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Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen

Posted: May 3, 2010 11:28 AM

Uprising in Cairo: A New Labor Movement Takes Shape

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President Obama recently carved out a little bright spot in all the grim news coming out of the "Muslim world" these days: the administration's summit for Muslim entreprenuers was a benevolent gesture of soft power, laden with the promises of global development. All peoples, Obama told the audience of delegates from across the diaspora, share “common aspirations... To speak freely and have a say in how we are governed, to live in peace and security and to give our children a better future."

Far away in another part of the Muslim world, many are struggling toward those same lofty goals with considerably less fanfare. For weeks, protesters have gathered outside parliament in the rough streets of Cairo to demand better wages and democratic reform, as part of a surge of fiercely independent grassroots activism.

Caught in a maelstrom of rapid industrialization and urbanization, Egyptian workers are restricted from forming independent unions by draconian policies that ensure the dominance of the state-run union apparatus. But Egyptian labor activists are nonetheless organizing independently to challenge the Mubarak regime--much of it fueled by an explosion of digital organizing.

Among the key issues that have sparked labor unrest are the neoliberal privatization of the public sector, the lack of freedom of association, a broken electoral system, and gender discrimination. A recent court decision that could pave the way for minimum-wage reforms is spurring still more protests, culminating in a coordinated major action on May 2 to push for a wage floor that reflects the true cost of living.

These workers represent an evolving Muslim civil society, fighting in the trenches to build an indigenous labor movement to challenge an autocratic government. The New York Times reports, "Surrounded by barricades and the police 24 hours a day, the demonstrators have turned the sidewalks into a revolving door of protests. Nearly every work sector has appeared at one time, including tax collectors, who struck for three months. About the only group that has not is the security force."

Building on the rich tradition of trade unionism tied to the nationalist struggles of the last century, have generated "a new force in Egyptian society," writes Mostafa Bassiouny of Al Masry Al Youm:

Today, it is no longer possible to talk about democratic reform without mentioning the gains achieved by labor groups, be they independent trade unions or ad-hoc strike committees. Nor is it possible to talk about "change" without taking into account the rights of workers and the unequal distribution of wealth.

Last year, thousands of workers with the Real Estate Tax Authority Union formed their own independent union, drawing solidarity from international labor organizations eager to help seed the grassroots movement. In March, the Egypt-based Center for Trade Union Rights and Workers’ Services held a conference with advocates from Europe and the United States to discuss collective bargaining rights and union organizing.

Human rights and labor advocates also recognize the rising role of women in Egypt's struggle. Starting in 2006, women activists have helped lead uprisings at the state-owned Ghazl al-Mahalla textile company, leading to brutal clashes with police and setting the stage for future direct actions.

Despite the remarkable resilience of the Cairo protesters, a recent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators earlier this month, as documented by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, show that the threat of state-sponsored brutality hovers over every worker who dares raise her voice.

Aside from basic issues of wages and elections, the labor movement promises something more for Egypt and perhaps the rest of the Muslim world: a new polity founded on participatory democracy, evolving independently of both country's sectarian factionalism and increasingly brittle authoritarianism. According to Eric Lee of LabourStart, "The struggle of the Egyptian workers for their basic rights should be the concern of trade unions around the world."

Yet the workers in the streets of Cairo today don't get a photogenic summit; they're not invited into the American diplomatic tent to tout the glories of economic liberty. Instead, they're moving to craft their own vision of what democracy in Egypt should be, perhaps well aware that this is not the kind of civil society that Washington usually appreciates.

Crossposted from Working In These Times