Beinin on Egypt's workers

Joel Beinin has a new paper out at Carnegie on the labor movement in Egypt, his field of expertise for something like three decades at least now. He writes:

[W]orkers were quick to mobilize in the early stages of the groundswell that eventually unseated Hosni Mubarak, and they deserve more credit for his ouster than they typically receive. Soon after the uprising began, workers violated ETUF’s legal monopoly on trade union organization and formed the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU)—the first new institution to emerge from the revolt. Labor mobilization continued at an unprecedented level during 2011 and early 2012, and workers established hundreds of new, independent enterprise-level unions. They also secured a substantially higher minimum wage.

Yet, though the labor movement has made headway, problems persist. New unions face funding difficulties and the independent labor movement is internally divided. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the ultimate power in Egypt since Mubarak’s demise—and ETUF have both repeatedly asserted their power to oppose independent unions and have scored some successes. The movement has a very limited presence in the emerging institutions of the post-Mubarak state and is thus left without much leverage to fend off attacks from its political opponents.

Going forward, the independent labor movement should consider looking beyond street protests over immediate grievances, where it has achieved its greatest successes, and begin training enterprise-level leaderships and forging political coalitions with sympathetic sections of the intelligentsia. Independent trade unions remain the strongest nationally organized force confronting the autocratic tendencies of the old order. If they can solidify and expand their gains, they could be an important force leading Egypt toward a more democratic future.

Timely reading considering a recent upsurge in labor actions across Egypt — in CairoMahalla al-KubraBeni SuefMarsa Matruh and elsewhere — and those are just from today. (via the two leading sources of Egypt labor info on Twitter, @3arabawy and @egystrikes.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.