Workers of the (Arab) World, Unite!

Could American labor unions be the best way to roll back radical Islamists in the Middle East?

TUNIS — While American labor unions organize nationwide to keep their candidate in the White House, organized labor in Tunisia has been facing a struggle far starker than the American partisan divide. On August 28, Islamist militants attacked a peaceful union demonstration in the restive town of Sidi Bouzid, wounding seven, while police stood on the sidelines. The incident capped a summer of similar violence, including firebombings of three regional offices of the UGTT, the country's national trade union center, by Salafi groups; and calls by several mosque preachers to kill union activists.  The onslaught stems from a simple reason: not only are Tunisian unions advocating secular egalitarian values, their deep roots in the community make them the only viable alternative to the nation's Islamists.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, unions are standing up to entrenched autocrats and working to bridge sectarian divides. The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions has organized a campaign for social and economic equity to challenge the ruling monarchy while eschewing the sectarian agenda of many demonstrators. In Jordan, an organization of teachers recently won a years-long battle for legal status as an independent union, following suppression by the kingdom and an all-out ban on collective bargaining. And unions in Bahrain and Iraq, nations both torn by Shiite-Sunni strife, are using the struggle for workers' rights as a way to transcend one of the region's most intractable divides.

These struggles point to the presence of a viable social movement in the Arab world, neither wed to autocrats nor controlled by theocrats, that could help stabilize the region's politics and strengthen civil society. "It's a key democratic force," argues Cathy Feingold, international department director for the AFL-CIO. "When you're able to have labor movements that can freely exercise their rights, bargain with employers, improve working conditions, and increase their wages, you address questions of inequality and you create spaces for democratic participation." Islamist groups, which have won loyalty among the poor for providing a social safety net backed by oil wealth, are naturally threatened by a secular organization with its own way of winning economic advantages for its members.

All of which makes for a great opportunity for Washington, which is struggling to find its way in a post-revolutionary Middle East that has offered up few clear allies and perceived dangers in the success of Islamist parties. Arab unions could be nothing less than the key to sustainable, perhaps even secular, democracy. The question is why the United States -- which has a history of using unions to further its foreign policy -- is doing so little to support them.

Last year's parliamentary elections in post-revolutionary Tunisia yielded victory for Ennahda, the long-banned Islamist party, which promised to reconcile its goal of Islamizing society with modernist principles, such as equal rights for women, that are espoused by many Tunisians. It did not win by a landslide, but rather achieved an electoral plurality, and enlisted two secularist parties in order to form a government. Nearly a year later, Ennahda's political opponents, as well as some of its own coalition partners, charge that the party is using its ruling status to monopolize power -- and that its promise of moderation and compromise was insincere.

There is evidence, meanwhile, that organized labor in Tunisia, led by the UGTT trade union coalition, actually enjoys greater popularity than Ennahda. Claiming a membership base of 850,000, its credibility with the population was born of history: it was a key base of resistance to French rule, which led to independence for the country in 1956. Since then, it has shared the challenge of unions elsewhere to aid its constituents without incurring the wrath of a dictator and his friends. While often faulted by members for having too cozy a relationship with the regime, the UGTT asserted its autonomy on numerous occasions. In January 2008, UGTT organizers backed a rare demonstration against the regime's nepotism and corruption in the phosphate mining hub of Gafsa. And, most importantly, the group was quick to throw its weight behind the protestors during last year's revolution, giving quarter to its organizers and losing lives to the gunfire of then-president Ben Ali's police.

But that influence has not yet translated into political power. In last year's parliamentary elections, the UGTT made the fateful decision not to create its own party. So prominent members of the group formed parties of their own instead -- dozens of them. "The population was confused," says Hatem al-Ouaini, a senior official at the country's teachers' union. "They knew only the UGTT and Ennahda." Even so, labor candidates collectively won more seats than Ennahda, though not enough to block its governing coalition. "Our decision not to participate was a big mistake," says Ouaini.

