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A Diwan of contemporary life (286)
Political repercussions aside, the 1919 Egyptian nationalist revolution against British occupation had a major social spin-off: the proliferation of trade unions. The trade union movement had modest beginnings in the two decades preceding World War I. But it flourished in the second half of 1919, a few months after the revolution. All kinds of unions sprouted all over the country. Even upholsterers, fez-makers and janitors formed syndicates. A British newspaper condemned the trade unionists as "agitators" and charged the Cairo government with weakness in dealing with them. Al-Ahram responded with two articles hotly defending the unions. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the progress of the movement as chronicled by Al-Ahram
The workers organiseHistorians of the 1919 Revolution in Egypt have tended to focus primarily on its political events and implications. Little attention has been paid to the reverberations it had throughout Egyptian society, which manifested themselves strikingly during the second half of that year. The reason may have been that because of the nature of that event, the historians' focus was primarily political as they relied for the most part on papers written by politicians. Nevertheless, the editions of Al-Ahram for the second half of 1919 prove highly valuable in casting light on the social derivatives of the revolution after the frenzy of political events subsided.
This relatively unknown chapter in Egyptian history could only open after Egyptians had discovered the power of mass action. The jubilation with which the people greeted the release of the exiled national leaders from Malta and the permission for them to present Egyptian demands to the peace conference in Paris was immense. It is conceivable that the popular uprising could have stopped with this success. However, the momentum that had been built up through organised strikes and demonstrations was too precious to squander. It was this realisation that made it possible to transform what had begun as a relatively spontaneous outburst of popular anger into a revolution.
It might come as a surprise to those who read Al-Ahram from August to the end of 1919 to discover the widespread movement to form syndicates. By the end of the year, it seemed that no Egyptian was without a syndicate to represent his occupational interests. Barbers, carpenters, grocers, carriage drivers, janitors, upholsterers had all unionised.
Before proceeding, however, it is important to make some general observations about the syndicate movement that began with the coal workers' strike in Port Said in 1894. Up to 1919, labour strikes, with the possible exception of the cigarette rollers' and tramway workers' stoppages, did not emanate from union activity or result in the creation of a union. Rather, they were more an outpouring of frustration, aimed to achieve urgent occupational demands and resolved through a negotiated agreement with the bosses. In most of these strikes, foreign business owners were the focus of resentment. The Egyptian tramway company was Belgian-owned. Most of the owners of the cigarette companies were either Greek or Armenian. Even the tailors' strike was largely limited to those companies that were foreign-owned. The exception was a strike by carriage drivers who reacted against the government's imposition of a set fare. On the other hand, when the strikers were of European origin, as was the case with elements of the cigarette rollers' and tramway workers' strikes, the action had greater impact. Firstly, the European workers had greater leeway because they were protected by their consulates and by the immunities under the capitulations system. Secondly, they were better organised because of the syndicate experience they had brought with them from their homelands. Finally, the strikes up to the end of World War I did not include political demands. In fact, generally the government acted as a mediator between the strikers and their bosses, rather than an agency of opposition and suppression as was the case with the new syndicalist movement that emerged from the spirit of the 1919 Revolution.
It is also important to note that the post-war syndicate movement was also affected by the departure from Egypt of many foreign workers who had returned to their homelands to sign up in their armed forces or to take advantage of work opportunities there. The result was that the work force in Egypt now had an overwhelming Egyptian majority, a factor which would inevitably affect employer-labour relations. Certainly the European employers would have welcomed the development. Egyptian workers by now had acquired the necessary skills and expertise that had once been the preserve of foreigners. They were also cheaper and did not enjoy the immunities available to foreigners.
The first trickling of the impending deluge occurred two days after the revolution erupted. On 11 March 1919 Al-Ahram carried an "appeal to educators to form a syndicate, based in Cairo, whose president would be elected from those most fervently committed to educational mission and whose members would consist of the elite of our profession, reputed for their excellence of character and dedication". The announcement, placed by "Abduh Abdel-Wahab, a teacher at the Coptic Secondary School in Beni Suef", received no immediate response. Undoubtedly, his colleagues, like everyone else in Egypt, were preoccupied with the popular outcry against the exile of Saad Zaghlul. On 25 May, however, Al-Ahram announced that "150 government and community school teachers and educators met in the Wadi Al-Nil Secondary School in Bab Al-Louq and voted unanimously to form a teachers syndicate".
Four days later, the incipient syndicate movement took a curious turn. In Alexandria, the religious justices authorised to officiate at weddings established a syndicate the purpose of which was "to organise the offices of its members across the various districts of the city". This would enable "the justices of each district to have a base in which they would share in the performance of their duties and to divide the proceeds of their work equitably".
Railway workers strike during the 1919 Revolution
It was not until the end of June, however, that the floodgates began to open. Suddenly three syndicates began to take action in one go. The cigarette rollers syndicate presented a list of demands to "the foreign cigarette company". The handicraft workers moved to form a syndicate. And the syndicate of the narrow-gauge Delta railway workers submitted a list of demands to the director of the Beheira Governorate, one of which included "the construction of rest houses at the terminals for those employees whose schedules oblige them to spend the night away from home".
A month later the movement picked up steam. On 3 August, Al-Ahram covered events involving six syndicates. Under the headline "The Workers and Employees Movement", the newspaper reports that the workers and employees syndicate succeeded in closing down most of the commercial outlets in the capital the previous day in accordance with an agreement they reached with the store owners. At the same time, the barbers syndicate held a general assembly meeting in the offices of the General Labour Syndicate and resolved to strive to enlist more members of this profession. The carpenters syndicate, the newspaper writes, "held an extraordinary session yesterday in order to discuss the syndicate's law. The law was read out and the participants voted to approve it.
