The upcoming presidential elections are further polarizing the ranks of Egypt’s already divided trade unions.
Celebrating Labor Day with the interim Cabinet, state-controlled federations are openly offering their services to support former Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidential bid.
But independent trade union federations are divided on the issue, and some are seeking to distance themselves from both Sisi and his chief contender, the Nasserist-oriented candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
With the first round of voting due to start just over three weeks from now on May 26-27, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has actively dedicated itself to the Sisi campaign. A host of ETUF officials announced that the federation would campaign for the field marshal nationwide, and offered Sisi’s campaign team the use of its unions, buildings and offices to ensure his victory.
The ETUF was established in 1957 under the regime of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser as the only trade union federation recognized by law. Both Sisi and Sabbahi claim to be inspired by Nasser’s populist politics, and aspire to follow in his footsteps.
The ETUF makes no secret about campaigning for Sisi, as it did for former President Hosni Mubarak before him. The federation used to install pro-Mubarak banners and billboards in public spaces during presidential referendums, often with the description “Shield of Egypt’s workers.”
Unlike the ETUF, however, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) declared that it would not officially side with either of the presidential candidates, even though its former president, Kamal Abu Eita — who served as interim manpower minister from July to February, 2013 — is a member of Sabbahi’s Karama (Dignity) Party.
Abu Eita, who has since resigned from the EFITU, is now campaigning for Sabbahi.
The independent Egyptian Democratic Labor Confederation (EDLC) is also keeping its distance from both presidential candidates, although this policy of neutrality appears to have led to conflicts and divisions within the consortium’s leadership.
EDLC President Yousri Maarouf was unseated from his post on January 7 after a vote of no confidence from the independent federation’s executive board. Maarouf was accused of acting unilaterally without consulting with the board, but his open support for Sisi may also have contributed to his downfall.
According to EDLC board member, Tallal Shokr, “Our federation reiterates that it keeps an equal distance from all political nominees. Our unions and our commemoration of Labor Day must not be exploited to support presidential candidates or political parties. Our role is to serve our constituents as an independent federation — not to support political forces.”
Shokr adds that “every worker and constituent of the EDLC has the right to vote for whomever he or she wants. It is not up to us to influence them into voting for one candidate or another.”
Even though he was dismissed from his post, Maarouf continues to make political statements on behalf of the EDLC. Speaking at a press conference on April 8, Maarouf announced that the EDLC endorses and supports Sisi’s presidential bid. The EDLC has denounced Maarouf's announcements.
“Our federation does not support presidential candidates or non-union figures, as it is an independent labor organization with no official political allegiances,” says Saad Shaaban, the newly-elected EDLC president.
Shaaban asserts that the EDLC refuses to be politicized or work as an agent for a particular presidential candidate. “Like Maarouf, we also took action against another one of our leading unionists, Tarek al-Beheiry, who announced his support for Sabbahi and claimed that the EDLC supports him rather than Sisi.”
In February, another vote of no confidence was levied against Beheiry by his General Union of Transport Workers within the EDLC.
“Our purpose is not to champion Sisi or Sabbahi. We are here to champion the rights of our members and to protect the rights of the Egyptian working class,” asserts Shaaban.
However, many other unions are enthusiastically wading into political waters. The Fishermen’s Union in the North Sinai governorate declared it would back Sisi’s presidential campaign, as did the state-controlled General Union of Farmers.
The General Union of Farmers — recently established under the auspices of Agriculture Minister Ayman Abu Hadeed — announced its endorsement of Sisi on March 27, just one day after the field marshal announced his resignation from the Defense Ministry and intention to run for president.
On April 3 the union held a press conference in which its president, Mohamed Aqarri, sang Sisi’s praises.
“We the farmers of Egypt have determined our stance and unified our ranks to stand behind our beloved leader Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his campaign for president,” Aqarri declared.
He went on to compare Sisi to the “Father of modern Egypt” Mohamed Ali Pasha, saying the former army chief would serve a similar role “in forging a new Egyptian civilization. Yes for Sisi, so as to wipe out terrorism and to provide stability, security and safety.”
The farmers union claims that it from March 31 to April 20 collected some 20,000 signatures of support from across the country for Sisi’s candidature. The union also said it would organize town and village-based campaigns for the field marshal’s electoral bid.
Abdel Meguid al-Khouly, president of the Independent Farmers’ Federation, opposes the union’s position. He argues that the General Union of Farmers is “a governmental organization which seeks to monopolize the farmers’ local organizations to serve the interests of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
“Our organizations are meant to represent small farmers and peasants, not politicians and government officials,” Khouly asserts.
A number of other professional associations have sided with Sisi’s presidential campaign, as well. On March 27 the general assembly of the Pharmacists Syndicate in the central Suez Canal city of Ismailia announced that it would back Sisi’s campaign.
Similarly, On April 13, the Teachers Syndicate in Ismailia announced that it would support and even campaign for Sisi’s presidency. However, neither the general syndicates of pharmacists or teachers have announced an official stance regarding Sisi or Sabbahi.
Elected last month, the new Engineers Syndicate President Tarek al-Nabrawy announced that the organization would not take any stance politically — although he has openly and repeatedly denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as being “terrorists.”
Nabrawy replaced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Magdy al-Khlousi as syndicate president.
Perhaps the most vocal advocate of Sisi’s presidency amongst all trade unions and professional syndicates is Gebaly al-Maraghy, acting President of the ETUF.
Maraghy was appointed by the Ministry of Manpower to serve as the interim chief of the ETUF until new elections could be held. This state-controlled federation has not held elections since 2006, although ETUF elections were originally scheduled for late 2011.
In an interview with the privately-owned Veto newspaper on Wednesday, Maraghy commented, “The decision to support Sisi in the presidential election was not my individual decision, as it was openly voted-on by the ETUF’s board members. There was a consensus among all members to pledge allegiance to Sisi in the upcoming elections.”
“We will hold popular conferences in many companies and factories across the republic, and we will urge the workers in all these locations to partake in the elections by voting for Field Marshal Sisi,” Maraghy added, promising that “we will open our headquarters, and all of our local union offices in the governorates for use by Sisi’s campaign team.”
The EDLC’s Shaaban responds by arguing that “in reality, the ETUF does not represent Egypt’s workers. A number of courts have ruled that it is illegally elected and illegitimately appointed. The ETUF does not seek workers’ gains; it is looking for the personal gains of its board members, and for a patron to protect their own interests.”
“These unionists blindly follow their leaders, as they did with Mubarak,” Shaaban continues. “They continue to align themselves with the ruling regime, and they abide by the slogan: ‘The king is dead, long live the king’.”