Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2003
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (493)

Birth of Labour

Dr Yunan The creation of the Labour Party in Egypt would prove exceptionally difficult -- and would be only half the story. The big picture involved many syndicates, several of which merged under the leadership of the popular activist Abbas Halim. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* explains how Labour's pains were to become Egypt's gains

Click to view caption
Charlie Chaplin, in Modern Times in 1936, dealt with unemployment and the rights of workers during the Great Depression
On 8 July 1931 Al-Ahram, along with the rest of the Egyptian press, published an official statement from the Ministry of Interior that opened as follows:

"The group calling itself the Labour Party does not possess the qualifications entitling it to that name. Most sectors of labour do not approve of that group and are unwilling to rally under its banner. In addition, the parliamentary and social system of the country has not yet developed the circumstances that justify the existence of a labour party in the proper sense as it is recognised in European countries." After discussing these circumstances at length, the statement concluded, "In light of the foregoing, in the interest of safeguarding public security and the welfare of workers, the government cautions all classes of workers throughout the country against submitting to the corrupt propaganda circulated by the body that calls itself the 'Labour Party'. In addition, the government shall prohibit all attempts to disseminate such propaganda, whether through assent or intimidation, or assembly or subscription. The government has issued orders to the relevant authorities to enforce this prohibition with the utmost scrupulousness."

It did not escape contemporary observers of the Egyptian labour movement that this statement, in fact, targeted a number of syndicates that had merged under the leadership of that remarkable figure in modern Egyptian history, Abbas Halim.

In his order of the Egyptian royal family issued on 4 July 1922, King Fouad listed his relatives in terms of their proximity to the occupant of the Egyptian throne. In one category he listed princes (21), foremost among whom was Prince Farouk, and princesses (29). In a second, he listed 15 "noblemen" and 14 "noblewomen". Abbas Halim was one of the nobles.

Not surprisingly, British Foreign Office archives built up quite a file on this labour activist. Born in 1897, Abbas Halim was the son of Prince Ibrahim Halim, whose father was Prince Mohamed Abdel-Halim, a son of the founder of the royal dynasty Mohamed Ali. As a young man, Abdel-Halim served first in the Turkish then in the German army. A sports enthusiast, in addition to being a skilful boxer, swimmer and tennis player, he was instrumental in promoting public and government interest in sports. He was also president of the Egyptian Rotary Club until 1930. The file continues: "His first wife, a woman of British origin, died in tragic circumstances. He is now married to the daughter of Midhat Yakan Pasha, whose wealth enabled him to dispense with the stipend King Fouad used to give him."

The document went on to explain how Abbas ended up in that position. "In October 1930, he issued a statement urging King Fouad to restore the Wafd Party to government, warning that the king's failure to do so might drive Egypt to the brink of civil war. Fouad's response was to strip Abbas of his title and the attendant rights of the nobility." Rather than ridding himself of a nuisance, the king had created a thorn in his side. Now a mere "effendi", Abbas had won widespread popularity, which he turned to the advantage of his advocacy of the syndicate movement. However, if he was "an active labour organiser", as the report put it, "the police was no less effective in repressing his activities."

Abbas Halim was certainly not alone in his endeavours. In The Egyptian Labour Movement in Light of British Archives: 1924-1937, Raouf Abbas Hamed lists 35 syndicates, which he ranked in three categories. His first category comprised syndicates for civil servants, commercial establishment employees, industrial school graduates, carriage and coach owners, cobblers, water company employees, gold and silversmiths, law clerks (for which there were three syndicates to cover different branches of the profession), electricity company workers, cooks, mechanics and printing press workers. In his second category Hamed lists syndicates for miners, carpenters, silk weavers, shoe shiners, tanzim workers, cart drivers and tailors. Also under this category he places the General Labour Syndicate and the Association for the Advancement of Labour. In the last category, we find the syndicates for public bus workers, taxi drivers, mechanised transport, barbers and construction and quarry workers. We also find the Syndicate of Nile Maritime Company Drivers and, finally, the Syndicate of Bus Drivers of Al-Menoufiya.

