The Middle East Channel

What have workers gained from Egypt’s revolution?

CAIRO — Since June 12, half of the 18,000 workers who operate and service the Suez Canal have been on strike. They are employed in maritime services by seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority in Suez, Isma‘iliyya, and Port Said. In contrast, those employed directly by the canal authority have always received higher wages and better benefits. Long before January 25, 2011 subsidiary company workers raised the demand for parity, effectively a 40 percent wage increase.

Management of the subsidiary companies accepted this demand in April, an expression of the new possibilities of the post-January 25 era. But the interim government has maintained that wages and working conditions of public service workers are established by parliamentary legislation, and therefore, no changes can be made while the parliament is dissolved. The strike expresses workers' rejection of this logic.

Egyptian workers have achieved increased strength and self-confidence in the course of the revolutionary movement. This is expressed by the capacity to sustain a five-week-long strike in an industrial sector linked to the economically and strategically critical Suez Canal and by insisting that economic demands be met despite the absence of the legal framework established by the old regime. Labor unions continue to rebuff myriad accusations in the press and by some of the "revolutionary youth" that workers' economic demands are narrow "special interests" rather than "national interests." In this respect, workers share the achievement of all Egyptians who heeded the revolutionary call, "Lift your head high. You are an Egyptian" -- the recovery of their human dignity.

The removal of former president Hosni Mubarak and the top layer of his regime empowered Egyptians to find their voices and demand "dignity, democracy, and economic justice" -- a popular chant during the occupation of Tahrir Square in January-February and since then. This was not an entirely new experience for millions of industrial and white-collar workers. Many of them won substantial economic gains, like those demanded by the Suez Canal Authority subsidiary company workers, during the movement of over 4,000 strikes, sit-ins, and other labor collective actions that began escalating in 1998 and continue today.

During the three days before Mubarak's departure on February 11, workers visibly contributed to the revolutionary process by engaging in some sixty strikes, some with explicitly political demands. Strikes and sit-ins have continued regularly since then at the rate of several per week. The total of perhaps two-hundred workers' collective actions for the first six months of 2011 is at the same order of magnitude as the pace of labor protest since 2004.

This has allowed workers to consolidate several gains. The most important institutional achievement is the consolidation of the right to organize independent trade unions.

Since its establishment in 1957, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has been an arm of the Egyptian state and a key institution in its repressive apparatus. ETUF enjoys a legal monopoly on trade union organization established by Law 35 of 1976 and subsequent amendments. ETUF elections, especially the most recent in 2006, were rigged. State Security Investigations arbitrarily disqualified oppositional political elements of any stripe - from Communists to Muslim Brothers - from running for union office.  ETUF and most of its local officials stood aloof from or actively opposed the workers movement of the last decade.

Before January 25, three independent unions unaffiliated to ETUF were established. The largest and most important was the 35,000-member union of Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) workers. A dramatic sit-in strike of 3,000 RETA workers in front of the Ministry of Finance in December 2007 resulted in a 325 percent wage increase. Kamal Abu Eita and other strike leaders used the momentum of this victory to establish an independent union in December 2008.  In April 2009 the government recognized it as the first non-ETUF affiliated union since 1957. The independent RETA workers' union was a founding member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), whose existence was announced at a press conference during the Tahrir Square occupation on January 30.

Among the newly-established unions affiliated with EFITU are eight unions and a city-wide labor council in Sadat City, where 50,000 workers are employed in 200 enterprises -- mainly textiles, iron and steel, and ceramics and porcelain. There were only two unions in Sadat City before this year. A largely non-unionized labor force was only one of the generous incentives to private investors offered in special economic zones established in the new satellite cities of Cairo. Another is that in Qualified Industrial Zones, if 10.5 percent of a product's assessed value comes from Israeli sources, it receives duty-free and quota-free access to the United States.

