… the simple fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is itself a major spur for change …
The last report for Il Manifesto by the 28-year-old journalist, Giulio Regeni, was the first published by the Italian newspaper and website under his real name. On Wednesday, 3 February, Regeni was brutally murdered in Egypt from where he reported on labour unrest and the activities of the independent trade union movement. The journalist, who was studying for a PhD at Cambridge university, disappeared in Egypt on 25 January, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of Egypt’s revolution.
According to reports, an autopsy carried out in Rome following the repatriation of Regeni’s body revealed signs of torture including broken bones, cigarette burns, bruising and stab wounds. There is widespread suspicion that he was killed by Egypt’s security forces who are thought to be responsible for the growing number of forced disappearances in the country. According to Mohamed Elmessiry, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, “National human rights groups are reporting an average of three people a day being forcibly disappeared across the country.”
The Egyptian authorities deny any involvement in Regeni’s death. “This is not Egyptian security policy; Egyptian security has never been accused of such a matter,” said Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, the country’s interior minister.
A letter signed by 4,600 academics from more than 90 countries across the globe says that Egyptian state instutions “routinely practise the same kinds of torture that Giulio is reported to have suffered against hundreds of Egyptian citizens each year”. The letter, published in the The Guardian on 8 February, calls for the Egyptian authorities to investigate Regeni’s case and “all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February 2016”.
We are publishing Regeni’s last report for Il Manifesto not just as a mark of respect but because it is a vital communication about the Egyptian trade union movement and the tragedy befalling the country and its people.
The last report
Union members in a crowded assembly hall lashed out against the Egyptian regime’s latest efforts to suppress workers
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presides over Egyptian Parliament with the highest number of police and military personnel in the history of the country, and Egypt ranks among the worst offenders with respect to press freedom. Yet independent trade unions are refusing to give up. The Center [sic] for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), a beacon of independent Egyptian trade unionism, has just held a vibrant meeting.
Although the largest room at the center has 100 seats, the meeting hall could not contain the number of activists who came from all over Egypt for an assembly that was extraordinary in the current context of the country. On the agenda was a recommendation from Sisi’s ministers for close cooperation between the government and the country’s only official union, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, with the explicit order to counter the role of independent trade unions and to further marginalize workers.
Although today the CTUWS is not representative of the complex galaxy of Egypt’s independent trade unionism, its summons was heard, perhaps unexpectedly, by a significant number of unions. By the end of the meeting, there were about 50 acronyms that signed on to the closing statement, representing various sectors from all over the country — from transportation to schools, from agriculture to the large informal sector, from Sinai to Upper Egypt, from the Delta to Alexandria to Cairo.
Movement in crisis
The government’s policy represents a further attack on workers’ rights and trade union freedoms, greatly restricted after the military coup of July 3, 2013, and so has been the catalyst of widespread discontent among workers. But until now, the unions have found it difficult to turn their frustration into concrete initiatives.
After the 2011 revolution, Egypt experienced a surprising expansion of political freedom. It saw the emergence of hundreds of new trade unions, a true movement, of which the CTUWS was among the main protagonists, through its support and training activities.
But over the past two years, repression and co-optation by the Sisi regime have seriously weakened these initiatives, so that the two major federations (the Egyptian Democratic Labor [sic] Congress and Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions) have not convened a general assembly since 2013.
Virtually every union acts only on its own, within its locale and industry. The need to unite and coordinate efforts, however, is deeply felt. That accounts for the great participation in the CTUWS meeting, as well as the many attendees who lamented the fragmentation of the movement and called for the need to work together, regardless of affiliation.
Comments from attendees came in by the dozen, concise, often passionate, and with a very pragmatic approach: The purpose was to decide together “what to do by tomorrow morning,” an appeal repeated like a mantra during the meeting, given the urgency of the moment and the need to draw up a short- and medium-term action plan.
Notable was the presence of a large number of women, whose actions were sometimes among the most appreciated and applauded by the predominantly male audience. The assembly concluded with a decision to form a committee, as representative as possible, to take charge of laying the groundwork for a national campaign on issues of labor and trade union freedom.
The idea is to organize a series of regional conferences that, every few months, would convene in a large national assembly and possibly a unified protest. (“In Tahrir!” offered some of those present, invoking the square which was the scene of the revolutionary period of 2011-2013 but for more than two years has been off limits to any form of protest).
The agenda seems very broad but includes an underlying objective to counter Law 18 of 2015, which has recently targeted public sector workers and has been strongly contested in the past few months.
Meanwhile, in recent days, in different regions of the country, from Asyut to Suez to the Delta, board workers in the textile, cement and construction industries, went on strike for as long as they could. Mostly their demands concern the extension of wage rights and indemnities to public companies.
New wave of strikes
These are benefits that workers have ceased to enjoy following the massive wave of privatizations during the last period of the Mubarak era. Many of these privatizations after the 2011 revolution have been brought before the courts, which have often nullified them, noting several cases of irregularities and corruption.
Strikes against the revocation of benefits are mostly unrelated to each other, and largely disconnected from the independent trade unions that met in Cairo. But still they represent a significant development, for at least two reasons: For one, albeit in a manner not entirely explicit, they challenge the heart of the neoliberal transformation of the country, which has undergone a major acceleration since 2004, and which the 2011 popular uprisings and their slogan, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice,” have substantially dented.
The other aspect is that in an authoritarian and repressive context under General Sisi, the simple fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is itself a major spur for change.
The unions’ defiance of the state of emergency and the regime’s appeals for stability and social order—justified by the “war on terrorism”—signifies, even if indirectly, a bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence and its repression of civil society.
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