Roots of Egypt’s Revolution: Labor Unions and the Uprising in Tahrir Square

Egyptian union leader Kamal Abbas
Egyptian union leader Kamal Abbas
Kamal Abbas comes across as a modest man. As coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) in Egypt, nearly twenty years of activism under repressive conditions seem to him little reason to boast. Others beg to differ.

Kamal recently arrived in the UK as part of a speaking tour to visit with British activists and trade unionists. His talks focused on the victory won four months ago when Abbas and his fellow activists overthrew long-hated President Hosni Mubarak. 

“What we witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, and now in Libya, Syria and Yemen, is that the struggle for freedom is not limited to one nation,” said Kamal, his quietly spoken Arabic relayed via a translator to an enthralled London audience.

Abbas’ story, however, begins way before the tumultuous events witnessed in Tahrir square; it is part of a legacy of resistance that goes back decades. Under the regime of former President Mubarak, grass-roots workers’ organizations in Egypt had to operate in conditions that could at best be described as “semi-legal.” This had been the rule since 1957, when President Nassar had ordained it necessary for all Egyptian unions to join a single organization, known as the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

This became the norm in much of the Arab world, where mainstream union leaders held to a tradition that saw the state as being integral to the functioning of the labor movement. In the case of Egypt, the ETUF tried to hold onto its government-approved monopoly, even at the expense of other, independent and democratic initiatives such as the CTUWS.

“The Egyptian trade unions were a lot like those in the Stalinist countries,” said Eric Lee, international trade union activist and founder of the LaborStart campaign website. “They were a state-controlled federation. It was a complete monopoly; you could not form an independent trade union. And the federation just supported the state – if the state supported privatizations they the federation supported privatizations.”

It was not unheard of for disillusioned workers to seek their own solutions to wider problems of poverty, unemployment and draconian government measures.  Kamal Abbas himself began his time as a worker activist when he participated in a strike at the steel works in Helwan, just south of Cairo. The strike was put down with several deaths, yet despite brutal repression, the ETUF did little to help the workers’ cause. Abbas and others then decide to start a new, grass-roots workers organization.

“The situation for trade unions in Egypt was difficult,” Abbas explained. “The official federation was dominated by the government since its establishment. However, in 1990 we managed to form the CTUWS and for the next twenty years were advocating and defending workers’ rights such as the right to strike and form independent trade unions.”

Unsurprisingly, then President Mubarak did not look kindly on such endeavors. Kamal and those like him were frequently harassed and arrested by security forces. In 2007, the organization came under particularly heavy pressure due to their involvement in on-going strikes in the textile sector. Although less than a year later over twenty thousand workers were again on strike, the CTUWS headquarters in Helwan was shut down, alongside several other branch offices.

In this instance the ETUF directly turned on the CTUWS, attacking them in the media and blaming them for the onset of industrial unrest. The CTUWS in turn claimed they had a responsibility to defend the workers, yet coupled with increased government scrutiny over CTUWS moves to annul state interference in internal trade union elections, the union was largely forced underground.

“They had endless difficulties,” Eric Lee said. “Kamal was in and out of jail often. What the union was clever about was that they looked for international support from early on. They knew that international support would help them survive the onslaughts. But they faced constant repression. When I attended a meeting with them last year, only nine months before the regime was overthrown, they said to all of us ‘you are aware that at any moment the police could burst in and arrest everyone.’ That was the atmosphere, even as recently as a year ago.”


The Arab Spring appeared to catch Western commentators off guard. Given that the mainstream media appeared to want to avoid reporting on events such as the 2006-2007 textile strikes, this is perhaps unsurprising.

The Uprising in Tahrir Square, Egypt
The Uprising in Tahrir Square, Egypt
Revolutions, however, do not appear out of thin air. “People who think that revolutions come out of nowhere have never studied revolutions”, said Lee. “Many international activists knew that Egypt was absolutely bubbling in turmoil. When I was there last year I knew very little about Egypt – the Solidarity Centre which is the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy arm – was there in strength, they had been backing the CTUWS for some time. And they were distributing a book which had some academic material about the Egyptian working class which covered right up to about a year ago.”

The book described the past decade’s union struggle which led to a wave of strikes which continued for the last five years. The strike, explained Lee, “involved millions and millions of workers, and enormous street demonstrations – they had ten thousand workers camped outside the Prime Minister’s office. This proved that society was losing its grip – the police couldn’t control the streets, ten thousand workers camped out is a very significant protest and this wasn’t picked up on most of the global media; they just weren’t looking for it. Trade unionists who were involved did know about it.”

When mass street protests erupted last January, however, the CTUWS began to play a decisive role. As demonstrators took to the streets in their thousands and huge swathes of the urban working class came out on strike, Tahrir square became world famous as the focal point for revolution. It was in this square that Kamal Abbas made his first appeal for a new federation of trade unions.

“On January 30th we met with representative of other independent trade union organizations and we discussed forming a new federation,” said Abbas. “We then made an announcement in Tahrir square, calling for a new federation. But at the time we had no idea what would happen. Since then this call has been responded to by the workers. The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”

During this time, the old ETUF largely ignored the protest movement and instead committed itself to “monitoring” the labor force for signs of discontent. In the process, they effectively signed their death warrant as an alleged workers’ organization by showing clearly which side they were on.

Additionally, the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU) – a conservative body influenced by Muamour Gadaffi – appears to have taken a back seat in the face of independent unionism. Having long pursued a policy of Arab nationalism that saw non-Arabs in the Middle East excluded from membership, some have called for the ICATU’s disbandment and the formation of a more ethnically-inclusive body.

“ICATU does not accept unions that are not Arab,” said Lee. “So people like the Kurds are not welcome, Iranians are not welcome and of course the Israelis are not welcome.  Not only that, but the Palestinians are not welcome. The Palestine General Federation of trade unions, which is generally accepted to be the Palestinian labor movement, has never been a member of ICATU because ICATU deemed they were tainted by collaboration with Zionism.”

ICATU, arguably now something of a relic which fails to represent the true ethnic diversity of the Middle East, now stands to be swept away by a new tide of popular trade unionism standing in a different tradition than that of Arab nationalism and state control.

Hope for the future now takes precedence in the minds of a population long accustomed to living under a repressive government. With the military government having made moves to ban strikes and curtail workers’ organizations, Egyptians are generally feeling optimistic about future possibilities.

“This revolution in Egypt started with the uprising of young people, which shows that this revolution has a great future,” said Abbas.

It remains to be seen how far the Arab Spring may continue, considering the convoluted situation in Libya and the savage repression in Yemen and Syria. Given that the Egyptian and Tunisian former presidents in particular were long-supported by western powers, another question is what relationship the new Egypt may pursue with their former imperial partners in the west.

Abbas believes that the political situation may have changed fundamentally with the entry of popular protest and upheaval. “The policy-makers of Europe and America have been shown that the people in the Middle East are not satisfied with dictatorships. This revolution has really forced them to acknowledge that the people themselves can act in their own interests.”

Dan Read is a freelance writer in Britain. Photo of Abbas by Hossam el-Hamalawy.