“Egyptian Workers Join the Revolution,” proclaimed the headline of Al-Ahram, the government-owned daily, the day before ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Tens of thousands of workers—in textiles, military production, transportation, petroleum, cement, iron and steel, hospitals, universities, telecommunications and the Suez Canal—participated in strikes or protests in the three days before Mubarak’s departure. Although it is too soon to render a definitive judgment, the demographic and economic weight of workers in the popular uprising was likely one of the factors that persuaded Egypt’s military chiefs to ask Mubarak to step aside.
From the start, workers participated in the demonstrations as individuals. It was only toward the end that they registered their presence as organized workers. This is partly because the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal union in Egypt, functions as an arm of the state. Unlike the General Union of Tunisian Workers, neither ETUF nor any of its affiliated unions joined the insurgent forces. As they have for more than a decade, Egyptian workers who sought to engage in collective action had to do so in the face of concerted opposition from the official union apparatus.
Much of the attention of the media and think-tank analysts has focused on the grievances of youth and their use of Facebook and other social media to mobilize the insurgent movement. The high unemployment rate of educated Egyptians under 30 and their facility with web technologies were undoubtedly major factors in launching the uprising. However, the events of January–February followed a decade of escalating mobilizations among many different sectors of Egyptian society—committees in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq; the Kifaya (Enough) movement for democracy; doctors, judges, professors; and, above all, industrial and white-collar workers.
Since 1998 well more than 2 million workers have participated in some 3,500 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest. There have been major strikes in nearly every sector of the Egyptian economy, including one in December 2006 and another in September 2007 at the mammoth Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra and a five-month struggle at the newly privatized Tanta Linen Company in 2009. The April 6 Youth Movement takes its name from a call for a general strike on that date in 2008; it did not occur because of severe repression.
Workers’ collective actions over the past decade have usually targeted bread-and-butter issues—the failure of owners of newly privatized enterprises to abide by the terms of the contracts in force before privatization, as the law requires; failure to pay long-overdue bonuses, incentives and other wage supplements; failure of public enterprises to pay workers their share of profits; fear of large-scale firings before or after privatization; and low wages. Many observers wondered if or when workers might raise “political” demands, failing to understand that in an autocracy, organizing large numbers of people outside state strictures is in itself a political act.
At the appropriate moment, workers did not hesitate to fuse economic and political demands. On February 9, Cairo transport workers went on strike and announced that they would be forming an independent union. According to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a well-informed blogger and labor journalist, their statement also called for abolishing the emergency law in force for decades, removing the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from state institutions, dissolving Parliament (fraudulently elected in 2010), drafting a new Constitution, forming a national unity government, prosecuting corrupt officials and establishing a basic national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month (about $215).