Union officials there espouse secularism and gender equality and look to European and American unions as organizational models and transnational partners. Many Islamists oppose this agenda: Hardliners, including Salafis and the right flank of Ennahda, regard any form of political organization not explicitly called for in Islamic tradition as bid'a ["innovation"] and therefore heretical. Their interpretation of Islam rejects the principle that all faiths and genders are equal. As for transnational partnerships, they wish to steer Tunisia away from the West and toward their notion of a unified Muslim "Umma." According to UGTT legal counsel Muhammad Amdouni, these differences lead both Salafis and Ennahda activists to attempt to undermine unions, and that the two groups differ only in tactics. "The Salafis use violence," he says, "while Ennahda tries to penetrate our ranks with its followers and subvert us from within."

Over the past year, the Islamist-labor conflict has been the principle battle line in the struggle to mold post-revolutionary Tunisia. While labor activists press their agenda through a combination of lawful protests and growing engagement with the political process, Salafis have used violence, and Ennahda has done little to protect labor protesters through the police and security services it now controls. In this conflict, it is labor that has been striving, through its agenda and its nonviolent tactics, for the values of civil society and egalitarianism that Americans call for in the Arab world. The United States is therefore vested in its success.

Support for organized labor was once a pillar of American foreign policy. When General Douglas MacArthur drew up plans to rebuild Japan after World War II, he made the establishment of trade unions a strategic priority, dubbing them "schoolhouses of democracy." Nearly five million Japanese had joined a union by late 1946 -- an achievement widely credited with granting working class people a role in the country's politics. Around the same time, West Germany's Confederation of German Trade Unions cooperated with the United States in stabilizing the post-Nazi economy, as well as re-socializing a generation of German workers.

During the Cold War, American foreign policymakers saw unions as a way to combat communist influence in Eastern Europe, and the labor principle of solidarity led prominent union leaders, notably AFL-CIO chief George Meany, to advocate globally on behalf of human rights denied to workers in Soviet bloc states. Notable among the recipients of U.S. support was Polish activist Lech Walesa, co-founder of the Solidarity trade union, who eventually helped liberate the country. The U.S. government granted support and expertise, but unions also invested considerable resources of their own. Recognizing the value of such efforts, the Reagan administration cooperated with the AFL-CIO in creating the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983.

A similar approach could be useful today in furthering U.S. goals in the Middle East. David Dorn, a recently retired director of outreach to the Arab world for the American Federation of Teachers, began working for the organization during the Soviet period. "The U.S. focus in the [Arab] ‘democracy industry' has been in political party building -- which is legitimate -- as well as a cottage industry of NGOs," he says. "But I think in the Mid-East, a large part of the civil society that represents more of the values we want as Americans is located in the labor movement."

Last year following the Tunisian revolution, Dorn applied for funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a program run by the State Department, for teacher training in the country's smaller cities and towns. Noting that voter support for Ennahda had been stronger in those areas than in the big cities of Tunis and Sfax, he judged that focusing his group's support on union activities there might be helpful to labor in the next elections. After two iterations of the proposal were submitted, MEPI rejected it.  Among the reasons cited in an initial MEPI review, Dorn says, was that "one panel member was inclined not to support the American Federation of Teachers politically."

Dorn also describes being struck, on a visit to the American embassy in Tunis, by the naiveté of a young official serving as the MEPI officer. Dorn remembers the officer as saying, when asked why the State Department had funded programs for political parties but not labor unions in the run-up to last year's Tunisian elections, "Elections are political. Unions are only interested in wages and money."

Most of these groups have asked for support from their counterparts in American labor movements. They want new technologies to manage their member base, together with training in how to expand membership and advice on organizing sit-ins and strikes, winning and exercising the right to bargain collectively, and advocating for higher health and safety standards. They also want international lobbying assistance to amend free trade agreements, pressure their own governments, and demand accountability from foreign companies that operate within their borders. The United States government has provided limited funding to American labor groups, enabling them to respond to some of these requests. While it is difficult to determine the total size of these funds, few dispute that support for labor is dwarfed by support for other causes, such as entrepreneurship, political party building, women's empowerment, and education. During the first week in September, the "Highlights & News" page on MEPI's web site listed 173 projects and achievements -- two of which concerned projects supporting organized labor.

