Interview with Rahma Refaat, Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, March 8, 2011
Rahma Refaat is the program coordinator at the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), an Egyptian non-governmental worker rights organization. Refaat also serves on the executive committee of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations. Since its establishment in March 1990, CTUWS has been working to develop and strengthen Egypt’s independent union movement. The Solidarity Center conducted an interview with Refaat via e-mail.
Solidarity Center: How would you describe the role of women in the revolution?
Rahma Refaat: Women have been engaged in the revolution since its beginning. They took to the streets in the first four days and, angered by the government’s violent response during the Day of Rage [January 28], they did not back down but continued to challenge violence, even with their bodies. Women’s participation in the sit-ins at Tahrir Square helped frame the revolution in conformance with principles of equality, democracy, and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion.
SC: It was obvious from media coverage that women were part of both the revolution and strike action in support of the revolution. Was this true beforehand? Do you think women will play leadership roles in the reform of the Egyptian government and labor structures? Is there support for women to play a leadership role from inside the reform movement?
RR: Of course, women were part of both the revolution and strike action in support of revolution. But I am not sure that they can play a leadership role in the reform of the Egyptian government. We have a saying: Women always pay the price but never take the fruit!
So in spite of women’s active participation in the revolution, the opposition and democratic forces might only superficially express their commitment to equality, and they might be only minimally involved in developing a gender-sensitive society. The potential for democracy—including women’s rights—is there, but most demands remain unfulfilled. A great deal still needs to be done before the Egyptian revolution is realized, and Egyptians [as a whole] have earned their lost rights and their fully democratic Egypt. During the past week, a great step was taken toward meeting the Egyptian people’s demands, in the resignation of the previous prime minister and the appointment of Essam Sharaf, who had joined the protesters in Tahrir Square before Mubarak’s removal from office and was suggested by the youth coalition in their meeting with the military. Today, Sahraf announced that a Commissioner for Women will be established. This Commissioner, whose role is to activate women’s participation and enable their representatives, will be linked directly to the Cabinet’s head.
Increasing women’s participation and their active role in the labor movement has had a positive effect upon their roles in the new democratic labor structures. This experience is helping them to express themselves, achieve their objectives, and confront discrimination. In addition, the new independent unions have developed gender-sensitive structures where women’s engagement and representation are enshrined in their constitutions.
SC: How is International Women’s Day being celebrated in Egypt?
RR: For International Women’s Day, a demonstration is being organized in Cairo by a coalition of women’s organizations in collaboration with many political and democratic activists. Women labor activists and trade unionists will attend the demonstration to raise women workers’ demands.
SC: Some people are saying this was a “bread and butter” revolution (based on economic issues), others that it was a Facebook revolution. What do you think?
RR: It has been the Egyptian people’s revolution—those who refused to live their lives under the humiliation of unemployment and the silence of oppression. The Egyptian youth went to the streets and with them all sectors of the Egyptian people. In reality, though, the Egyptian workers and employees started the countdown for the day of departure four years ago. Over the last four years, their strikes and protest movement haven’t stopped.
SC: You were present on January 30, 2011, when the Founding Declaration of the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions was issued. How did you feel?
RR: Yes, I was present. It was two days after the Day of Rage [one of the bloodiest days in modern Egyptian history]. The workers and employees who were very angry couldn’t accept the stand of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF)—a governmental institution that has always been attached to the regime as one if its tools of tyranny, despotism, and corruption. It could not be accepted any longer after the stand it took against the Egyptian people’s revolution and its January 26 message to presidents of the general trade unions asking them strongly “to abort any attempt to get the workers involved in the demonstrations in Cairo and other governorates.” A vital, dynamic, and creative discussion was launched, and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions was the result. Now, the Egyptian labor movement is at a new stage in its struggle to gain the right to freedom of association. It is time not to speak but to take action, to practice real influence and establish independent unions in the new federation.
SC: The people’s revolution in Egypt, the role of labor in the uprising, and the creation of an independent Egyptian trade union movement made news around the world. How accurate do you think foreign media coverage of these events has been?
RR: As a whole, the media supplied good coverage of the protest movement, especially after February 8, when the labor strikes and protest movement spread to the whole country. Nevertheless, coverage of the creation of an independent Egyptian trade union movement has been less satisfactory. Maybe there is a lack of understanding and consideration of the Egyptian labor status quo before the revolution and of Egyptian workers’ urgent need for their independent unions.
SC: Several goals set out in the Founding Declaration of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions are broad and ambitious, while others are quite specific. Which ones do you think can be achieved quickly? Which ones are more long-term? What obstacles do you anticipate?
RR: The Founding Declaration of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions has already achieved some goals. During the Egyptian revolution events, it responded immediately to the official ETUF stand, announcing the Egyptian labor movement’s engagement in the Egyptian people’s revolution and supporting its call for democracy and changing the totalitarian regime. On February 8, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions called on Egyptian workers to raise their voices and demand their freedom and right to a decent life with dignity and social justice. Egyptian workers responded and organized protest movements all over the country on February 9–10. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions also succeeded in separating, isolating, and blockading the previous regime’s follower Federation in Egyptian society and announcing that [ETUF] doesn’t represent the Egyptian workers anymore and doesn’t have the right to speak on their behalf.
Building more and more independent unions is a very important goal that could be achieved immediately. It is based on the great potential of Egyptian workers, who are looking toward their independent organizations. Developing new and active mechanisms for real social negotiation and collective bargaining is also a specific and achievable goal. We hope clear collective agreements [with time frames] can be developed to address the main labor problems and demands.
The road is opening now, and many goals can be achieved: changing labor laws, including trade union laws; putting an end to the artificial separation between professional unions and trade unions, which historically has weakened the Egyptian labor movement; changing the situation of Egyptian workers, who are represented officially, especially in the International Labor Organization (ILO), by the previous regime’s follower federation; and meeting Egyptian workers’ main demands for fair wages, decent work, job security, a social insurance umbrella that includes domestic and informal workers, equality, and social justice as a whole.
The potential is great, but many obstacles must be overcome. Until now, for example, there has been a lack of organization. Protest movements are everywhere, but they are not experienced enough to organize themselves, and the newborn federation’s capacity hasn’t been developed enough to provide the required assistance. Disbanding the old arbitrary and high-handed structure of the Egyptian official federation is another long-term goal. ETUF has been one of the regime’s oppression subsidiaries, strongly linked to its administrations and foundations, and it has severely impeded the workers’ independent movement. Finally, rebuilding negotiation mechanisms will be a challenge in the face of lack of confidence and the difficulty of creating process amid threats to the environment, collapsed systems, and the very complicated political situation.
SC: What was the purpose of the March 2 conference, Demands of the Workers of the Revolution? What was the outcome?
The purpose in particular was to emphasize that the official governmental federation has never truly represented Egyptian workers. Thousands of workers sent a message to Egyptian society, calling all who are struggling for democracy, and saying: “We are with you. Be with us. Be with our independent trade union organization. Let us work together to remove the restrictions that deprived us of our right to form our independent trade unions. Share with us in collapsing the rejected ETUF so that you can hear the genuine and democratic voice of the Egyptian workers.” They also sent their message to Egyptian businessmen who are aspiring to establish democracy in Egypt, develop our society, open new prospects, and provide decent job opportunities for our youth—inviting them to exercise positive negotiations and informing them that the “official governmental” ETUF does not represent the workers and does not have the right to speak on their behalf. A third message went to the ILO, informing it of these important developments in the hope that it will persuade concerned parties to take the necessary steps for securing democratic representation of Egyptian workers. We have a lot to do together.