30 April, 2009

Kamal abu Eita: How we built the free union

On the occasion of Labour Day I've attempted to do a rough translation of the first half of an article by Kamal abu Eita (shown in the picture above during one of the protests held by the real estate tax collectors back in november 2007), head of the RETA union, that was published in The Socialist.
I left out some parts and simplified orthers, and the translation probably contains mistakes (bear in mind that besides the many pitfalls of the arabic language, I'm also translating into another foreign language). I'm sure someone will produce a better translation of the entire article at some point, but meanwhile I hope this will still give non-arabic speaking readers access to an important piece of the background to the creation of Egypt's first independent union since 1957.

I think this article is significant because it illustrates the final abandonment of the dream of reforming the state-controlled union confederation by low-level unionists. In this article, Kamal abu Eita is expressing an attitude that is becoming more and more widespread as privatization and liberalization of the economy makes the state controlled union less and less relevant.

By the way, I also recommend reading the posting by Baheyya from january last year about Kamal abu Eita and the tax collectors strike.

The free union - how did we build it?
Kamal abu Eita
15 April 2009
Published in: "The Socialist"

The first time i participated in a discussion about independent unions, and about the idea of pluralism, was at a conference organized by the Al-Tagammu party - back in the days when Al-Tagammu was really "united" - when one of the veteran unionists, Atiyah Al-Sirafi, explanined the idea. This was almost 25 years ago, and I wasn't convinced by the idea since by that time I was influenced by the idea of a single unified trade union federation - an idea connected with socialist thought in general, and Nasserism in particular.


In the middle of the seventies we lived in a dream that was impossible to realize: To transform the Socialist Union from within and stopping the advance of the right within it, as the right was advancing towards control over the sites of power and resources in Egypt, with the support of the regime of Anwar Al-Sadat who laid the first brick to the wall of corruption when he issued Law 43 of 1974, the law of foreign investment. This was the beginning of the economic Infitah ("opening") which brough Egypt to this state of corruption, tyrrany and organized plundering.

The discussion which started a quarter of a century ago never stopped. 'Atiyah Al-Sirafi continued his calls for a conference of Egyptian workers to form a union independent from the state, which continued to withdraw from it's historical role to protect the interests of working people and left them to be plundered by the forces of the market.


The influence of working people on decision making was reduced, as was their representation in the political organizations, and on the company boards. Against this background I started to believe in the idea of Atiyah Al-Sirafi. The discussion about his idea moved from the circles of the Tagammu party to the "national committé to support the rights of workers," led by Ahmed Sharaf al-Din, where the idea took root.

In this way my position changed from defense of a single union federation into defending the freedom to organize. And I was pushed in this direction by the happiness i felt during my union work, within the official union, that had withdrawn completely from it's role in protecting it's members and become devoted to writing thank you telegrams to officials and employers. It neglected the workers completely, and had become and organization swarming with half-men, half-women, the worst of whom were the eunuch leaders who weren't much much better than any part of the state bureaucracy - but rather the opposite: within the state bureaucracy i encountered women who were a thousand times more honorable than the union leaders.

The union federation became a foundation of corruption, devoted to corruption, defending it and propagating it. At the successive general assemblies I heard more speeches justifying privatization than I heard from the businessmen. And those benefiting from the privatization was selling the resources of the Egyptian people for close to nothing in front of the eyes of the official unions. So the workers left the factories to join the ranks of the unemployed or to sell brushed or combs in the streets or on the buses. The regime succeeded, with encouragement from the official unions, in turning the labour force into homeless vagrants, or in the best case vendors of trivial goods.

I remember how I and the union activist Faiz al-Kartah, when we were writing the program of the Karama party in 1997, insisted on including the principle of the freedom to form labour unions and professional syndicates - and I admitt that many of our brothers didn't realize then how important this step was.

But this line written in the program of the Karama party couldn't be realized simply being written down. I spent 20 years with my colleagues working within the official union, being elected as head of my union committé. I was trying, by working within the official union, to realize the demands of my colleagues within the real estate tax authority - but always in vain.

In 1999 we tried, through the general union, to pressure for an incentive that had been decided by the prime minister. The head of the union took our demands and wrote a letter to the officials, who replied by saying we didn't have any right to that incentive. So what could the union head do, other than writing on the cover of the union magazine - that was being published for our membership fees - a headline that repeated that we didn't have this right? That's all the effort he did.


After that me and my colleagues from the local union committees gathered and decided to hold a meeting at the general union. Faruq Shehata, the head of the union, called security and threw us out. But we continued our struggle, untill one day we held a protest outside the People's Assembly and a delegation from us met a delegation from the speaker. Then we went to Mohi el-Din el-Gharib, who was finance minister at that time, and he gave in to our demands.

This victory demonstrated the failure of the official union, who had betrayed us and was defending the employers. But after this we relaxed, and remained sleeping for almost ten years without cutting our relations the official union.

