Sunday, June 12, 2011

Labor Issues in Egypt seen through the lens of the revolution

These represent partial notes taken by me at a conference. The conference was called From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition? June 4-6, 2011. Oriental Hall, AUC Tahrir Square.

These notes were from a 12:00 a.m. panel called How to Understand the Current Uprisings: The Role of Labor and the Subaltern. The panel was in both English and Arabic. The speakers were Rabab El-Mahdi, the American University in Cairo, Saber Barakat, Labor Organizers-Land Center, May AbdelRazik, Popular Defense Committees.

Videos are available at, but many of the comments are in Arabic, so if you do not speak Arabic, you will have to rely on my notes regarding the translation, until you get someone to translate for you. 

Saber Barakat: Land Center

Until the 25th of January, the call came. It was a banking holiday, a police holiday, and a full paid leave day. Many workers came to Tahrir just to see what would happen. There is a tradition of labor organizers going into the streets with flowers and sweets. The riot police would chase us and kick us badly, and close off downtown Cairo.

We saw dissension in the ranks of the unions, particularly those affiliated with Al ikhwan. They would not go to Tahrir.

The hooligans, ultras [author's note: fanatic, somewhat violent football fans] came, unionist workers decided to strike back. The government made a fatal error of closing all its plants. The workers went to Tahrir en masse. The factories were closed from January 28th to February 6th.From the 6th of February to the 10th of February 280 locations of factories were on strike. Teachers, engineers, doctors were all on strike. This was the breaking point. On the 11th of February, the SCAF convinced the president to step down. SCAF asked the workers to stop striking, but the workers kept striking.

May AbdelRazik: Peoples' Defense Councils (Lagaan Shabaaya)

People started protecting their buildings. People thought people from poorer districts would invade them. This was a misconception. The risk was the bandits. People started to distribute walkie talkies. Some used knives or swords. Some people had firearms. It had a spontaneous beginning. It was a tactic to respond to lawlessness. From Saturday to Tuesday. The popular committees were sympathetic to the revolution. After Mubarak;s address, things took off. Another turn [occurred] after the Camel Raids.

So we did not have a standard behavior, The most common characteristic of this phase was common protection. Judge's were shoulder to shoulder with mechanics. The goal was to stop lawlessness. The old regime wanted to prevent the Revolution by unleashing lawlessness.

The people wanted to plug the gap and interpret the slogans from the Square. Live with integrity. People gathered to clean the square. Governing civil society. In the post Revolution period, the councils have tried to deal with the individualizing problems of each district. The lack of LNP gas pipes. Flour is stolen from community bakeries and re-channeled to make sweets and pastries. The social committees in some districts have stolen flour. People's behavior changes according to the district.

The Butane gas pipes. Some of the social committees were able to contract services from butane gas pipes. The social committees started to distribute the canisters. Also, social committees, there was an effort to coordinate the efforts of such committees. It is a nationwide request. We do not know about the continuity or future of such kinds of committees. We have to polarize and galvanize. We do not know if they will discontinue their contributions to their committees. Funding is a problem. Some committees are against any funding. Some want to publish bulletins. That publishing may take a little money.

The tails of the regime are fighting the committees. Municipalities and the NDP are fighting committees both tooth and nail. The municipalities file a report against those working in committees. Service can be hijacked by NDP members. The NDP has a lot of financial resources. Political experience is lacking in committees. How can they control the work of municipalities. However, the lack of experience can be a plus because there are no ties to the old regime.

End formal talk. [Question and Answer session to follow]

Questions from the Audience 

1) What is the future of defense committees? By the way, they cannot substitute for police.
2) It is not about economic incentives. The Egyptian people went to the street for a dream. It is not about labor strikes. The strike started with the Tunisian suicide of an unemployed university graduate.
3) You said something interesting in your speech. You said that the Palestinian uprising and Iraqi invasion could incite you to go to the street. What about your own life and local interests? Did they not incite you? Also, what is the role of the trade unions.
4) I am really happy with the community committees. In summer vacation, the youth could work in the community committees (lagaan shabaaya). As a worker, my main conviction is working. Why don't the tails of the former regime withdraw themselves?