EFITU and the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), a non-governmental organization established in 1990 to promote trade union independence, successfully resisted the imposition of the original candidate of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the former ETUF treasurer, as Minister of Manpower and Migration in the transitional government. Instead, they proposed Ahmad Hasan al-Burai, a professor of labor law at Cairo University who had publicly advocated trade union pluralism for years. SCAF accepted the nominee of the independent workers' movement.

Minister al-Burai argues that the legal basis for the registration of independent unions is that Egypt has ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions guaranteeing freedom of association and protection of the right to organize (No. 87) and the right to organize and bargain collectively (No. 98). These international treaty obligations supersede national legislation. With al-Burai's approval, the Ministry of Manpower and Migration has formally registered about twenty-five independent unions not affiliated to ETUF. Dozens of other independent unions are in the process of formation.

Some independent unions -- like the Cairo Joint Transport Authority union of bus drivers and garage workers and the RETA workers' union -- are quite large and command the loyalty of a great majority of the potential bargaining unit. Others have only fifty to one hundred members in factories employing hundreds or thousands. The pensions and social benefit accounts of some public sector industrial workers are tied to their membership in ETUF-affiliated unions. Minister al-Burai has indicated his willingness to sever this connection, which could dramatically increase the number of independent unions. But the financial procedures involved are complex.

Meanwhile, the EFITU, the CTUWS, and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) have filed a court case seeking dissolution of ETUF and sequestration of its assets. Their legal brief argues (correctly) that, like the dissolved National Democratic Party, ETUF was an institution of the Mubarak regime. This coalition has also drafted a new trade union law to replace Law 35. The Ministry of Manpower and Migration has held three rounds of discussion on the draft law, the latest with the participation of representatives of the ILO. Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the CTUWS, is optimistic that a new trade union law will be enacted before the parliamentary elections this fall.

Another workers' achievement is an increase in the minimum wage. In 2010 Nagi Rashad, a worker at the South Cairo Grain Mill and a leading figure in the workers' protest movement, successfully sued the government over its 2008 decision not to increase the national minimum wage. Khaled Ali, director of the ECESR, was the lead attorney on the case. As a result, the minimum wage was raised to £E 400 (about $70) a month - still a woefully inadequate amount that would leave the average Egyptian family of five with two-wage earners well below the World Bank's poverty line of $2 a day. It is also far less than the consensus demand of £E 1,200 (about $200) that has emerged from the workers protest movement since 2008.

The interim government promised a further increase to £E 700 (about $120) monthly, effective July 1, 2011. However, the state budget for the fiscal year that began on that day reduced the amount to £E 685. Workers and their supporters continue to press the demand for £E 1,200.

The minimum wage, however, applies only to those employed on permanent contracts (the equivalent of tenure). The private sector operates primarily on the basis of indefinitely renewable "temporary" contracts lasting one-year or less. The "informal sector" is unsupervised by the government. Therefore, the minimum wage applies primarily to public sector workers on permanent contracts.

Struggles to obtain permanent status for public sector employees have escalated. For two weeks in June, some 200 workers on temporary contracts at Petrojet, an oil services firm, conducted a sit-in demonstration in front of the offices of their employer, the Ministry of Petroleum. Although access to the offices was not blocked, five workers were arrested. On June 29, they were convicted in a military court and received suspended sentences of one year in jail. This is the first implementation of SCAF's Decree 34 of March 24, which established penalties of up to £E 500,000 (about $83,400) and up to one year in jail for participating in a "disruptive" strike or demonstration.

The suspended sentence suggests the delicate balance SCAF must maintain. It seeks to minimize the political and economic changes that occur under its watch and until it can hand off power to a legitimate civilian government. But the SCAF cannot repress all popular demands and remain legitimate in the eyes of the people.

The April 6 Youth Movement and other "revolutionary youth" groups that emerged from the Tahrir Square occupation from January 25 to February 11 were, at first, reluctant to embrace specific economic demands, despite the popular chants demanding "social justice." Since the mass demonstrations of July 1 and July 8 and the reoccupation of main squares in Alexandria and Suez as well as Tahrir in Cairo, the April 6 Movement has raised the slogan, "The families of the martyrs and the poor first."