Then came the new movements that brought life back to Egypt, and the strike in Mahalla, and the new wave of price increases, which all reminded us of our old victory. We started calling each other and meeting in cafés, homes and workplaces. We became organized, so the union attacked us with a flood of statements and lies, pressuring the workers not to have anything to do with the "professional agitators and troublemakers," as they called us, in addition to informing security about us.


If I can find the time I'll post more later. But the rest, as they say, is history: from the 11-day strike and sit in outside the cabinet, to the official establishment of Egypt's first independent union on 20 December 2008 and the acceptance of the RETA union into the international federation of public servants.

Crisis management, Egypt style

Much can be said about the row about the pig flu and mass slaughter of pigs. I just want to say this: it is a prime example of how important decisions are taken and implemented in Egypt, amidst a disastrous interaction of authoritarian rule and sensationalist media.

As I approached the garbage-collectors settlement and pig farms in Ezbet el-Nakhl yesterday, I encountered a police checkpoint where I was stopped by an officer in plain clothes, who called a superior before finally allowing me to pass (but with strict orders not to take pictures of the pigs - uhm, sorry... police). While the officer was busy checking my papers, a group of journalists and photographers took the opportunity to simply walk by, after apparently being held up for some time at the check point. Very efficient.

In one of the small streets a crowd had assembled, chanting angry slogans in front of a TV-crew. The cameramen didn't chose the location randomly however. Instead, they directed the crowd so as to be able to capture the small church in the background, thus emphasizing the religious identity of the pig farmers - as if this wasn't obvious enough to everyone anyway.

Actually, no one I spoke to brought up this issue or portrayed the decision to slaughter the pigs as an attack on christians as a religious group. Instead, one of them offered another theory concerning the motives: "This is nothing new. Some people have been propagating against the pig farms for a long time. The reason is that there is influential people who want our land, to build expensive appartments. They take this opportunity to get rid of us once and for all."

One of the farmers even refered to the UN to support his view that there was no need for slaughtering his pigs. Another pointed out that this measure had not been taken even in countries were people died because of the virus.

I'm not a health expert, but two things seems clear to me: 1) it's not totally unreasonable to regard the pig farms and the sanitary conditions in these settlements as a long-term threat to public health - but as such it's just one among many others that Egyptian citizens are exposed to. 2) there is absolutely no connection between the mass slaughter of pigs and preventing the on-going spread of the "pig flu." Conclusion: whatever measures are taken they should be based on a careful consideration of facts and long term sustainability.

This, however, is something that just won't happen in Egypt. Instead, whoever who screams loudest will win in the end. The zabaleen and pig farmers in Ezbet el-Nakhl are fully aware of this, which is why the willingly take part in those "spontaneous" protests in front of the TV-crews, that end as soon as the cameras are turned off. It's easy to be cynical and say they are being used by sensationalist media - but they are in fact acting rationally, since this is their only way of communicating with the people in power.

Finally: During a "health crisis" like this, you would except officials from the health ministry to actually be present on the ground and talk to the affected people. Instead, the only representatives of the state most of them have met recently is members of the security bodies. As they tried to go on their usual garbage-collecting rounds yesterday morning, many were stopped by police who simply said it was mamnou3, forbidden.

I do not condone incitement of hatred towards pigs... :)

This pig hysteria is really getting out of control. I usually try my best not do get involved in debates in the blogosphere, but I don't know how to feel about this: Egyptian blogger Zeinobia (whose postings I often find interesting) used one of my pics to illustrate her incitement of hatred towards Egypt's pigs. I just have one comment to her posting: The ultimate source of that "awfull smell" you feel when you drive on the mehwar to the 6th of October city in your AC-equipped car is not the pigs, but your garbage... The pig farms surely aren't sanitary and in the long run something should be done about this, but they are also performing an essential service for many of the more affluent inhabitants of Cairo. In my humble opinion, what is needed is sustainable solutions to a broad range of interconnected health- and sanitary issues, not stupid slogans like "Kill 'em all" that doesn't really solve anything.

29 April, 2009

Pig Paranoia

Click the pic for a set on flickr from Ezbet el-Nakhl, were pig farmers and garbage collectors were in an uproar today over the government's decision to kill all pigs over the "pig flu pandemic." The decision was called "unfortunate" by a UN health expert as the pig flu is now transmitted from human to human and has nothing to do with pigs. I'll post more about this tomorrow.

28 April, 2009

"Do we really want to change America into Sweden?"

This is hilarious: Some right-wing pundits is apparently warning that Obama is introducing "socialism" and turning America into... North Korea? Cuba? No - Sweden! Oh dear god! In the clip below Jon Stewart is making fun of it, and the Daily Show even sent a reporter all the way to Stockholm to investigate. It's largely based on stereotypes about Swedish women (as 99% of all Sweden-related humor in the states), but funny anyway. And ironically, some left-wing critics are accusing the current Swedish right-wing government of cutting back welfare, increasing inequality, allowing poverty to rise unchecked - thus making Sweden more like the US...

