Unions in the Crossfire in Egypt

egypt_groupNew Orleans     From Jump Street let me concede that I find the current coup and counterrevolution in Egypt confusing and contradictory.   The hope of the Arab Spring has eroded over the last two years.   The Organizer’s Forum visited Cairo then, and as exhilarating as many of the meetings were, we could already feel the people’s revolution slipping away during the campaign for the first freely elected president.   Thanks to the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood and its national presence, their candidate Morsi took office, but his unbending style polarized the country even more, laying the ground for the military coup to push him out of office and more recently to brutally suppress demonstrations against their action with blood.   Though much of this has been cast as a fight between secularists and religionists for control of the heart and soul of the country, the actions around unions indicate that they are also in the crossfire of the military, despite in some cases their support for the coup.

            The largely unwritten story we found in Cairo was the critical role of labor in pushing Mubarak out and supporting the actions in the square with widespread strikes and work stoppages largely led by independent unions and workers in defiance of the state approved labor structure.  After the fall of Mubarak there was widespread dissatisfaction that the military supported pre-election puppet government was continuing to maintain the unrepresented and corrupt labor status quo.  The new constitution developed by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood affiliated majority did nothing to assuage the concerns of activists and labor leaders hoping to build and replace the labor apparatus with an independent and autonomous worker centered structure.   Perhaps the most outstanding group we met in Egypt was the leaders of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.  In fact the Center’s primary leader was even arrested by the post-revolution government on bogus charges.  Importantly, their first email after the recent military coup was adamant and full-throated support of the military and its eviction of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

            News now indicates that the military is targeting leadership of worker led strikes around Cairo and David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported that some strike leaders were arrested on the pretext of having beards and therefore accused of instigating the strike which had been over wages and declining living standards, claiming instead that they were tools of the Brotherhood, which was denied by all.  In the middle of a mess, this is a worrisome sign for any hopes of the return of democratic prospects or a vibrant labor movement that is so essential in any democratic society.

            While fearing the worse, another message arrives from the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services critiquing the constitution now being formulated by the military’s caretaker government as containing “steps forward” and “steps backward.”  The Center applauds the guarantees in the new formulation of social insurance, an end to child and forced labor, and other provisions, but notes that the right to strike is still not fully protected and that no worker or union representatives are included in the 50-person council that has been appointed to review the latest draft of the constitution.

            The Center’s applause of only several weeks ago now seems to be one hand clapping.   If there is trouble for workers and their organizations in Egypt, as now seems increasingly the case, this is not a situation where, as Secretary of State John Kerry has argued, we need to believe the military that democracy is again on the horizon, nor should conservatives feel comfort that they should swallow this pill now as a pushback against religious extremism, rather than a wider and deeper effort by the military to silence any and all voices and reassert controls over all of the political and economic life of the country, not just the national security.   They are coming after the unions, and that means that this counter-revolution will be devastating to Egypt, its people, and therefore the rest of us who value freedom as well.

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Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!

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