Egyptian and Tunisian Women Labor Leaders Speak in San Francisco

Posted on August 23, 2011

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I had the good fortune to attend a great talk and Q&A by a delegation of women’s labor activists from Egypt and Tunisia on Thursday, August 18. The leaders spoke to a standing room only crowd in San Francisco’s mission district. The event, sponsored by Arab American Union Member’s Council, Arab Resource and Organizing Center and other organizations, gave audience members a chance to hear first hand accounts of labor’s participation in the exciting events of the Arab Spring in these two countries.

The delegates come from two different labor movements with distinct social and governmental challenges, and differing paths. Egyptian unions shackled to the Mubarak regime were recently freed from their link to the state, becoming a nation wide and rapidly growing independent union federation. Ostensibly independent unions in Tunisia gained their freedom from the oppression and influence of the Ben Ali regime to assume a great amount of influence over civil society and government. The crowd was very diverse, comprising young activists, students, union organizers and labor activists, and academics and, of course, a broad swath of the Bay Area Arab-American community. A lively question and answer session followed, that was as critical as it was supportive, as the different groups represented tried to find common ground and a road forward in their experiences.

The details of their experiences at the front lines of non-violent resistance were particularly welcome. The Tunisian delegation, for example, described how the stratified nature of gender roles in Egypt, led to an effective distribution of labor on the front lines, where security forces balked at touching or manhandling them. Both groups stressed the solidarity and sense of community that the revolutions brought about, defending themselves, and defending others from attack from repressive security forces.

Both delegations spoke of the growing influence and independence of unions. In Tunisia, for example, since the revolution, union membership had increased by 35% to 700,000, and showed no sign of peaking. Moreover, the weakness of the interim institutions, still linked to the old regime, gave unions greater power in the restructuring of the government structure and a greater say on proposals to create social justice—for example, one of the first victories that the union helped bring about was a requirement for candidates to be comprised of 50% women in upcoming legislative elections.

The Egyptian delegation spoke of the astonishing increase in unions independent from state control—from two unions beginning in 2006, to four unions during the Tahrir Square moment, to an incredible 88 unions with 250,000 members in the months since the height of the Tahrir Square protests. While the association of unions in Egypt enjoys less influence on the government than their Tunisian counterparts, it has been very effective in opposing the attempts of the military command’s interim government to halt popular demonstrations. While the interior minister was demanding a return to calm, unions continued to protest, gaining a five percent increase in wages nation wide. And even as the military led government attempted to criminalize protests, the sales tax union was protesting in front of the Finance Ministry against corruption.

In all, the delegates were anxious and excited about upcoming elections in October in both countries, which will be the barometer of the victories won by the respective uprisings. Both groups spoke of the on-going nature of the “revolution” and the capacity to continue taking to the street if it becomes clear that their revolutions have not yet gone far enough to uproot the old regime.

In the days since, and especially in view of NATO’s final and oddly [very oddly] rapid victory in Tripoli and the doubts that now surge about the future of reconstructing the Libyan government absent institutions or civil society, the experience has reinforced some very sound and ancient wisdom. No matter the constitution or the government type, the key to effective change will more than likely be organized by popular institutions. Thus, taking full advantage of whatever social and political space offered– whether it be offered for fear, or PR by the regime–is critical. The glare of Social Media has, in the Western media mainstream, eclipsed much of the significant build up to the revolution in Egypt that had occurred through the labor movement. This was a labor movement fighting both their own leaders and the government. In Tunisia, likewise, the more independent union organization saw its chance to assume a greater role, based on the strength that it had been allowed to develop.

While our own union movement seems in itself unlikely to produce any kind of significant change, the very fact that the apparatus exists for people in similar circumstances to come together, offers hope that those same people can rebel against their own leadership and the corporations and state structures that restrain them. Then they would at last be popular movements once more, with a leadership earned by taking on the needs and desires of all people. Something to be remembered as we watch the disparate roads for the countries involved in the Arab Spring, wistfully wondering where our Yanqi Summer will be coming from.

You can download an audio file of the event by clicking this link. It has been lightly edited for length.

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