Among the most prominent names associated with these syndicates were Hosni El-Shantanawi, legal adviser for eight of them, Aziz Miraham, legal adviser for two, Ahmed Mohamed Agha, legal adviser for two, leader of the Egyptian Labour Syndicate Mahgoub Thabet and Dawoud Rateb, legal adviser to the Tanzim Workers Syndicate. Of these, the latter is of particular relevance to our story of Abbas Halim.

In a communiqué to his superiors in London on 27 December 1930 the British high commissioner to Cairo wrote that in a bid to win over the syndicates, the government of Prime Minister Sidqi had engaged Rateb at a hefty salary of LE1,000. Initially, this seemed a good investment, for Rateb succeeded in gaining the support of the influential El- Shantanawi, a Wafd Party member with considerable influence in the General Federation of Labour Syndicates.

However, when the Wafd noticed that its influence among workers was declining it engaged El-Shantanawi to work on its behalf at an attractive salary. Rateb, in turn, was dismissed as president of the federation and Abbas was appointed in his stead. This took place on 15 December. The following day, Rateb succeeded -- with government support of course -- in pushing through a resolution declaring Halim an "undesirable" on the grounds that he did not have the confidence of the king.

The British high commissioner concluded his report with an observation on a peculiar quirk in Egyptian politics. Both candidates for the leadership of the working classes were aristocrats. Rateb belonged to a wealthy family of the Turkish aristocracy and Halim, as noted above, was a descendant of Mohamed Ali and thus a member of the same aristocracy even if he had lost his status as a noble.

In the coming weeks, the conflict between the supporters of Rateb and the supporters of Halim intensified as can be observed in the letters of their respective members to Al-Ahram. One writer, a lawyer, El-Sayed Habib, protested against the resolution disqualifying Halim as head of the federation. The resolution had "no validity", he said, because "the manner in which it passed betrayed the strings behind the scene." He concludes: "I appeal above all to those upon whom the president of the Labour Federation must depend, to those who allowed him to enlist in the ranks of workers and fortified him with their influence and assistance. It is to them we must turn for judgement."

Voicing a dissenting opinion was a certain Ahmed Ismail who reproached Al-Ahram for having published a letter from Ali Hassan Farahat who had resigned from the federation in protest against the election of Halim. Ismail countered that the federation had never elected Halim, "nor could it elect a person who does not enjoy the confidence of our sovereign the king of Egypt". He continues: "All that has occurred is that the syndicates headed by Dawoud Rateb Bek had reached an understanding with 18 other syndicates over the creation of a single federation, known as the Egyptian Federation of Labour Syndicates. This federation held elections for its board of directors and these elections brought in Rateb as adviser, Aziz Mirham as president and El-Shantanawi as first secretary. Abbas Effendi Halim was not elected to any post and he has no affiliation with the federation."

In response to such attacks, Halim prevailed upon the federation to issue a statement denying that it had political aspirations whatsoever and affirming that it was motivated by a single aim. This was "to strive to better the wretched lot of Egyptian workers so that they may obtain their share of education and so that the hand of aid reaches out to them in the event of accident or illness".

The statement then asked why the police and army were repressing "this innocent movement, prohibiting its meetings and closing its offices". Indeed, "some government officials have made certain promises to some members of our syndicate in an attempt to entice them into resigning from the federation." The statement went on to caution the government against persisting in such policies, the result of which would be "to cause us to stray from its earnest enterprise towards political orientations from which we are especially keen to keep our distance". By "orientations" the statement was undoubtedly referring to communism which had made considerable inroads among the Egyptian working classes at the time and the dangers of which were alluded to in many British reports and communiqués.

The Egyptian Labour Federation's statement was not exaggerating in its complaint against government repression, if we are to judge by the many letters to Al-Ahram airing grievances to this effect. Representative of such complaints was the letter from the Syndicate of Vehicle Transport which protested against actions taken by the police to prevent its meetings. The letter went on to declare that the syndicate was "far from any involvement in politics and political parties. Therefore, we appeal to His Majesty the King, the champion of workers, to our wise government and to public opinion to put an end to the intervention of the police in order to prevent our meetings." Similarly, the letter from the Syndicate of Domestic Maritime Transport complained that the police had closed down its headquarters and prevented workers from entering its premises. It concluded, "The syndicate declares its non-involvement in politics and its allegiance to His Royal Majesty the King and it prays that the blockade on its premises will be lifted."

