Lessons from Egypt's Tax Collectors

by Jean Lachapelle
published in MER264

In December 2007, employees from the Real Estate Tax Authority in Egypt staged the largest occupation of a downtown Cairo area prior to the uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak. Angry about their working conditions, 8,000 tax collectors slept in front of the Ministers’ Council building on Husayn Higazi Street, a short walk from Parliament, for 11 consecutive nights. Like their successors in Tahrir Square in 2011, the Authority employees pitched tents and brought in gas stoves to sustain them as they chanted anti-government slogans. They won an impressive 325 percent wage increase, and their efforts laid the groundwork for the creation of Egypt’s first independent trade union.

The tax collectors succeeded under adverse conditions. The Mubarak regime maintained tight control over labor organizations, and the employees’ union -- the General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees -- as well as the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), opposed their actions. Second, the Authority employees were geographically dispersed, with over 140 offices around the country, posing challenges for collective action. How, then, did the tax collectors organize one of the most important labor mobilizations of the Mubarak era?

To answer this question, it is important to trace the emergence of activist networks in the Authority in the months leading up to the Husayn Higazi sit-in. In September 2007, a group of tax collectors from Giza organized the first demonstration. Although small, it attracted considerable attention, encouraging those in other provinces to contact the Giza activists and slowly forging a nationwide movement. Two factors enabled this diffusion: the support of independent media and the core activists’ extensive experience in political and union organizing. Kamal Abu Eita, director of the Hawamdiyya office in Giza, was a prominent member of the pro-democracy group Kifaya, a founder of the neo-Nasserist Karama Party and president of the Giza local before losing his seat in fraudulent 2006 elections. His skills in mobilization, negotiation and public speaking were crucial to the tax collectors’ success.

The First Protest

The Authority employees’ main grievance was low salaries. They earned 200-400 Egyptian pounds ($32-64) per month, about one quarter of the pay of income and sales tax collectors. While their fellow tax collectors were attached to the Ministry of Finance, the real estate tax collectors worked under much lower-paying local councils. In 2006, Finance Minister Boutrus Ghali had promised that a new real estate tax law would close the wage gap. Most Authority employees, however, doubted the minister’s word.

In the summer of 2007, Abu Eita and a group of employees started discussing how to press the government to follow through with its promise. They settled on a one-day strike in Giza, the western half of the Cairene metropolis, coupled with a demonstration. Their plan was modest: The organizing could be done face to face, and it required no coordination with other provinces. In fact, employees outside of Giza were not informed. “They did not tell anyone in the whole Arab Republic of Egypt!” Daqhaliyya local president Makram Labib later lamented. [1] Nonetheless, it seemed sensible to start small. Many union branches would have opposed a work stoppage at this early stage.

The one-day strike came to fruition on September 10, 2007. Giza employees descended from the central administrative building into the streets to demand a raise and transfer to the Ministry of Finance. “Our colleagues earn ten times our salaries, I cannot afford bread,” they chanted, according to the story in the leftist daily al-Badil. “Why are we left behind?” Riot police surrounded the protesters, and locked the building’s exits for several hours to prevent the other employees inside from joining in. The protest made the front page of the independent al-Misri al-Yawm, which reported participation of 5,000 people. Other papers gauged the crowd less generously, but the coverage was sympathetic, with al-Badil saying that some Authority employees had to “work as doormen” to make ends meet. [2]

The news from Giza resonated among Authority employees all over the country. ‘Abd al-Nasir ‘Abdallah, from Bani Suwayf in Upper Egypt, traveled to Giza the day after reading about the protest, eager to meet the organizers and to assist. With his help, the Giza group began to plan small demonstrations in the provinces, the idea being to mobilize as many employees as possible before moving to a nationwide strike. Also participating in these early meetings was Labib from Daqhaliyya, an old acquaintance of Abu Eita’s.

‘Abdallah and Labib became what social scientists refer to as “brokers,” people who help to disseminate the ideas of collective action. [3] Back home in Bani Suwayf, ‘Abdallah was enthusiastic. “I told my colleagues: ‘Here is what is happening: These people will increase our salaries.’” [4] He convinced his local to hold a demonstration on September 30, while Labib pushed the Daqhaliyya branch to mount one on September 24.

The two provincial demonstrations attracted sizable crowds and a heavy security presence, as well as the attention of the independent press. Again, news of protest encouraged tax collectors in other provinces, such as Minya and Fayyoum, to contact the Giza activists. Through the media, the activists also laid out a road map for future protests. In a statement, they gave the government an end-of-Ramadan deadline for meeting their demands. Failure to do so, they warned, would lead Authority employees nationwide to strike on October 21 -- the first working day after the Muslim holy month -- and stage a demonstration at the Ministry of Finance. The Giza activists adopted the name Higher Committee for the General Strike. In response, office managers in many provinces threatened employees with disciplinary measures if they struck. Security personnel in Minya visited organizers to intimidate them. [5] And the national union president, Farouq Shihata, threatened locals with dissolution if they supported the movement. [6] In the end, most locals declined to support the strike, but the threats failed to dissuade the rank and file from participating.

