Politics & Policy

Arab Trade Unions: A New Force

Trade unions have played a surprising role in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Where will they turn next?

The revolutions that have swept throughout the Middle East caught not only American policymakers and regional governments by surprise, but also opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. One group that was not caught off guard, however, was the region’s independent trade unions. While Arab states have long sought to regulate, or indeed to run, their countries’ trade unions, in recent years these groups have increasingly asserted their independence from government control.

The wave of Arab protests started with the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor. Bouazizi’s death might have been just one more forgotten tragedy had it not been for the Tunisian General Union of Labor, which, while nominally “independent,” was until then controlled by the Ben Ali government. During the protests following Bouazizi’s death, the union cut its ties with the government and embraced true independence, organizing its half-million members to join the protests. Not only did the Tunisian General Union of Labor play a lead role in ousting Ben Ali, but its continued agitation led to the resignation of the prime minister and senior Ben Ali aides earlier this month.

Egypt proved the pattern to be the rule rather than the exception. Between 2004 and 2008, 1.7 million Egyptian workers had already launched almost 2,000 strikes. As protesters gathered on Tahrir Sqaure, Egyptian workers united to form the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions, effectively destroying the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Whereas the state-controlled union ordered workers to stay on their jobs, the new Federation led them to strike and to join the protests that ultimately brought about Mubarak’s downfall.

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the newly independent trade unions seek democracy, economic stability, and more liberal — rather than religious — government. But Washington should be wary. Historically, Arab trade unions have failed to find a compromise between repression and political co-optation. Not only in Tunisia and Egypt, but also in Algeria and Syria, governments have used unions as mechanisms of authoritarian control. In Lebanon, where trade unions have remained nominally free, they act as extensions of political parties and, in Lebanon’s chaotic politics, major sources of instability.

The new unions are no panacea. For example, the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions calls for wage reform, education, and a more rigorous fight against corruption, all which appear positive; but it also seeks guaranteed employment and wealth redistribution, the first unrealistic and the second an infringement on liberty. The Tunisian General Union of Labor likewise seeks Communist-style wealth redistribution.

Arab unions have traditionally also embraced reactionary foreign policies. The International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the flagship labor organization in the Middle East, has never been friendly to America. The ICATU’s members embraced Saddam Hussein in his conflict with the United States, and they have pledged assistance for the most militant Palestinian factions.

Trade unions might be a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy, but bringing down a dictator is not the end of the process of democratization. Not every union professing to fight tyranny will be like Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland. In Arab states, trade unions could force would-be dictators to remain accountable to the people. But if foreign powers embrace them unconditionally, the new Arab unions might substitute tyranny of the majority for true democracy.

Over the past decades, American administrations have looked the other way while governments in various parts of the world have created Potemkin civil institutions. No longer should the White House accept this fiction. It should not recognize nor should Congress allow American aid to go to unions that are mere extensions of political parties.

The United States provides nearly $2 billion a year to Egypt, hundreds of millions to Lebanon, and tens of millions to Tunisia. Congress should condition its aid on true independence of those countries’ unions.

America need not be an enemy to independent Arab unions. In Egypt and Tunisia, the unions are at their most influential position in decades, and are a bulwark against the ambitions of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, should the Obama administration become complacent now, it might help substitute one engine of dictatorship for another.

— Timothy Cramton, a junior at Cornell University, is an intern at the American Enterprise Institute.


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