First of all, Egypt and Tunisia are very different, because in Egypt the Egyptian Trade Union Federation was created by the state in 1957, five years after the military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power . Nasser had hitherto refused to authorize a national trade union federation. From that time until today, the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions has effectively been an arm of the state apparatus.
Therefore, all but one or two of the strikes that have occurred in Egypt since the late 1990s have been wildcat strikes in Anglo-American terms, i.e. they were all organized locally in the workplace by directions that had emerged. in various struggles. This was very encouraging, because it meant that there was a huge movement of workers’ struggle organized locally and democratically. More than 2,700 strikes were recorded in Egypt from 2004 until the overthrow of the [Hosni] Mubarak. This is on top of an already very high strike rate since the late 1990s.
After the overthrow of Mubarak, the rate of strikes skyrocketed and it seemed very impressive that there was a large-scale social movement of workers on the move. During the uprising itself, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions was organized, that is, a trade union federation that was not linked to the state or to the existing Egyptian Trade Union Federation.
All of this was almost completely repressed following the military coup of July 3, 2013, which finally installed the head of the armed forces, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in power. He is now President of Egypt. There was a wave of strikes in the six months after Sisi came to power. But due to censorship, there has been virtually no news of labor activity in Egypt since late 2015.
Looking at everything that has happened in Egypt over the past fifteen years, what we see is a very impressive social movement of workers from below, which seemed to have a lot of democratic and even revolutionary potential, which was completely repressed. It has to do with the incapacity of the workers – and it’s not a fault of “deception” or anything like that; the circumstances were very, very difficult to coordinate beyond a single workplace.
For example, efforts were made to set up a coordination committee for the ten textile factories in the Nile Delta, and this simply could not be done. Workers had one day off a week, travel was difficult, expensive and inconvenient. People were going to be watched by the Homeland Security apparatus. It was simply too big a task. This is where we are now in Egypt.
Tunisia is a very different story because the national trade union federation, known by its French acronym, UGTT, was created a decade before Tunisia’s independence in 1956. It was the main social base of the main independence party. Its scope was severely limited by [Habib] Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, when he took on a more autocratic leadership, and eventually even more by his successor Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011.
But the union has always been there and always legal. He always struggled with shop floor issues, wages, working conditions, etc. He had enormous legitimacy when the national uprising began in Tunisia.
The leadership of the UGTT had for years been completely co-opted by the regime. At first, the national leadership of the union simply called on the security forces to be a little less violent in repressing the movement. But below the national management, the regional and sectoral managements fully supported the movement.
They opened their offices to protesters. They helped them make banners and placards and gave them logistical advice, and eventually the UGTT provided the kind of alternative national organizational and logistical framework for the uprising that did not exist in Egypt. When [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, the autocratic president, was ousted in January, three members of the UGTT were appointed ministers in a new transitional cabinet.
Then there was an objection from the social movement that ousted Ben Ali that some members of that cabinet were senior officials from the previous ruling party. UGTT members resigned, and they did so twice. The trade union federation as a national bloc had a lot of influence in the early post-Ben Ali era.
Ultimately, it was the UGTT that insisted that the deadlock in the constitutional congress set up to draft a new constitution for Tunisia be broken. They united with the bar, the employers’ association and the Tunisian Human Rights League and asked the political parties to come to an agreement – and they did.
Consequently, Tunisia has, at least in theory, the most democratic constitution in the Arab world. It says nothing about the validity of Sharia in Tunisia. He says men and women have equal rights. Of course, many elements of the constitution are not fully implemented in practice, as is often the case. But it is nevertheless an important achievement.
The UGTT and, more importantly, its constituent unions, especially unions like the primary and secondary teachers’ unions, have been quite militant in the years since Ben Ali’s ousting in the 2011 economic crisis. The government simply does not have enough money to complete the current budget year. She is negotiating a second time with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new loan.
The IMF will seek to impose, as it always does, conditions that will limit public spending, which means wage freezes for public sector workers, who still make up a sizable proportion of the wage labor force. The third government of this year was recently installed and the UGTT is in the process of negotiating with this government, which will probably resolve these negotiations with a modest increase in wages for at least some workers.
This is important because inflation is currently running at 17% per year, but there is no fundamental change in direction. This means that the UGTT will become complicit in any neoliberal measures that the Tunisian government will be forced to accept in exchange for another IMF loan.
So things aren’t going very well in Tunisia either, but it’s still much, much better than in Egypt, because, despite all its problems, the UGTT exists. It has a certain autonomy in relation to the regime. It enjoys a very high profile with the public, which dates back to the role it played in the national movement in the 1940s and early 1950s. There is an organizational framework on which to build future activities.