What can Egyptian workers expect from a Muslim Brotherhood presidency?

By: Kristian Takvam Kindt, Fafo.

Bread, freedom and social justice cEish, horreyya wal-cadala l-igtimaciyya, were the first words to be shouted on the 25th of January. The slogan has been repeated after Mobarak left, especially by the independent labor movement which has grown rapidly since February 2011. To try and meet their demands and get their votes, all presidential candidates made promises of “social justice” and a better day for Egypt`s workers. With the election of Mohammed Morsi as president there has been widespread concern that he will not do enough to secure the rights of women and religious minorities. Here however, I ask: Can we expect him to be a guardian of workers’ rights? Trade union leaders I spoke to in Cairo early 2012, supported the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), hoping they would become a strong ally. Is this hope justified? Is Egypt`s current president ready to address the demands of the independent labor movement? What can the workers expect from a Muslim Brotherhood presidency?
The independent trade union movement has raised many demands following the revolution. Here I will focus on the two key issues that they all seem to agree on: Change in labor legislation and change in the neoliberal economic policy.
The most articulated demand from the trade union movement at the moment is a new law guaranteeing freedom of associations for unions. Over 250 independent trade unions have been established since February 2011, but before full freedom of association is guaranteed within the legal framework, it is very difficult for them to operate. They cannot get funding before being officially recognized, and they will not be treated as the legitimate representative of workers towards their employer or the state. As long as the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) still exists and has officially recognized unions, the effect of independent labor unionism will therefore be limited. Egypt has ratified ILO convention 87, giving freedom of association and thus freedom to create unions, but this is in name only. The Unified Labor Law of 2002 and Law 35 of 1977, trumps the ILO convention. These laws ensure that the ETUF is under state control, that strikes are forbidden without state approval, and it ensures that no independent unions can threaten their monopoly.[1]

On this issue, there is no reason to believe that Mohamed Morsi will be an ally of the workers. A new law, which guaranteed freedom of association for workers, was drafted by the former minister of Manpower and Migration Ahmad Hassan Al-Boraci. However, when parliament was shut down and Al-Boraci resigned with the rest of the cabinet in November 2011, the law was put on hold.[2] In Morsi`s presidential platform entitled Al-Nahda, ‘Iradata l-shacab or “Awakening is the will of the People”, he does not seem eager to to pick the draft by Al-Boraci up from the drawer. What he proposes is to do instead, is to amend the old Law 35 of 1977. The amendments are designed, in Morsi`s own words, to “create more freedom, and hinder fragmentation”.[3] He will create more freedom, by confirming that all workers have the right to establish unions. However, in order to “hinder fragmentation” only one union will be allowed per sector. This move, if approved, insures that the old state-controlled ETUF will survive and remain strong. What this means is that the new independent unions will not be legally recognized, because the old unions already exist. Instead of dissolving ETUF, which has been the demand of the workers, Mohammed Morsy seeks to strengthen it. Currently the independent unions are in what could best be described as a legal limbo, before the new constitution is drafted. But if this law is approved, it means that the independent unions will have to go back to organizing strikes and strike committees illegally, like they did up to the revolution in 2011. The ETUF will establish control once again, and the FJP has already started the process of putting their own people in all central positions.
In addition to not supporting the freedom of association law, Morsi has proposed to make all strikes illegal for one year, in the interest of economic development and social order. For the labor union movement, this would be a huge setback. If Morsy starts using the security forces against the strikes, he could be able squash the movement.  This move, in combination with the proposed legislation would go a long way in securing the FJPs control over the trade unions,.[4] and will in reality be nothing more than the Mubarak system with a face.

The second central demand of the independent trade union movement is a radical change away from the neo-liberal policies of Mubarak. Many have pointed to the effects of the IMF deal of 1991 as one of the main reasons for the increase in workers militancy the last decade. On the advice of IMF, Egypt established so-called Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) to attract foreign direct investments. In these sectors, wages are lower, working conditions worse, labor legislation is lax and hiring and firing is easy. Many workers employed inside these zones are also forced to sign letters of resignation before starting their job, as to minimize the job security and potential protest. In addition, job security was removed in the entire country on the advice of IMF in 2002, when employers were allowed to hire people on indefinite fixed-term contracts. A wave of privatization of private companies especially after 2004 have also led to much anger in some sectors, most notably textile. [5] To counter this neo-liberal trend, the independent labor unions demand the re-nationalization of privatized companies, an end to the fixed-term contract regime in addition to a minimum wage of 1200EP. Also in this case, Morsi and the FJP seem to be siding against the workers. In his platform Morsi does not mention the SEZs and QIZs specifically, but states that Egypt is to “enhance its competitive capability as a center for investments and business and increase its openness for investments”.[6] This points to that the FJP will continue the neoliberal policies of the Mubarak era. A point which is also confirmed by their legacy in the now dissolved parliament, where they sided with the neo-liberal line on several occasions[7]. The last move which confirmed this line of policy was the request of an increase of the MF loan to comprise of 4,8 billion dollars. [8]

The fact that Morsi is not an ally to the workers movement might seem at odds with the promises of social justice, and the vision of Islam as a religion which promotes solidarity with the poor. In reality however, it should not surprise anyone. The organization has never drawn its support from working class people, but has its main base among the lower middle class. Their original presidential candidate was Khayrat al-Shatir, one of Egypt`s richest businessmen, and the brotherhood grew in opposition to the Nasserism. While the MB ideology argues for social justice, inequality is not a problem in itself, as it is for the socialists. There is plenty of room for social stratification as long as the rich people are not corrupt and use their wealth in a good way.

In one of his first speeches after being elected Mohammed Morsi stated: “There is no room now for the language of confrontation.” His presidential platform is also full of phrases about our common future and that his policies are made for “every Egyptian”. Under closer scrutiny however, the new Egyptian “we” is not as inclusive as it might seem. For while his language may not be confrontational, the policies implicit in his statements certainly are. They do not confront the old doxa of the Egyptian elite, the business men and foreign investors on how development is achieved. It is however in direct opposition to the workers’ demands. Mubarak was removed, but the first slogan shouted on 25thof January, demanding freedom and social justice, still holds. The labor movement continues its fight, but it cannot count on the support of the FJP. They will have to look for new allies, or continue the fight alone.