Between the Significance of Roles and the Challenges of Organization and Representation: Independent Professional Unions in the Arab World

Below is the introduction to a series of papers on Independent Professional Associations. For the full report, click “download PDF”.

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 12: Medical workers gathered around the union building protest two doctors being beaten up by nine police officers last month, on February 12, 2016. © AA/Mohamed El-Raai


Labour unions and independent professional associations in the Arab World have always played a pivotal role in advocating for workers’ rights, and economic, social, and political rights in society at large, by widening the scope of political participation and safeguarding public freedoms, especially in post-independence states. However, as authoritarian regimes ran rampant in the region and the ruling class tightened its hold on state agencies and institutions, these regimes, be they military or sectarian, began to crack down on union and partisan activity, either by outlawing it with legislations or by voiding it of its meaning through the establishment of pro-regime labour unions and federations. In Iraq, for instance, Decision no. 150 was issued in 1978 and made workers and professionals part of the Iraqi government as public employees, thereby turning the State into the main employer. Similarly, the “Inqaz regime” in Sudan issued the Law on Public Interest in 1989, which terminated the employment of thousands of people, most of whom were affiliated with the Railway Workers Affairs Association and the Gezira Farmers Union, two pillars of advocacy-focused union action. In Lebanon, the ruling class went on to engineer elections in a way that would guarantee exclusive representation in the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, thus ensuring that its interests rather than those of workers be represented. Nevertheless, unions and associations, especially professional and sectorial ones, along with civil society organizations, remain a key institutional actor in the overall mobilization scene, playing a major role in filling the void left by the decline of political parties.

Indeed, professional associations have emerged as a key player in major turning points (the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003) or the outbreak of popular protests in 2011 (also dubbed the Arab Spring). The legacy of union action in Arab states, especially given the decaying political life, has been consolidated beyond question as professional unions came into their key position of mobilizing and organizing grassroots movements and reflecting their vitality. Independent professional associations are not labour unions in the legal sense of the word. They are rather sectorial representative bodies, originally established to advance the interests of their members and protect their economic gains. They often represented middle-class groups, which in many cases had supported the regime (in Algeria, for example). However, with the historical changes in their socio-economic situation due to an open economy and neoliberal policies, these classes resorted to their unions to voice their opposition to the economic systems’ policies, sometimes even going so far as calling for toppling the regime. In Iraq, for example, several journalists founded the National Union of Journalists in 2003, which provided an alternative and pioneering experience for union action following the ruling Baath Party’s decades-long domination over unions. In Egypt, independent unions were revived in the wake of the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011 before the new regime took away their independence by cracking down on public space. In contrast to the Sudanese experience, where professional unions had a leading role in organizing protests and later assumed a negotiating role in the transfer of power (the Sudanese Professionals Association), the popular movement in Lebanon (the 17 October 2019 Uprising) yet again highlighted the pivotal role of professional associations after years of being captured by the ruling political parties.

As such, independent professional associations have become an important political player in the Arab World. They have secured a pivotal role in political and sectorial-professional representation and have been vital in mobilizing protests and creating public opinion supportive of economic, social, and political rights.

Therefore, in line with its work on understanding the pillars and conditions of change in the Arab World, the Arab Reform Initiative created a space for reflection and dialogue in order to conduct discussions on the reality of independent professional associations based on their growing role in the Arab World over the last decade. It sought to provide an in-depth review of papers by researchers from the Arab World, which discussed the situation in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. Based on the outputs of the papers in this publication, a series of discussions and talks was conducted with researchers and actors in independent professional associations in an effort to understand their role and secure a connection and common space among their members so that they could exchange experiences and strengthen communication.


The papers in this publication discuss the theme of “Independent Professional Associations” through their role in the popular movement. These structures clearly have an important role in organizing, or at least trying to organize, protests. However, these efforts are usually faced with challenges mainly regarding civil society’s capacity to organize in countries that have known significant political stagnation resulting from authoritarian decisions aimed at abolishing partisan or union life. The publication includes five case studies from the Arab World: Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt.

