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And Where Do the Workers Stand? Syndicates, Unions Divided Over Morsi’s Ouster

[1 May 2011, Labor lawyer Haitham Mohammadein in a demonstration for the Labor Party on May Day. Image originally posted to Flickr by Hossam El-Hamlawi] [1 May 2011, Labor lawyer Haitham Mohammadein in a demonstration for the Labor Party on May Day. Image originally posted to Flickr by Hossam El-Hamlawi]

Since the events of 30 June, divisive fault lines have emerged within the country’s trade unions and professional syndicates, with leading members of these associations taking sides with the new ruling elites or former President Mohamed Morsi’s ousted regime.

Unions and syndicates have been brought to the forefront of this ongoing conflict, as their leadership, loyalties and politics all come under question.

On 2 July, a call for a general strike against the Morsi regime issued by the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) failed to materialize. EFITU’s presidency has since expressed support for the new ruling elites, endorsed by the military council.

On the other hand, prior to and since Morsi’s ouster on 3 July, a number of syndicates have moved to show their support for the Islamist president.

Before Morsi’s ascent to power, the Muslim Brotherhood had a negligible presence within Egypt’s blue-collar labor unions, but was tremendously influential within the white-collar professional syndicates. The Brotherhood has historically maintained a strong presence in the Doctors, Dentists, Pharmacists, Veterinarians, Lawyers, Engineers and Teachers Syndicates, winning elections in many of these associations and controlling their boards.

Now, having lost control of the executive and legislative branches of the state, the Brotherhood is resorting to its historic base of power, and, perhaps, their last remaining political refuge — the professional syndicates.

According to Amr al-Shoura of the independent Doctors Without Rights group, the Federation of Professional Syndicates — consisting of some eighteen associations — “and especially the Doctors and Pharmacists Syndicates have been and still are actively mobilizing their forces against the 30 June movement, and in support of Morsi.”

Shoura pointed to the bloody events of 8 July, where more than fifty pro-Morsi protesters were shot dead by military forces and hundreds of others were injured outside the Republican Guard headquarters, where the ousted president was reportedly being detained.

The following day, a press conference was held at the Doctors Syndicate, where members of the Brotherhood-controlled Doctors for Egypt group announced the formation of a fact finding committee to investigate what it called a “massacre.”

According to Brotherhood sources, at least eight-five protesters were shot dead in the incident and more than one thousand were injured — nearly all of whom were Morsi supporters. According to the Republican Guards and Ministry of Health, though, only fifty-two were killed and over two hundred injured in the incident, including both security forces and protesters.

Independent investigations conducted by the Doctors Without Rights group suggest that “the actual number of casualties may be somewhere between the figures issued by both the Brotherhood and the Ministry of Health. The number of fatalities could be subject to increase,” Shoura says.

He adds that both sides of the conflict were involved in deliberate misinformation campaigns.

“Brotherhood members screened photos and videos during their press conference at the syndicate in which they claimed that women and minors were killed in these clashes. This has proven to be misleading and untrue,” asserts Shoura. Images of dead women and children from the Syrian civil war were allegedly used as Brotherhood propaganda claiming that they were killed by Egyptian security forces.

On the other hand, a media blackout appears to have been imposed on many hospitals who received casualties from these clashes.

“While we strongly denounce the violence and bloodshed, we are wary of the politicized news and statistics coming from both the Brotherhood side and the army’s side,” Shoura adds.

The Doctors Syndicate has announced that it would provide five thousand Egyptian pounds to the families of each of those “martyred” by the Republican Guards.

According to Brotherhood member Abdallah al-Keryoni, the Republican Guards clashes necessitated an intervention by the syndicate.

“Two doctors were shot dead by Republican Guards, another nine were injured after having been shot with live ammunition, and several other doctors were arrested during these events,” he alleges.

“The function of the Doctors Syndicate is to support physicians and to stand up for their human rights. The syndicate is supposed to engage itself in political issues pertaining to health care and doctors’ rights nationwide,” Keryoni says.

Doctors Syndicate President Khairi Abdel Dayyem is careful to note that the syndicate has no political position on the situation. “The syndicate takes no official stance regarding the events of 30 June,” he states.

Abdel Dayyem, a member of the Brotherhood-dominated Doctors for Egypt coalition, angrily seeks to distance himself from the Islamist group. He insists that he is an independent figure, and not a Brotherhood member.

