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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Egyptian unions in throes of democracy fight

SUEZ, Egypt – PAI*: The Egyptian army arrested and temporarily detained two Egyptian steel union leaders in Suez, Egypt, two days before its violent crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, seven Egyptian unions and a human rights centre reported.

Though Amr Yousef and Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Khaleq were released on August 13, two supporters of their union, which is on strike at Suez Steel, were injured in the melee around the arrests earlier that day, according to the unions. The strike started in late July.

On August 15, the army smashed into two pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo. More than 638 people, including at least 40 soldiers, died. Egyptian unions have yet to post comments on the killings, but an independent Egyptian paper bitterly denounced the army and Vice President Mohammed el-Baradei resigned in protest.

The arrests and the prior sit-in at Suez show the uncomfortable position of Egypt’s independent unions in the continuing turmoil there.

Independent Egyptian unions and their members were among the leaders in the overthrow of 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 - a role that earned them praise and awards from the AFL-CIO. The federation and its overseas arm, the Solidarity Centre, did not immediately comment on the army’s August 15 crackdown.

But even as unions pressed for stronger worker rights and - among other things - a maximum wage imposed on company owners, the unions faced crackdowns, first from the army-run government that replaced Mubarak, then from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government and now from the interim army-controlled civilian government.

“After the toppling of Mubarak, (Army chief Hassan) Tantawi, and Morsi in successive revolutionary waves...neither current Commander in Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, nor interim President Adly Mansour nor Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi seem to have learned the lesson,” the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights said in a statement the English-language Egypt Independent newspaper posted. Co-signers included leftist groups, public transport, port, Cairo airport and textile unions.

El-Sisi and Mansour “continue to deceive the masses, neglecting the demand of social justice in the transitional phase, under the pretext of the war against terror,” the statement continued. “The new Mansour-Sisi government is using the old methods against striking workers, who were in the forefront of the people’s struggle...which overthrew Mubarak, then Tantawi, then Morsi, whose term witnessed the greatest wave of workers striking for their rights.”

Other news sources noted there have been 3,800 workers’ protests of various kinds since Mubarak’s downfall, half of them from government workers.

The Suez Steel workers’ struggle has lasted more than a year, though the strike is more recent, the statement said. The firm rejected the union’s contract proposals about career structure, health care benefits, incentives and use of company profits.

The profits were the sticking point. Suez Steel’s chairman claimed the firm was losing money, but the union found the firm donated approximately US$430,000 (3 million Egyptian pounds) to the government for “national reconstruction.”

The firm then fired 12 of the unionists and demanded all the workers return to their jobs before it would resume talks. But it also rejected all the contract demands, forcing the strike, the statement said.

The non-Islamist Strong Egypt Party defended the Suez Steel workers, too. “It is as if history is repeating itself,” the party said. “We saw under the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi the security forces attacking the protesting workers of Portland Cement with dogs. Today, the Suez Steel workers, who have been on strike for more than 20 days to demand the return of their arbitrarily dismissed colleagues, are being attacked by the army, who arrested two people and injured two others.”

* PAI is a not-for-profit international organisation run by youths and students.

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