The Middle East Channel

Egyptian labor between Morsi and Mubarak

While few noticed in the midst of an intense political crisis, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi issued another controversial decree recently:  Decree no. 97 of 2012, introducing a few important amendments to Egypt's long-standing 1976 labor law. The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs. While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi's decree claiming unlimited Presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power. 

The most controversial amendments include a provision to remove any Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) union board member who is over 60 years of age. The ETUF has been historically close to Egypt's rulers and most of its current top leadership is comprised of loyalists to the Mubarak regime. The current leadership was elected in 2006, a year that many activists claim was particularly marred with state intervention to prevent reformist candidates from running and ensure the success of loyalist candidates. According to the law, removed unionists would be replaced by candidates who had received the second largest number of votes in the last union elections (2006). Importantly, however, the law authorizes the highest authority (in this case the minister of manpower -- currently also a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled al-Azhari) to fill any remaining posts that could not be filled for whatever legal reason. Another amendment entails extending the current electoral term for ETUF leaders for an additional six months or until a new trade union law is enacted, whichever comes first.

These amendments raise two key questions: what implications does the content have for the future of state-labor relations in Egypt; and what is the significance of the timing of these amendments?

In terms of content, the amendments have already caused significant rumblings within and outside the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Several office holders within the ETUF, most notably President Ahmed Abdul Zahir, will lose their position as a result of the proposed changes. Abdul Zahir described the amendments as "void" and "illegal," arguing that they violate the 1976 labor law, according to which the ETUF must be consulted before changes are made to the trade unions law. Abdul Zahir also argues that the amendments violate international labor agreements to which Egypt is signatory.

For their part, independent unionists (in the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, EFITU, and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, EDLC) as well as reformists within the ETUF charge that the amendments reflect a plan to "Brotherhoodize" the resource-rich ETUF. Although independent unionists have long called for the need to remove ETUF office holders past the age of 60, they raise serious concerns regarding the procedure according to which these office holders would be replaced. The fact that most federation-level unionists elected in 2006 won by default (as a result of government interference in those elections) means that very few of them will be replaced by those who won the second largest number of votes (as stipulated in the amendments). This gives the minister of manpower de-facto authority to select replacement candidates, a measure that independent unionists argue gives the executive undue power over internal union affairs. Finally, both the EFITU and the EDLC lament that Morsi has used his legislative authority to exert further control on the ETUF rather than issue a new trade unions law that would guarantee pluralism and independence from state control.

At this point, it is not clear precisely how many ETUF office holders will be affected by those changes. Estimates indicate that the changes are likely to unseat up to 150 leaderships among a total of around 500 at the federation level and up to 14 out of around 24 leaderships in the ETUF's executive board. Notably, however, al-Azhari has tried to downplay these estimates during a press conference discussing the amendments. What is clear, however, is that the changes will be implemented swiftly. The remaining members of the ETUF executive board have already met without the excluded members and announced the ETUF's endorsement of the proposed amendments. They also named a new ETUF president and began drawing up lists of members that will need to be replaced.

For his part, al-Azhari argues that the amendments will offer much needed turnover in the ETUF's leadership positions thereby revitalizing the organization. The move will also ensure that fewer unionists affiliated with, or sympathetic to, the old regime will have a say over the conduct of upcoming union elections.

Ironically, however, the move upholds -- rather than breaks -- with some of the core authoritarian practices of the past, namely extensive government interference in union affairs. The amendments thus lend further evidence to the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to bolster its currently weak standing in the ETUF. Not only has Morsi's prime minister offered one of the few FJP cabinet posts to the minister of manpower, MB unionists have also tried to push a new trade unions law that many critics charge violates the tenets of union pluralism.

The timing of these amendments is also highly controversial given Morsi's constitutional declaration last week. Al-Azhari rejects any connection between the two and insists on a logistical interpretation of the timing. Logistically, the timing is closely tied to the imminent expiration of the current electoral term of ETUF unionists only two days after the amendments were passed. Trade union elections have already been postponed twice since Mubarak's ousting in February 2011, primarily as a result of disagreements over the content of a new trade union law. Independent unionists oppose the law proposed by the current minister of manpower, arguing that it does not allow for trade union pluralism. Instead, they prefer a version of the law negotiated and widely discussed during the tenure of former Minister of Manpower Ahmed Hassan al-Borei. The dissolution of parliament in June has stalled further discussions on which version of the law would be adopted. The extension of the current electoral term for ETUF leaders until a new law is passed ensures that new elections will be held under new rules, a demand upon which most unionists agree.

But there are reasons to question this logistical interpretation. Al-Azhari presented these amendments to the government over a month ago, which raises the question of why he waited until November 25 to pass them. Critics, primarily independent unionists, contend that the timing is closely tied to President Morsi's constitutional decree, which ensures that there would be no legal avenue for those opposed to the amendments to contest them. As a result, independent unionists in the EFITU and the EDLC vowed to voice their opposition through their participation in protests against Morsi's declaration on Tuesday November 26.  Both EFITU and EDLC had sent pleas to President Morsi over the past month urging him not to agree to the amendments.

Morsi's approval of these amendments -- and the likely role that the minister of manpower will play in implementing them -- signals the continued politicization of trade union affairs in the post-Mubarak period. Ironically, however, it was Minister of Manpower al-Azhari who charged opponents of the amendments of dangerously mixing unionism and political activism. Speaking at a press conference on November 26, al-Azhari hinted that those who oppose the amendments need to give preference to the national interest over their political interests.

Regardless of the scope of the changes in the ETUF leadership composition as a result of the amendments, the law sets a dangerous precedent for state-labor relations in post-Mubarak Egypt. Rather than break from a pattern of state interference in internal union affairs, the law upholds that tradition, at least for the time being. But the decree has sharpened the divisions among labor activists in Egypt, further polarizing that community into pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood camps.

Dina Bishara is a doctoral candidate in political science at the George Washington University.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages

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