The hand of government repression extended to the General Federation of Egyptian Workers which issued a statement signed by Abbas Halim protesting against the closure of its headquarters. "This action violates the most fundamental principles of civil law," it charged. "Syndicates are not political organisations that could pose any form of threat. Rather they are legitimate economic bodies recognised in all countries of the world. This protest will be communicated to all labour organisations, leaders, parliamentary representatives and newspapers throughout the world so that public opinion abroad may bear witness to these offences."

Apparently, such offences were serious enough to draw the attention of the British press. On 11 April 1931, the Daily Herald featured a report from its correspondent in Cairo on the Egyptian government's attempt to suppress the nascent labour movement. The article quoted a member of the Federation of Syndicates who boasted of the movement's success. "By March, we had 33 syndicates and a membership in the thousands," he said, adding however that "the government has begun to clamp down on us."

For its part, Al-Ahram made it known where its sympathies lay through a lengthy documentary it featured on the history of the Egyptian labour movement. This history dated back nearly a quarter of a century to the first labour strike and the creation of the Syndicate of Handicraft Workers. Although several other syndicates came into being, the movement ground to a halt with the start of World War I and the declaration of martial law.

Syndicate activity revived following the 1919 Revolution. The syndicates that had been suspended during the war reopened, new syndicates were created and a Federation of Working Forces was founded under the leadership of Abdel- Rahman Fahmi. Unfortunately, the article observes, "political party leaders would not let this innocent movement follow its natural course so that the syndicates could establish themselves properly. Rather, they steered them towards political ends alone, abandoning all other considerations."

The movement also encountered the hostility of companies and businessmen who reacted to the syndicates "like a man cringing before a savage beast". But not only were they deeply mistrustful of syndicates, "they frequently levelled against them charges that were entirely groundless." Addressing the reader, the writer continues: "You would be surprised to learn that those bosses oppressed and expelled, without the slightest cause, any worker they found had joined a syndicate. But then, company owners in our country enjoy the protection of the Capitulations System, that antiquated system of immunities afforded to foreigners the perpetuation of which does not stand to reason."

Against the backdrop of syndicate activity, government repression and public concern, Abbas Halim founded the Egyptian Labour Party and Sidqi moved to ban it. Once again, Al- Ahram let its feelings on the issue be known. On 9 July 1931, under the headline "Egyptian workers and political parties", it proclaimed, "Egypt is its workers, whether they be farmers or otherwise. Egypt's wealth is not the money stored in its banks." In spite of this opening, the editorial took an abrupt turn. "Egypt was unlike other countries. Life here is purely familial. The employer cares for his workers and is as close to them as a brother and workers live with their employers in affection and true cooperation. Thus the worker does not count his hours at work just as the employer does not exploit his workers, unlike in Europe where people are divided into classes that are sharply distinct from one another." A rosy picture, indeed, that naturally led to the declaration that all steps should be taken to prevent legislation that would divide the people of the country and introduce partisanship into labour affairs. Such legislation would only spoil things for everyone.

The Sha'b, the mouthpiece of the party to which Sidqi belonged, was naturally more vehement in its opposition to the Labour Party. It described the founders as people who had no respect for the constitution and the system of government it established. "A group of people such as this cannot possibly be believed when they say that they are dedicated to the welfare of workers. The government did well to nip their efforts in the bud, thereby safeguarding public peace and maintaining order despite their evils."

But merely banning the newly formed party was not enough for a government accustomed to wielding a heavy stick. Twenty-seven of its members were arrested either on their way to or coming out of Abbas Halim's villa in Garden City, taken to Al-Sayyida Zeinab police station and interrogated. In fact, the same happened to two journalists who happened to have had the misfortune of visiting Halim at the time.

Nevertheless, such were the tensions that Sidqi could not afford to rely solely on the stick. One "carrot" the government offered was to invite the secretary-general of the International Labour Federation to Egypt as a gesture towards establishing a bond between the Egyptian and international syndicate movements. In his week-long visit, in October 1931, Walter Schevenles met with labour leaders and workers in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia, listened to their grievances and offered counsel. In his opinion the best ways to strengthen the syndicates were to create an umbrella association for domestic syndicates, to elect workers themselves as syndicate chiefs and to maintain regular contact with the International Labour Federation.

