. But like many associated with the old regime, many major Brotherhood figures are highly successful businessmen with interests that may be very different from those of the average industrial worker in Egypt. Brotherhood financier and textile magnate Hasan Malek has praised Mubarak’s past economic policies which liberalized the Egyptian economy, and unsurprisingly supports the ongoing privatization of manufacturing, calling for further private sector growth. Avi Asher-Schapiro wrote a piece several months ago which shined a light on Khairat al-Shater and other Brotherhood businessmen, and pointed out the anti-union, pro-business attitudes of many of its leading figures.
The newly appointed Minister of Manpower and FJP member Khaled al-Azhari is reportedly making the resolution of the Ceramica Cleopatra conflict a top priority, and has said that his ministry will sponsor negotiations between Enein and his employees. It will be worth watching, perhaps as a sign of what is to come and how Morsi’s government will approach its murky concept of “social justice.” Egyptian workers’ demands are clear, though: higher pay, better working conditions, and recognition of independent unions. Not a tall order, but not guaranteed, either.