“The syndicate does not take political stances,” he loudly asserts while speaking to Mada Masr. “Every syndicate member has their own political position.”

Syndicate actions, however, are entertained by the Brotherhood as a possible tool of pressure. Keryoni notes that the Brotherhood is “deliberating whether or not it should resort to syndicate strikes as part of their campaign of resistance against this military coup.

“This must be a decision taken by the syndicate’s general assembly. The idea of strikes has been proposed, but our position has not yet been determined.”

The Brotherhood-dominated syndicate councils opposed a series of strikes spearheaded by independent and opposition doctors from May 2011 to March 2013.

In the longer term, Keryoni explains that the Brotherhood is still studying its position as to whether it will boycott or participate in upcoming syndicate elections.

Meanwhile, a physician from Doctors Without Rights who asked to remain anonymous says, “We will seek to purge our general and branch syndicates of the Brotherhood’s control. We are discussing the possibility of holding early syndicate elections in order to oust those who have obstructed our freedoms and have deprived the Egyptian people of their rights to proper medical attention and a sufficient health care budget.”

Doctors Without Rights has repeatedly sought to raise the health care allocation in the national budget from its present figure of less than four percent up to fifteen percent.

And the anti-Brotherhood sentiment at some levels of the syndicate is translating itself beyond the scope of elections.

According to Shoura, a recent initiative launched by anti-Brotherhood doctors in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, called Rebellion of Doctors, seeks to purge elements loyal to this Islamist group from their branch syndicate by calling for early elections to unseat Morsi loyalists.

This initiative is said to be inspired by the Tamarod petition campaign that claims to have collected twenty-two million signatures demanding Morsi’s ouster and early presidential elections, which sparked the massive 30 June protests that ultimately led to his downfall.

A spin-off campaign called Tamarod Fayoum has similarly sought to purge the Teachers Syndicate of the Brotherhood’s presence by collecting signatures and demanding early elections.

Similarly, on Sunday, the Popular National Alliance was established with fifteen different professional syndicates and associations with the aim of "defending the gains of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, and supporting the political roadmap announced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces."

Chief figures within the alliance include head of the Lawyers Syndicate Sameh Ashour, former Supreme Constitutional Court Vice President Tahani al-Gebali and writer Mohamed Salmawi.

Several different unions and syndicates participated in the mass protests of 30 June, took part in anti-Morsi marches, and pitched their tents in squares and protest sites across the country. Nevertheless, conflicts have emerged even within the ranks of those associations that stood up against the Morsi regime.

A call for a general strike among transport workers was issued on 2 July by the EFITU and circulated online. This call was issued in light of “the failure in realizing the objectives of the 25 January revolution — bread, freedom and social justice.”

But this general strike never got off the ground.

The invitation to strike had underlined that workers should utilize their weapon of work stoppage against “the creeping Brotherhoodization of the labor and trade union movements being facilitated through the office of the minister of manpower,” wrote the Brotherhood’s Khaled al-Azhary. 

Both Morsi and Azhary were accused of attempting to coopt the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and bringing it under the Brotherhood’s sway.

Shortly after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deposed Morsi on 3 July, the presidency of the EFITU issued a statement praising the Armed Forces and their role in the “ 30 June revolution,” while also calling on workers to forfeit their right to strike. EFITU President Kamal Abu Attiya wrote that “workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production.”

But Abu Attiya, named the new minister of manpower on Monday by interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, isn’t the only representative of the independent unions movement.

On 10 July, EFITU council member Fatma Ramadan issued a rebuttal to Abu Attiya’s statement. Ramadan insisted that “Egypt’s workers must never sacrifice their right to strike.”

Ramadan told Mada Masr that Abu Attiya unilaterally issued his statement without conferring with other EFITU council members.

“As a union federation our role must be to uphold all workers’ rights, including the right to strike. Workers can reclaim their rights and freedoms only if they retain their right to strike — as a weapon by which to confront labor violations and employers’ abuses,” Ramadan says. “As unionists, we cannot possibly call on workers to protect the interests of businessmen by forfeiting labor rights under the pretext of bolstering the national economy.”

Ramadan views the 30 June movement as “an uprising-turned-coup. It lacks both a unified leadership and clear aims. SCAF, along with right-wing elements and remnants of the Mubarak regime, appear to be taking over this movement, and may turn 30 June from an uprising to a counter-revolution.”

[This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.] 

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