POMED Notes: A Labor Perspective on the Arab Spring and Its Aftermath
On Thursday (9/13) The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations hosted a panel discussion, entitled “A Labor Perspective on the Arab Spring and Its Aftermath,” to discuss the role of workers in creating change in the region and to address the opportunities for these labor movements to participate in the political scene. The panel included Cathy Feingold, Director of the International Department at AFL-CI; Kamal Abu ‘Ayta President of EFITU-Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions; Houcine Abassi, Secretary General of UGTT-General Union of Tunisian Workers; Salman Mahfoodh Secretary General of GFBTU-General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions; and Chris Toensing, Executive Director of the Middle East Research & Information Project, as the moderator.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click click here for the PDF version.
Chris Toensing, as moderator, posed two main questions to the panelists. The first was “what role did women play in the Arab revolts and how is that being reflected going forward?” and the second being “what are the most prominent threats on the political scene, whether it relates to the labor movement or democracy?”
Kamal Abu ‘Ayta began by explaining that women were at the forefront of strikes within labor unions before the revolution, and that their active participation during the revolution broke some of the barriers women previous faced. However, Abu ‘Ayta had some reservations about the status of women today. He continued by saying that “although women played a central role during the revolution, they did not get what they deserve with regards to representation in parliament and in the constituent assembly.” He then went on to address the prominent threats facing the democratization process as well as the labor movement. He explained that the crafting of the Constituent Assembly was “done in an unjust fashion that actually marginalizes entire segments of society that actively participated in the revolution.” Abu ‘Ayta explained that the court decision will determine the legality of the Assembly, which is a crucial step towards building a democratic Egypt. He ended by reporting that the EFITU is starting a new campaign for union freedoms and suggested that “the vicious attacks against independent unions and the youth of the revolution under the current regime are reminiscent of those under the previous regime.”
Salman Mahfoodh began by stating that women are playing a key role as the vanguard of the Bahraini movement. He explained that “women are now being arrested alongside men, a development that is fairly new to the Bahraini political scene.” Additionally, Mahfoodh mentioned that women account for 30% of Bahrain’s workforce and 20% of the GFBTU’s membership. He went on to reveal that next month the GFBTU will be holding elections in which they aim to have more female representatives elected to the executive board. Mahfoodh concluded by emphasizing the need for peaceful regime change and the establishment of free and fair elections for democratic change to take place in Bahrain.
Houcine Abassi opened by recounting the UGTT’s significant role prior to and during the Tunisian revolution. He explained that strikes and demonstrations started with UGTT members, and that the union was immediately vocal in its support of the revolution. Abassi went on to explain that in post-revolution Tunisia, the UGTT is taking on the role of promoting cooperation between different political actors. “We want a Tunisia for social equality, human rights,” said Abassi, “and a Tunisia that enjoys a free and independent media and judiciary.” He expressed that the most prominent threats to democratization in Tunisia come from “organized violence” and “the imposition of certain agendas on the democratic process.” Specifically, the attempts to exclude the UGTT from playing a strong role in the political sphere, although unsuccessful, are alarming. Abassi concluded by emphasizing that “we must be vigilant; we must do what we can to prevent these elements from stealing Tunisia’s revolution.”
During the Q&A session, the panelists were asked to discuss religious divisions within their respective countries and what role, if any, they may be playing in these labor movements. Abassi began by explaining that the overwhelming majority of Tunisians are Sunni Muslims, however, the Tunisian constitution allows for freedom of belief and freedom of religion. Mahfoodh said that government’s try to play up sectarian divides to downplay unity in the opposition movement, but cautioned that “as divided as extremists are, they are all united in their view that they fully represent Bahrain, which they do not”. Abu’Ayta felt that divisions along religious or party lines would fracture the labor movement and would act against the interests of their cause. He explained “there is no discrimination whatsoever within the labor union, otherwise, we would be harming our own cause.” He went on to describe a time in which several political and religious groups in Egypt intended to create their own labor unions “but we advised them against creating unions based on a particular religious or ideological affiliation because that would be an ineffective method of advocating for worker’s rights.”