In 2007, renowned trade unionist and opposition figure Kamal Abu Eita led thousands of workers on strikes and sit-ins outside the Cabinet.
One uprising and an election later, more mass protests led to the ousting of a second president and countless bouts of politically-fueled violence. It’s 2013, and Abu Eita is now the sitting minister of manpower.
In just eight years, Abu Eita has steadily risen from the ranks of an independent trade union organizer, to a member of parliament, to a minister in the very Cabinet building he protested in front of six years ago.
“This may spell political suicide for me,” Abu Eita said prior to accepting his ministerial post on July 16.
The statement was a candid acknowledgment of the great risks and responsibilities associated with running this ministry in such uncertain political circumstances.
Abu Eita was appointed by interim President Adly Mansour, who himself was tapped for the post by the Armed Forces after they forced former President Mohamed Morsi out of office after the June 30 mass protests against his government.
In the aftermath of Morsi’s removal, hundreds have been killed as his supporters held protests and sit-ins demanding his reinstatement. The interim Cabinet has come under fire by some for not reacting to the bloodshed, while others laud the the government’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, which they now label a terrorist organization.
Reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei, whose appointment to the position of vice president of international affairs was seen as giving the government a level of legitimacy, resigned from his post following the violent dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14.
Since accepting his nomination to the Cabinet, Abu Eita has been criticized and condemned for his actions and inactions alike. While some in the labor movement have praised and applauded him, millions of Egyptian workers and employees are still waiting to assess his performance.
Most recently, Abu Eita has been credited with pushing forth a new minimum wage law for government workers, which sets baseline salaries at LE1,200 per month, compared to the previous rate of LE700.
Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi announced in mid-September that the new minimum wage would be enforced in the public sector by January 2014, although the government still wasn’t sure how it was going to find the funds to do so.
On July 17, Abu Eita had pledged that the minimum wage law would be passed within three days. Now, two months later, workers and labor activists are wondering if the law will actually be implemented come January 2014, or whether it will remain arbitrary.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about labor rights since the beginning of the January 25 revolution. In reality, we haven’t seen any of these things materialize,” says Karam Saber, a labor analyst and director of the Land Center for Human Rights.
Prior to and since the 2011 uprising, workers and independent unions have put forth clear labor demands to realize the goals of “bread, freedom and social justice.”
Chief among these is a minimum wage of LE1,200 — or, according to more recent demands, between LE1,500 or LE2,000 — for all sectors of the economy. A maximum wage for public sector administrators has also been demanded, which would have a ceiling of no more than 15 times the minimum wage.
The right to establish independent trade unions and the right to engage in peaceful strikes and other forms of industrial action are seen as vital to any democratic environment. Related to this is the reinstatement of workers and unionists punitively sacked from their jobs due to industrial actions, which was and remains to be a core cause for many labor strikes.
Also integral to their demands is the re-nationalization of companies which had their privatization contracts nullified by court order, which the activists consider to be central in undoing years of corrupt practices and what’s seen as the unfair restructuring of companies. In the same vein, union activists demand the reopening of hundreds of stalled or bankrupt factories and companies nationwide.
The man behind the ministry
While speaking favorably of Abu Eita’s personality and previous struggles, Saber says the minister is “a member of a Cabinet which clearly sides with the interests of businessmen, investors and security forces.”
“Realistically, he cannot prevent these powers-that-be from violating workers’ rights. At the same time, he has a responsibility and duty to uphold domestic labor and union laws, as well as international agreements such as the International Labor Organizations’ conventions, to which Egypt is a party,” he adds.
Tangible dismay has been expressed towards Abu Eita’s relative silence as security forces were deployed to quell labor strikes over the past weeks.
According to Tallal Shokr of the independent Egyptian Democratic Labor Confederation, “Abu Eita is a praiseworthy man, yet he is just one man. Although he is well-informed and in touch with what’s happening, the deep state is bigger than him and his ministry. This deep state serves the interests of businessmen, first and foremost.
“Abu Eita will be the best minister of manpower this country has had if he can fulfill his promises,” he adds. “We wish him success.”
Hailing from Abu Eita’s Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), Fatma Ramadan also wishes the new minister luck.
“If he finds that this deep state is too deep for him, or if he finds himself unable to carry out his responsibilities under these conditions, then he should resign,” she says. “He should resign as other Cabinet and governmental officials have recently done when they’ve realized that Egyptians’ rights are being violated, and that the revolution is being led astray.”