Answers to Audience Questions


Well, before trade union membership was obligatory. It was mandated by the government. Not all members of trade unions were there voluntarily. The subscription to trade unions were used by Egypt for their membership in the ILP. Why did the workers demonstrate? Some big protests occurred. There were more than 6000 protests by labor unions. Some protests were made about the rigged parliamentary elections. In addition, the public budget was usually followed by worker demonstrations. I remember there were several aviation stikes. The strike about the Iraqi invasion had a large contingent of workers. During the revolution, one motto was "freedom, integrity and social justice." Social justice was for the workers.

May Abdel Razik

We are not trying to come up with alternatives for the police. When the community committees were formed, it was force majeure. [What we want is inspection. The community committees should help enhance the accountability of the police] We need a police force, but we also need supervision. Concerning the students, we are trying to expand our services.

Question: How was the proletariat affected by the closure of the plants. On facebook, there is not enough public coverage of the people's defense counsels. People need to know how to join in and join the PDC.
Question: It is easy to play a positive role when there is consensus. There have always been community committees in rural areas. What about the informal workers?
Question:  The other problem is the establishment of independent trade unions.

Rabab El-Mahdi: 

Lumpen, are those who have access to the center of the empire. Does not include all workers.


What is the labor movement and the syndicates? In the last few months, labor has been in good heath. Trade unions since the 1950s were formulated at gunpoint by the regime. I have been prevented for 12 years from joining a labor union. They say I am instigating laborers to ask for their rights! I have filed many lawsuits. I was running against one of the candidates closely connected to the Prime Minister. He was able to disqualify me 12 times. I went to prison for running against regime candidates. This is autocracy. The people are like a baby who has not been weaned.

Maya AbdelRazik: 

The mandate of the PDC is not an anomoly of residential areas. Legitimacy comes from the neighborhood. We do not want institutionalization. We do not want to be supervised by the government. We do not have bureaucratic procedures. PDC is trying to go against the hierarchical structures. This is a teamwork task force. This is a kind of democratic procedure trying as much as possible to make committees a supervisory or regulatory force. You can be illiterate, but have high political awareness. It is your right. 

[End Panel]


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As-Salaam-Alaikum, I pray that you are doing well and safe. I lived in Egypt from March 2009 up through Feb. 2011. I wanted to ask you if you've experienced any problems there. What I mean-if your husband, I'm not sure if he is a Black Kenyan, as I'm aware that Kenya has some whites and some Indians. I'm a Black American-dark skinned,so I experience-definitely experienced racism in Egypt, at times, it was way over the top. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed living there, but its a serious issue, its something that is routinely denied "oh, in Islam we don't have this." And as an American Muslim, I'd reply, "yeah, but the practice of the religion is only as perfect as the people in it-the religion has no racism, but there are sure some racist people who claim to be part of the religion." In the last days there-it got ridicolous. You know-the questions of-seeing my ID-which clearly says "born in the U.S."-as opposed to this ignorance, that the Black people in America just came over yesterday-versus the knowledge that the overwhelming and vast majority of Black people in America have been there 300-500 years-before the country was a country-before there were 13 colonies. Yet the impression is that you are just some immigrant who came to America, versus a descendant of the ones who built the country for free. I would get stopped at a checkpoint-show my passport copy-go 20 meters further to a man who just saw me show it to his colleague-only to be stopped again-it was absolutely insane in the end. Hopefully you and your husband have not had to endure those sort of problems.

  3. Well, I personally have not experienced problems, but darker skinned people definitely do. And when I am with them, I definitely experience problems. Like one time we were in a hotel and nobody would give us directions. Finally, we got directions from a Nubian brother.

    Thanks for writing in.