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Where are the workers?

Even though the number of strikes and industrial actions in Egypt has skyrocketed since the mid 2000s, labour's demands have mostly been local and fragmented.

Nasser Nasser/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.In February 2012, the first anniversary after the removal of Mubarak and the peak of the struggle against the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), there was a call for a general strike. I awaited this day like a young boy did the end of school, hoping that the strike would succeed and become the point of transformation for resistance against the military. At the time, the resistance was focused on street protests, which was proving increasingly ineffective.

The strike call went unheeded by the working class. The day passed like any other working day. The failures of the strike not only highlighted the weak connection between the urban middle class led protest movement and the working class, it also revealed something about the working class and the nature of their economic and political demands.

It became clear that the working class was still dominated by Nasserist ideology. This ideology does not necessarily see the state as an enemy, but rather as a patron that needs to be reminded of its obligations towards the working class. The working class, though exhibiting clear signs of class consciousness, did not develop a revolutionary consciousness with the aim of overthrowing the regime; their goal was restoring what was: the Nasserist social contract with labour.

The working class is still dominated by Nasserist ideology.

When the free officers came to power through the 1952 coup they were faced with the dilemma of dealing with an increasingly militant labour movement. Labour, at the time, was considered part of the struggle against British rule, playing an integral part in destabilising the politically bankrupt monarchy. When Nasser came to power, the mass of labour supported the coup as the free officers spewed nationalist rhetoric that was part of a planned political vision for the labour movement. This encouraged the labour movement to become increasingly militant, as they expected support for their demands from the newly established regime. They were in for a big surprise!

This was made apparent during the Kafr El Dawwar textile factory strike of 1952. The workers went as far as protesting in favour of the regime. To the surprise of the workers, the regime reacted harshly, executing two leaders of the strike, Mostafa Khamis and Mohamed El Baqri, fearing that the factory had become a hotbed of Marxist radicalism. The regime started to coopt the labour movement as they repressed the radicals among them.

The regime moved decisively against the labour movement, crushing its independence through the Egyptian Trade Union Federation in 1957 – a government controlled union. They wanted it to act as the only legal representation of the workers and outlawed all other unions. Laws 317, 318, and 319 were issued, which met the long-standing demands of the labour movement in terms of job security, making it virtually impossible to fire workers. This was coupled with the provision of universal free education and health care, thus leading to a significant improvement in the workers' material well-being. Even though wages were low, government subsidies played a role in levelling out the playing field, also helping to improve the conditions of the working class.

Labour’s material improvements were followed by an enhancement of their social and moral conditions. As members of the “productive forces”, they were touted as playing leading roles in the development of the country. This instilled a sense of pride in the workers as well as increased loyalty to the regime. This was coupled with the triumph of Nasserism as the ruling ideology, which seeped into working class consciousness as a paradigm in which to see the political struggle.

Nasserism emphasised social harmony as the building block of Egypt's development, viewing Marxist views of class conflict as inherently dangerous to national unity. It also focused on the fight against imperialism as the main goal of the state. This is exemplified not only by the outlawing of strike action but also by the disappearance of the word 'strike' from the political jargon of the era. The notion of class conflict was submerged under Nasserism, which stifled any notions of class consciousness in favour of national unity, social harmony and the fight against imperialism. Thus, the working class became a junior partner of the ruling coalition, where labour was expected to remain politically quiet, meeting production targets in exchange for improved material and moral benefits.

This does not mean, however, that there were no labour protests under Nasser or Sadat. There was labour action, but it took forms that did not affect production.

The aim was and is the restoration of the benefits enjoyed under the Nasserist social contract, rather than the overthrow of the regime or a fundamental change in social structure.

The two main forms of labour protests were mainly “sit-ins”, where management would be locked out of a factory for it to be run by the workers. In this case production did not cease, on the contrary, in some cases it increased as the workers demonstrated their commitment to meeting production goals. The second form was refusing to cash paychecks, which disturbed government accounting ledgers.

These forms of protest were the most commonly used until the 2006 strike in Mahala, a hotbed of worker militancy. This shift ushered in a qualitative change in the nature of labour protests, as the workers started to rely more on strikes that negatively affected production. The aim of industrial action was and is to remind the state of its role as a patron and to attempt to pressure it to honour its commitment to labour. For example, the main aim of the strike of the real estate tax collectors, which gave birth in 2009 to the first independent trade union since 1952, was for equal pay with colleagues, the tax collectors, and to be under the supervision of the ministry of finance.  

Even though the number of strikes and industrial actions has skyrocketed since the mid 2000s, the demands of labour have mostly been fragmented and concerned with the improvement of the position of the workers within one profession or even one factory.

There are some exceptions to this. For example, the Mahala strike in 2008, which turned into a civil insurrection in the city, was based on the demand of establishing a national minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds. However, most of the other labour demands were restricted in their scope to economic demands with limited ambitions. For example, the Mahala workers went on strike in October 2015 because they did not receive the 10% social bonus that was promised by the regime.

There was another strike at the beginning of 2015; this time it was more political in nature since it demanded the restriction of government subsidies to cotton producers, because it affected the raw material of the plant. The strike was called off when they received a previously promised profit share bonus. Thus, in the centre of worker militancy the demands are limited in nature to tactical demands of one-time wage improvements rather than the core reason for worker’s repression: the military-capital nexus. This pattern has persisted since 1952. Even though workers are using strikes as a method of protest, their demands remain local, limited, and moderate.

The labour movement has tactical goals of temporary relief rather than broader goals of revolution. The aim was and is the restoration of the benefits enjoyed under the Nasserist social contract, rather than the overthrow of the regime or a fundamental change in social structure. This partly explains the lack of radicalism in the labour movement in Egypt and its constant appeal to the state for intervention.

This is also exemplified in the support the labour movement gave Sisi when he was running for president. The three main trade union federations, including the independent unions, proclaimed their support for Sisi, who was running against a self-proclaimed Nasserist, Hamdeen Sabbahi. The image of the strong leader and the comparison made between Sisi and Nasser were too strong to resist. The labour activist and Nasserist, Kamal Abou Eita, was made labour minister for the military backed government after the coup, once again showing the cooptation of the labour movement by the state. Abou Eita was also the head of the independent trade union at the time.    

The labour movement in Egypt is weak, fragmented, and mostly focused on local grievances. Their main aim is the restoration of the moral economy of the Nasserist state – to turn back the clock to halt the advance of neo-liberalism – however, they do not hope to overthrow the regime. They simply hope for a fairer regime, a milder version of the neo-liberal military regime that is currently ruling Egypt; this explains the conspicuous absence of the workers' movement post-Mubarak.

About the author

Maged Mandour graduated from Cambridge with a Masters in International Relations. He is a political analyst and the columnist of “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” on openDemocracy. He is also a writer for Sada, the online journal for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him @MagedMandour


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