Revival of Popular Movements: An excerpt from Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution

Derek Alan Ide I Publication I August 16th, 2013

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the forthcoming book, Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution , by Derek Alan Ide, which is scheduled for publication by the Hampton Institute Press in October of 2013.

Chapter 4 - Revival of Popular Movements

The themes of working class struggle and severe state repression of social movements have been concurrent throughout Egyptian history. The origins of a modern industrial proletariat in Egypt date back to at least the 1870s and grew continuously until the 1919 anti-colonial uprising. Left-wing socialist political thought grew slowly and steadily this period, but gained a wider audience after the First World War as the modern industrial proletariat became a distinct and important social force. Competing with the political Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist politics of the Wafd, the popularity of left-wing politics culminated with the coming to power of Nasser, at which point the size and scale of the industrial working class exploded in conjunction with the massive state investment in modern industry. Yet, the state domination of political and economic life also meant that independent left-wing thought was mostly extinguished during this period, only to reemerge as a dialectic force in opposition to Sadat's intifah policies during the 1970s. The 1990s and 2000s witnessed an enormous increase in contentious labor action and a concomitant revival in popular politics, a vital precursor to the ousting of Mubarak in 2011.

The Growth of a Modern Working Class in Colonial Egypt

Left-wing political thought was imported to Egypt as foreign skilled workers immigrated to the country primarily from Italy and Greece, but also from other European states. As these workers mingled with the nascent Egyptian proletariat, radical ideas about the role of labor and the working class in modern society gained modest ground. As these workers mingled with the emergent Arab working class - particularly cigarette rollers, printers, and service workers - anarchist, socialist, and anarcho-syndicalist thought developed as small but important political currents within the Egyptian working class. The first major strike was led by Cairo cigarette rollers in 1899, with other strikes following in their wake. As most of Egypt's large industrial employers were of foreign origin, and the British army occupied Egypt since the 1882 Urabi revolt, Egyptian working class activity converged with nationalist demands aimed at ending foreign dominance. This early working class activity, concentrated in transport and public utilities, laid important foundations for when the 1919 national popular uprising against the British would take place.

Leading up to and playing a role in the 1919 Revolution against British colonialism, the working class was a vital force in achieving the marginal form of independence won in 1922, which still kept Britain in control through an acquiescent monarchy. Despite the important role of organized working class action, however, the working class was granted neither the economic demands nor the political freedoms, such as the right to form unions, it sought. Indeed, as Anthony Gorman points out, the British "oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers."[1] Aside from a brief time during World War II in which trade unions became legal, workers were never allowed any form of legal, collective organization. Indeed, despite the nationalist Wafd party won every relatively free parliamentary election during this period, the party's elite largely represented the Egyptian landed aristocracy. Of the 50 cabinets formed during the tumultuous years of 1914 to 1952, on average some 58% of cabinet members were landlords.[2] Thus, after the installation of an ostensibly independent monarchy, the high politics of the elite were oriented around the "triangle of opposing interests"[3] manifest in the monarchy, the British High Commission, and the nationalist elites, while Egyptian popular politics outside of elite control operated largely within the ideological domains of political Islam, radical nationalism, and Communism. The social base of these emerging political ideologies was largely drawn from workers, peasants, students, and the lower middle classes, including young military officers.

While leftists and Communists were important oppositional figures that provided some level of leadership to working class movements, the radical nationalists connected to the Wafd party were arguably more influential. The radical nationalist wing of the Wafd party remained largely marginalized by the elite leadership of the party, but it did garner some popular legitimacy among workers and peasants. Yet, the radical nationalist wing was used largely as a tool to bring working class activity under the Wafd umbrella, to be directed against certain opponents, particularly foreign owned institutions, and not against "progressive nationalist elements" owned by ethnically Egyptian capitalists and landlords. In this sense, the radical nationalist movement inhibited the development of independent working class activity.

