While few noticed in the midst of an intense political crisis, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi issued another controversial decree recently: Decree no. 97 of 2012, introducing a few important amendments to Egypt's long-standing 1976 labor law. The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs. While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi's decree claiming unlimited Presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power.
The most controversial amendments include a provision to remove any Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) union board member who is over 60 years of age. The ETUF has been historically close to Egypt's rulers and most of its current top leadership is comprised of loyalists to the Mubarak regime. The current leadership was elected in 2006, a year that many activists claim was particularly marred with state intervention to prevent reformist candidates from running and ensure the success of loyalist candidates. According to the law, removed unionists would be replaced by candidates who had received the second largest number of votes in the last union elections (2006). Importantly, however, the law authorizes the highest authority (in this case the minister of manpower -- currently also a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled al-Azhari) to fill any remaining posts that could not be filled for whatever legal reason. Another amendment entails extending the current electoral term for ETUF leaders for an additional six months or until a new trade union law is enacted, whichever comes first.
These amendments raise two key questions: what implications does the content have for the future of state-labor relations in Egypt; and what is the significance of the timing of these amendments?
Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution gave the country's workers a golden opportunity to press their agenda. Workers played a key role in the wave of societal unrest that led to Hosni Mubarak's downfall, and after the long-time president's departure many restrictions on political organization and dissent were relaxed. But workers have not been able to seize that opportunity to cohesively advance their demands. Instead, fragmentation has emerged as the dominant feature of post-Mubarak labor politics. Egyptian workers have struggled to find their own voice as they navigate the legacy of state control over labor organizations and a complicated new political situation.
In the years preceding the revolution and in the lead-up to Mubarak's ousting, Egyptian workers demonstrated their willingness to pioneer new forms of collective action, take risks to engage in collective action, and push the boundaries of their relationship to the state. Workers have become even more emboldened in the post-Mubarak period. Egypt's political leadership will thus need to take workers' concerns seriously if it is to avoid continued social and political unrest. One of the key questions for Egypt's transition is precisely what system will be used to regulate workers' representation.
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When young Israeli professionals erected a tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in protest against the Netanyahu government's indifference to an affordable housing crisis in Israel, they self-consciously modeled their efforts on the popular revolutions commonly (if not uncontroversially) referred to as "the Arab Spring." Handmade signs reading "Rothschild, Corner of Tahrir" invited passersby to compare this "Israeli Spring" to the events in Cairo. Many have since done so.
Eight weeks after the tent cities in Israel went up, they are now coming down. Having organized what was thought to be the largest demonstration in Israeli history just over a week ago (approximately 400,000 people or 17 percent of the country's population took to the streets), the protest's leaders declared this phase of Israel's social protests to be over. This, despite the fact that the government made no concrete concessions to them. This fact alone should invite a reconsideration of the Israeli Spring in terms of its differences from the demonstrations in Cairo rather than its similarities. Central among these is the interaction between national-security threats and the preservation of unity within the ranks of the demonstrators. Protesters in the Arab Spring deflected their regimes' attempts to use the specter of war with Israel or Islamic radicalism as an excuse for deferring long-deferred democratic and parliamentary reforms. In an already intensely parliamentary Israel, quite a different deflection has been at work: the demand for "social justice" has been put forward in terms that attempt to deny the centrality of the Israel/Palestine conflict on the conditions the protestors would seek to change. At "Rothschild, corner of Tahrir," the protestors have posited social justice as somehow beyond politics as presently understood and practiced in Israel. Given the tendentiousness of the Palestinian question within Israel, it is only by virtue of this basic act of denial that the protests at this scale are at all possible.
CAIRO — Since June 12, half of the 18,000 workers who operate and service the Suez Canal have been on strike. They are employed in maritime services by seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority in Suez, Isma‘iliyya, and Port Said. In contrast, those employed directly by the canal authority have always received higher wages and better benefits. Long before January 25, 2011 subsidiary company workers raised the demand for parity, effectively a 40 percent wage increase.
Management of the subsidiary companies accepted this demand in April, an expression of the new possibilities of the post-January 25 era. But the interim government has maintained that wages and working conditions of public service workers are established by parliamentary legislation, and therefore, no changes can be made while the parliament is dissolved. The strike expresses workers' rejection of this logic.
Egyptian workers have achieved increased strength and self-confidence in the course of the revolutionary movement. This is expressed by the capacity to sustain a five-week-long strike in an industrial sector linked to the economically and strategically critical Suez Canal and by insisting that economic demands be met despite the absence of the legal framework established by the old regime. Labor unions continue to rebuff myriad accusations in the press and by some of the "revolutionary youth" that workers' economic demands are narrow "special interests" rather than "national interests." In this respect, workers share the achievement of all Egyptians who heeded the revolutionary call, "Lift your head high. You are an Egyptian" -- the recovery of their human dignity.
It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday's front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?
While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.
CAIRO — In the sprawling factories of El-Mahalla el-Kubra, a gritty, industrial town a few hours' drive north of Cairo, lies what many say is the heart of the Egyptian revolution. "This is our Sidi Bouzid," says Muhammad Marai, a labor activist, referring to the town in Tunisia where a frustrated street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the revolution there.
Indeed, the roots of the mass uprising that swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power lie in the central role this dust-swept company town played years ago in sparking workers' strikes and grassroots movements countrywide. And it is the symbolic core of the latest shift in the revolution: a wave of strikes meant to tackle social and economic inequities, which has brought parts of Egypt to a standstill.
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.
But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.
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SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — On the gray winter mornings at this out-of-the-way farm town on the scrubby brown steppes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara desert, you still see a few old farmers in hooded brown cloaks rolling to market on donkey carts. The occasional old woman, hunched against the cold, comes down the main road through town, tugging a camel.
But come about 9 a.m. in Sidi Bouzid -- where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi lived, burned himself to death, and launched at least one revolution in the Arab world so far -- the blue metal courtyard gates creak open on the squat stucco houses around where he used to live. Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings' emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid's main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.
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