Dissolve state controlled trade unions – Egyptian workers demand

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AROUND 500 workers and labour activists congregated outside the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) on Monday to demand the federation’s dissolution.

Protesters gathered at 4.00pm and chanted slogans calling for the right to conduct peaceful labour strikes, the trial of ETUF leaders, and the right to establish independent unions.

‘The federation is a den of thieves; the federation is a group of thugs,’ protesters chanted. Dozens attempted to storm and occupy the ETUF headquarters at around 5.00pm.

ETUF security responded by beating protesters out of the building, which led to rocks being thrown back and forth. ETUF employees and security began to hurl bottles, sticks and rocks from the floors above, injuring a number of protesters and journalists.

An army jeep drove up to the shattered gates of the ETUF headquarters, and a soldier and officer, brandishing guns, stepped out and pushed the opposing factions away from each other. Three ETUF employees involved in the melee were detained for questioning.

The officer called on three representatives from among the protesters to spell out their demands.

Meanwhile, protesters chanted, ‘The people demand the removal of the federation,’ while others held up signs reading, ‘Put on trial those responsible for profiteering from privatisation.’

The largest number of workers in attendance were those from the independent Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees (RETA).

RETA Union President Kamal Abu Eita grabbed a megaphone and spelled out the demands. ‘We demand the dissolution of the federation. We call on the general prosecutor to freeze the accounts of (ETUF President) Hussein Megawer and all other federation officials. We demand the right to establish independent trade unions and official recognition of these free unions.’

Megawer and his finances are currently being investigated by the general prosecutor’s office. The ETUF president has been prevented from leaving the country until these investigations are concluded.

On February 6th, the independent Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) filed a lawsuit against Megawer on charges of misappropriating funds and misrepresenting workers and unions. CTUWS Director Kamal Abbas told protesters outside the ETUF that ‘this Federation no longer represents Egypt’s workers or unions.’ He demanded the swift investigation of Megawer’s finances and those of other ETUF officials.

Abbas added: ‘On January 30, a new independent federation was established, including the Unions of the Real Estate Tax Authority, the Egyptian Health Technologists’ Syndicate, the Independent Teachers’ Syndicate, and the Pensioners’ Syndicate. This is the only legitimate trade union federation in Egypt.’

All of the abovementioned unions and syndicates were established over the course of the last two years, independent of the ETUF.

Egypt’s trade unions have been under state control since 1957. Since then, only two labour strikes have been authorised, while independent trade unions have been harassed and their activities obstructed.

The federation has 24 general unions, 22 of which are presided over by members of ousted president Husni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

The ETUF had planned to postpone its elections this year in order to support the re-election of President Mubarak, and so as not to overlap with presidential elections slated for later this year.

Also, youth leaders on Monday unveiled their blueprint for the upcoming transitional period, calling on the Egyptian Armed Forces to sack the incumbent cabinet and guarantee the implementation of democratic reforms.

In a policy paper read out at a press conference on Monday, the ‘Coalition of Young Revolutionaries’ called on the military to form a new interim government of technocrats within one month. This cabinet should be headed by ‘a patriotic civil personality that the people respect and trust’.

‘We ask the armed forces to settle this issue as soon as possible, and dismiss all ministers who belong to the National Democratic Party (NDP),’ youth representative Shady Harb told reporters.

In a move to contain public outrage that erupted on January 25, then President Husni Mubarak sacked his cabinet, expelling businessmen long seen as the vehicles of unpopular neo-liberal economic reforms, along with then Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who is being blamed for the death of at least 300 people during the uprising.

But this move fell short of convincing the revolutionaries that genuine change has been introduced, especially after the president reappointed several notorious NDP stalwarts, including Mufid Shehab, state minister for legal and parliamentary affairs, and Sameh Fahmi, minister of petroleum.

‘It is impossible for a cabinet whose corrupt acts provoked this revolution to oversee the transitional period,’ said Ziad al-Eleimy, another coalition spokesperson.

The armed forces issued a statement on Sunday ordering the Mubarak-appointed cabinet to remain in office until a new one is formed, without giving a dateline.

The same statement also announced the suspension of the Constitution during the transitional period, the formation of a commission to introduce a set of constitutional amendments and the dissolution of Egypt’s bicameral parliament.

The statement affirmed that the military would be in charge of running the country during the transitional phase until a new parliament and president could be elected.

Youth leaders, who championed the revolution that ousted Mubarak last week, also called upon the armed forces to guarantee that the new parliament would formulate a new constitution that would establish a parliamentary republic, put curbs on the president’s authority, and set a clear separation of power between the state’s three branches.

In 1971, Egypt’s current constitution was passed by late president Anwar Sadat. For decades, this constitution was criticised for flagrant imbalances of power and the unlimited powers it granted to the president at the expense of the parliament and the judicial branch.

Young cadres are expected to convey their views on the current state of affairs to the armed forces in a series of closed meetings.

They say they had their first talks with the military on Sunday and were expected to attend a new session of discussions.

‘What happened on Sunday was a preliminary meeting; we have not started the negotiations yet,’ said Harb. ‘It was a positive meeting. They told us, “you can call us anytime and schedule a meeting”.’

Later this week, the coalition is expected to raise a plethora of other demands listed in their policy paper, including the lifting of Egypt’s long-standing state of emergency; the abolition of martial laws and emergency courts; dismantling of the NDP and the confiscation of all its assets by the state; respecting the right to form associations, unions and media outlets; dissolving the oppressive State Security Apparatus; and releasing all political prisoners.

The policy paper also calls for the abrogation of the restrictive law regulating the formation of political parties within ten days, and the drafting of a new law for the exercise of political rights within one month.

To enhance the political participation of young people – who constitute over 50 per cent of Egypt’s population – the coalition has asked for lowering the eligibility age for parliamentary candidacy from 30 to 25, and for presidential candidacy from 40 to 35.

Since the 1952 military coup, Egypt had crumbled under an arsenal of oppressive laws that served to hinder political participation, and concentrate power in the hands of the president’s ruling party.

‘We still have a lot of other steps to take in order to fulfil the objectives of the revolution,’ read an earlier statement by coalition representatives.

The coalition has also called on the military to guarantee the enforcement of controversial court rulings that the Mubarak regime had ignored, including one ruling to expel university police guards and another to halt gas exports to Israel.

Hundreds of police descended on Tahrir Square Sunday afternoon, in an attempt to ‘make amends with the people of Egypt,’ explained one officer, who wished to remain anonymous. ‘We want the people to see, and understand, that we are not the ones that attacked them. Only a minority of officers chose to follow (former Minister of Interior) Habib al-Adly’s orders, and we should not all be held responsible for their actions.’

The protesting officers, marching in groups from various police stations and converging on Tahrir Square, carried signs and banners, and chanted slogans that echoed those of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators who occupied the square for the past 19 days.

‘There is no God but God, and Habib al-Adly is the enemy of God,’ one officer led the chanting, as he was hoisted above the crowds by his colleagues. ‘The police and the people are one hand’ – a variation on the popular slogan championing the people’s relationship with the armed forces – was met with smiles of bemusement from army soldiers cordoning the area, and cries of derision from nearby civilians, who flocked to take advantage of the opportunity to admonish the gathering police officers.