During the demonstrations in January and February that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Sabr Barakat, a retired steelworker and veteran labor organizer, witnessed groups of workers spontaneously marching from industrial areas outside Cairo toward Tahrir Square. Through his work with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, established in 2010, Barakat maintains close ties to labor activists throughout Egypt. He believes workers’ presence in Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, as it is known, was expressed in its most popular slogans: “Dignity, Democracy, Social Justice”; “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”; and, most direct, “We Want to Live! We Want to Eat!”
Similar demands for bread and social justice were frequently raised during the 4,000 strikes, sit-ins and other collective actions involving millions of workers since 1998, after the Egyptian government seriously began implementing the privatization program it agreed to in 1991. The program reduced public sector employment and promoted early retirement to make enterprises more attractive to private investors. Buyers sometimes carried out mass dismissals, although this was nominally illegal. “There is continuity between those strikes and the 2011 revolution,” said Khaled al-Khamissi, author of the bestselling novel Taxi.
Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, agrees: “It was a revolution against poverty and tyranny and for freedom and social justice.” Abbas and others established the CTUWS in 1990, after he was fired for leading a strike at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company.
In contrast, Ahmad Maher, a 30-year-old engineer and a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, a key player in the Tahrir Square uprising, claimed, “The workers did not play a role in the revolution. They were far removed from it.” Maher’s inability to perceive the role of workers is only partly attributable to class prejudice. After 2000 there were two largely parallel movements, of workers and the urban middle class. Only a handful of journalists and committed leftists maintained regular contact between them. The workers’ movement was far larger and more sustained, but workers had no national leadership or unified program. They rarely made direct demands for democracy or regime change, as middle-class activists did after the Kifaya (Enough!) movement burst on the scene in late 2004. Only in late June of this year did the April 6 Youth Movement begin to embrace key economic demands of the workers.
The conflicting assessments of Khamissi and Abbas, on the one hand, and Maher, on the other, reflect a continuing battle over the narrative and political import not only of the revolution in Egypt but of the insurgent movements throughout the Arab world. Are they simply rebellions demanding dignity and democracy? Or are they also movements for social justice?
The global neoliberal capitalist model was test-driven in Chile after the 1973 coup against democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. Subsequently the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began installing the model throughout the global South. Just as elsewhere, there was popular resistance in the Middle East and North Africa.
Egypt led the way. Nationwide riots against IMF-inspired cuts in subsidies on basic consumer goods in 1977 compelled the government to restore the subsidies, but they were reduced stealthily over the next thirty years. In response, workers launched strike waves in the mid-1980s and early ’90s. Labor protests have proliferated since 1998. In Tunisia the General Federation of Labor called a general strike in 1978, and there was widespread anti-IMF rioting in Tunisia in 1984. There were strikes by Moroccan workers and students in 1981, riots in poor areas of Casablanca in 1990 and protests over increases in the price of bread in 2008 that forced the Moroccan government to back down. There were food riots in Jordan in 1989. Algerians erupted in rage when the government voluntarily adopted an IMF-style economic program in 1988.