Egypt's First Mass Movement: the Society of the Muslim Brothers

The largest and widest popular social movement with the deepest social roots in Egyptian society was the Society of the Muslim Brothers, more frequently referred to as the Muslim Brotherhood. Although founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, the organization can trace its roots back to the late 19th century pan-Islamic and anti-colonial ideas Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. The Brotherhood gained substantial support throughout the 1930's and 1940's, but garnered its largest social base after World War II, peaking at nearly half a million members with spanning some 2,000 branches. The Muslim Brotherhood drew its activist base from lower middle-class elements of Egyptian society, but appealed to poorer constituencies through its large network of social programs. The organization engaged in social, cultural, and educational affairs by setting up schools, hospitals, factories, and mosques to partially fill in the social, economic, and ideological vacuum left open by the state. These deficiencies on behalf of the state were greatly augmented in the post-Nasser era and provided space for the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its semi-legal status, to operate and regain its pre-coup status.

Ideologically, as Wael Hallaq explains, "For the Islamists, the moral…is the declared central domain… [and] the problems of all other domains, including the economic and political, 'are solved in terms of the central domain - they are considered secondary problems, whose solution follows as a matter of course only if the problems of the central [moral] domain are solved'."[4] While the organization established shaky anti-imperialist credentials, aiming to remove the British from Egyptian society but vacillating between cooperation and resistance with the British-installed monarch, "its most active efforts were directed against secularism and liberalism, which were deemed contrary to Islamic values." [5] Another primary component of the Brotherhood's ideology was the "harmonization" of class interests, a position similar to the nationalist Wafd despite the rancor between the two organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to control working class activity, supporting strikes when politically convenient but disparaging labor activity independent of the organization's interests.

This attempt to control working class organization and promote a "harmonization" of class interests, no matter how improbable or impossible, is a result of the class base of the organization. As Chris Harman notes, political Islam, a phenomenon which the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the largest and most widespread manifestation of, consists of four separate and often conflicting social classes in society: the old exploiters, the new exploiters, the poor, and the new middle class. The old exploiters consist of "members of the traditional privileged classes who fear losing out in the capitalist modernisation of society - particularly landowners (including clergy dependent on incomes from land belonging to religious foundations), traditional merchant capitalists, the owners of the mass of small shops and workshops" and often provide "finance for the mosques and see Islam as a way of defending their established way of life and of making those who oversee change listen to their voices." The new exploiters often emerge from this group, and are composed of "some of the capitalists who have enjoyed success despite hostility from those groups linked to the state" and who had found "their way into the economic fabric of Sadat's Egypt at a time when whole sections of it had been turned over to unregulated capitalism." Prime examples of this second group could be the "Egyptian Rockefeller" Uthman Ahmad Uthman during the Sadat era and Khairat El Shater during the Mubarak era and after.

The third group consists of "the rural poor who have suffered under the advance of capitalist farming and who have been forced into the cities as they desperately look for work." Meanwhile, these same displaced peasants "lost the certainties associated with an old way of life - certainties which they identify with traditional Muslim culture - without gaining a secure material existence or a stable way of life," and could "identify the 'non-Islamic' behaviour of [the ruling] elite as the cause of their own misery." These fellaheen, often converted into urban workers, were subsequently drawn to political Islam both through an ideological harkening back to an older age and through the large scale charity and social service networks put in place by the Muslim Brotherhood. These became particularly important as state social services were increasingly decrepit or non-existent while operating within the confines of neoliberal reform.

However, as Harman explains, it is neither the exploiting classes nor the impoverished masses which, on the whole, provide the base of political activists for the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it is the new middle class which forms "the cadre of activists who propagate its doctrines and risk injury, imprisonment and death in confrontation with their enemies." [6] Indeed, as Richard Mitchell explains, it was the "urban, middle class, effendi [modern-educated professionals usually in the civil service] predominance among the activist membership" which "shaped the Society's political destiny."[7] Brynjar Lia argues that the Muslim Brotherhood represents, "to a great extent, a reflection of class interests… specifically… the class interests of the professional urban middle class." Lia cites surveys suggesting that the Brotherhood "recruited an overwhelming proportion of their members from this class, particularly those who were recent immigrants to urban areas." These activists form the "articulate and policy-making sections of the Muslim Brothers,"[8] and were and continue to be educated, lower middle class graduates such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, low-level religious clergy, and others who analyze the problems of society through Islamic rhetoric and propagate a vision of reform with Islam at its center.