On the other hand, leading members of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) have openly denounced Abu Eita and his alleged meddling in ETUF affairs.
One of Abu Eita’s chief opponents, particularly since he was appointed minister, is Gabali al-Maraghy, former chief of the ETUF and its subsidiary General Union of Land Transport Workers.
On September 7, Abu Eita’s ministry announced a shake-up of the ETUF’s administrative board. Maraghy was first to be dismissed.
Abu Eita replaced him with Abdel Fattah Ibrahim, the former chief of the General Union of Textile Workers.
Maraghy has since claimed that Abu Eita illegally intervened in ETUF affairs, and even called for protests against the new minister, including a public transport strike.
Saber confirms this claim.
“Yes, this may be viewed as an act of interference in union affairs. But this is how the ETUF has functioned ever since it was created. It has always been under the Ministry of Manpower’s control,” he says.
Abu Eita was instrumental in establishing the Real Estate Tax Authority Employees (RETA) Union in April 2009, which broke away from the confines of the ETUF after weeks of strikes and sit-ins, and became the first independent union to be established in Egypt since 1954. The union claims to have a membership of some 27,000 employees nationwide.
He then went on to help establish the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions on January 30 2011, incorporating RETA with the Independent Teachers Syndicate, Pensioners Syndicate and Egyptian Health Technologists Syndicate.
Abu Eita was subsequently elected president of the EFITU.
He successfully ran for Parliament under the electoral list of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, winning a seat in the Bulaq circuit of Giza in January 2012. Following the court-ordered dissolution of Parliament, and Morsi’s election as president in June 2012, Abu Eita took a more antagonistic stance towards the Brotherhood.
The 60-year-old Abu Eita, a member of the Nasserist Karama Party, welcomed the mass protests mobilized by the Tamarod (Rebel) movement on June 30, and also welcomed the role played by the Armed Forces in giving Morsi an ultimatum that forced him out of office.
Since then, Abu Eita’s outlooks and statements appear to have changed significantly.
Shortly after the Morsi was deposed on July 3, Abu Eita issued statements calling on workers to put their industrial actions on hold, and to forfeit their right to strike during this “period of national reconstruction.”
These comments have caused considerable ire and angst within the camp of independent unionists, left-leaning activists and other labor organizers.
“Our problem is not with Kamal Abu Eita as a person; our problem is that the government has sided with the independent unions rather than the ETUF,” says former ETUF secretary Nagy Rashad.
“The government chose to appoint a minister from a smaller federation, with fewer members, rather than the ETUF, which is the country’s oldest and largest union federation,” he says.
He claims that the ETUF has a membership of 5 million workers nationwide; other statistics say the actual number is less than 4.5 million. The EFITU claims a membership of 2.5 million, although the actual number of unionized workers in this nascent federation could also be fewer.
“Abu Eita has proposed numerous initiatives to promote workers’ rights and liberties since 2006, and he’s been a champion of independent union organization,” Rashad recognizes, adding that the minister is now seeking to reconcile Egypt’s different union federations.
Meanwhile, he has been criticized for appointing several members from his EFITU to leading positions within the ETUF’s administrative board.
Emad al-Araby, formerly a board member of EFITU, is amongst these new appointees announced on September 7.
Araby commented that he, like Abu Eita before him, had stepped down from his post in the independent federation. And despite his membership in the Karama Party, Araby claims, “Kamal [Abu Eita] is neutral and stands at an equal distance from all of Egypt’s unions and workers.”
Abu Eita will continue in the footsteps of former minister Ahmed Boraei — who served as manpower minister from March to July 2011 and is the incumbent minister of social solidarity — in pushing for new labor legislation, namely the anticipated Trade Union Liberties Law, set to replace the intrusive Trade Union Law 35/1976.
Defending the minister’s recent comments about industrial action, Araby says he “did not make these statements against the right to strike. He made these statements in light of the Brotherhood’s calls for strikes and civil disobedience — since Morsi’s ouster.”
“Strikes will remain a basic right, and a weapon in the hands of the workers. However, the Brotherhood is seeking to exploit labor rights in attempt to reinstate their deposed leader,” he claims.
It was the events of June 30 that brought Kamal forward as a candidate for the ministry. “Kamal did not nominate himself to this post; in fact, he had previously turned down the post of minister of manpower, which he was offered in 2011,” Araby asserts.