The 50 percent quota for workers and farmers in Egypt’s Parliament — enforced for nearly five decades — is in the process of being scrapped from both law and history, as the Constituent Assembly moves towards the elimination of the populist provision, introduced by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1964.
The move has been met with resistance from labor unions, agricultural federations, and human rights groups. Many workers, farmers, and activists perceive the action as the latest in a series of attacks on the rights of Egypt’s toiling classes.
In April 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a law criminalizing strikes. At the same time, the ruling generals dragged their feet for nearly a year and failed to issue the eagerly anticipated Trade Union Liberties Law to replace the restrictive Trade Union Law 35/1976.
The current Constituent Assembly, which has a strong Islamist representation, is now deliberating over scrapping the quota for both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. There also appears to be an inclination within the Constituent Assembly to decrease the representation of “worker-delegates” within public sector company boards, from 50 to 25 percent.
According to Manal al-Tibi — director of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights and a member of the Constituent Assembly — liberals, Islamists, centrists, conservatives, and nationalist parties are all pushing for the elimination of the 50 percent quota.
Tibi said that there were also a few isolated calls for the reduction of the 50 percent representation to 25 percent.
“However, more than 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly is now calling for its abolition,” he said. “Only a handful of workers and farmers are calling to keep this constitutional article as is.
There’s no final decision yet, but it looks like it’s on its way to being scrapped altogether.”
The initiative to scrap the representation of workers and farmers dates back to early last year. Shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, liberal reformers, including former chief of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, called for the annulment of the 50 percent workers’ and farmers’ quota on the basis that it provided for a “fake representation in Parliament.”
This stance was later adopted by liberal political groups influenced by ElBaradei — including the National Association for Change and the Dostour Party. Other liberal parties followed suit and spearheaded the initiative to drop the quota — including the Ghad Party and the Democratic Front Party.
But moves towards eliminating the quota have been vehemently denounced by the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, along with farmers’ federations and unions. All these associations have recently issued statements denouncing the removal of the quota — and calling for genuine representation of workers and farmers in Parliament.
“There is virtually no representation of leftists in the Constituent Assembly,” said Tibi. “I may be the only one who is representing the left — not as a member of a party or current, but in my individual capacity. I’m one of only a few members calling for the safeguarding of the workers’ and farmers’ quota. This is why I‘ve been struggling and suffering in attempts to discuss this issue; to little avail, however.”
According to Nagy Rashad, a caretaker member on the board of the ETUF, there is practically no representation of Egypt’s different labor and farmers’ unions on the Constituent Assembly.
“In terms of so-called ‘labor representatives’, only Khaled al-Azhari, and another member of the ETUF have been chosen to represent Egypt’s workers,” Rashad said. “They were hand-picked, not on the basis of being workers, but because they belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and (its political arm) the Freedom and Justice Party.”
Azhari is a deputy president of the ETUF and a former Brotherhood MP who was recently appointed Minister of Manpower.
Rashad added that “the Constituent Assembly includes a few members of a farmers’ federation who are also closely aligned to the Brotherhood.”
Farmers share the same concerns.
“We farmers have no genuine representatives in Parliament or in any other governmental institution,” said Abdel Meguid al-Khouli, president of the Independent Farmers’ Federation.
Khouli said political representation in Egypt is dependent on who is choosing the representatives.
He holds that neither Parliament nor the Constituent Assembly represents Egyptian farmers. Of the 100-members in the Constituent Assembly, he said only two are farmers, and neither are from his federation.
“These two so-called farmers are actually professionals,” he said. “We have been repeatedly calling for an assembly and a Parliament which represents all Egyptians — yet we have ended up with constituent assemblies and Parliaments which represent one political current – specifically a religious and sectarian current.”
According to Khouli, the current political situation is a replay of past years’, but with a twist.
“The Brotherhood is tailoring the laws according to its own direct interests — as was the case with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party,” he said.
The irony, some farmers’ and laborers’ activists say, is that the new laws could end up penalizing the very groups whose calls for social justice spurred the uprising against the former regime.
“The ETUF stands against the cancellation of this quota,” he said. “We must not allow workers and farmers to remain marginalized in our new Egypt.”
He said that instead of cancelling the quota because it is currently ineffective, labor and farmers’ movements and the government should eliminate those who misrepresent Egypt’s workers and farmers in Parliament.
“We must strive to ensure that farmers’ and workers’ MPs do, in fact, represent their constituents, as opposed to representing the ruling regime,” Rashad said.
More often than not, farmer and labor MPs are really retired officers, businessmen, professionals, and large-landowners, according to Tibi.
Activists say the new laws should create real and detailed criteria for who can be classified as a farmer or a worker. The former regime-controlled ETUF used to grant the status of worker to any fee-paying member, and farmer’s struggled to get any genuine authentication.
Tibi believes that there has been no genuine representation of workers and farmers in Parliament since the days of Nasser.
“I would like to see the 50 percent quota be truly accountable and representative of the people it is supposed to represent,” he said. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case.”
Some say they would agree to do away with the quota if a satisfactory alternative system was put in place.
“I would agree to scrap the quota under one condition — the establishment of a class-based labor party. In this case, we may be able to capture 50 percent of the seats, or more, in Parliament,” said Rashad.
Currently the law does not allow for parties to be formed on the basis of class. Rashad calls this option labors’ “last playing card,” in the current political situation.
It’s the marginalization of workers that leads them to strike, Rashad said. He said that if the authorities want the gears of production to keep on turning, then they should ensure that workers have genuine representation.
“Our rights must be upheld, and our voices must be heard in the new Egypt,” he said.
For Khouli, the 50 percent quota has also been only a vague gesture towards farmers being included in government.
“The quota has failed to represent us and our 6,000 villages, it has failed to raise our living standards, and it has failed to protect our rights,” he said.
Nevertheless, he believes that this quota should remain in place, but with proper criteria that only allows real workers and farmers within Parliament.
“We should clarify that a farmers’ representative is one whose sole income comes from agriculture — this classification must exclude large-landowners and feudalists, along with other non-farmers,” he said.
But first, he said farmers must achieve organization, like the labor movement.
“I support the establishment of labor parties for workers, but for us the ideal ways to organize are through farmers’ unions and federations which can defend our rights anywhere in the country,” he said. “Farmers are not yet united or organized; this is what we are trying to accomplish.”