chapter  1
Reluctant revolutionaries? The dynamics of labour protests in Egypt, 2006–13
Pages 16

In recent years, Egypt has been experiencing the largest wave of labour action since the 1950s, with over two million Egyptians protesting in the workplace between 2004 and 2011 and rising numbers of labour action since 2011.1 Labour protests have been organized in workplaces nationwide to voice the discontent of the sectors of society who had benefited from Nasser’s redistributive policies. While these protests have included groups whose economic and social status has been increasingly threatened by casualization, such as medical doctors, industrial workers, teachers and civil servants, the demonstrations staged by residents against water cuts, poor housing and crumbling public services, and also against unemployment, have exhibited the wider range of grievances that have affected all sectors of the Egyptian population. Retrospectively, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 does not seem surprising given the extent of discontent that had been voiced against his regime. However, Charles Kurzman (2004) has warned social scientists against the temptation to reconstruct collective actions retrospectively by assigning meanings to the social processes that animate them. Like the 1979 Iranian revolution which overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty, the 2011 Arab uprisings in the Middle East have created much anxiety among scholars about their successful or failed attempts to predict these events, and this has led to two reactions. First, there have been attempts to see in the slightest manifestations of discontent the explanations behind the emergence of the Arab uprisings; second, the same factors that used to account for the ‘absence of political change’ before 2011 suddenly became the root cause of the revolutionary processes. By situating labour strikes within the context of the uprisings that led to the fall of Mubarak in 2011 this chapter focuses on the significance of labour protests in Egypt in order to understand political developments in 2011. It aims to avoid the pitfalls of retrospective causations by embracing an approach that ‘look[s] past our obsession with causation’ (Kurzman 2012; see also BennaniChraïbi and Fillieule 2012) in order to shed light on the underlying political and social processes that animated labour protests. While this involves identifying continuities between a decade of labour contestation and the revolutionary process since 2011, it also means acknowledging moments of rupture, when workers’ actions do not explain everything or seem to

contradict the reality of political events. Labour protests before 2011 did not overtly call for the ouster of Mubarak. They remained very localized, were not coordinated with each other and actually refrained from going beyond labour grievances. However, workers did not support Mubarak’s regime either. Like the vast majority of Egyptians, they abhorred the regime that oppressed and humiliated them. By exploring the dynamics of actors’ political participation in their own right, rather than assigning meaning to social actors’ actions, this chapter seeks to understand the dynamics of labour protests. I argue that repression does not explain why workers refrained from taking an anti-Mubarak stance, and I use the concept of ‘non-contentious politics’ to shed light on the accommodating of structures of power in order to secure gains from decision-makers; in this way workers’ protests managed to sustain themselves, but also to make more substantial achievements such as gaining support from outsiders and extending the channels of contention. This chapter is structured in four parts. First it will introduce the corporatist arrangements that have shaped state-labour relations in Egypt, workers’ trade union representation and the opportunities to voice labour grievances. Second, I will examine what I define as the ‘non-contentious politics’ of labour protests. This involves a pattern of mobilization relying on the use of overt action to advance a claim, but with a tacit understanding that the grievance should not be framed as overtly challenging the regime. The third part will show that this pattern has pushed the boundaries of contestation, in particular by challenging the state-controlled trade union structure which was the target of protests in a number of workplaces where strikes were organized. Finally, the last section will address the role of labour protests in the 2011 uprisings and the ongoing revolutionary process. By centring my argument on the fact that labour protests did not take an overtly anti-Mubarak stance I do not embrace a normative approach implying that workers’ actions should be reduced to purely opportunistic protests. Nor am I minimizing their significance in Egyptian politics. On the contrary, by studying the conditions, dynamics and processes that have led labour protests to adopt specific tactics I aim to go beyond interpretations that overlook the dynamics of the labour movement in Egyptian politics, either by romanticizing workers as the ‘vanguard of the revolution’, or by claiming that they have no political consciousness (wa‘i siyasi). This chapter is based on field research conducted as part of my doctoral studies. It involved a two-year ethnographic study conducted among textile workers in two textile cities of the Nile Delta region (Mahalla alKubra and Shibin al-Kawm) as well as interviews in Cairo with labour activists, journalists, trade union representatives and government officials.