One night during the Arab Spring, after a drive down the highway that connects Alexandria and Cairo, a fellow journalist and I arrived in Zamalek, the leafy Cairo neighborhood where we were staying. We had spent the day with labor activists in Sadat City, one of the many industrial zones in the Nile Delta, where workers are plentiful, labor law is loose, and foreign companies make a killing on the combination.
Longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak had stepped down following massive protests six months earlier, and independent union organizers were optimistic. For decades, the government had controlled the country’s unions through its relationship with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. In the euphoria after Mubarak’s fall, activists hoped reforms were forthcoming that would allow independent unions to proliferate. Still, they remained wary of government repression.
That night, over a few bottles of Stella, one of my companions asked our colleague, Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, what the chances were that the group of workers we talked to about forming unions had been infiltrated by government informants. “100 percent,” he said.
Two years later, Fahmy and two other Al-Jazeera staffers were arrested by the new military government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (and backed by the US). As I watched the scene on TV from the States — Fahmi dressed in white prison garb, tried by a kangaroo court — it was clear how dangerous Egypt had become for anyone willing to speak out against the prevailing order or to associate with those labeled dissidents.
The reports continued to stream in: crackdown after crackdown, hundreds killed and jailed, many of them reporters and prominent activists. One photographer we’d worked with was shot in the leg by security forces.
The military government — which had toppled Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader — was repressing the same kinds of protests that had brought down Mubarak.
For the average foreign observer, the revolt against Mubarak seemed to have little to do with class struggle or workers’ rights. But labor was crucial to the success of the initial uprising. Building on a history of struggle against the state-capital cabal, workers halted production and provided organizational know-how to force Mubarak’s resignation. The Tahrir Square revolution was, at its heart, a labor revolution.
As the Los Angeles Times, reporting from the city of El Mahalla el Kubra, wrote at the time, “The revolt shaking Cairo didn’t start in Cairo. It began in this city of textile mills and choking pollution set amid the cotton and vegetable fields of the Nile Delta.” Sociologist Nada Matta also singled out labor struggles as an important impetus, writing in The Bullet in February 2011:
The fact that Mahalla workers had been striking since 2006 and were able to gain concessions from the state in 2006 and 2007 drew the attention of Egyptian liberal movements and young activists. Following the 2006 Mahalla strike, some 300,000 workers in total protested in various industries, making for the most significant labour force struggles since the 1940s. Mahalla became a symbol of revolt and challenge to the regime, and workers’ demands became more radical.
And as the recent death of labor journalist Giulio Regeni appears to indicate, the Sisi government hasn’t forgotten it.
Regeni, a twenty-eight-year-old Italian graduate student, moved to Egypt last year to conduct research on the country’s independent trade unions. He spent his free time reporting on the labor movement for left-wing publications, and met with opposition leaders and labor unions.
In February, his body was discovered on the side of the Alexandria highway, beaten so badly that his mother could only identify him by the tip of his nose. While the Egyptian government denies responsibility for Regini’s death, security officials admitted to Reuters this summer that he was being monitored because of his association with labor activists.
Fittingly, Regini’s last dispatch — published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto — reported on the attempts of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Service (CTUWS) to unite over fifty labor organizations behind a call to end attacks on independent unionism. CTUWS’s recent history is a testament to the state’s fear of an organized working class: in 2012, the CTUWS’s leader at the time, Kamal Abbas, was sentenced to six months in prison for insulting a government minister.
Some analysts have suggested that the military government will be forced to permit independent unions, if only to pacify workers upset with poor conditions, low wages, and widespread unemployment.
But the government has done exactly the opposite this year, invalidating the standing of any independent union using the dubious legal principle of “union plurality.” “None of the independent trade union federations have been able to withstand the general repression of the Sisi regime,” historian Joel Beinin says.
It’s not for lack of trying. The unions are fighting the new ban in the courts, and workers are taking to the streets. Already this year there have been nearly five hundred rank-and-file labor protests.
Aiding that effort, the director-general of the International Labor Organization wrote a letter to Sisi in April demanding that he revoke the prohibition on independent trade unions.
But the military general, unsurprisingly, has been unmoved.
Unfortunately, even the international attention generated by Regini’s death probably won’t chasten Sisi. With the national economy continuing to deteriorate, the military dictator will likely become even more repressive.
The tourism industry has taken a nosedive, inflation and unemployment are on the rise, and foreign aid is becoming sparser. Activists, journalists, and organizers can expect more arrests and more violence in the coming months.
In 2011, as protests erupted in Egypt, many outsiders looked at the upsurge as ecumenical and non-partisan — the actions of a population that simply yearned to be free, united against an out-of-touch despot. But the liberal protests in the streets originated in the factories and mills.
If Sisi is to fall — a tall task indeed — worker self-organization will again have to provide the necessary push.