On May Day last year I was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The numbers were fairly modest compared to the huge protests that brought down Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak. But you could still spot the delegations of organised workers with their banners.
These threads of organisation multiplied and thickened over the year that followed. The Cairo bus workers are a case in point. They have tested themselves and their independent union with three major strikes since last May Day.
They voted out their first union president because he tried to persuade them to return to work and accept a deal that the rank and file had rejected. And they stood firm when the army mobilised soldiers to run a scab bus service in an attempt to break the strike.
It is a similar story for the independent teachers’ union. Last May its activists were only just beginning to coordinate across the country. But by September they were leading action by up to half a million teachers—the largest single strike in Egyptian history. And they are agitating to do it again.
Yet there still remains a long road to travel to meet the revolution’s basic demands of bread, freedom and social justice. Strikes have delivered some promised changes, such as piecemeal concessions over pay and conditions. But the core of the old state remains largely intact.
The parliament—elected by millions of workers—is dominated by two Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The Brotherhood and the Salafists have their differences with the ruling generals over the division of the political spoils. But they are all united in their desire to stop the rising workers’ movement in its tracks.
There is a huge gulf between the expectation of workers and what those currently in charge of the state will deliver. There is also a sharp contrast between the roar of workers’ voices in the streets and their silence in mainstream political debates.
Campaigning in the presidential election has so far focused on the danger of a comeback by figures from the old regime. Yet whichever of the mainstream candidates takes up office, they will immediately face pressure from big business and the West to deliver “stability” and further neoliberal reforms.
Organised workers are the force in Egyptian society with the best chance of stopping this project. They have already shown their potential. The crucial question that remains unanswered is whether they can impose their political will on the state—and force the deepening of the Egyptian revolution.
‘Five activists can lead 5,000 workers’
Ahmad Mahmoud Ahmad is the president of the bus workers’ strike committee at Egypt’s Public Transport Authority. He said its 45,000 workers are “involved in a struggle against the bureaucracy and against the capitalist control of our work”.
Ahmad spoke about how bus workers are organising. “When we’re trying to organise a strike we go to the other workers and tell them their rights,” he said. “Sometimes people say, ‘We don’t want to strike, Ahmad, we’re OK.’
“Then later they come to me and complain that something has been stolen from them. I ask them, ‘What did he take?’ They reply, ‘He took my bonus, he docked three pounds from my pay’. Then we start to get a mood up for a strike!”
Ahmad believes that relatively small groups of activists can make a big difference to the struggle. “In a factory or in a public institution, if there are only five independent worker activists that have the confidence of their colleagues, they can lead 5,000 others,” he said. “Each one can move a thousand.”
He explained that the workers elect committees—including a security committee in case the police try to set the buses on fire. But first among them is the elected strike committee.
“In any strike, the negotiators must be an elected committee of strikers,” Ahmad explained. “You can’t have appointed negotiators—they must have something at stake in the strike. The goal of an unelected committee of negotiators is to try and stop the action.”
He added, “Our union president Ali Fattouh was replaced by Adil Shazly in the elections. “Ali said, ‘Enough of the strike.’ But we hadn’t won anything, so his popularity went down. Workers can’t just negotiate for their rights. Striking is the best way to get results.”
He said the revolutions across the Middle East had “opened the eyes” of Egyptians. “Before the revolution we had random relationships with revolutionary activists from the left,” he said. “Now we are regularly in touch with them. Anywhere in the world you have a revolution, the workers will lead it.”
‘Why should men take all the top positions?’
Naamat Mohammed Gaber is a member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions women’s committee. She said the role of women in the revolution was “really important”. “Young women students stood and chanted on the protests,” she said.
“The soldiers were standing in front of them and they weren’t afraid. Women were prepared to do anything so that the revolution would succeed.”
Nahla Mohammed Abd-al-Azim is among the founders of the property tax collectors’ union—and that’s far from unusual.
“When you look at the four unions which started before the revolution, women were central in them,” she said. “The majority of women are workers—they aren’t at home. Working women are three quarters of society.”
And she is clear that the unions should reflect this. “Why should it always be the men who take the top positions?” she said.
Nagat Ragab Mohammed, who is also in the tax collectors’ union, talked about some of the specific demands women are making.
“The law says every workplace with more than 50 women workers must provide a nursery. But this law isn’t enforced. We’re demanding the creation of workplace nurseries.
“We’re also demanding health protection for women. In every workplace with more than 500 workers there is supposed to be a resident doctor. Again, that law isn’t enforced.”
Naamat is one of the founders of the independent union in the EgyptAir maintenance company. She says she has faced victimisation by the bosses. “They kept transferring me around the airport away from the major workplaces,” she said. “They got the security forces to harass me.”
But she refuses to give up. “I’ve kept up my union work—and that is because of the martyrs of the 25 January Revolution. The martyrs paid with their lives the price of reforming this country. Shame on us all as trade unionists if we let it fall again.”
‘Now we’re agitating for a new strike’
Hala Tala’at al-Sa’id is a founder of the independent Egyptian Teachers’ Federation and vice-president of its committee in Giza.
She said that they had tried to organise strikes before the revolution and found it very difficult. But after the revolution last year they found “a series of spontaneous protests by teachers” breaking out.
“This was happening constantly but the numbers were not very large,” she remembers. “Then the numbers started building up from 200 to 300, then 500 and 1,000. By the end of August there was a big protest in front of the cabinet offices with 4,000 teachers.”
The union activists have been building their forces ever since, bringing together independent teachers’ groups to coordinate them and organise workers.
“We agreed we’d go for a strike at the beginning of the school year,” Hala said. “The strike was very big and succeeded in forcing the ministry to make promises to meet some of our demands. And most teachers thought that they would really do this.
“Of course it didn’t happen, so everything they had done to organise the strike hadn’t brought any results. So they were frustrated. Now we’re trying to regroup and mobilise ourselves again. We’re starting to agitate for a new strike at the beginning of the next school year.”
But not everything is onwards and upwards, she says, because the elections are having an impact on people’s ideas. “There’s a problem in that most teachers, like most people in Egypt, think that the election of a new president will solve the crisis,” she said.
“It as if he is going to wave a magic wand that solve everyone’s problems. Teachers are now saying, ‘If the new president comes in and we don’t get our rights, then we’ll join you’.”