Afterwards another session was held to elect two permanent committees to represent the Greeks and Italians". The same article also announced that "the gas workers syndicate has been established on a solid basis and has taken up headquarters on the premises of the General Labour Syndicate", and, finally, that the government clerks had held their first general assembly meeting in which "they ratified their articles of association and elected as chairman an expert on the national courts".
Over the following weeks more professional and labour syndicates came into being. These fell into several categories. Those representing government employees included the teachers syndicate, which had yet to take legal shape. To placate the growing anxieties of the members of this profession, the deputy director of the Wadi Al-Nil School, which was chosen as the syndicate's headquarters, announced that the general assembly meeting would be held in October. In addition to the government clerks syndicate, established on 1 August, this category also includes the "Retired Government Employees Syndicate" and the "Police Clerks Syndicate" which were also formed at about the same time. Both these syndicates had similar demands. The Retired Government Employees Syndicate met with officials of the Ministry of Finance to request that its members "receive wartime benefits equal to those received by employees still in service". The police clerks syndicate demanded equal treatment to other government sector employees and extracted a pledge from the police commissioner "to mediate on their behalf with the appropriate authorities". Syndicate fever spread to the provinces where, on 3 September, the Mansoura directorate and probate courts clerks formed a syndicate "to improve their material conditions". Al-Ahram announced that the members of the new syndicate elected a chairman and "formed a permanent committee to draft the articles of association and necessary regulations and bylaws".
Another category was made up of non-government professionals. In addition to the religious justices mentioned above, it consisted of "pharmacy employees" who syndicated in mid-August and whose first action was "to ask their employers for a 40 per cent wage increase and a reduction in the working day to eight hours". It also included bank employees who formed a syndicate of 1,600 members and who also demanded better terms of service. Bank managers were not forthcoming, however.
The bulk of the new syndicate drive involved the free trades and artisan classes. The gold and silver smiths syndicate was formed on 14 August when it held its first general assembly meeting. Al-Ahram reports that, following a series of speeches on "the importance of forming a syndicate", the board of directors met and moved "to petition His Excellency the Governor of Cairo to mediate between the syndicate and the merchants". On 22 August carriage drivers met to form a syndicate to represent them. That day, too, the "printing house workers" and "the house and wall painters" met to form syndicates. Five days later Al-Ahram reports from Alexandria that newspaper vendors formed a syndicate and elected a board of directors.
Such was the growing popularity of syndicating that professions one would never imagine moved to form trade unions. On 21 September, upholsterers formed a syndicate that took up headquarters on Mohamed Ali Street. Its first action was to open evening courses to teach the fundamentals of reading and writing to illiterate members of the trade. Evidently an addiction to drink was common among the practitioners of this trade for the new union "prohibited the consumption of alcoholic beverages and resolved to terminate the membership of any member who has been proven to consume them". Even janitors founded a union for themselves. They set up headquarters in Sayeda Zeinab and invited members of their occupation outside Cairo to join.
The British newspaper The Morning Post published an article entitled "Agitators in Egypt" in which it ridiculed the union movement and accused the Cairo government of weakness in dealing with them. Al-Ahram responded to The Morning Post in two successive articles. Under the headline "On Syndicates", published on 22 August, the newspaper described the movement to syndicate as "a blessing". With great enthusiasm, it wrote, "The movement that yesterday was walking on shaky legs is today taking wide and steady strides as it consolidates the bonds among the members of the various trades." The newspaper displayed a particular sympathy for the trades and crafts practitioners unions. "The working class has long been that limb of the nation deprived of its rights. The members of this class have lived in degrading servitude, grasping at the morsels thrown in their direction. So diffident are they that their only concern is to satisfy their masters who, in turn, degrade them and sap their blood. The relationship between employers and workers in our country is one that is so far removed from any concept of humanity, for the workers have been reduced to the most abject conditions of slavery." For this reason, workers have received support "from all members of the nation and even from the government which until today had remained silent whenever workers stood up to demand their usurped rights". The article concludes with an appeal to all Egyptians to contribute their opinions so that appropriate reforms can be introduced to improve the lot of the "powerless" workers.
The second article, appearing on 28 August, opened with an appeal to Egyptians to unite. In this article, the author wrote that some supporters of the syndicate movement responded to his previous article by expressing the fear that open debate might give rise to criticisms of the laws and regulations of some of the syndicates and undermine their activities. This, his critics argued, would be "particularly detrimental in the formative stage of the syndicates when they are just beginning to press their demands". The Al-Ahram writer countered, "No activity can survive without a good order. If the foundations of a structure are not solid, the structure is bound to collapse." The author went on to discuss the role syndicates should play in furnishing their members with material and social needs. For example, it argued, not only should syndicates dedicate themselves to affairs of health, but they should also work "to uplift the moral fibre of their members and instill in them sound social principles". In addition, the newspaper cautions that government laws and regulations alone are not sufficient to meet the task of the moral edification of society. Individuals must take the initiative and, in this regard, collective action through the syndicates would "bear greater fruit than the efforts of isolated individuals". The writer concludes with a warning against incitements to undermine the syndicate movement. In the past, workers had been coerced into silence. Now is the time for them to reap the benefits of union. Moreover, "the more the syndicates succeed in securing their demands, the greater will be their loyalty to them, for the syndicates helped them in their most desperate hours and were it not for the syndicates the voice of the workers would never have been heard." With this rallying cry, the newspaper concluded its account of this exciting chapter in the history of the Egyptian labour movement.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.