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Labor Representation in Post-Mubarak Egypt: An Interview with the Late Samer Soliman

[Samer Soliman (1968-2012). From Samer Soliman's Facebook Page.] [Samer Soliman (1968-2012). From Samer Soliman's Facebook Page.]

[The following is the audio and transcript of an interview conducted by Julia Simon with the late Samer Soliman in September 2011. The interview discusses the state workers’ organization and associational freedom in post-Mubarak Egypt. Soliman was Professor of Political Science at American University in Cairo (AUC), and a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. His publications include The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak.]

Julia Simon (JS): What is the ETUF [Egyptian Trade Union Federation]?

Samer Soliman (SS): The Egyptian [Trade Union] Federation was created in the 50s. This was an initiative of the political regime at that time, the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a kind of military dictatorship, and a military dictatorship sometimes needs organized labor in order to impose order and to negotiate with the labor. So before the foundation of this federation we had syndicates, many syndicates, many trade unions, [which were] free more or less free [and] independent. So the creation of this federation was a mechanism to centralize these many unions in order to impose state control over the working class.

JS: Up until recently ETUF was the monopoly?

SS: The system of representation in Egypt was based on a monopoly—monopoly in the political sphere. The system of representation was monopolistic: One federation should represent the whole working class; one syndicate should represent the doctors. There was no pluralism for representation. Nasser gave some rights to the workers in exchange for their submission to the state. So they did have something in exchange for their loss of independence. Shifting from Nasser to [Anwar] Sadat is the opening and economic liberalization.

Gradually since the 70s, the workers [have been] losing [their] central place in the regime. Workers are not given their social rights as in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. And at the same time, the federation is not fighting back. The workers were losing their socioeconomic rights at the same time, being without an organization instrument to fight back.

This is why here we have the mobilization of the workers since the 60s and 70s…normally [happening] outside the rank federation. Usually it is against the federation.

One of the first slogans of any strike in Egypt is “Down with the Federation of the Workers.” So it was not really representative of the workers. It was controlled by the state security office, by the secret police, [and] fraud in their elections. So it was not really representative of the workers.

In recent times, we have the emergence of independent workers unions. This was a very old idea—the need to create parallel independent trade unions. But it came to be materialized only in the last two or three years.

The trade union of the tax collectors…created a new independent [union]. Now we have many [unions]; especially after the end of the revolution, we have many free trade unions and there is a big question in Egypt, a big debate within the working class: should we finish with the federation of the trade unions and start from scratch to create new syndicates, or should we keep both and keep reforming the federation at the same time to have parallel syndicates and trade unions. This is a debate and we have different positions.

JS: So correct me if I am wrong, but in August [2011] ETUF dissolved the board of directors?

SS: Yes, during the revolution the leadership of the federation was very connected the [Hosni] Mubarak regime. They acted like gangs during the revolution. They even hired thugs in order to attack demonstrations. So the head of the federation [Hussein Megawer] was accused of [attempted] assassination, so he’s in prison now. [Editor’s note: Megawer, along with other defendants in the “battle of the camels” case, was acquitted in October 2012].  So this was leverage for the opposition within the federation and within the working class to ask the interim government and military council to dissolve the board of the federation, which they finally did after resistance. They finally dissolved the board and there is now a transition and we will have elections maybe in a few months.

JS: But ETUF still exists? It hasn’t been dissolved?

SS: The federation still exists and we have an opinion inside the working class that says we need a centralized unified workers movement—[that is], we need the federation. Personally speaking, I think this is very important for the workers. I don’t think that it is wise to dissolve the federation.

I think it is wise and for the benefit of the workers to reform--to radically reform—the federation by changing the institutional framework of this federation, [through] new elections, by fighting against corruption, [and] by empowering the federation.

But today in Egypt you are in transition. New independent syndicates and trade unions…are weak. They are emerging. So I cannot imagine how we can draft a new constitution without organized labor represented.

The new constitution of Egypt will be drafted in a few months and in any society you have representations of civil society and other groups… so it is very important to have a strong voice of the working class. And I think the federation before the election and after the election could play an important role under one condition: that it always guarantees the workers the right…to create their own free independent unions. The system under Mubarak and under Nasser and Sadat was to monopolize the worker representation. Today it is finished. Today there shouldn’t be any monopoly of representation. The federation should exist and it is for the workers to decide whether they are united in one federation or want to have multiplicity of representation.

JS: What are the current assets of ETUF? Are most of Egypt’s workers members? How many members do they have?

SS: On paper they have maybe four million. But [this] is not a real membership since it is not voluntary membership. Workers were becoming members, but not by consent. Normally if you are a worker, especially in the public sector, if you are hired, automatically you become a member and you pay the fees of the federation as a kind of tax. So you are not asked. [It] is taken from the source. So yes, they have a big membership, but it is not a real membership.

They have many assets—economic assets. And this is also important, [which is] why dissolving the federation, personally speaking, is very bad, because they have important assets, which is [part of] the ownership of the working class. They have a university, they have a bank, [and] they have some assets. So this is the ownership of the workers, [and] it should be kept for the workers. 