Sudan: The Sudan paper, written by Mohamed El Agati, Omar Samir, and Abdel Moneim Sayed Ahmed, and Zeinab Srour, reviews the Sudanese Professionals Association. It presents this body as the accumulation of previous experiences that developed from clandestine action beginning in 2012, to public work in 2016, all the way to playing a critical role in the Sudanese protests of 2018. The paper outlines the evolution of SPA demands for a regime change “by raising more general issues that go beyond professional matters, such as wages and reforms in the educational, health, and service sectors, issues that concern professionals and non-professionals alike.” SPA legitimacy was bolstered through rights advocacy, thus becoming a political player that formed alliances with other parties to establish a broad opposition coalition, the Forces of Freedom and Change,1The Forces of Freedom and Change are Sudanese political components comprising the Sudanese Professionals Association, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, the National Consensus Forces, and the National Opposition Alliance. which later contributed to the political transfer of power. The paper also explores the organizational and future challenges facing the SPA, based on the political developments in Sudan in the wake of the fall of the Omar al-Bashir regime.

Algeria: The Algerian case study, written by Nasser Djabi, examines independent associations in Algeria since their inception in the early 1990s and their focus on sectorial specificities of professions, unlike traditional official unilateral unions. Independent unions stand out because of their ability to “take into account the specificities of their demands and the skills they have, [as well as] the evolution of their demands, bases, and ways to protest.” The paper highlights the strengths of these independent associations in the popular movement and the weaknesses that kept them from assuming a larger role in the face of power realignment and the decline of the popular movement.

Lebanon: The paper, written by Jamil Mouawad, offers a critical review of the experience of independent professional associations in Lebanon, in addition to the attempts to form them. It explores two main experiences: the Order of Engineers and Architects (OEA), where the 17 October Uprising supporters secured a landslide win in the 2021 elections; and the experience of professors in the Lebanese Professionals Association (LPA-Professors), an effort born out of the popular movement of 17 October 2019. The paper discusses the meaning of “independence” and its meaning in the Lebanese political framework. It also presents the main organizational factors which could facilitate or hinder independent union action if these challenges are not overcome.

Iraq: The Iraqi case study, written by Ali Taher Al-Hamoud, focuses on the National Union of Journalists, an endeavour founded in 2003 in the wake of the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. “It challenged the prevailing obedience to the State as the historically dominant employer and sole economic rent provider. As such, the emergence of the national union was a breakthrough, as the overall context discouraged such experiences. It was not in the interest of citizens, most of whom were State employees, to adopt projects that challenged its policies.” The paper explores the position of the new union from discussions about the need for establishing a new union for journalists (or reactivating and retaking the existing union), as opposed to establishing an association seeking to advocate for journalists. It highlights the reasons why the union strayed from its fundamental objectives and moved towards technical work, i.e. trainings similar to those provided by civil society organizations. The paper also examines the internal challenges of the Union, including the relation with or domination by the left wing, or the relationship with the regime, down to the internal divergence among its various components.

Egypt: The case study, written by Shaimaa El-Sharkawi, discusses the obstacles that hindered the experience of independent unions. It follows a chronological review focusing on three stages: the establishment of independent unions on the eve of the January 2011 Revolution; the prominent role of independent unions following the Revolution; and the receding role from 2012 to date. The paper also explores the key problems faced by the independent unions with a historical review of each stage while simultaneously highlighting the corresponding internal challenges.


A comparative reading of the papers reveals the main challenges facing independent professional associations in the Arab World. These issues are presented as general questions that, when answered, could develop and reinforce their activity.

The Debate of Political vs Association-based Demands

The debate between political action (i.e. the association as a stakeholder in the public political space, with a clear position on the establishment) and association-based action (i.e. limiting the role to advancing the interests of members only) seems to be key for clearly defining the work and goals of independent associations (developing demands, creating alliances, and so on). Some actors in these independent associations believe that they should not interfere in politics, while others consider that the very activities of association action (i.e. organizational and advocacy activities) fall precisely under political action. In fact, many efforts struggled with the dilemma of which type of action to prioritize.

However, the key problem does not lie here. Rather, the issue is related to the internal homogeneity of the unions, the legitimacy of their representation, and their ability to reach an agreement about whether or not to participate in power. The following question the poses itself: To what extent are independent professional associations homogeneous enough to be able to encourage public mobilization to fill a political role larger than their strict role as associations?