The Strike

The nationwide strike kicked off as announced on October 21. A large crowd in front of the Finance Ministry shouted, “Hey Ghali, come down from your tower!” They were told that the minister was abroad, so they decided to march across town to the Ministers’ Council, a move that, according to leading activist ‘Abd al-Qadir Nada, was aimed at garnering media attention. It worked: Both Al Jazeera and the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel Dream broadcast impressive images of hundreds of Authority employees striding boldly down Cairo avenues. The protesting tax collectors stayed at the Ministers’ Council until approximately 9 pm.

The media exposure eased the task of the brokers in the provinces, many of whom, as Kamal Abu Eita said, were “not well known in their region.” Yet, he continued, “when the general strike began, and when people started hearing about it in the media, employees became more responsive.” [7] The Higher Committee built a movement faster and faster.

The authorities continued to deny the Higher Committee an audience. On November 8, Higher Committee members tried again to meet with Finance Minister Ghali, only to be dismissed by a security officer who told them that the minister was “busy negotiating with the International Monetary Fund.” [8] Angered by the rebuff, the tax collectors organized, on short notice, a sit-in at ETUF headquarters on November 13-14. Dozens slept on the steps of the ETUF headquarters, asking the federation brass to support the strike. Not surprisingly, the ETUF leaders refused. Instead, they said they would push the government to accede to the tax collectors’ demands if the strike were called off. [9]

The ETUF headquarters sit-in was disbanded on its second day. Although a collective bargaining failure, it was a learning experience for the Higher Committee, allowing them to test employees’ resolve as ideas percolated about a larger sit-in on Husayn Higazi Street. That scheme would require protesters to stay in the streets for several days. The high turnout at ETUF headquarters convinced activists that it was feasible.

As December 3 approached, however, the Higher Committee publicized a somewhat different plan: The tax collectors would protest on Husayn Higazi Street for a few hours, before heading back to ETUF headquarters to resume their sit-in. It was a purposeful deception. The activists feared that announcing the Husayn Higazi action would prompt a massive police reaction that might scare many Authority employees into staying away. “We did not want State Security to learn about our plan,” said Nada. “So in the provinces [the organizers] did not know the plan’s details.” [10] The provincial brokers were charged with ensuring that their colleagues committed to spending several days in Cairo and chartering buses that would carry them to the rally point. They did not know that they would sleep downtown for over a week.

The Sit-In

Around noon on December 3, the Authority employees had gathered on Husayn Higazi Street. As riot police again hemmed them in, the Higher Committee told impatient State Security officers that they planned to stay only a few hours before decamping for ETUF headquarters. But as delegations from as many as 14 provinces converged on the downtown location, the crowd swelled to 5,000, emboldening protesters with the safety of numbers. When Kamal Abu Eita asked them if they wanted to move to ETUF headquarters, they unanimously voted to stay.

Television showed thousands of Authority employees sleeping on the street, using newspapers as sheets to protect themselves from the cold. The images persuaded more tax collectors to join. On the morning of the second day, the Higher Committee stopped pretending that the sit-in was temporary, declaring that the protesters would remain in front of the Ministers’ Council until the finance minister issued a decree transferring them under his supervision. To signal their determination, the tax collectors transformed the area into a campground.

Protesters divided themselves into teams, one of which was tasked with following media coverage of the sit-in. The media were crucial for winning over the public, which tends to view civil servants as indolent and immersed in petty corruption. Accordingly, the tax collectors repeated many times that their main objective was wage parity. “This is a sit-in of honest people,” Abu Eita told one journalist. [11] The media were also important for gaining the notice of other Authority employees and prevailing upon the reticent among them to join the sit-in. The Higher Committee designed several means of showing that the protesters had the momentum. One tactic was to ask arriving protesters to lock their offices behind them and bring the keys to the sit-in. Each new group added their keys to a set that Abu Eita proudly displayed on television. By December 9, the number of protesters had reached 8,000.

State Security officials were concerned at the turn of events. According to the Nasserist weekly al-‘Arabi, on December 8 State Security sent a memorandum to President Mubarak recommending that he step in to mediate, because the striking civil servants were a “dangerous indicator of social unrest.” [12] Up to that point, Finance Minister Ghali had vowed that no one would “twist his arm.” [13] Perhaps because of State Security’s warning, however, he softened his position. On the afternoon of December 9, he met with a delegation of four Higher Committee members and offered a 325 percent wage increase, but no immediate transfer to the Ministry of Finance. [14] The delegation brought the offer to the protesters, who voted it down.