The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood can further be attributed to the fact that there were positions taken by the organization that were inherently correct, while the dominance of Stalinism within the Communist movement ensured an inability to counteract on behalf of the left. For instance, while the dominant ideology of the Brotherhood was inimical to the interests of workers generally, they still maintained a level of ideological hegemony by engaging in anti-imperialist ventures, such as recruiting volunteers to fight in Palestine, while the USSR, after various periods of inconsistent foreign policy regarding Zionism, officially recognized the establishment of Israel. The commitment on behalf of many Egyptian leftists to the international political maneuvering of Stalin and the USSR greatly hindered their ability to achieve any serious hegemony within the working class movement.

Workers and Brothers after the Military Coup

Just as workers played an important role in the 1919 revolution, organized working class protests played an enormous role in destabilizing the Farouk monarchy and facilitating the 1952 military coup that eventually brought Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power. Those espousing socialist ideologies, alongside the popular political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, played important roles enervating the legitimacy of the monarchy. As Botman explains, despite the fact that Marxists never held state power they did "contribute to the tradition of dissident thought." This tradition helped grant the military coup d'etat "widespread endorsement partly because of the earlier efforts of the left to undermine the ideological support of the royalist regime." [9]

However, working class organizations were quick to realize that they would be feeling the heavy-hand of the state if they veered too far from the political and economic control of the state. The glimmer of hope that workers and unions would be able to function independently, seen most lucidly in the 1952 textile workers strike at Kafr al-Dawwar, was smashed when the military brutally suppressed the strike and hung two of their leaders. While Nasser himself voted against the executions, this event still set the tone for the harshness with which dissidents and movements outside of state-control would be handled in the future. Two years later a united front of students, Wafdists, Communists, Muslim Brothers, and others protested the military dictatorship and called for a return to civilian rule. Nasser responded by consolidating his rule through a blend of cooptation and violence. Omnia El Shakry explains:

Politically, the regime sought to contain the possibility of any broad-based popular movement, hence the attempts at cooptation and the violence perpetrated against its two main ideological contenders, the Muslim Brothers and the Marxist-Communist Left, as well as the abolition of political parties and organizations. Similarly, the regime's policy towards labor activism and trade unionism was characterized by a two-pronged policy of co-optation of labor and union leaders through their incorporation into the state apparatus and extensive revisions of labor legislation (for example, legislating job security and improved material benefits). Autonomous labor action and the political independence of the trade unions were curtailed by a legislative ban on all strikes, laws on the arbitration and conciliation of labor disputes, and a new trade-union law. [10]

The Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), a Stalinist political group linked to some of the Free Officers, provided ideological leniency for Nasserism. The DMNL argued for a "two-stage" theory of revolution which articulated the idea that democracy must emerge from the national liberation struggle prior to the development of socialism. The DMNL attributed a progressive role to Nasser and his state-capitalist economic program, even if it blunted popular action favoring democratic control of the means of production. Years of repression against the left followed. For instance, Youssef Darwish, a well-known Communist lawyer who had been imprisoned repeatedly by the monarchy, was again arrested by Nasser and held from 1958 to 1964. He explains how prison conditions under the military regime were even worse than imprisonment under King Farouk: "Under the monarchy there was no torture in jails... Some things I can't even talk about. At one point I couldn't take it anymore, I stopped eating. Then a guard whispered to me: 'you have to eat, don't you know they want you to die.' These simple, humane words gave me the courage to go on."[11] Following the acquiescent political tradition of the DMNL, the Egyptian Communist Party (ECP), after years of infighting and state repression, dissolved itself and many of its remaining leaders took up positions in Nasser's Arab Socialist Union (ASU). This decision, which Darwish argued vehemently against at the time, was justified by the ECP along the lines that Nasser "alone was competent to carry out the tasks of the revolution." [12] Meanwhile, an internal battle within the Muslim Brotherhood over the nature of the coup, as well as the increasingly apparent class contradictions within the organization, enervated it and allowed Nasser to effectively marginalize it through various mechanisms.[13]

The role of the state in smashing collective movements was continued throughout the post-Nasser era. The social welfare dimension of Nasserism was emphasized less and less. "The workers don't demand, we give," had to be slightly altered during the Sadat-Mubarak years so it did not clash with the neoliberal dogma of Egypt's new Western backers. Instead, the Nasser slogan was replaced by a new ideology: "the workers don't demand, we take." Not only did they take, they repressed and beat back any attempts at formulating popular movements over the next forty years.

