Egyptian Trade Union Federation blocked strikes and intimidated labour activists as regime faced wave of unofficial disputes
An Egyptian trade union federation that was used by the government to repress labour activism has been dissolved, dismantling another powerful component of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship.
Since its creation in 1957, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (Etuf) had been the sole official outlet for labour activism in the country. Through affiliates that supposedly represented workers at all levels of Egyptian society, the federation played a key role in blocking strikes and intimidating any labour organisers perceived as a threat to the ruling elite.
"The dissolution of the Etuf board has been one of the top demands of the labour movement throughout this revolution, and in the years proceeding it," said Hossam El-Hamalawy, a journalist specialising in labour affairs.
"This is not a federation of trade unions like the TUC in Britain; it's a federation of thugs, thieves and appointed government bureaucrats who have helped to sabotage the labour movement and deny the Egyptian working class any chance to mobilise for many decades."
In the twilight years of President Mubarak's regime, the government faced a wave of unofficial labour struggles that saw up to two million Egyptians – from train-drivers to circus performers – go on strike. Social tensions were exacerbated by a neo-liberal economic programme that pushed through multiple privatisations and cut welfare, widening the gap between rich and poor.
In response, some labour organisers attempted to form trade unions that were not part of Etuf, such as the independent property tax collectors' union. Although the government declared such unions illegal, they have mushroomed since a general strike helped topple Mubarak in February this year, and many are now joining forces to form a rival labour alliance.
Egypt's interim cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy this week announced that the federation would be dissolved after judges ruled that elections to the board had been fraudulent. It is not yet clear whether a new board will be formed or whether the nascent independent federation of trade unions will take its place.
"We already have the embryo of a new type of labour activism, and that is the one I hope can keep on growing in the coming years," said El-Hamalawy. "An independent federation will mean that millions of Egyptian workers can co-ordinate their struggles further and help bring those neo-liberal policies to a halt."