Cablegate: Egyptian Labor Activism As a Political Force

DE RUEHEG #2301/01 3491530
P 151530Z DEC 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 002301



E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/15/2029

REF: A. CAIRO 1547 B. CAIRO 684 C. 08 CAIRO 2402 Classified By: Economic-Political Minister-Counselor Donald A. Blome for reason 1.4 (d).
1. Key Points: - (SBU) In 2009, there have been over 300 strikes and other worker protests in Egypt, despite legal restrictions and a lack of support for strikers from GoE-affiliated trade unions. -- (C) Worker activism is driven by economic, not political, concerns. Some workers' rights advocates nonetheless see the current wave of activism as "inherently political," forcing workers to organize themselves, acclimating Egyptians to peaceful protest as a positive force, and demonstrating to the GoE the utility of compromise and negotiation. -- (C) Labor activists criticize Egypt's opposition and human rights groups as "elitists" unable or unwilling to include workers in their movements. -- (C) On-going activism may create an environment for meaningful labor union leadership elections in 2011, resulting in independent leadership able to tackle Egypt's challenging labor issues, especially workers' rights in the expanding private sector.

2. (C) Comment: Whether ongoing labor activism can have a broader influence on an Egyptian system characterized by illiberal institutions, both within the government and without, remains to be seen. The GoE's approach has been to generally balance economic demands with steps to ensure that strikes and labor actions remain local and non-political. We agree with observers who note that Egypt's secular opposition and civil society appears to be missing an opportunity to broaden their appeal, either through an inability or unwillingness to engage with the labor movement. ------------------------ On-Going Labor Activism ------------------------

3. (C) As of October 30, the Land Center for Human Rights, a respected local labor rights NGO, had documented 117 strikes and 170 other labor protests in 2009. The Land Center documented strikes in both the public and private sectors involving both unionized and independent workers. Although Egypt's labor law requires striking workers - unionized and independent - to receive the approval of a GoE-affiliated "general trade union" before striking, only one strike in 2009 received approval (ref A). Nonetheless, according to local activists, most strikes proceeded with minimal GoE interference. ------------------ Labor and Politics ------------------

4. (C) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX the current wave of labor unrest is a "historic development," involving workers and professionals from both the public and private sectors. Despite this, XXXXXXXXXXXX sees no political component to Egyptian labor activism and criticized secular opposition movements as "elitists unable to break free of Egypt's stratified class structure" and take advantage of an opportunity to expand their influence. XXXXXXXXXXXX believes the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike secular opposition leaders, recognizes the political opportunity inherent in growing labor activism. However, it has been unable to take advantage because, as an institution, it is dominated by middle and upper middle class professionals who workers see as inherently hostile to their interests.

5. (C) Others see labor activism as having broader implications for Egyptian society. XXXXXXXXXXXX recently told us that the current wave of strikes is acclimating Egyptians (who he believes often negatively associate any form of protest with "chaos") to activism as a positive force, while also demonstrating to the GoE that negotiation and compromise, not just repression, can be effective tools of governance. Additionally, workers are learning that even without the involvement of GoE-approved unions and ETUF, they can organize and bargain effectively, making irrelevant formerly powerful state-controlled institutions. CAIRO 00002301 002 OF 002 ----------------------- Effect of GoE Influence -----------------------

6. (C) There are currently 23 GoE recognized trade unions. All "collective workers organizations" are required by law to affiliate with one of the recognized unions, which in turn must join the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). (Note: In December 2008, a group of government employees formed the Real Estate Tax Collectors Union (RETU), which applied for GoE recognition but refused to affiliate with ETUF (ref B). End note.) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, the GoE aggressively interfered in the last union elections, in 2006, by barring "thousands" of candidates from running, resulting in ETUF and general union leadership dominated by members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). As an example, 22 of the 23 seats on ETUF's ruling council are filled by NDP members.

7. (C) As a result of NDP and GoE control of unions, XXXXXXXXXXXX sees the official union structure as not only disconnected from the interests of workers, but beholden to the GoE. XXXXXXXXXXXX views this situation as having particularly negative implications in Egypt's growing private sector, with Egypt's NDP-dominated union leadership bowing to the wishes of business owners with close ties to the GoE and making no effort to expand membership to include private sector workers. She identified the wide-spread practice of private sector employers requiring workers to sign undated resignation letters as a condition of employment as an especially egregious result of the absence of unions and other labor rights organizations from private sector workplaces (ref C).

8. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX, however, is optimistic that ongoing labor activism and resultant media attention will limit the GoE's role in the 2011 labor union elections, which she thinks will lead not only to more effective union leadership, but to other positive developments, like the establishment of RETU in 2008. (Note: The 2011 union elections will be a massive undertaking, with Egyptian union members simultaneously selecting the leaders of "workplace committees," regional and national union boards, and ETUF. End note.) Scobey

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