Economic demands have become more prominent since clashes between families of the martyrs and thugs of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo in late June. A large banner overlooking occupied Arabain Square in Suez supported the general demands of the current phase of the revolutionary movement. Speedier public trials for Hosni Mubarak and the high officials of his regime accused of corruption and purifying the Ministry of Interior, which commands the police and other security services, are high on the list. The banner also demands a jobs program for youth - unemployment is especially high in Suez - and a national minimum and maximum wage. The later demand has been adopted by those continuing to occupy Tahrir Square.

In addition to SCAF's reluctance, there are many obstacles to fulfilling the revolutionaries' aspirations for social justice. Personnel, practices, attitudes, and institutions of the old regime are entrenched throughout the country.

For instance, a manager at the Suez Maritime Arsenal, one of the subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority, coordinated with military intelligence and then imposed his presence on an interview with a striking worker on July 11 (1,200 workers of the Maritime Arsenal are currently on strike). The same manager reported to military intelligence that he and others had intervened in the Arbain Square sit-in on July 8 to force those occupying the square to retract a "stupid" statement they had made. (One journalist shared with me his inadvertent recording of the conversation between the manager and a military intelligence officer.)

On June 7, one hundred women formerly employed at the Mansura-España textile firm tried to collect their monthly wages for April, ranging from £E 250-300 (about $42-50), from the United Bank offices in Mansura. In 2008 Mansura-España, a private-sector firm established in the 1980s in the Nile Delta town of Talkha, across the river from Mansura, went bankrupt. United Bank, its largest creditor, acquired most of its shares. In November 2010, the bank sold its interest in the firm without paying legally required severance compensation to the workers remaining on the payroll.

Among the workers seeking their salaries was Mariam Hawas, a 44-year-old mother of three. United Bank employees refused to pay the women, taunted them, and told them, "Go and block traffic in the streets if you want your rights." So they did.

A traffic policeman urged one truck driver who could not move his vehicle through the ensuing traffic jam, "Run them over. The blood money for each one is £E 50 (about $8)." The truck ran into Mariam Hawas and another woman, Samah Isa. Mariam died on the way to the hospital and Samah was badly injured.

Neither has yet received any compensation. The truck driver who ran into the two women has been charged with causing wrongful death and injury. But he was released without bail, an indication that he may be treated leniently if he can be located at all when the trial begins in late July. The traffic policeman has not been found.

Ten days after Mariam Hawas died United Bank paid severance packages to Mansura-España workers at the rate of 2 ½ months' salary for every year of employment. The total cost to the bank was $62,000.

The lives of Egyptian working people are still cheap in the eyes of a great many policemen, government officials, and managers of firms in both the private and public sectors. What has changed, and this is the most important gain of the revolutionary movement, is that workers no longer accept this.

Recovering in the hospital, Samah Isa asked, "How can a life be worth 50 pounds? I don't see a future until I get my rights. That's what I want."

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle Eastern History at Stanford University. His latest books are The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center 2010) and Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2011); co-edited with Frédéric Vairel.

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The Middle East Channel

Kuwait's war of words with Iraq

Last Tuesday, two Katusha rockets directly struck the Kuwaiti Embassy in Iraq, while another hit a nearby building. No one was hurt and all Kuwaiti employees left Iraq and returned to Kuwait for Ramadan. A Kuwait parliamentarian angrily called for the expulsion of the Iraqi ambassador from Kuwait. Even in the turbulence of today's Middle East, such an incident raises eyebrows.

