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Egypt tests economic outreach to Syria through labor unions

Cairo looks to labor unions to strengthen ties with Damascus .
(L to R) Jordan's Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Hala Zawati, Egypt's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek el-Molla, Lebanon's Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar and Syria's Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Bassam Tohme give a joint press conference during their meeting, Amman, Jordan, Sept. 8, 2021.

Egypt, along with the UAE and other Arab states, has begun to test the possibilities of engagement with Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once ostracized by Arab capitals, seems to have weathered the eleven year civil war. Many Arab countries believe that there needs to be an Arab counterweight to Iranian influence in Damascus.

The US is opposed to any reconciliation with the Syrian government. Egypt is seeking “proper clearance” from the Biden administration so that it can supply natural gas to energy-starved Lebanon without exposing itself to sanctions targeting the Syrian government and its benefactors, Egyptian petroleum minister Tarek Al- Mulla told Al-Monitor during a visit to Washington last month. 

Cairo is also approaching Syria through labor unions. In fact, several Syrian labor union delegations visited Egypt over the past months.

On Dec. 24, a delegation from the Syrian Trade Union Confederation of Printing, Culture, Media and Education Workers visited Egypt.

Magdi al-Badawi, head of the Press, Printing, Media, Culture and Antiquities Syndicates in Egypt, said in a Dec, 24 press statement, “Egypt’s workers fully support Syrian workers in the face of challenges and an unjust economic siege, terrorism and aggression on Syrian lands, and the repercussion of the coronavirus pandemic.”

During a visit to Cairo Nov.1, a Syrian labor union delegation comprising representative of several Syrian syndicates, most notably the union for workers in the food industries, agricultural development and tobacco, as well as the Syrian Trade Union of Food Industries, signed a cooperation protocol with the Egyptian General Union of Food Industries.

The protocol provided for the continuation of the mutual visits program, coordination and joint economic cooperation, and the preparation for joint training programs and courses in a bid to exchange expertise between Egyptian and Syrian workers.

On Nov. 11, a Syrian trade union delegation headed by Mohammad Ghassan Rasoul, head of the Federation of Transport Workers in Syria, met during his visit to Cairo the head of the Egyptian General Syndicate for Maritime Transport, Hussam al-Din Mustapha, who stressed, “The relations with labor unions in Syria were not and will not cease under any political circumstances.”

He said, “At the union level, there is ongoing communication, joint cooperation and exchange of expertise between the two sides.”

On Sept. 9, Egypt’s labor union for facility workers signed a cooperation protocol with the Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions. The agreement provided for cooperation and coordination in economic projects in several sectors such as electricity, drinking water, sanitation and housing, as well as intensifying training educational courses for both Egyptian and Syrian workers.

On Dec. 18, Hani Dahi, head of the Egyptian Syndicate of Engineers, and a delegation from the Union of Arab Engineers met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to discuss aspects of mutual cooperation and various reconstruction proposals for Syria, according to a statement issued by the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate.

Egyptian labor union delegations were also keen on visiting Damascus. In July, Jamal al-Qadiri, head of the General Federation of Syrian Trade Union, met in Damascus with an Egyptian labor union delegation including the deputy head of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, Khaled al-Feki.

In July, an Egyptian labor delegation headed by Gibali al-Maraghi, president of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, visited Syria and met with his Syrian counterpart, Jamal al-Qadiri.

In a June statement, Maraghi said, “Syria used to embrace joint Arab union work. Syrian and Egyptian workers used to be united by work, the same goals and joint economic projects.”

Cairo has taken several steps to restore relations with Syria,on the diplomatic level.

On Sept. 24, the Egyptian Ministry announced a meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad.

In a televised statement Oct. 2, Shoukry said, “Egypt wants to be active in helping Syria to regain its position in the Arab national security.”

In the security field, the director of the Syrian General Intelligence Department, Hossam Louka, participated in the Arab Intelligence Forum, which was held in Cairo Nov. 13, with the participation of several Arab intelligence chiefs and in the presence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

On Dec. 22, 2018, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Mamluk, paid an official visit to Cairo, where he met with Maj. Gen. Khaled Fawzy, deputy head of the National Security in Egypt.

Tarik Fahmy, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian government gave Egyptian labor unions the green light to seek rapprochement with their counterparts in Syria.”

He said, “The rapprochement and mutual visits between the Egyptian and Syrian labor unions — notably in the trade and economic fields — reflect a form of economic rapprochement between the two countries.”

Fahmy added, “Egypt wants to restore full relations with Syria, whether at the economic, security and political levels. This is not to mention the efforts by Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to see Syria return to the Arab fold, and to support Syria economically despite opposition from some countries, including Saudi Arabi and Qatar."

Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said in a statement in September that his country requires Syria to end the foreign parties’ control in the Syrian territories, if Damascus wishes to return to the Arab fold, and regain its place with the Arab League. 

In response, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Bashar al-Jaafari said in December, “Saudi Arabia is still following a non-Arab agenda because Saudi policy continues to depend on foreign agendas.”

Fahmy noted, “The cooperation between Egypt and Syria to deliver natural gas to Lebanon with US approval and exempting Egypt from US sanctions and the Caesar Act could facilitate the resumption of official economic and commercial relations between the Egyptian and Syrian governments."

On Aug. 19, the Lebanese presidency announced that the United States informed Lebanese President Michel Aoun of drawing up a plan including Jordan, Syria and Egypt, to help his country face the crippling fuel crisis.

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