This process was concurrent with reform inside the Muslim Brotherhood, where the "reformist" wing defeated the more militant activists inside the party intent on armed struggle against the state. This led to an increasingly accommodating approach to the Sadat regime, which in turn provided the Brotherhood some unofficial space to organize. As a show of loyalty, the Muslim Brotherhood spent much of the 1970s purging public spaces, especially the universities, of Nasserist and Communist currents. In 1977, when working people rose up against cuts to food subsidies, they were violently put-down by Sadat's military, and the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the uprising despite its popular nature. After Sadat's engagement with Israel, however, many younger, more radical activists inside the organization turned away from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and began articulating the need for a new armed struggle against the state. This formed the backdrop to Sadat's assassination in 1981 and the increasing hostility with which Mubarak met Islamist social movements in the 1990s, using anti-Islamist laws as a pretext for crushing any dissent, particularly economic action such as strikes.

Politics of Contention in the 2000s

In recent years Egypt has witnessed a revival of mass struggle primarily in two areas. First, the Palestinian Intifada of 2000 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 galvanized large-scale political action. Second, a proliferation of labor actions throughout the 1990s and 2000s reached a zenith with the contentious 2006 textile strike in al-Mahalla al-Kubra. This strike opened a new era in labor struggle and sparked the onset of an enormous strike-wave that gripped the nation and threatened the stability of the Mubarak regime. The Egyptian revolution cannot be separated from the recent history of struggle that had gripped Egypt the decade prior. A third factor was the increasingly civil relationship between leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood. This phenomenon may have influenced the ability of various political parties to come together and take a united stand against the Mubarak regime. In conjunction with one another, these three variables opened up a political space in which the Tunisian revolution could act as a galvanizing impetus in hastening Egypt's revolution.

The Second Palestinian Intifada of 2000 was met with widespread support among the Egyptian people. Egyptians, despite the propaganda campaigns to the contrary, recognized and rejected the anti-Palestinian policies of their leaders. University students organized a demonstration supporting Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and it quickly spread to the high schools and, then, to the larger population. Activists pushed for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and condemned the Arab regimes that were actively capitulating to the US and Israel. Likewise, and against the wishes of their pro-U.S. dictator, some fifty thousand people took to Tahrir square in 2003 at the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite the brutality of the police, protestors and demonstrators carried on. It was Mubarak's compliance and subjugation to imperial powers, combined with the corrupt political system and declining economic conditions, which pushed Egyptians over the top. One Egyptian socialist details the movement's evolution:

In December 2004, the first public demonstration for the new movement for change happened, which we refer to as Kifaya, which means "enough." The first slogan of the movement was, "Down, down [with] Mubarak!" Other slogans appeared against Mubarak's plan to transfer power to his son, Gamal, to be the next president. The slogan of the movement was no to the continuation of the regime and no to the handing over of power to his son Gamal. This led to other demands, including an end to the emergency laws that were in place for more than twenty years, and another was to call for a free, democratic process for political parties and movements.[14]

Kifaya was vital in reforming the political culture within Egypt. While it was particularly successful in utilizing both the mainstream and alternative media outlets, it did not make deep inroads within the working class, the poor, or the peasantry, and failed at accurately articulating their demands. As Hossam El-Hamalawy explains, "Millions of Egyptians, while sitting at home, could watch those daring young activists in downtown Cairo mocking the president, raising banners with slogans that were unimaginable a decade before."[15] Kifaya was buttressed by the Shayfenkom movement, which translates roughly into "We Are Watching You." This grassroots movement arose during the 2005 elections, and pledged to monitor elections by sending members to committees and booths as election observers. The movement encouraged citizens to report election violations to their website or through their cell phones.[16]

Labor Militancy in the 1990s and 2000s

While this nascent political awakening occurred, economic conditions for Egyptians continued their descent. With this stark reality, it was not simply political issues and foreign policy that concerned Egyptians. Conditions for the Egyptian masses were dire throughout the 1980s and 1990s and any moves by labor during this period to increase their economic standing in society were met brutally by police. In 1989, state police used live ammunition against strikers during strikes in the steel mills and again in the textile strikes of 1994. The state machinery was blatant in its defense of capital in these cases. Furthermore, since 1957 when the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF, or Al-Ittihad al-'aam li-Niqaabaat 'ummal Masr) was established, official unions have functioned as arms of the Egyptian state. Law 35 passed in 1976 formalized the ETUF's legal monopoly on all trade union activity. This meant the role of unions under the ETUF was not to act as independent, militant entities through which workers could articulate their own demands. Instead, they were institutions through which the legitimate demands by the working class could be funneled by the regime into "safe" channels and consequentially stifled. Anne Alexander outlines the "dual role" of ETUF and its affiliated unions:

