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Vol. 77/No. 2      January 21, 2013

New Egypt constitution
targets workers’ rights
Unionist: ‘Laws forbid strikes, yet people strike’
(feature article)
With the participation of less than one-third of all eligible voters, a new constitution in Egypt was approved by a 63.8 percent majority in two Saturdays of voting that ended Dec. 22.

The constitution, which restricts democratic rights, unions and freedom of worship, is designed to consolidate the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on the reins of government and demonstrate that the party can effectively rule on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole.

Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, taking over from the military regime that ruled for 17 months after the army ousted the increasingly unpopular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in a bid to establish a more stable capitalist government. Since the elections, the Brotherhood and army, still the chief pillar of power, have engaged in an uneasy alliance.

While sections of the capitalists oppose the Brotherhood’s growing power, they share a desire to clamp down on workers’ rights and political space to organize that opened in the course of the overthrow of Mubarak following several weeks of protests in February 2011. At the same time, the factional struggle among the propertied rulers helps to maintain this political space, which workers continue to use to advance their interests.

Hundreds of thousands of people, both for and against the constitution, demonstrated in the days leading up to the first weekend of voting. The largest actions against the constitution were organized by the National Salvation Front, a coalition led by bourgeois parties that especially opposed provisions that strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of the government.

Several bloody clashes took place between the opposing sides, but after the initial vote totals showed a majority for the new document, the demonstrations petered out.

In late December, Amr Moussa, foreign minister for 10 years under the Mubarak regime and one of the central spokespeople of the opposition coalition, called for a truce. He proposed that Morsi form a cabinet that would include opposition leaders, as well as Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—the country’s largest and best-organized capitalist party—and that labor strikes be suspended.

Just prior to the vote, Morsi issued a decree giving himself power to replace many officials of the government-funded Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal union federation under the Mubarak dictatorship. Many trade unionists called this move the “Brotherhoodization” of the group.

The old Mubarak federation, still the largest in the country, officially backed Morsi’s decrees. But some of its leaders publicly disagreed. “The president has given himself powers equal to that of a king,” union official Abdel Monein El-Gamal told Egypt’s Daily News. He noted that there were members of the federation at protests both for and against Morsi.

The new constitution says that only one trade union is allowed “per profession,” a clause directed at independent trade unions that began organizing years prior to the overthrow of Mubarak and mushroomed after his removal. In many workplaces both the old federation and new unions exist side by side.

While the main independent trade unions joined the protests against the constitution, the parties that have led the Salvation Front “have their own agenda that is different than the workers,” Fatma Ramadan, a leader of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, the largest of the new federations, said by phone from Cairo prior to the vote.

“The trade unions, the workers cannot overturn this constitution on their own,” Gamal Abu’l Oula Hassamin, director of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services office in Mahalla El Kubra, told the Militant in a phone interview Jan. 2. “But we will be an active part of the next struggles that will come up.” The center is part of the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, the second largest of the independent federations.

‘People not afraid anymore’

“You should understand that people are not afraid anymore,” said Hassamin. “Laws forbid demonstrations and strikes, yet people strike and demonstrate. That is the big thing that has changed” since the removal of Mubarak.

In the middle of the voting, thousands of workers at Eastern Tobacco in Cairo won a two-day strike for higher wages. On Dec. 25, three days after the constitution was approved, some 200 workers went on strike at the Ezz Steel factory in Suez, shutting down production to protest unsafe working conditions. On Dec. 29, workers at Chemical Industries Development, a government-owned pharmaceutical company, struck in Cairo, protesting poor work conditions and reduced wages.

According to Egypt’s daily Al Masry Al Youm, in 2012 there were more than 150 strikes and 2,000 labor protests and demonstrations involving nearly 1 million workers.

The week before the voting started Morsi announced new sales taxes on soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, cellphone services, cooking oil and fertilizers, as part of winning a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but then put the measures on hold that same night.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandil announced Dec. 30 that talks over conditions for winning the loan were about to resume. Al Ahram daily reported that Qandil promised that “new taxes will not touch vital and basic commodities such as fuel and bread. I want to reassure Egyptians that there is no governmental intention to increase fuel prices in the coming period.”

But many working people, including among those who voted for the new constitution, are skeptical about the government’s plans. Capitalists are pushing to reduce or eliminate subsidies for fuel, which reportedly equals one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.
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