Demonstrations, nationwide strike rock Egypt, world labor voices solidarity

As Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was preparing to announce he would not seek another term in office, more than 1 million people turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today to protest his teetering government. An army press release, published on the MENA state news agency “acknowledge[ed] the legitimate rights of the people,” and the military has refused to take action against demonstrators.

Demonstrations took place across the nation, with more than 250,000 people coming out in Sinai. In Cairo, protesters held a mock trial of Mubarak, and then burnt him in effigy.

A general strike, to continue until Mubarak’s government falls, has been called by the newly formed Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions.

The AFL-CIO, America’s main labor federation, along with nearly all the rest of the world’s trade union movement, has thrown its weight behind Egypt’s pro-democracy demonstrators.

More specifically, world labor is in solidarity with the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and its call for the nationwide general strike, aimed at bringing down nearly three decades of Mubarak’s dictatorship.

“The people’s movement for democracy in Egypt and the role unions are playing for freedom and worker rights inspires us and will not be forgotten,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a letter to the Egyptian organizers.

Trumka’s letter was to Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, and Abu Eita, leader of the Real Estate Tax Authority Workers. Both organizations have been instrumental in pulling together the FETU, which Trumka welcomed into the international labor movement.

“We learned that your organizations joined with retirees, the technical health professionals and representatives of workers in the important industrial areas to announce the organization of a new labor federation to represent workers in a new era of democracy in Egypt,” Trumka said in the letter. “We salute you in this brave endeavor and join the international labor movement in standing with you.”

RETAW is the first independent trade union formed in Egypt in more than half a century. Its legal status has been in a grey area: the government has neither banned nor accepted its application for recognition. CTUWS was the target of government attacks over the past few years. In 2007, several of its offices, including its national headquarters, were shuttered, but a 2008 court ruling forced the regime to allow the Center to function.

FETU’s first act was to plan the nationwide general strike. A letter circulated by the CTUWS gives a flavor of the demands. “The Egyptian people call to overthrow the regime,” it reads.

According to CTUWS, the anti-Mubarak protesters were further incensed after an earlier speech in which the current president asked his cabinet to resign. Rearrangin the government while staying on as president himself only made the protesters “more determined.” The letter called for the release of all arrested people, the end of the state of emergency imposed by Mubarak and prosecution of those responsible for corruption and the shooting of protesters.

More fundamentally, CTUWS calls for the dissolution of the nation’s legislature and the constitution of a “national salvation government with the participation of all the political powers” and an “association” to “draft a new constitution for establishing a civil state which observes human rights.”

A Jan. 30 press release announcing the formation of the FETU – an alternative to the government-run Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions – reiterated the demands, and stated that “the labor movement is in the heart and soul of the Egyptian Peoples’ revolution and its emphasis on the support for the six requirements as demanded by the Egyptian People’s Revolution.”

The same day, organizers held a press conference in Tahrir Square, announcing the FETU and the “formation of committees in all factories and enterprises to protect, defend them and to set the date for the general strike.”

According to Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, “This is a hugely important step for all Egyptians, who have for so long been denied the right to democratic representation at work.”

“Independent unions, which the regime refused to recognize, have organized thousands of local strikes, sit-ins and protests in recent years, and have been a moving force behind the massive mobilization of Egypt’s people that we have been witnessing in recent days,” she continued.

The AFL-CIO is a member of the ITUC, which represents 176 million workers in 151 nations.

The World Federation of Trade Unions, which represents millions of workers in dozens of countries, also sided with Egypt’s workers.

“The working class of Egypt is leading this struggle and we wish them success in their targets,” read a WFTU press release. “We demand from the government of Egypt to immediately stop the murders and arrests of demonstrators.”

The general strike will continue, organizers say, until Mubarak goes and the people’s demands are met.

Image: Ron Rothbart // CC BY 2.0