While Western and Egyptian media have been preoccupied in recent years with small demonstrations in downtown Cairo protesting the widely-held belief that President Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal for the presidency, they have missed the bigger story: a rising labor force has become the country’s most effective political force. Since the massive strikes of 27,000 Ghazel el-Mahalla Textile Company workers in 2006 and 2007, Egyptian workers have started to shift their demands from strictly economic—salaries, bonuses, and industrial safety—to the more political question of re-configuring their relation to the state.

For half a century, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Unions Federation (ETUF) has monopolized workers’ representation. The Ghazel el-Mahalla workers called for dissolving their factory’s union committee, which they deemed “undemocratic and unrepresentative.”

In December 2008, real estate tax collectors took the further step of establishing Egypt’s first independent trade union since 1957. This announcement came a year after thousands of property tax collectors staged an  eleven day sit-in outside the Finance Ministry in downtown Cairo demanding a raise in their salaries. Although the General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees (part of the EFTU) opposed the strike, the government eventually conceded to the demands of real estate tax employees and tripled their salaries. 

Following this success, workers in several industrial and service sectors have been exploring establishing their own free unions to address their deteriorating economic conditions. These include the Public Transport Authority drivers and fare-collectors, school teachers, university professors, Education Ministry administrators, postal workers, and pensioners.

The nearly 1600 incidents of labor protest in Egypt since 2004 should be understood in the context of the neoliberal economic reforms by the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, perceived by many workers and civil servants as a deliberate strategy to redefine the social contract in place since the 1952 military coup. The old state discourse of “workers and peasants” has gradually given way to the new category of “businessmen,” some of whom appeared as members of Nazif’s cabinet.

Amid rising inflation related to reforms, hundreds of independent and opposition candidates were disqualified in the 2006 ETUF elections, contributing to workers’ sense of outrage. “The outcome of the elections made the newly elected EFTU a mere extension of the National Democratic Party-backed businessmen government,” according to Kamal Abu Eita, the president of the Independent Real Estate Tax Collectors Union.

Neutralizing the state’s political and security apparatuses has been the key political tactic of the labor movement in Egypt. Although the regime has occasionally depended on its traditional mechanisms of cracking down on workers via arrest, intimidation, or suspension from work, it has nevertheless tolerated labor protests to an extent not seen in its treatment of either the Muslim Brotherhood or the smaller secular Kifaya Movement and al-Ghad Party. The regime most likely recognizes that cracking down on workers inside factories could be extremely costly in human and financial terms.         

Egyptian authorities probably also are aware that labor leaders have deliberately stayed aloof from political parties. Leaders of property tax employees, for example, unanimously agreed not to participate in a general strike organized by a group of Facebook activists to commemorate the first anniversary of the April 6, 2008 strike in the northern town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra. And unlike demonstrations organized by Kifaya and its sister change movements (which usually target President Hosni Mubarak and elements of his regime), Egyptian workers tend to appeal to Mubarak to step in personally to resolve their grievances.

The state’s approach to the newly established independent Real Estate Tax Collectors Union (RETCU) will be an important signal of where labor-government relations are going. The RETCU applied for legal status in April 2009, but Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady has still not officially recognized the union. Legalizing the RETCU would not only shield it against state intervention, but would also allow the union to open bank accounts through which membership fees can be collected.

Meanwhile, the government-controlled ETFU is at work trying to strangle the new union in its cradle. ETUF President Hussein Megawar decided in September to form a special committee, for example, to consider establishing a new union for all Finance Ministry employees, including the property tax collectors. Megawar’s plan is aimed at de-legitimizing the RETCU, as there are laws against multiple trade union memberships.  

Whatever happens to the RETCU, labor is likely to continue to rise as a force within Egypt. Plans to speed up privatization of government-owned industries, the likelihood that unemployment and inflation will remain high and economic growth modest, and the atmosphere of political ambiguity that dominates Egypt ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2010 and 2011 suggest that the anger of Egyptian workers and the organization of protests is far from over. 

Saif Nasrawi is a  journalist and political sociology researcher based in Cairo, whose writings address democracy, social movements, and the politics of identity in Egypt and Iraq.