JS: And there are new independent unions? Parallel unions? Do they want to dissolve ETUF?

SS: Some of them are pushing to dissolve the federation itself.

JS: Why do they want that?

SS: Some think that there is no possibility of reform of that federation, but I think there is some personal interest behind it. Because…some activists or leaders of the new trade unions…don’t want competition. They know that the federation has important economic assets, [and] important membership. So maybe they want to finish with this federation.

JS: So what are some examples of new unions since the revolution?

SS: The most important is the tax collector unions. It was created after a successful strike and it is normally strong. We have other more emerging weaker trade unions, and they are organized in the Coalition or Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation. So they are trying to be organized in just one federation.

JS: And what are their demands?

SS: Minimum wage, [and] better working conditions. But the minimum wage is the main slogan; the main demand now that’s getting much of popularity. And they are also politicized. They were participating in the mobilization of the revolution so they have political demands. They have certain demands regarding freedom of association and this is very important for them without which they can’t exist. Pluralism. Syndicates and social representation, but minimum wage is the most important demand they are raising.

JS: And that’s supposed to be addressed next month, [October 2011]?

SS: There is a promise related to the maximum wage. Maximum wage is important in the state, [and] the bureaucracy, because we have some people, very rich people. They are mediocre they are not brilliant to deserve huge wages or income. So it is time now to impose maximum wage in the state bureaucracy. And using this resource in order to increase the minimum wage. It is possible but I’m not sure when it will be.

It is time now to impose a maximum wage in the state bureaucracy and using this resource to increase the minimum wage.  It is possible but the minimum wage they are talking about is not that important—700 pounds. About 120 dollars.

So this is not the minimum wage the workers are asking. The workers are asking about 160 dollars per month.

JS: The current Minister [of Manpower and Migration] Ahmed Al Borai – what is the stance of the workers toward Al-Borai?

SS: Al-Borai is a gift for the workers and for their rights, especially political rights of independent syndicates and free representation because he defended the rights of pluralism and he drafted a new law defending these rights. And he also resisted all the pressures from the federation coming before [the] dissolving [of its] board.

They were pushing, and he resisted and finally he dissolved the board. So Al- Borai is very good, very liberal, [and] open-minded.

JS: Is he being attacked by ETUF?

SS: He is harshly attacked by them, but now some of them are criminals in the leadership. Some of them are corrupt [and are] in prison now. And the rest…are fighting back. But I think they are weakened.

JS: People say unions are losing power in America – how would you categorize state of trade unions in Egypt?

SS: Trade unions in the United States and in developed countries are in crisis and this is related to sometimes globalization, [and] sometimes you have pressures on the trade unions to accept less wages because there is competition. American trade unions are in competition with Asian [countries], Chinese. So I understand the situation but here I think we have much to achieve before coming to your crisis. [Laugh]

Here there is a better future for the workers by organization. You know, usually the only power of the workers is their collective action and organization. They don’t have economic power. They don’t have ideological power. What they have is the collective action to impose their demands.

So these collective actions was weakened by political authoritarianism; by a dictatorship. As [long] as we are having a democratic process now, workers will benefit, without any doubt.

They are more free now to act, to organize on a syndical trade union level and in politics….They are just in the process of organizing as workers in the workplace and on the economic level. In politics in the future in a few years I think they will be represented on the political scene. They may form their own party or parties or they will be strongly connected to some political party.

This is a very political voting bloc in Egypt. Democracy, as it is giving power to the majority, will empower the workers. Workers in Egypt are the majority of the population.

JS: Biggest obstacle for the Egyptian labor union movement?

SS: One is what we call in Egypt the counter-revolution. The counter-revolution is a kind of socio-economic forces aligned with some politicians sometimes with the military council. We have conservative forces in Egypt trying to keep the situation; keep the Mubarak regime without Mubarak. So this is a challenge because they want to empty the achievements of the revolution to make it just decorative reforms. So this is a challenge. It’s a challenge to consolidate their rights in free representation, to defend their right to strike because the military council is trying to limit this right.

The second challenge is economic. Because the cake is limited. So if workers want to increase their share in the cake they should participate in increasing the cake itself. So the cake itself, the size of the economy, economic growth is very important to improve the situation in Egypt. Otherwise it will be difficult to make real improvement in their lives.

The forces resisting change are everywhere. What we call today the counter-revolution includes state officials, military officers, includes businessmen, [and] some people from the wider society. They don’t want change either because they are very conservative or because they have interest in the old system. They are very diverse people.

JS: Dissolution [of ETUF is] good?

SS: Yes, this is really good news. These people were not really workers. They were not representative of the working class. They were almost businessmen. Members of the board of administration of the worker’s bank and they were getting a lot of money out of it. One of them has a swimming pool in his villa. So these people were not really workers. So dissolving this board was something very good, very necessary, and it was a dream. I was very happy. I think most of the workers were very happy about it.




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