Egypt’s Unfinished Labor Revolution

Eric Lee

Egyptian labor leader Kamal Abbas

More than 20 years before the fall of the Mubarak regime, some Egyptians were already in revolt. In 1989, 17,000 steel workers in Helwan staged an illegal” strike. One of the young rebels, Kamal Abbas, a welder at a large steelworks south of Cairo, was arrested as a ringleader and jailed for 45 days.

Thanks to the strike, the workers in Helwan eventually saw pay increases. For Abbas, it was the beginning of a long career leading workers in struggles against the official state unions controlled by the Mubarak regime. Abbas headed the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), founded just after that strike, which for years maintained a precarious existence – sometimes tolerated, sometimes banned by the government.

During that two decade struggle, Abbas and the CTUWS were a thorn in the side of the state-controlled unions, which fall under the umbrella of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). As the Mubarak government pursued its neoliberal agenda of privatizations, the ETUF’s role was to discipline the workforce to ensure industrial peace during a time of change. (Later, when the Mubarak regime was tottering, it was the ETUF’s thugs that Mubarak supporters called in to Tahrir Square to try to break up the protests.)

In 2010, Abbas and the CTUWS were recognized by the AFL-CIO and given the organization’s prestigious annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award at a ceremony in Cairo. I attended the event, one of a few international guests at a CTUWS conference that we were warned could be broken up at any moment by the police. It was a time of increasing labor unrest in Egypt, involving not only strikes in giant, sprawling factories but also huge street protests and sit-ins.

The collapse of the Mubarak regime in 2011 did not bring an end to the ETUF. Among other things, its leaders continued to go on expensive overseas junkets, including participating in the annual International Labor Conference in Geneva.

Abbas, too, attended the Geneva conference, as the invited guest of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). When Ismael Fahmy, a Mubarak loyalist still holding down a job as an ETUF leader, came onstage to give an address, Abbas heckled him from the crowd.

It was a minor incident, hardly worthy of note, except that several months later a court in Cairo convicted Abbas in absentia of insulting a public officer.” Abbas was sentenced to six months in prison. He is currently free as his lawyers appeal the decision.

The case of Kamal Abbas tells us much about what has been happening in Egypt – and what needs to happen next.

When I interviewed Abbas in London last year, he said, The Egyptian revolution succeeded in removing the dictatorship, but we are only halfway to a democratic state and in transition to building independent unions, which are a basis of a more socially just and democratic system.”

Independent, democratic trade unions, free of state control, are at the heart of Abbas’ vision for Egypt, and this remains as true today as it was under the Mubarak regime. The international trade union movement understands this. Earlier this year, the ITUC launched a global campaign demanding an end to the persecution of Abbas, run through the LabourStart website (which I edit).

Meanwhile, the courts continue to delay ruling on Abbas’ appeal.

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Eric Lee is the founding editor of Labour Start, the global labor news site.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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