International Conference on Arab Trade Unions

views updated

International Conference on Arab Trade Unions

Egypt 1956


Foundation of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU) in 1956 was one means by which the Egyptian state pursued an ideological commitment to organized labor in the Arabic-speaking region while integrating an active trade union movement into an evolving corporatist state. The state's commitment to organized labor varied over time and differed in the various parts of the Arab world; much of this variation can be attributed to changing Egyptian policies in the region.

A militant workers' movement undermined the British colonial presence in Egypt and Egypt's monarchy. Industrialization had increased union memberships, which almost tripled between 1947 and 1953. In particular, growth in the textile, tobacco, and sugar industries resulted in emergence of strong labor interests in those industries. Most of the strikes at the time were organized against these three industries.

Union-led strikes contributed to Egypt's 1952 military coup. With the founding of ICATU, the Egyptian Federation of Free Workers disbanded. Founded in 1956, the ICATU continued to work closely with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), thus positioning trans-Arab trade unionism against the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which had been operating from the USSR.


  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1953: The people of East Berlin revolt against communist rule, but the uprising is suppressed by Soviet and East German tanks.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1956: By now firmly established as the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev denounces the crimes of his predecessor and mentor, Josef Stalin.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll makes a blast so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.
  • 1956: Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, and Israel attacks Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervene against Egypt and only relent under U.S. pressure.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43-year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
  • 1966: In August, Mao Zedong launches the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which rapidly plunges China into chaos as armed youths plunder the countryside, rooting out suspected foreign collaborators and anti-Chinese elements. Along with rifles and other weapons, these Red Guards are armed with copies of Mao's "Little Red Book."
  • 1971: East Pakistan declares its independence, as the new nation of Bangladesh, from West Pakistan (now simply known as Pakistan); civil war, exacerbated by famine and a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, ensues.

Event and Its Context

Labor Unions and Egypt's State

Egypt's labor movement has been described in terms of "state corporatism." Some date Egyptian labor's corporatism before the Free Officers' Revolutionary Command Council of 1952. The 1942 trade union laws legalized unions while binding them with "highly restrictive and destabilizing" requirements.

With the 1952 Free Officers' revolution, also known as the July Revolution, state political parties—the Liberation Rally, the National Union, and the Arab Socialist Union—mobilized the nation while maintaining public discipline. Potentially disruptive groups, including students and workers, were closely watched by the government. The integration of Egypt's leftist opposition into a "structured system of control" is credited as one of the most significant political achievements of the administration of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Yet in 1952 laws 317, 318, and 319 responded to the pluralist trade unions' needs to control industrial conflict, increase workers' take-home pay, and increase productivity. The founding of ICATU emphasized a close allegiance between organized labor and the state. In what has been identified as a "bargain," Egypt's unionists remained legal so long as they formed a single confederation, for which the government chose leaders.

The July Revolution had little effect on the number of grievances. Raucous since the industry's growth during World War II, a textile federation conference in 1956 demanded doubling the minimum wage and creating a wage council. Of 21 collective agreements concluded between unions and employers in Egypt during the 1950s, 19 were in the oil industry.

Limitations of Corporatism

Formal corporatism emerged under the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) with the 1952 labor union laws, which under the pressure of national emergency forbade strikes as conciliation and arbitration were in effect. The Egyptian state came to govern the internal affairs of unions that predated the laws, even given their independent status. Unions were required to allocate a third of their annual budgets to social welfare and health activities. Even though these laws permitted pluralism and enabled establishment of a nationwide labor federation, and even though union shops and union dues contributed to labor unions' financial independence and security, closed shop provisions embarrassed Egyptian delegations to International Labor Organization conferences.

The 1959 comprehensive labor code strengthened unions at the national level but weakened them at the plant level and in Egypt's governorates. Law 91 reorganized the labor movement along industrial lines into 65 federations. The Labor Bureau's employees, in an effort to sabotage the law's implementation, refused to accept the registration papers of the influential oil and textile workers' unions. Union membership declined between 1956 and the end of the decade.

Corporatism is essentially an economic contract; workers saw no need to organize as long as the government provided basic needs. In 1955 an All Egypt Trade Union Congress was founded, and half of all members of the Egyptian labor unions were brought into the new federation. In the years that followed, the government arrested those Egyptians, including communists, whom they suspected of ideological commitments beyond the nation-state. Within two years, the trade union congress changed its name to the Egyptian Federation of Labor and then again to the United Arab Republic Federation of Labor following the union with Syria in 1962. Following the enactment of the 1964 trade union law, the organization became known as the General Federation of Labor.