…as organs of social control they channelled benefits such as access to workplace-based social welfare schemes to workers and worked hand in glove with state employers to enforce "social peace" within the workplace. As organs of political control they acted as an electoral machine for the ruling party, controlling nominations for the 50 percent of seats in parliament which were reserved for "workers and peasants", and a mechanism for mobilising a stage army of apparently loyal regime supporters whenever the regime felt it needed to make a show of its "mass base". [17]

The ETUF, as the only legal trade union federation in Egypt until 2011, claimed representation of some 3.8 million workers out of a labor force of roughly 27 million.[18] It largely represented government or public sector workers, and found its strength from Nasser's expansion of the public sector from the mid-1950's until his death in 1970. By the Mubarak era, the NDP controlled the ETUF, with a majority of candidates in every level of the union's pyramid structure. Candidates who did not conform to Sadat and later Mubarak's political and economic prerogatives were discarded by Sadat's "socialist prosecutor," an office established to remove unwelcome critics of the regime. A 1995 law allowed further eroded the social content of the ETUF, as high-level managers were granted the right to vote in union elections and workers on fix-termed contracts were barred from running in elections. This was quite convenient for the regime, as neoliberal reforms meant that the public sector stopped issuing permanent contracts to their employees. Another law also targeted the professional syndicates (niqabat mihniyya), granting NDP appointed officials control over the syndicate if election turn outs were too low.[19]

Another of the blatant ways in which the official unions are manipulated is shown in "legality" of strikes:

Since the enactment of Egypt's Unified Labor Law of 2003, it has technically been legal for workers to strike, but only if approved by the leadership of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions. Since the federation, along with the sectoral general unions and most enterprise-level union committees, are firmly in the grip of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), all actual strikes since 2003 have been "illegal." [20]

Yet, Egyptian workers in the two decades leading up to the 2011 uprising began engaging in contentious labor action, willfully disobeying the official trade union rulings. In the 1980's three high-profile strikes took place, including the 1984 textile strike in Mahalla al-Kubra, the 1986 rail workers' strike, and the 1989 Helwan steel strike. The early 1990s, coinciding with Mubarak's newest agreements with the IMF and the World Bank, saw a steady increase in labor activity. Reported strikes rose steadily every year, from 8 in 1990 to 26 in 1991, 28 in 1992, and 63 in 1993. In September 1994 a major strike occurred at Kafr al-Dawwar, the same site of the 1952 strike where the RCC hung two leading organizers. This time, three people were shot and killed by the police and many others were wounded.[21] As Joel Beinin notes:

The highest estimate of the total number of labor protests from 1988 to 1993 is 162-an average of 27 per year. From 1998 to 2003 the annual average for collective actions rose to 118. But in 2004 there were 265 collective actions; over 70 percent occurred after the Nazif government took office in July. [22]

From 1998 to 2010, two to four million Egyptians participated in some 3,400 to 4,000 strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of collective action. [23] Of this, over 1,900 of these actions involving some 1.7 million workers occurred from just 2004 to 2008, [24] as Nazif was "soldiering ahead with privatization and liberalization of the economy." Workers were radicalizing and willing to challenge the corrupt state-controlled unions and organize. In large part, workers were forced to create their own, independent unions, even if they maintained an illegal status and were met with heavy repression by the state.

The growth in labor militancy has been, ironically, due in large part to the "unwelcome consequence of economic growth" seen during the last decade as foreign direct investment in Egypt has skyrocketed. This growth was fueled by an enormous inflow of international capital into the country, as Foreign Direct Investment increased from $400 million in 2000 to $13.2 billion in 2007-08, making Egypt the largest recipient of capital inflow on the African continent.[25] Interestingly, it is not just the old players like the United States and Britain, either. So called "Free Trade Zones" have opened up all over Egypt, with capital pouring in from India, Russia, China, and even Kazakhstan. Some of this investment has been linked with military production facilities, another example of the military dominance in Egypt. [26] What this increased flow of capital means is that while working conditions remained dangerous and living conditions were declining, there was simultaneously an augmentation of the labor force resulting from the new industrial and manufacturing base. These new industries have also been as a nexus through which workers have been able to organize.

