Monthly Archives: September 2011

Egyptian Presidential Candidates Offer Surprising Perspectives

Dr. Fatouh making a point as his campaign manager listens  during our meeting

Dr. Fatouh making a point as his campaign manager listens during our meeting

Cairo        In an amazing development I had to split the Organizers’ Forum delegation into two tracks, one political and the other labor, to accommodate the packed schedule of high level meetings.  On the political side the confluence of Ahmed Rehab’s experience in Tahrir Square and contacts he made there and the novelty of an open minded delegation of visitors from North America at a time when the parliamentary and other election timelines are starting to consolidate, provided us access to three of the four major candidates for Egypt’s first truly democratic election.  Different groups of our delegation met with Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, Amr Moussa, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fatouh.  We only missed former UN official and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize Mohamed El Baradei, who was out of the country during our visit.  We certainly asked the hard questions, including about the prospects for an Islamic state and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and got some surprising answers, as the candidates also used the Organizers’ Forum as they sought alternative channels to communicate with the West and push back at the current narrative.  I did a double take writing these notes now, when I stopped to scan the on-line headlines in the Times and saw Abul Fotouh’s picture on the front page.

There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood is still the trump card looking at the election, because they are the most organized and experienced group in the field today.  Ironically, their long history of suppression in Egypt has given them both discipline and skills, and their relationships through the Middle East have seemingly opened up unlimited financial resources to them.  The election rules are still neither clear nor established and the seven announced candidates met again yesterday to try and lobby the military council on important issues.  One thing that is not clear for example is campaign financing, so many efforts are relying on “volunteer” operations, which the campaign manager for Abul Fotouh explained to me in one such presidential candidate meeting I attended.  Where the rules are unclear and money is uncertain, a force like the Muslim Brotherhood is even more important, and access to any volunteers that might be available could be critical.  The Brotherhood has indicated that it will not field a presidential candidate though is aligned with several strong emerging parties and by some estimates would be unlikely to take less than 25-35% of the seats in the late November elections.  In fact they reportedly have “welcomed” the candidacy of prominent Muslim scholar Selim Al-Awa, and expelled Dr. Abul Fotouh when he broke ranks from one of their governing councils to decide to run for office.

Amr Moussa was the first candidate met by the delegation.  He was a former foreign minister under Mubarak and then head of the Arab League.  He was articulate and charismatic with strongly secular views and smooth as silk.  He positions himself firmly as an “opposition” figure to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists, though perhaps the differences are not as stark as he and much of the Western media speculate.

Dr. Fatouh for example in the meeting I attended was crystal clear, as a candidate and as a Muslim scholar, that there is “no such thing as a religious state in the Koran.  There is no such thing as an Islamic ruler who interprets or speaks for God.”  He was specific in also arguing that the Iranian experience of imans speaking for religion was also not supported by the Koran in his view.  He also argued that any group of imans who proport to interpret the text for the people and supersede civil law over the interests of any other religious beliefs, Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, was also barred by the Koran.  He repeatedly emphasized that Islam was a “populist” religion protecting individual practices.  He personally welcomed Christian and women candidates for the presidency of Egypt for example.
From his views it followed that the people were the base of power at the bottom, and not God at the top.

On the Muslim Brotherhood Dr. Fatouh claimed that he had resigned rather than being expelled over the issue of the Brotherhood’s refusal to register after the revolution because they were not willing to be transparent.  He stated that he believed after the revolution it was incumbent of the Muslim Brotherhood to be take a public and open place in Egyptian life, and there unwillingness to do so led to his departure.

On the issues he was strongly behind labor’s demands for a right to organize and freedom of association and endorsed higher minimum wages that were fully enforced.  He argued for progressive taxation in our meeting as an path to provide the revenues to deal with economic inequities and support the poor.

The meeting with Selim Al-Awa also produced similar arguments against a religious state and for a secular state in the same vein.  Our delegation found themselves extremely impressed with al-Awa.  The defining moments though were the sudden interruption of their meeting by six or seven members of the secret service who broke into the meeting arguing that it was an unauthorized “political” meeting.  They had gained knowledge of the meeting when the room had been reserved.  They tried to stop one of our group from filming the meeting and their interruption and take his memory card.  Al-Awa was livid and in Arabic and English upbraided them for not having noted that the Revolution had happened and the old ways of stopping meetings like this were over.  The impasse and arguments were ended when finally Al-Awa was able to get the Minister of the Interior on the phone and have him call of the state secret service which is under his ministry.

For our people that episode was perhaps the most vivid flashback to the Mubarak regime and a reminder of a shared experience we now had with the Egyptian people of what the fight was about and why weighing these candidates and the upcoming elections is so critical to the future of the country and the region.  The spinning right wing fear about these elections is way off the mark, but the more important fighting inside the Islamic community and the general population over the forces that drive the future as far away from the Mubarak past as possible is key, and unfortunately the copy US relationship with the terrible past continues to leave us out of the loop and out of step when we could – and should – be most supportive and helpful to a struggling, but emerging, democracy.