The young consular officer whom David Dorn encountered in Tunisia came of age after the fall of the Iron Curtain -- perhaps one reason why he did not manifest an awareness of the potential to advance American interests by supporting Arab labor. But others in his generation are keen to renew this tradition in a changing world. Witness the young people who staff the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Washington, which assists unions overseas using what modest government donations become available. "If in the past our outreach was defined by the Cold War," says Cathy Feingold, the union's international department director, "today the main challenge is globalization. As corporations became multinational, unions needed to globalize too." Recent years have seen small Solidarity Center projects in Latin America, the textile and manufacturing hubs of Asia and Africa, and 12 Arab countries. "I always tell people we were on the ground in Egypt before the Arab spring!" says Kate Doherty, a Solidarity Center spokesperson.

Another activist I met with in Washington, who has assisted foreign labor organizations for more than 30 years, echoes the view that American support for Arab labor is far too modest -- but adds that this shortcoming applies as much to the U.S. government as it does to the unions themselves. (Citing political sensitivities amid ongoing projects, he declined to be named.) "During the Soviet period, our unions invested their own money in foreign engagement and trained their own regional experts to develop policies independent of the U.S. government," he recalls. The complexities of Arab engagement today, he suggests, demand a revival of this tradition -- and a new regional approach tailored to the Middle East,  more specific than a general take on "globalization."

On September 13, in a sign of increased interest in the Arab world, the AFL-CIO will honor Tunisia's UGTT and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions with the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, its highest honor. The heads of both groups will come to Washington to receive it, and invitations have been sent to other Arab unions to attend. Their visits present an opportunity for Americans in and out of government to explore the role these groups have played, and the potential for the United States to find common ground with them. On both sides of the partisan divide, it behooves more Americans to discover that "Solidarity Forever," the time-honored anthem of organized labor in the United States, translates well into Arabic.



Rumblings Along the Coast

Are Kenyan counterterrorism death squads behind the latest spate of targeted killings in Mombasa?

The international community's attention to Kenya has been sharply focused on the upcoming March 2013 elections and preventing the type of horrific ethnic violence that surrounded the 2007 election. But other things, big things, are afoot.

Ever since it sent its military into Somalia to fight al Shabaab in 2011, Kenya has been battling a serious rash of grenade attacks, kidnappings, and improvised explosive devices in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kenya's northeastern region. The U.S. embassy in Nairobi has recorded 17 attacks that killed 48 people and injured roughly 200 from January to July 2012. The targets included police stations and police vehicles, nightclubs and bars, churches, a religious gathering, a downtown building of small shops, and a bus station.

Terrorist attacks are not new to Kenya. In 1998, Kenyans suffered the brunt of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which killed 212 people. In 2002, another bomb killed 14 people at the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa. That same day, missiles, which missed their target, were fired at an Israeli plane departing Mombasa's Moi International Airport.

In response, the United States has poured in security assistance to expand the capabilities and reach of Kenyan counterterrorism forces at home and in the region. Kenya has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) in the world (including $10 million going to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in 2003), and has received Special Operations trainings worth several million dollars and FBI assistance to terrorism investigations.

The support the United States provides is in keeping with its insistence that it wants to maintain a "light footprint" in the region instead of sending in ground forces. But in doing so, the United States must ensure its security assistance is being used effectively, which means Washington must take considerable efforts to ensure that the assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses by Kenya. Too often, security forces forget that quick heavy handed responses, such as detainee abuse, denial of fair trial guarantees, extrajudicial killings, or unlawful extraditions, create instability by undermining the rule of law and can enflame the situation rather than reduce terrorist violence. And when these abuses are supported by foreign security assistance, donors may rightly be criticized for aiding and abetting human rights violations.

This brings us to the events of August 27, when a Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammad, was gunned down by unknown men in Kenya's port city and tourism hub of Mombasa.

Rogo was a controversial figure, to say the least. The United States and United Nations had placed him on terrorist sanction list (he's accused of assisting in recruiting for al Shabaab), and at the time of his death he was facing other criminal charges for terrorism-related activities; he had previously been charged for involvement in a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya, but was acquitted.