The attack and the political furor that followed fit an alarming pattern of escalating Iraqi-Kuwaiti tensions. In April 2010, as a part of a $1.2 billion demand for reparations, lawyers acting on behalf of Kuwait Airways sought the impounding of an Iraqi Airways plane as it landed in London for the first time in two decades -- a moment of considerable national pride. In January, a Kuwaiti Coast Guard officer was killed in an altercation with an Iraqi fishing boat, which was sunk during the incident. And late last year Qais Al-Azzawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League, suggested that Iraq did not accept the U.N. demarcated border -- a comment that sounded eerily similar to one of Saddam Hussein's flimsy pretexts for the 1990 invasion.

These tensions have taken a dramatic turn for the worse over Kuwaiti plans to build a new port on a sensitive location at the mouth of the long-contested Shaat Al-Arab. The uproar has been exacerbated by democratic politics in Iraq and Kuwait, as issues of national pride and historical memory have proven irresistible to ambitious politicians. Yet these parliamentarians are putting at risk striking new opportunities for cooperation between the former antagonists, which could lead to conflict that nobody really wants.

Most Kuwaitis still harbor a tremendous amount of anger toward Iraq since the invasion of their country in 1990. This is understandable: the Iraqi invasion decimated their country, cost hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and lost earnings and was a profound and brutal mental shock. But the invasion was two decades ago. In the intervening time, Kuwait has long since recovered and is per capita once more one of the richest countries on earth. Iraq has itself been pummeled by war: its people have suffered to an extraordinary degree, its government has changed and its erstwhile dictator has been put to death. 

Nevertheless, Kuwait still demands war reparations from Iraq, with some $20 billion still outstanding, as well as full cooperation regarding the return of its national archives and other artifacts and the fate of Kuwaiti prisoners of war. Not until these vexatious and thorny issues are settled, or an accommodation is reached with the U.N., will Iraq escape U.N. Chapter 7 provisions -- imposed after the invasion -- which would allow Iraq to negotiate remaining issues directly with Kuwait.

These incidents have been interspersed with moments of real progress. August 2010 saw the signing of an important agreement on sharing the proceeds from the Rumaila oil field, the fourth largest in the world, which spans the border. And five months later, in January 2011, there was the first Kuwaiti prime ministerial visit to Iraq since 1990. Kuwait has sizable investments in Iraq to consider. Zain, one of Kuwait's key mobile phone operators bought Iraqna, an Iraqi counterpart, for $1.2 billion and is now the market leader; various Kuwaiti banks and institutions have bought large, often controlling, shares in Iraqi banks; there has been significant investment in construction in, for example, Najaf and Karbala; and Kuwait is, with $1.5 billion, one of the largest Arab investors in Iraqi Kurdistan. One might suppose that such a burgeoning economic portfolio or indeed the calm economic analysis of some of Kuwait's major institutions could act as a foundation for better bilateral relations. It might yet, but the outlook is not good thus far.

The latest twist to the saga began with Kuwaiti plans to construct a huge deepwater port --Mubarak Kabeer -- on Bubiyan Island, at the very mouth of the long-contested Shatt Al-Arab. No one is disputing the legality of Kuwait's right to build a port wherever it so chooses within its borders, as long as it does not adversely affect its neighbors' rights. Yet the ramifications of these policies, which will further escalate tensions, cannot simply be ignored.

This mega port would automatically render unprofitable Iraq's planned Grand Faw port located nearby, for which it has it already signed a $4 billion contract. Some Iraqis warn that it would impinge Iraq's access to its waterways. Others argue that it could have devastating economic effects. Instead of Grand Faw being a catalyst for the development of southern Iraq, some estimates suggest that it could lose up to 60 percent of its business when Mubarak opens. This plays into an emerging Iraqi narrative, which accuses Kuwait of actively seeking to thwart Iraq's recovery. Iraqi nationalists are describing Kuwait's decision to build the Mubarak port as the start of an ‘economic war' -- a term with familiar resonance from the days of Saddam.

There is much at stake, but a change in course is highly unlikely. Ironically, increasingly contentious democratic politics are part of the problem. Any slowdown in construction with the Mubarak port would be seen by some in Kuwait's febrile Parliament as tantamount to treacherous capitulation. And an embattled Iraqi government is unlikely to back away from any issue that promises national unity and a welcome distraction from its problems.

