Key force in Tahrir Square: Egypt's labor movement
Kamal Abu Eitta endured years of torture and arrest trying to build an independent labor movement in Egypt. Now organized labor is trying to emerge as a real force in Egypt's transition.
Inside a century-old building in downtown Cairo, Kamal Abu Eitta springs from his chair, throws his hands behind his back and raises them high above his head – reenacting a type of torture he endured during Hosni Mubarak's regime.Skip to next paragraph
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A long-time labor activist during Mr. Mubarak's rule, Mr. Abu Eitta says he faced years of singeing by fire, bouts of electric shocks, and sessions of whipping while he hung on the wall in a position of crucifixion.
He was just one of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square today demanding faster trials of allegedly corrupt former officials and speedier reform. But he was also there for another reason: to continue the fight for workers’ rights that he and many others have waged for decades.
The labor movement, at a time of populist economic anger and, could become one of the most influential forces during this critical period of transition in Egypt.
“The labor force is the only social force acting on a daily basis,” says activist and journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy. “You can bomb Tahrir Square if you want to, but if there’s a general strike, what can you do?”
Egyptian labor first rose in 1919 when people across the country demonstrated against British rule, propelling the nation toward independence. The largest strike in the nation’s history took place in 1947 at Mahallah al Kubra, the nation’s largest industrial center and home to the first textile factory in Egypt, which spawned decades of Egyptian dominance in the industry.
But organized labor took a beating, first under Anwar Sadat and later under Mubarak. Independent unions were outlawed and in the 1980s, troops were called out to crush strikes, killing scores. In the early years of the past decade, as real wages declined along with Egypt's tarnished industrial base and the government sold off formerly nationalized companies, resulting in mass layoffs, the movement seemed finished in Egypt.
But then in 2006 a wildcat strike broke out at Mahallah, sparking copycat efforts across the country and the biggest protest movement in Egypt since the 1950s. Those strikes, and the politicized labor organizing that went with them, were a key component in setting the stage for the Egyptian revolution this January and February.
One of the issues plaguing workers since the start of the century has been the lack of an independent federation and unions. Workers formed countless labor unions over the first half of the 20th century. A government-controlled federation was established in 1957 that later became the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, comprised today of 23 unions.
After that, unions were not allowed to form outside of the federation – which many workers say is more focused on securing the interests of the government and management than increasing wages.
Abu Eitta is trying to change all that. He established the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions on Jan. 30, shortly before Mubarak resigned.
It hasn't been easy for Abu Eitta. He has been arrested 25 times since he began speaking out against labor injustices in the 1970s. At the beginning of his career as a state employee in a real estate tax office, he made just 35 Egyptian pounds per month (about $50 then; about $7 at current exchange rates). And so he began to fight for reform.