Corporatism's Origins

Corporatism also dates from 1964 with presidential decree no. 62 and its parallel ministerial decrees. These decrees permitted only one general union to represent workers in related, similar, or associated branches of production, which trimmed the number of labor unions to just 27. Workers in establishments employing 50 or more were able to form union committees, but only one committee could represent each establishment.

The Ministry of Labor was established in 1961. With strict controls imposed on union finances, unions became agencies for promoting cooperation and industrial development, ushering in a corporatist era for Egypt's unions. After 1964 the ministry was responsible for international labor relations, labor inspection, wage and labor relations, as well as education, statistics, and government affairs.

The ICATU and Egypt's Influence in the Arab World

Egyptian representatives attended the conference that led to the announcement of the WFTU. At the conference, a strong Arab presence counteracted the influence of Israel's national union, the General Organization of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel (known as Histadrut), founded in 1920. The ICATU followed general trends in postcolonial Arab popular consciousness.

Although the ICATU's independent international role came to an end with Fathi Kamil's removal as general secretary in 1959, the institution continued to extend Egypt's political influence in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. In a demonstration of the Arab world's spontaneous anger following the 1967 defeat to Israel in the Six Days War, the ICATU called on all Arab states to join an incipient petroleum export embargo, urging workers to destroy industrial infrastructure in any Arab nation that refused to comply.

By 1967 all Arab national trade union federations except those in Yemen, Tunis, and Saudi Arabia belonged to the ICATU. As the leading regional partner for the WFTU in the Arab world, the ICATU extended the influence of Egypt's government policies into the region. This is particularly visible with reference to ICATU alliances in Palestine—where the ICATU advocates Palestinian autonomy within the Camp David framework—and in the Arab Gulf states, where the ICATU supports underground unions and underrepresented foreign workers (including numerous Egyptians).

Ongoing occupation inhibits trade union activities in Palestinian territories, as union officials' international and local travel requires authorization. Although formally unaffiliated with international labor organizations, the Israeli-occupied West Bank territories of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) attend ICATU meetings and participate as an observer in the WFTU. The GFTU secretary general has been permitted to attend international meetings, such as those of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the WFTU. However, the Israeli occupying authority also provided these and other GFTU-affiliated individuals with official identity cards that prohibit their entry into East Jerusalem, where a GFTU office is located.

Egypt's peace agreement with Israel as decreed in the Camp David accords of 1978 divided the ICATU—which followed Egyptian foreign policy—from the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which refused to meet with the Histadrut. Following Camp David, the IACTU excluded the ETUF from its meetings. ETUF representatives questioned to what extent ICATU statements in support of the Palestinian cause alleviate the suffering of the stateless.

In the Arab Gulf region, Bahrainis have lived under a state of emergency since 1975. In this legal environment, Bahrain's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs' Order No. 9 served as the legal basis for a general workers' committee, to be selected by major establishment's workers representatives. This committee is the alternative to underground trade unions in Bahrain. It protects the government from repeated censure by the Arab Labor Organization (ALO) and the ICATU. From the underground, the Bahrain Workers Union—which is affiliated with the ICATU—denounced the order as "a publicity stunt designed to foil the ALO's resolution relating to the violation of union rights in Bahrain."

Elsewhere in the Arab Gulf region, the ICATU supports Egyptian citizens against local corporatist unions. The ICATU/WFTU affiliate in Kuwait, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), continues under the burden of ILO criticism regarding inclusion issues. Although foreign citizens constitute more than 80 percent of Kuwait's work force, they are only 10 percent of the unionized work force. Kuwaiti law stipulates that any new union must include at least 100 workers, of whom at least 15 must be local citizens. Both the ILO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) have criticized this requirement because it discourages unions in sectors such as the construction industry and the domestic servant sector, which employ few citizens. A new draft labor law grants pervasive oversight powers that further erode union independence.

Elsewhere in the Arab World, the ICATU supports local corporatist unions. Surprisingly, the Egyptian-based IACTU also functions in a corporatist manner even in Iraq, Egypt's rival in the Arab world. Iraq's Trade Union Organization Law of 1987 established a government-controlled trade union, the Iraqi General Federation of Trade Unions (IGFTU), as the sole legal trade federation. The Ba'th Party uses the IGFTU to promote party principles and policies among union members. The IGFTU is affiliated with both the ICATU and the WFTU. Iraq's labor law uses penal sanctions to restrict the right to strike. Workers in private and mixed enterprises, but not public employees or workers in state enterprises, have the right to join local union committees. The committees are affiliated with individual trade unions, which in turn belong to the IGFTU.


In the ahistorical world of international relations specialists, trade unions enjoy institutional protection with legal regulations and constraints. To the left, social democratic electoral politics subordinate the international to the national level, fixing attention on western Europe. The ICATU figures in Egyptian national politics, as well as regional and international concerns. The ICATU has dropped from the map of contemporary Arab labor history. Magisterial histories of Egypt's labor movement—the Arab world's most significantly—fail to grant the ICATU more than mere acknowledgement, if they mention it at all.