Royal Torture

Just as the UAE is boosting it imports of military hardware from the US (making this country with a population of less than 5 million the third largest importer of arms after China and India), ABC News published a video showing brutal torture that took place in UAE in October or November 2004. This is really disturbing stuff, making most of the torture videos that surfaced in Egypt in recent years look like kids' play. And here's the best part: the main perpetrator is a member of the royal family! The interior ministry on the other hand "did not characterize the abuse in question as torture, but simply as an assault that the parties subsequently settled 'privately,'" according to a statement from HRW.

Two predictions: 1) The royal sheikh in question will not be prosecuted. 2) This affair will not significantly affect the relationship between this US-allied regime and its' friends in Washington.

27 April, 2009

Doctors to protest tomorrow

The Doctors Syndicate has called for protests in public hospitals in several governorates tomorrow, Tuesday, as well as a demonstration outside the People's Assembly in Downtown Cairo, in order to pressure the government to fulfill earlier financial promises. The "Doctors without rights" movement said their members will also join the protests. Two weeks ago a similar protest outside the People's Assembly was thwarted by security forces.

22 April, 2009

Fishermen jailed by military court

Clashes took place between demonstrators and police in Ismailiya today, after a military court sentenced 3 fishermen to one year in prison this morning, Tadamon reports. The three men - Nasser Sa'ad Sadiq (33 years), Magdi Mohamed Ali (23 years) and Ahmed Mohamed Ali (28 years) - were arrested 12 days ago for wearing diving equipment in the canal zone. Two days ago they were ordered released by the prosecutor, only to be immediately arrested by the military police and transfered to a military court. After the sentence this morning, about 500 people blocked a street and agreed to leave only after they were promised negotiations about cancelling the verdicts...

During a meeting organized by activists from Tadamon in Borolos two days ago, on the occasion of Sham el-Naseem, fishermen from Fayyoum, Ismailiyya and Borolos met to talk about their problems and to exchange experiences. (Click the pic above for a set on flickr - I must say it would be nice if all these meetings could take place in such a nice environment, except of course for the 2x4 hours bus ride from Cairo). The meeting was a first step in a campaign aiming to connect fishermen and grassroots organizations working to suport them in different parts of Egypt.

During the meeting, fishermen from Ismailiyya complained about three main problems: recent hikes in the yearly license fees, refusal of ship owners to pay compensation for oil spills in the Suez canal, and the ban on fishing in the canal during the passage of warships and military transports - which according to the fishermen has had a severe impact on their income since the start of the US war against Iraq. They also complained about abuse and threats from the police and security forces, as a response to their attempts to organize around their demands.

09 April, 2009

Labour discontent continues

Some news updates: According to Al Youm Al Sab3, employees at the Workers University in Assiut went on strike on Wednesday, protesting cuts in incentives and compensations during the past 9 months. The same paper reported yesterday about complaints among workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla about low wages. An activist in the factory also accused the local union and the general union of textile workers of ignoring their demands, and threatened to stage protests if their demands are not met, organizing independently of the union (To be honest I'm not sure why any of that would qualify as "news"...) Meanwhile, the government launched a 325 million LE program to help the private and state-owned textile industry face the global depression, according to el-Badeel - possibly in response to the wave of labour discontent in this sector during the past months.

06 April, 2009

"Day of anger" in pics

I don't have much to add about today's events (here is an AP report and here is Sarah Carr's report in The Daily News), so I'm just posting some pics that kind of sums up the day.

1) Some of the participans in the small but loud anti-Mubarak protest outside the press syndicate:

2) The media and Ayman Nour - a love story? (Ooops, just watching 'ashara masa'an on Dream 2 and the main story today seem to be the alleged divorce between Nour and his wife...):

3) Plainclothes police/thugs outside the state council, keeping the situation under control:

4) Central security was out in full force, sometimes falling asleep on their posts:

05 April, 2009

Armed security men harass Mahalla labour center

4 armed men claiming to be from state security visited the Afaq socialist center in Mahalla on Thursday, asking for it's director Hamdi Hussein, a former worker and labour activist at Misr Spinning and Weaving. They waited for hours outside the center before leaving, as Hamdi was alerted on phone and did not show up. According to blogger Kareem el-Beheiry, activists in Mahalla have been put under surveillance ahead of 6 April.

04 April, 2009

Crackdown on 6 April solidarity protest

Reuters: At least 18 activists were beaten and detained today as they attempted to organize a solidarity protest with the detained students in Kafr el-Sheikh. 7 journalists and lawyers were also detained during the event.

03 April, 2009

Court cancels transfer of Mahalla union activists

A court in Mahalla has cancelled the arbitrary transfer decrees issued by the management of Misr Spining and Weaving against labour activists Mohammed el-Attar and Wedad el-Demerdash, el-Badeel reports. Five workers were transfered with reduced salaries after taking part in a anti-privatization protest at the company on 30 October last year.

02 April, 2009

Students detained for distributing flyers for 6 april strike

According to a statement from the "6 april youth" two female students at Kafr el-Sheikh University was detained by guards on campus, and handed over to state security, after distributing flyers with the 6 april strike statement to students.