Attempting to draw the attention of citizens away from domestic issues to a certain ‘other' group to boost cohesiveness and to create scapegoats is a time-honored and effective political strategy. This kind of nationalistic tub thumping is in evidence on both sides of this issue. Both Kuwaitis and Iraqis have a deep reservoir of mutual dislike from which to draw. For Kuwaitis, they simply hark back to the destruction of their country. For Iraqis the mantra of ‘Kuwait suffered from Saddam for a few years; we suffered for decades,' suitably topped up by Kuwait's continuing onerous demands, is more than enough fodder for nationalistic politicians, keen to distract attention from domestic ills and U.S. pressure to extend its troop presence.

Kuwait's form of democracy, particularly in recent times, poses distinct problems. The political system engenders neither consensus-seeking nor peaceable parliamentarians. Political parties are banned in Kuwait. Without a readily identifiable set of general ideas as to what they stand for, MPs must appeal directly to the public and publicize not only themselves but their policies. One simple way to do this is by offering a service platform (i.e. no taxes, greater subsidies) or by banging a popular drum. Since MPs do not vote to accept the government and ‘their' party is by definition never identified as ‘in power,' when things go wrong most MPs can wholly absolve themselves of responsibility, retorting that it was the government's fault. Thus without some form of positive responsibility on MPs they can easily, irresponsibly and merrily attack Iraq without having to deal with the consequences.

The chances of Kuwait pursuing a more mature and long-term thinking approach to the Iraqi bilateral relationship do not appear to be good. Kuwait's Parliament has, in recent years, shown a profound inability to take difficult decisions when necessary. Instead, MPs seem preoccupied with ousting the embattled prime minister and blocking much needed investment packages. When they do come together to agree on something, it is a $70 billion budget of which a staggering 90 percent will be spent on fuel subsidies and salary increases. Moreover, were an MP to table a motion regarding resetting the relationship with Iraq, it would likely be shot down quickly and harshly by populist MPs playing to anti-Iraqi national sentiment. In a revolutionary age, Kuwait's Parliament acts effectively as a mechanism for people to blow off steam. It would be highly difficult for the prime minister, who is perennially under pressure, to stake his political fortunes on an unpopular call to take a more mature approach to Iraq.

Kuwait should revaluate its relationship on the pragmatic basis of what is best for Kuwait. Kuwait's Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is pitifully low compared to neighboring countries. Numerous political and economic policies account for this, but if Kuwait can secure its relations with Iraq this would contribute toward fostering a more secure environment for Kuwaitis to countenance (if not demand) meaningful domestic development with the help of meaningful levels of FDI.

At the moment, Iraq is broken and split, but this will not last. Kuwait needs to make its peace with Iraq now, before Iraqi hostility toward Kuwait transcends from simple anger toward a national pathology of hate. There is also the potential that dislike or hatred of Kuwait could become the single rallying point of Iraqi nationalism; one of the few topics upon which Sunni, Shia and Kurd could potentially agree. 

Kuwaitis might also ponder the question of morality. Certainly, Kuwait was ravaged by Saddam, but he is now long gone. It is questionable, therefore, given that Iraq is still struggling to regain its feet, whether Iraqis ought to be paying the price for Saddam's misdeeds. Is it morally defensible to impel a country whose people are, according to the IMF, nearly eleven times poorer to give huge amounts of money to a significantly richer neighbor?

The only chance of fundamentally restructuring the Kuwait-Iraq relationship is for Kuwaiti citizens to see that they would be better off with Iraq as an ally and not as an embittered neighbor. This does not mean that Kuwait capitulates to Iraq over its demands. Instead of persistently viewing Iraqi relations as a zero-sum game filtered through bitter memories, Kuwaitis must look forward and see the genuine opportunities that are ready for them to grasp, should they so choose.

David B. Roberts is deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute (Qatar) and the creator and author of

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