The Groundbreaking Strike at Mahalla

Class struggle escalated tremendously in Egypt after the sham election of 2005 and the deepening of neoliberal economic policies in 2006. After Mubarak's façade of democracy, Egyptians understood the anti-worker policies of privatization and attacks on labor would continue. In late 2006, Egyptians fought back and organized the most enormous strike wave in Egypt since the end of World War II. Mahalla, a Nile Delta town, known for its large public sector textile mill, Misr Spinning and Weaving, has a historic reputation for its contentious labor activity. As far back as 1947 workers had engaged in militant strike action at the company, which sparked strikes by other textile workers in Alexandria, oil workers in Suez, telegraphists, and teachers. [27] This was a history that would be repeated in 2006. After decades of economic battering, workers at the mill in 2006 made drastically low wages. For instance, one of the strike leaders, Muhammad al-'Attar, made a paltry sum of $75 a month, including profit-sharing and incentive bonuses. Workers in Mahalla would be the spark that lit the Egyptian labor movement on fire. Starting December 7, production ground to a halt as some 3,000 female textile workers walked off the job to protest the fact that they were not given their promised end of the year bonus. [28] The female workers marched towards the male workers, who had not yet stopped their machines, reversing a popular football chant: "Where are the men? Here are the women!" The men finally joined in and, quickly, the fighting spirit was enflamed in nearly all of the workers at the state-owned textile plant, some 24,000 in total. "We had a massive demonstration, and staged mock funerals for our bosses," explained al-'Attar, "The women brought us food and cigarettes and joined the march. Security did not dare to step in. Elementary school pupils and students from the nearby high schools took to the streets in support of the strikers." Eventually, the government offered a large bonus and assurance that the company would not be privatized, a fear that many workers shared.[29]

Taking inspiration from the Mahalla workers, the strike spread like wildfire to nearly every sector of society:

Over the following ten months, virtually all sectors witnessed strikes or sit-ins. From December 7, 2006 to September 23, 2007, according to a report by the Giza-based Center for Socialist Studies, more than 650 workers' protests took place across the country, a large proportion of which were strikes. This period saw 198,400 workers take strike action, and an even higher number staged sit-ins and street protests, from civil servants, drivers and cashiers of metros and subways, cement factory workers, garbage collectors, fishermen, and even real estate tax collectors. The tax collectors who struck for three months, bringing tax collection down by 90 percent and winning a victory after they set up a camp in front of the ministerial cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo.[30]

Gaining confidence in themselves and their ability to fight back against a repressive regime, workers furthered the struggle. Organizers began to fuse economic and political demands. In February, tens of thousands of workers at Ghazl el-Mahalla and fellow citizens took part in the largest anti-Mubarak labor protest prior to 2011. Chants against both Mubarak and his son Gamal meshed together with economic demands such as raising the national minimum wage. Then, in March, professors went on strike to protest the repressive actions against them by state security forces. Dissidents and organizers began calling for a general strike, centered in Mahalla, to raise the minimum wage. To preempt this, the government reacted with coercion and severe repression to ensure the strike would not occur. The spark was when a police officer assaulted a woman in the city center. In response, massive protests broke out against police brutality, increasing food prices, terrible economic conditions, and the despised regime.

The ensuing battle at Mahalla is, perhaps, the single greatest event foreshadowing the 2011 rising. Hossam El-Hamalawy reported at the time:

On the April 6, thousands of police troops occupied the town of Mahalla, and security took control of the factory, thus preempting the strike. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in the town, however, including thousands of the urban poor, the young employed, and workers chanting against the president, corruption, and price increases. The demonstrators were met with police tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, which left at least two young men, ages 15 and 20, dead. For two days the city turned into a scene similar to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, where demonstrators hurled stones at Mubarak's police force and armored vehicles, while shouting "the revolution has arrived!" according to eyewitnesses. Posters of the dictator Mubarak were defaced and destroyed by the rioters in Mahalla's public squares. [31]