Key Players

'Abd al Fatah, Muhammed Tawfiq: 'Abd al Fatah was former director of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs central administration. He supported the Egyptian Free Officers' opposition to the idea of a single, hierarchical confederation of Egyptian labor unions after the 1956 war and is credited with April 1959 passage of Law 91, the Unified Labor Code, which provided for the reorganization of Egypt's labor movement into 65 federations along industrial lines, united to the ICATU.

Darwish, Youssef (1910-): Darwish was an independent Egyptian lawyer and union advocate.

Fahim, Ahmed (?-1969): Identified with the left, Fahim was president of textile workers' federation and vice president of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions. While he was second president of ICATU, his tenure was extended when union elections were suspended after the 1967 war.

Kamil, Fathi: Noncommunist leader of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions disbanded by the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior in 1953, Kamil was elected general secretary of the Permanent Congress that preceded the ICATU. He resigned before the 1959 ICATU elections.

Salama, Mohammad Abdel-Latif (also known as Anwar Salama) (1921-): Affiliated with International Petroleum Workers' Federation, Salama was first executive for the Egyptian Workers' Federation (EWF) at its foundation in January 1957. He resigned as confederation president in February 1958.

al-Sawi, Al Sawi Ahmed: President of the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), al-Sawi was reported to have received Liberation Rally compensation for leading the transport workers' strike as part of the July 1952 Revolution.

Al Shafi'I, Husayn Mahmoud (1918-): Al Shafi'l was allegedly affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood preceding the 1952 revolution and member of the Free Officers' Revolutionary Command Council. Following the revolution, he served as vice president and secretary general of the Arab Socialist Union.

Tu'ayma, Ahmed 'Abd Allah: Director of trade union affairs for the Revolutionary Command Council's Liberation Rally, Tu'ayma coordinated with the Permanent Congress of Egyptian Trade Unions.

'Uqayli, Mohamed Ahmed (1943-): President of the Cairo taxi drivers' local, member of the Permanent Congress of Egyptian Trade Unions during the strike by Cairo transport workers during the July 1952 Revolution, 'Uqayli was considered supportive of the Egyptian state's Labor Bureau.

See also: American Federation of Labor; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; International Labor Organization; World Federation of Trade Unions.



Abbas, Ra'ouf (Ra'ouf Abbas Hamad). Al-hariaka alummaliya fi Misr, 1899-1952. Cairo, Egypt: Darl al-Kitab Al-Arabli, 1967.

Beinin, Joel. Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Beinin, Joel, and Zachary Lockman. Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Bianchi, Robert. Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-century Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Cohen, Robin. "Theorising International Labour." InInternational Labour and the Third World: The Making of a New Working Class, edited by Rosalind Boyd, Robin Cohen, and Peter Gutkind. Aldershot, U.K.: Avebury, 1987.

Goldberg, Ellis. "Reading from Left to Right: The Social History of Egyptian Labor." In The Social History of Labor in the Middle East, edited by Ellis Jay Goldberg. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Izz al-Din, Amin. Tarikh al-Tabaqa al-Amila al-misriya, 3 volumes. Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-kitab al-arabi and Dar al-Shaab, 1967, 1970, 1972.

Mansour, Mohamed B. The Development of the Industrial Relations System in Egypt. Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate School of Business Administration, New York University, 1972.

Posusney, Marsha Pripstein. Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions and Economic Restructuring. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.


Bianchi, Robert. "The Corporatization of the Egyptian Labor Movement." The Middle East Journal 40, no. 3 (summer 1986): 429-444.

Binder, Leonard. "The Allure of the Egyptian Left." Asian and African Studies 14 (1980): 20-34.

Cross, Peter. "British Attitudes to Sudanese Labour: The Foreign Office Records as Sources for Social History." British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24, no. 2 (November 1997): 217-260.

Daoudi, M. S., and M. S. Dajani. "The 1967 Oil Embargo Revisited." Journal of Palestine Studies 13, no. 2 (winter 1984): 65-90.

Khalaf, 'Abd ul Hadi. "Labor Movements in Bahrain."MERIP Reports, no. 132 (May 1985): 24-29.

"On the Brink: A MEES Commentary on the Current Mid East Crisis and Its Repercussions on the Oil Situation." Middle East Economic Survey 19, no. 30 (26 May 1967): 1-14.

U.S. Department of State. "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990, 'Israel and the Occupied Territories.'" Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no. 3 (spring 1991): 98-111.

Elizabeth Bishop

About this article

International Conference on Arab Trade Unions

Updated About content Print Article


International Conference on Arab Trade Unions