An edited version of this article appears in In These Times.
More than twenty years before the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian workers were in revolt. One of the young rebels, Kamal Abbas, a welder at a large steelworks south of Cairo, was arrested as a ringleader of an “illegal” strike involving 17,000 workers. It was the beginning of a long career leading workers in struggles that finally ended with Mubarak’s departure from power.
Abbas headed up 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 regime.
By 2010, Abbas and the CTUWS were recognized by the AFL-CIO and given their Meany-Kirkland 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.
During that twenty-year-long struggle, Abbas and the CTUWS were a thorn in the side of the official, state-controlled unions, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). As rthe Mubarak government pursued its neo-liberal agenda of privatizations, the ETUF’s role was to discipline the workforce, to ensure industrial peace during a time of change. When the Mubarak regime was tottering, the ETUF brought in its thugs to Tahrir Square to try to break up the protests.
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.
In 2011, Ismael Fahmy, a Mubarak loyalist still holding down a job as an ETUF leader, was addressing the conference when he was heckled by Abbas — who was attending as the invited guest of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
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, but 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 that “the Egyptian revolution succeeded in removing the dictatorship — but we are only half-way 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 has understood this, and the ITUC launched an international campaign demanding an end to the persecution of Abbas earlier this year, run through the LabourStart website.
Meanwhile, the courts continue to delay ruling on his appeal, and the case continues.