The protests "were only quelled by extreme police force, mass arrests and the use of government-hired thugs to loot and burn public institutions with the aim of sowing division among the protesters," a tactic that would be used by the regime three years later. [32] Although the strike was crushed preemptively, this surge in labor radicalism combined with the complementary mini-uprisings lucidly elucidate a strong line of continuity between the revolution of 2011 and the collective accumulation of events leading up to it. Joel Beinin, Egyptian labor historian and former professor at the AmericanUniversity in Cairo, explicates upon this point:

This was the first time in recent years that workers tried to organize something nationwide with a political component to it. Raising the minimum wage is not simply an economic demand, it's a political demand, because it is in opposition to the whole neoliberal economic restructuring project that has been proceeding very rapidly in Egypt, especially since the government that was recently deposed was installed in July 2004. [33]

Al-'Attar, who had helped lead the December 2006 strike, told a mass meeting of workers, "Politics and workers' rights are inseparable. Work is politics by itself. What we are witnessing here right now, this is as democratic as it gets."[34]


[1] Anthony Gorman, "Diverse in Race, Religion and Nationality... But United in Aspirations of Civil Progress: The Anarchist Movement in Egypt 1860-1940," in Steve Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism and Social Revolution (Boston, Brill, 2010), pg. 26. Quoted in: Marshall, "Egypt Under Empire, Part I."

[2] Botman, The Rise of Egyptian Communism: 1939-1970, pg. xiv.

[3] Alexander, Nasser: His Life, His Times, pg. 6.

[4] Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pg. 12-13.

[5] Chris Harman, "The Prophet and the Proletariat," International Socialism, no. 64 (1994),

[6] Harman, "The Prophet and the Proletariat."

[7] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of Muslim Brothers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pg. 329.

[8] Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942, (Reading: Garnet Publishing Limited, 1998), 199-200.

[9] Botman, The Rise of Egyptian Communism: 1939-1970, pg. xx.

[10] El Shakry, "Egypt's Three Revolutions."

[11] Faiza Rady, "Youssef Darwish: The courage to go on," Al-Ahram Weekly Online, December 2004,

[12] Philip Marfleet, "Never going back: Egypt's continuing revolution," International Socialism (137),

[13] There is a video clip of Nasser addressing a large audience after coming to power where he recounts a meeting he had with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He claims the first thing the Brother requested was for all women to wear the hijab/tarha (head covering) when in public. Nasser responds, "Sir, you have a daughter in the School of Medicine, and she's not wearing the tarha. If you are unable to make one girl - who is your own daughter - wear the tarha, you want me to put the tarha on ten million women, myself?" The crowd received the joke with wild applause, and the anecdote exhibits the charisma and humor that Nasser utilized to help maintain his popularity in the Arab world.

[14] Unnamed Strike Leaders, "Class struggle in Egypt," International Socialist Review, no. 59 (2008), (accessed July 17, 2013).

[15] Hossam El-Hamalawy, "Egypt's revolution has been 10 years in the making." The Guardian, March 02, 2011. (accessed July 17, 2013).

[16] Jennifer Jones, "Virtual community: Formation and mobilization of a collective, democratic identity in Egypt." (master\., Department of Political Science - University of California, Irvine, 2011), Egyptian Communities- J.J.Jones.pdf.

[17] Anne Alexander, "The Egyptian workers' movement and the 25 January Revolution," International Socialism (133), January 9, 2012,

[18] Beinin, "The Rise of Egypt's Workers."

[19] Kienle, "More than a Response to Islamism."

[20] Beinin and El-Hamalawy, "Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order."

[21] Kienle, "More than a Response to Islamism."

[22] Beinin, "The Rise of Egypt's Workers."

[23] Ibid.

[24] North, "The Egyptian working class moves to the forefront."

[25] Ibid.

[26] Amar, "Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime."

[27] Botman, The Rise of Egyptian Communism: 1939-1970, pg. 75.

[28] Beinin and El-Hamalawy, "Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order."

[29] Ibid.

[30] Hossam El-Hamalawy, "Revolt in Mahalla," International Socialist Review, no. 59 (2008), (accessed July 17, 2013).

[31] El-Hamalawy, "Revolt in Mahalla."

[32] Rizk, "Egypt and the global economic order."

[33] Joel Beinin, "Striking Egyptian Workers Fuel the Uprising After 10 Years of Labor Organizing," Web,

[34] Beinin, "The Rise of Egypt's Workers."