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Egyptian Workers Were the Difference, Unions Still Struggling

Informal Bakery Workers Demanding Union Recognition

Informal Bakery Workers Demanding Union Recognition

Cairo Every small piece that comes together in a campaign makes a difference and is essential to victory, so the young people in the Square, the social media, the bravery of the Tunisians and the martyrs, and more all played important roles, but on the ground it is crystal clear that the militant and on-going strikes by workers taking control of their unions and refusing the Mubarak regime’s back-to-work orders was the key to breaking the back of the government and forcing the all powerful military to change sides.  As one international NGO executive pointed out to us, “no matter what you have read, this was a workers’ revolution.”  Our meetings have produced estimates of strikers in that period between several “hundreds of thousands” to “millions.”

Thanks to amazing help from the AFL-CIO affiliated Solidarity Center and their program officer in Cairo, Marian Fadel, and the newly annouced director, Shawna Bader-Blau in DC, a week before we arrived the doors swung open for us, so that we had excellent access to the movers and shakers that have build the independent labor movement in Egypt.  As a worker leader told us when we met with Khaled Ali at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a labor non-profit with 9 lawyers that has been used as a hammer by the independent labor movement, for activist at work this has been their individual “jihad for justice, whether we live or die.”  Another woman, fired four times and reinstated three times (so

khaled Ali ECESR with 4 times fired woman organizer

khaled Ali ECESR with 4 times fired woman organizer

far) told us that they had been fighting since the IMF imposed neo-liberalist privatization requirements in 1991, so the activists in Tahrir Square were “late to the game.”  She was making a point for emphasis, but the work of Kamal Abbas and the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) for 20 years after he was blackballed for a wildcat strike in the iron and steel industry where he had worked and was a union leader, proves that point.  Abbas had been in the trenches supporting, advising, and training union leaders for decades, and from his report the pace had quickened since 2005.  He and CTUWS were such a significant threat that the Mubarak regime had closed them down for 18 months to blunt their effectiveness, but they finally were back in business over recent years.  Abbas has been frequently jailed and beaten and has become the independent conscience of the emerging labor movement.

Emerging, unfortunately is the operative word here.  On January 30th Abbas and the key emerging unions, including the critical government employees organized in the Real Estate Tax agents union, the teachers, and health care technicians, had formed EFITU – the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions to try and supplant the government controlled unions.  Like everything in the revolution though, nothing is easy and much is still undone.  The Minister of Manpower and Migration suspended the leadership of the old federation with 4.5 million members, but it took a lawsuit to finally win dissolution of 7 of the 23 general unions that made up the federation to finally give independent unions a “space” as Abbas called it to finally win recognition.  In the other 16 unions, including the textile workers and many of the government employee unions (since they are the bulk of the formal sector), the independent unions are still embryonic, starved for resources, and fighting to win.

We had a lengthy meeting with the president of the Teachers union and many of his leaders, so got a much better idea of the obstacles.  Even while winning with 70,000 new members in the last several months, it is an all-volunteer operation that is unable to collect dues.  The automatic dues collection of 7% of gross

leaders of EFITU and Teachers Union

payroll (which includes social services and benefits) is paid to the old unions, so the new emerging unions are unable to bring themselves to ask workers desperate and string for a living wage to pay more dues on top of what is being extracted now.  The unions are caught in a complicated and difficult process of having to try to legally wrest the resource transfer from the old to the new, but there is no labor code now that provides a clue on how they can be recognized.  Furthermore since they are government workers in a situation where there is really nothing but a caretaker government now for the military, their larger goals are winning the new laws, making the right to organize and freedom of association permanent, and making the right to strike legal.  The military junta has passed a new law post-revolution reaffirming the illegality of the strike, so these concerns are ever present.

kamal abbas of CTUWS, independent union strategist

kamal abbas of CTUWS, independent union strategist

Meeting with workers, their passion and excitement is palpable and infectious.  Nonetheless this is a work in progress whose outcome is still in the balance.  The workers are angry and impatient, now 8 months after the revolution, and the deteriorating economy of the Egyptian state from declining tax revenues, the collapse of tourism, and the foreign investment now sidelined and waiting for stability, has only exacerbated the situation.  Workers want change yesterday, and, correctly, feel like they have paid their dues and want what comes with it, and they are starving.  Without understanding Arabic we watched an argument at ECESR where our women union leaders tore into the Young Revolutionary leadership for the lack of progress.  They handled it well, but the temperature was real and the words were red hot.

Clearly, these relationships between the key movers of the revolution were welded on different seams and now have to be joined together more firmly.  It hasn’t happened yet but whether around human rights issues, livelihoods, or other concerns, unless the bridges are built to labor, nothing will work, and that work is not being done effectively yet.  Labor clearly is sitting waiting and without resources as the political alignments emerge as well, yet in the end they clearly are still the wide awake giant that must be fed to make Egypt work and to make the changes real and permanent.

What an honor to even have our delegation in the same rooms with these freedom fighters who are trying to win the war of the workplace!

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