While the assailants remain unknown, many in the Muslim community suspect that the Kenyan government murdered him. The murder occurred in broad daylight when two gunmen in a vehicle overtook Rogo -- who was also in a vehicle with six passengers, including his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and his father -- and riddled it with bullets. Al-Amin Kimathi, a human rights activist and chair of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya, reflected on several cases of disappearances of men since April 2012 -- men, like Rogo, who were alleged to have been involved in terrorist-related activities. Witnesses to some of the disappearances have told local human rights groups that the abductors identified themselves as police. Kimathi told me: "When you look at circumstantial evidence, the pattern of events, the modus operandi, and the audacity with which the killing took place, it all points to the hand of the state."

Kenya's willingness to take out unsavory characters is nothing new, making the government's security apparatus an easy target of suspicion. In 2008, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission documented hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances by security forces of alleged members of the criminal gangs that terrorized Kenyans, known as Mungiki. There are also reports from 2007 of at least 90 Somalis in Kenya being illegally rendered to Somalia and then to Ethiopia. And Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit illegally detained and transferred several of its nationals to Uganda in the wake of the 2010 bombings in Kampala that left 76 dead and over 70 injured.

Kenyan officials have vehemently denied involvement in the most recent killings and disappearances. But whether Kenyan counterterrorism death squads are killing and disappearing people or not, there is an undeniable and palpable fear, anger, and angst in Mombasa due to the Kenyan government's failure to put an end to these crimes, and to punish those responsible. And after Rogo's murder, it finally boiled over.

Three hours after Rogo was buried, police were already out on the streets and tensions were building. Soon, angry protests turned to violent riots.

During the chaos, rioters killed a man near a mosque in Mombasa; on Tuesday, Aug. 28, and the following day, hand grenades were thrown at police, killing at least five and injuring several others. Rioters set fire to at least three churches and there was heavy looting in Mombasa. Protestors threw stones at riot police and security forces fired back with tear gas. According to media reports and civil society groups, some of the protestors were Rogo supporters; some were poor, unemployed youths angry at their government; others simply took advantage of the chaos to loot stores for personal gain.

"Rogo's death was the immediate event that sparked the riots," said Kimathi, who strongly condemned the violence. "But there were also demonstrations -- though not bloody -- when Samir Khan's body was found." Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit had arrested Khan in 2010 on weapons charges and again in 2011 for allegedly being a member of al Shabaab. Then, in April 2012, Khan was hauled out of a public transportation vehicle in Mombasa by unidentified men and disappeared. Two days later, his mutilated body was found off the side of a highway 150 kilometers from Mombasa. "So there has been a build-up leading to the riots," Kimathi continued. "The disappearances and killings, taken together led to the riots."

The riots also occurred in the context of long-standing disillusionment of people in the coastal region who believe that the Kenyan government has not taken their interests and needs into account. At its most extreme, this marginalization has taken the form of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that wants to secede from Kenya and has threated unrest. There's also a religious component to the tension. With three churches attacked in the recent riots, and several similar cases in the past, the riots also have the potential to unleash darker forces. But Muslim and Christian religious and community leaders pleaded for restraint. Fortunately, the weekend immediately following Rogo's death passed without further escalation.

The other good news, if you can call it that, is that the public prosecutor's office announced that there would be an investigation into Rogo's death. The investigation team, according to my conversion with Hussein Khalid, the head of the Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights, includes members of the Kenyan Law Society and the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, both of which should, in theory, help ensure that the investigation is impartial and independent. But only time will tell whether the investigation will really get to the bottom of things, or if it will be a hollow promise used as a short-term diversion tactic to help calm boiling tensions. There is a lot at stake, and if the investigation comes up empty handed and the abductions and killings continue, last week's riots will likely not be the last.

The events in Mombasa are also a clear warning to the international community, in particular the United States, which correctly said that Rogo's murder needs to be investigated. Washington has funded in large part the development of Kenya's anti-terrorism capabilities through partnered operations, intelligence sharing, counterterrorism training, military equipment, and surveillance technology. This "light footprint" approach, which dodges the politically unsavory decision of bringing in Western ground forces to the region, nonetheless means that the United States must double its efforts to ensure its security assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses. Given what we have seen in Mombasa, and the good chance that terrorist attacks will continue, it would be a wasted effort if the growth of Kenya's security forces resulted in an increase in human rights abuses, fewer protections from the rule of law, and distrust of the Kenyan government.