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.
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.
Decades of arrests and torture finally came to a head when Abu Eitta and thousands of his tax-office colleagues staged several strikes beginning in 2007, eventually pressuring the government to increase their salary by more than 500 percent.
Under Abu Eitta’s direction, 29 grassroots committees comprised of over 40,000 members across the country gained legal status in 2009 as the Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) – the nation’s first legal independent union.
Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor of Middle East history and expert on Egypt’s labor movement, estimates that at least 60 unions have formed since. Thirty of those are now under the umbrella of the new, independent trade federation that Abu Eitta and his colleagues established earlier this year.
Egypt’s labor force, which makes up nearly a third of the nation’s population, played an important role in the years leading up to the still-unsecured revolution.
Dr. Beinin sees the last decade of mobilization by various political and social groups – many of them workers – as one of the driving forces behind the revolution. There were more than 2,600 demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, and gatherings from 1998 to 2008, according to data compiled by the United States-based Solidarity Center. “This was a huge laboratory for democracy,” Beinin says.
In addition to low wages (the minimum was 118 Egyptian pounds a month at the start of the year, about $20), temporary contracts, and years without independent representation, workers have been subject to harsh working environments that are comparable to those in America in the early 1900s, experts say.
Hassan Sayyed has been welding copper in a factory since he was a young teenager, working six days a week for seven hours a day with no break for more than four decades. He makes $5 a day. “I have a complex about marriage because my parents always fought when I was younger – they were always fighting about money,” says his daughter, Nermine.
Labor strikes in Egypt were seen as recently as this week. To try to strike a balance between meeting protester’s demands without widening the budget deficit, the country's interim military rulers bumped spending on social programs and set a minimum wage for government workers at 684 pounds in a revised budget.
That's nearly six times greater than the previous minimum wage, but labor organizers had been demanding 1,200 pounds. Labor in general remains furious at the pace of change, though the collapse of tourism and investment due to this year's upheaval has left Egypt in a fiscal bind.
Magda Kandil of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies argues that the military council should have established channels for communication with protesters to help flesh out compromises rather than simply partially conceding to their demands. “The concessions have led to more protests and given people the reason to think protesting will work out in their interest,” Dr. Kandil says.
Beinin says it is still unclear how politically influential labor will be leading up to and following parliamentary and presidential elections, currently scheduled to begin in September.
But Abu Eitta, for one, vows to camp out in Tahrir Square until his demands are met. At the protest today, he blended into the chanting crowd, beaming and sporting a baseball cap bearing his trade union’s name, and wearing a pin of the Egyptian flag.