Once again, British Foreign Office archives reveal some secrets behind the scenes. According to these files both the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin and the director of the Egyptian Labour Bureau in Cairo had alerted the European labour leader to the person of Abbas Halim and urged him to be on guard against Halim's criticisms of the Egyptian government. Schevenles proved an astute diplomat in this regard. On one occasion, when the head of the Suez Canal Workers Syndicate told him that he supported Abbas, Schevenles responded by cautioning him against establishing relations with individuals who did not belong to the working classes.

The government's second carrot was to promulgate a labour act. The idea was not new. Four years earlier the Ministry of Interior submitted a memorandum to the cabinet notifying it that Egyptian law lacked legislation to regulate labour and asking it to form a committee to study the matter. A committee was, indeed, created for that purpose, consisting of Deputy Minister of Justice Abdel-Rahman Rida and a number of syndicate advocates, notably Aziz Mirham and Mahgoub Thabet. However, the work of this committee was abruptly interrupted with the suspension of the constitution and dissolution of parliament in 1928.

It was, therefore, encouraging when efforts to introduce a labour law were revived in 1931. On 3 December, the minister of interior presented the cabinet with a memorandum listing the main areas such a law should address. They were six: the employment of minors, the employment of women, employment contracts and the mutual obligations of employers and employees, compensation for work-related accidents and illnesses, syndicates and labour disputes and arbitration.

A new committee was created, headed by Mahmoud Fahmi El-Qaisi. Expressing the general sense of anticipation, Al- Ahram commented, "Everyone is eager to know when the committee will complete its mission. Without a doubt, it is faced with an extremely arduous and complex task, especially given that a country such as Egypt has particular circumstances and domestic conditions that differ from those in countries that have preceded us in promulgating legislation pertaining to labour."

This time the committee did not have to start from scratch, having before it the draft prepared by the committee headed by Abdel-Rahman Rida. However, it was clearly prepared to take into consideration other recommendations, notably those presented to it in a report from the director of the Labour Bureau. Although the report addressed the six areas outlined in the Ministry of Interior memorandum, it placed considerable emphasis on the need to create arbitrating bodies to rule on cases of worker compensation and labour-employer disputes. Al-Ahram quickly observed that the report did not address such questions as medical insurance, retirement funds and other social benefits. However, it added that addressing such matters would constitute the next step after the promulgation of the law.

While the committee was deliberating over various aspects of the law, syndicate members wrote to Al-Ahram with their concerns. Typical of such letters was that from a member of the Syndicate for Employees of Commercial Establishments who listed a number of grievances. Not only did their salaries fail to meet their most essential needs, "but most employees are deprived of a weekly holiday, even a lunch break, an annual leave and time off for official holidays. Working days in these establishments might be as long as nine or 10 hours."

Sensing the hopes labour was pinning on the new law, Al- Ahram did its best to keep readers abreast of the committee's progress. In fact, it was even able to obtain the text of some of the provisions as the committee finalised them. Readers, for example, had advance knowledge of several of the provisions pertaining to the employment of minors and women:

-- Article 20: It is prohibited to employ minors below the age of 12 unless such employment takes place under the direct supervision of the parents or a close relative or in an industry exempted from this provision by decree from the minister of interior.

-- Article 21: The maximum working day for minors between the ages of 12 and 16 is eight hours per day. In those activities in which minors are assisting adults, the working day may be extended to nine hours.

-- Article 22: Minors and women may not be employed if conditions endanger their health. Nor may they be employed at night. Pregnant women may not be employed in activities that require great physical exertion or that may cause any harm to them or the baby.

The most encouraging provisions, given the recent government clampdown on syndicate activities, were those affirming the workers' right to defend their interests. The new law provided that syndicates would have a legal character that entitled them to conclude labour agreements and to pursue the rights and claims emanating from these agreements. This was predicated on the condition that any dispute involve at least two employers and 50 workers and that the articles of association of the syndicate be ratified by the General Board of Syndicates.

Even if these provisions were the only outcome from the drive to form a Labour Party, that drive had performed a great service.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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