Defining Roles

Given the crisis in political life and stagnant representative space (with the lack of traditional parties and labour unions), independent professional associations provide representative frameworks that can play a major role in securing the transfer of power. The biggest challenge for these frameworks lies in the difficulty of defining that role: are they a mediator managing the political process between different parties, or are they an inherent political stakeholder (i.e. should they develop their role as political stakeholders?)?  Furthermore, we must clearly define the concept of “independence,” which could take on different dimensions in the five case studies: are they independent from the State as an employer, or independent from the ruling parties? Or from the web of interests that controls the political economy of these countries?

A Crucial Role in Reviving Democratic Life

A critical challenge facing independent associations is their ability to revive democratic life, maintain an open public space, and resist the militarys and traditional elites strengthening their control over politics and other aspects of societal organization. Advocating for the right to the freedom of association, for social and economic rights, and for the right to protest is still the most that these associations, as representative associations, can offer to the public political scene, regardless of the nature of their role (political or professional). Here lies the question about the importance and necessity for unions to adopt representative (the importance of youth representation) or participatory (allowing for participation in decision-making) democratic paths.

Legal Obstacles

Legal obstacles seem pivotal in invigorating or undermining the freedom of independent professional associations. In Iraq, for example, several MPs presented a draft law (Law on Labour Unions and Professional Associations) that provides for union pluralism in accordance with the constitution. “However, the law was set aside after preliminary deliberations, as it seems that many official unions, such as the Bar Association, Engineers Association, Medical Association, and many others were opposed to it, in an attempt to maintain their unilateral hold on union action in their fields, rather than have to deal with a multiplicity of unions.” In Lebanon, it is impossible to establish an independent union without the approval of the relevant minister. This is a legal obstacle in itself that sometimes contributes to the fragmentation or weakening of association-based action. In such a context, what role can existing associations play in the process of overcoming legal obstacles and mobilizing a rights movement calling for the freedom to establish unions, be they labour or professional?

Challenges of Identity and Organization

It is also necessary to examine union identity and the need for renewal given the changes in political and economic systems around the world. Unions do not monopolize workers. There is an explicit demand for “ideological and intellectual renewal to adapt to national and international developments and their various socio-economic and political ramifications.” Not all workers and professions are organized within unions. However, there are large groups which organize their ranks and sometimes take action outside of unions, as they are not part of the formal labour market (or the organized economy). As such, how will the labour unions, particularly sectorial unions, also contribute to reconciling people with politics, and more specifically to reviving union action without restricting it to intellectual ideologies (i.e. unions being the responsibility of the left only)? And how, in turn, can they contribute to representing workers who are not members of unions?

Underrepresentation of Women

Women are generally underrepresented in independent professional associations, as shown in the five case studies. Women’s representation is not commensurate to their level of participation in popular protests and their large role in rights advocacy (e.g. female lawyers have played a leading role in defending detainees in Sudan and Lebanon). Unions should not only represent sectors but also, and more importantly, they should represent all segments of society. How can real (and not ceremonial) representation of women within these unions be ensured?


Based on the Arab World’s rapid political developments, caught between an old regime clinging to power through such tactics as military coups and a new system that is still taking shape with continuous popular movements and emerging parties, free professional associations take on a cornerstone role in organizing the masses, defending rights, and giving institutional legitimacy to mobilization work. Free professional associations are representative structures with enough organization and legitimacy, obtained through elections, to advance rights demands either regarding members and their association and professional interests, or national issues related to social, economic, and political rights. Certainly, these unions will be faced with many challenges, chief among these being how to balance demands for union action and advocacy for political action. However, this does not deny the fact that unions have consolidated their status as a key player in the overall protest and organizational landscape.

It is therefore essential to develop an agenda that focuses on further exploring the role of independent professional associtations, centering on two main streams. First, a research agenda should be developed with a focus on the role of independent professional associations, while attempting to document the experiences of activists in order to guide internal self-reflexion. Second, a dialogue-based policy agenda should be put in place to find areas of convergence between independent associations in the same country or in the Arab World. Naturally, this dialogue is complemented by introductions to and networking with similar successful experiences from outside the Arab World in order to draw lessons learned and exchange expertise.


1 The Forces of Freedom and Change are Sudanese political components comprising the Sudanese Professionals Association, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, the National Consensus Forces, and the National Opposition Alliance.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.