Work is key to the Arab revolutions
May Day in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has often been celebrated by both official and independent trade unions. But this year’s celebrations – especially in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt – have a special resonance. For the first time, the Arab trade union movement that has spoken and marched this May Day is predominantly independent of the state, and linked to the International Trade Union Confederation that co-ordinated an Arab Countries Declaration for Democracy and Social Justice signed by 77 national and sectoral trade unions across the region. From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, trade unions have been leading the struggle for democracy and social justice. Trade unions are usually involved somehow in the replacement of dictatorships by democracies – think Poland, Brazil and South Africa – but their role in the MENA region is also a clear indication that these are not merely political uprisings. They underline the essential truth of Bill Clinton’s electoral maxim – even in the MENA region, “it’s the economy, stupid!”
To the western media (but not the local Arab journalists), these revolutions were led by the young, graduate middle class. In reality, they are merely the ones most able to speak to the western media in its own language. Unions were at the heart of the uprisings. The UGTT in Tunisia called and led the street demonstrations against the corrupt Ben Ali regime that they had co-existed with uneasily (their leaders in and out of jail, basically) for years, and even took part in one of the transitional governments that replaced him. In Egypt, the uprising was preceded by a year of workplace unrest, and it was mass strikes that eventually forced Mubarak from power and have now led to the formation of independent trade unions and new left wing political parties. And in Bahrain, the newly formed trade unions played a leading role in demonstrations and strikes in the economically crucial oil industry.