The furor over President Mohamed Morsi’s edict granting himself untrammeled powers has distracted attention from another controversial decree extending the Muslim Brotherhood’s control over the country’s labor movement. The move amounts to another power-grab by the Islamists, say activists, confirming the group’s intolerance of political pluralism and determination to monopolize power. The provisions require board members of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) over 60 years of age to retire and permit minister of manpower Khaled al-Azhari, a member of the Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party, to appoint replacements to vacant posts. The ETUF, a bastion of the former regime led by Mubarak loyalists, has been challenged by internal reformers and an upsurge of independent unions.
“The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs,” writes Dina Bishara, a researcher at George Washington University.
“While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi’s decree claiming unlimited presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power,” she adds.
Decree 97 denounced by the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), a body that emerged from the wave of industrial militancy that predated and, some observers suggest, sparked the January uprising that deposed the Mubarak regime.
“This is a clear indicator that Morsi is seeking to monopolize the labor movement by first ‘Brotherhoodizing’ the Ministry of Manpower, and now the ETUF” says Fatma Ramadan, an executive board member of the EFITU.
Rather than allow elections to fill the seats vacated by the old guard, Morsi is simply replacing Mubarak loyalists with Brotherhood placemen, he says, demonstrating that the Islamists are “clearly preparing a systematic crackdown against Egypt’s union movement, against the right to strike, against the right to organize and against union plurality,” he argues.
Decree No. 97 is “an attempt by the Brotherhood to control the union structure which had previously been monopolized by the Mubarak regime,” comments Wael Habib, a caretaker board member of the ETUF.
Many observers have charged that the Brotherhood shares many of the illiberal, authoritarian instincts of the former regime, as evidenced by the Islamists’ support for last year’s crackdown on foreign-funded democracy assistance NGOs.
The Brotherhood’s latest move “upholds — rather than breaks — with some of the core authoritarian practices of the past, namely extensive government interference in union affairs,” notes Bishara:
The amendments thus lend further evidence to the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to bolster its currently weak standing in the ETUF. Not only has Morsi’s prime minister offered one of the few FJP cabinet posts to the minister of manpower, MB unionists have also tried to push a new trade unions law that many critics charge violates the tenets of union pluralism.
“This is merely an attempt to replace old members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) with newer members from the now-ruling regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party,” Habib adds.
“The Brotherhood-controlled Ministry of Manpower is now in the process of facilitating this takeover of the ETUF. This is a blatant and unwarranted intervention in union affairs from the state.”
The new edict “sets a dangerous precedent for state-labor relations in post-Mubarak Egypt,” says Bishara.
“Rather than break from a pattern of state interference in internal union affairs, the law upholds that tradition, at least for the time being. But the decree has sharpened the divisions among labor activists in Egypt, further polarizing that community into pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood camps.”
The history and current state of Egypt’s labor movement are examined in The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, a report published by the Solidarity Center, one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
In recognition of their role in advancing of association and labor rights, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services and the Real Estate Tax Authority union—Egypt’s first independent union in 50 years—received the 2009 AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.