Joel Beinin: Egypt's Workers Rise Up





[Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. His latest book is The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center).]

“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....



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