Instead, the tax collectors stepped up the pressure. They asked their families to join them on the street to celebrate ‘Id al-Adha, which was to fall on December 20. The Higher Committee announced a massive demonstration for December 13, which they dubbed the “great day.” On that day, they said, the protesters’ numbers would reach 15,000 and everyone would march to the presidential palace to ask Mubarak to intervene on the employees’ behalf.

According to the opposition and independent press, these escalatory steps further alarmed State Security. On December 12, the Ministers’ Council held an emergency meeting in which the finance minister drafted a new offer that delivered most of what Authority employees wanted, including transfer to the Ministry of Finance, a 325 percent wage increase and a bonus of two months’ pay. The protesters accepted the deal and, on the morning of December 13, dismantled their tents with palpable joy.

The Movement for Independence

After the strike ended, the Higher Committee drew on its newly acquired strength to embark on the risky endeavor of changing state-labor relations in Egypt. On December 20, 2008, the real estate tax collectors formed the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA), the first autonomous labor organization in Egypt since 1952. IGURETA lawyer Haytham Muhammadayn was not shy about challenging the ETUF’s monopoly over labor representation, arguing that “the Egyptian constitution and the international treaties ratified by Egypt give workers the right to create independent organizations.”

It was not the first time that activists had raised this objection to the ETUF. Prominent NGOs -- such as the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights -- had long denounced the Trade Unions Law of 1976 on similar grounds. But it was new for these criticisms to originate from an organization strong enough to claim de facto independence from the ETUF. The tax collectors’ new union had 27,000 active members at its creation and had established local branches in every province of the country. “The creation of IGURETA represents a step toward the dismantlement of Egypt’s dictatorial trade union structure,” declared Kamal ‘Abbas, president of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services. [15]

In April 2009, Manpower and Migration Minister ‘Aisha ‘Abd al-Hadi recognized the tax collectors’ union, an astounding decision that may be explained by her personal rivalry with the ETUF head, as well as a timely visit from an International Labor Organization committee. [16] Indeed, to maximize their leverage, IGURETA executives had submitted their application for recognition on the very day of the ILO visit.

The ETUF, on the other hand, tried to suppress the new union. In September 2009, the federation filed a court complaint against Abu Eita, accusing him of having created an illegal organization. Abu Eita was detained, and his office closed, but the case was later dropped. Later that fall, the ETUF created a competing union that allegedly deducted dues from Authority employees’ paychecks without their consent. Meanwhile, the federation pushed Ghali to renege on an earlier decision to grant IGURETA supervision of a new social fund for Authority employees.

Despite these pressures, IGURETA inspired workers from other sectors to found independent unions. By the time of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, two other independent unions -- one of health care workers and one of teachers -- had been established. And on January 30, 2011, amidst the throngs in Tahrir Square, the three unions announced the creation of a Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which also oversees an 8.5 million-member retirees’ association. By August of that year, the number of independent unions, both inside and outside the new federation, had reached 200, representing 2 million workers. [17]

These independent unions are technically illegal and thus face the risk of dissolution. Legal reforms were proposed in 2011, but thus far they have been blocked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. And it is unclear whether the new president, Muhammad Mursi, will support trade union independence, given the Muslim Brothers’ track record of ambivalence toward worker issues. To keep their independence, the unionists will likely have to draw on the tax collectors’ formula of political acumen and media support.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Mona El-Ghobashy and Sarah Zendel for helpful comments on previous drafts of this article.

Endnotes

[1] Interview with Makram Labib, April 26, 2010.
[2] Al-Badil, September 11, 2007.
[3] Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
[4] Interview with ‘Abd al-Nasir ‘Abdallah, March 4, 2010.
[5] Al-Badil, October 19, 2007.
[6] Interview with IGURETA member, April 25, 2010.
[7] Interview with Kamal Abu Eita, April 25, 2010.
[8] Gamal ‘Awida, Malhamat I‘tisam Muwazzafi al-Dara’ib al-‘Aqariyya (Cairo: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Ishtirakiyya, 2008), p. 22.
[9] Al-Dustour, November 15, 2007.
[10] Interview with ‘Abd al-Qadir Nada, February 20, 2010.
[11] Al-Dustour, December 12, 2007.
[12] Al-‘Arabi, December 9, 2007.
[13] Al-Misri al-Yawm, December 10, 2007.
[14] Al-Badil, December 14, 2007.
[15] Al-Badil, December 22, 2008.
[16] Interview with ‘Abd al-Qadir Nada, February 20, 2010.
[17] Al-Misri al-Yawm (English), August 31, 2011.

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