The Egyptian workers’ movement and the 25 January Revolution

Issue: 133

Anne Alexander

“It is midnight in Cairo”, intoned the BBC reporter on the Ten O’ Clock News bulletin, “and still tens of thousands are in Tahrir Square. One chant echoes again and again: ‘Go, go, go’. But this time it is not Mubarak they want to quit, but Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Tantawi”.1

Egypt’s revolution exploded back into the global news over the weekend of 19-20 November, as hundreds of thousands fought pitched battles with the police to retake Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands poured into the streets across the country in a show of solidarity with the revolutionaries of Tahrir who demanded an end to military rule. This article was completed a few days into this new phase of the revolutionary process, far too soon to draw conclusions about the outcome of the new round of struggle between the risen people and the state. Rather it is an exploration of one of the fundamental processes that brought the revolution back to Tahrir: the rise of an organised working class movement. In contrast to the perspective provided by the mainstream media, which sees the Egyptian Revolution as a series of inexplicable “’clashes”’ and explosions of random violence, the article lays out how the development of the class struggle over the ten months between February and November has changed the Egyptian workers’ movement, and in the process changed the revolution itself. Although, as I have argued elsewhere, the social aspect of the revolution was integral to the process from the start, and the intervention of the working class was decisive to finishing off Mubarak, the emergence of independent workers’ organisation on a scale not seen in Egypt for 60 years and the testing of that organisation in coordinating strike action—again on a scale not experienced since the early 1950s—has the potential dramatically to alter the composition of the revolutionary mass movement.2

The mass strikes of September 2011 paralysed the government and the military council and opened up the road to the crisis of November. The independent unions and strike committees which led these strikes are part of what is now probably the biggest social movement in Egypt (with the possible exception of the Muslim Brotherhood), and certainly the biggest organised movement with real roots in the everyday struggles of the poor. The workers’ organisations which have grown up since February 2011, and which have their roots in the pre-revolutionary strike wave, have already shown a remarkable degree of common purpose in articulating a set of demands for social justice and the “cleansing” of the state apparatus. Their leadership of the social struggle has been demonstrated by the adoption of the same model of organisation—independent unions—and the same form of collective action—the strike—by wide layers of the poor and the precarious middle class.

Will organised workers move into the leadership of the mass revolutionary movement? This article argues that two conditions for this happening have already been met: the workers’ movement has begun to gain enough mastery over its constituent parts to be able to use its social power in battle with the state, while the demands that are now being raised by this movement cannot be satisfied within the limits of neoliberal capitalism in the context of intensifying economic crisis at a local and global level. Put more simply, the struggle for social justice remains at the heart of the revolutionary process. What is not explored here in any detail, and will have to be taken up in a future article, is the situation of workers’ struggles in a wider political context. This is crucially important, and any analysis advanced here is
necessarily incomplete without it, as workers’ consciousness and organisation are shaped not only by the process of the social struggle explored here, but also by their relationship to a wide range of political forces from the counter-revolutionary huddles of ex ruling party factions, to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, to the liberals, the Nasserists and the left. The answer to the question posed above will depend as much on the subjective correlation of these political forces as on the oscillations of the strike wave.

Despite this obvious weakness, I am writing this article because these arguments cannot wait. In times like these none of us can wait for the revolution to ripen or decay. After the struggle is done we can all be historians. For now we have to seize what weapons we can for the battle. That is why the story of how the Egyptian workers’ movement has rebuilt itself from below needs to be told. That is why the audacious courage of those hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers who, in the midst of apocalyptic capitalist crisis, dare to fight for a world without casual contracts, and demand the imposition of a maximum wage, is not just an inspiration, it is a challenge.

The dynamics of the strike wave

The social and democratic aspects of the revolutionary process in Egypt have been interlaced (to borrow Rosa Luxemburg’s expression) from the start.3 Nevertheless, the relative prominence of these two aspects, and the balance between street protests and collective action by workers in driving forward the revolution from below changed significantly between February and October. The motor for workers’ struggles during this period, and therefore one of the primary forces shaping the overall revolutionary process, was the interaction between the struggle for social justice (expressed concretely in strikes and protests demanding higher wages, improved working conditions and job security) and the battle for tathir, the “cleansing” of public institutions of the old ruling party.4 This interaction was itself an expression of the character of the revolution as a combined revolt against neoliberalism and authoritarianism, personified by Mubarak and his cronies, but in the post-uprising phase of the revolution it began to open up new possibilities for the revolution to “grow over”, to use Trotsky’s phrase, from a struggle within capitalism for more democracy and social reform, into a revolution against capitalism.5

Between February and October it is useful to distinguish three phases in the development of workers’ struggles. Between February and early March the revolution entered the workplaces on a mass scale. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of workers took strike action, and organised sit-ins and demonstrations against the “little Mubaraks” in their workplaces.6 From March the number of workers’ strikes and protests dropped in comparison to the explosion of February, and steadied at roughly 65,000 participants per month in all forms of workers’ protests.7 This period was by no means a fallow one, however, as I will explore in more detail below. On the contrary, the growth and consolidation of workers’ organisations both within and between individual workplaces during March to August laid the foundations for the mass strikes of September and October. The same period also saw important shifts in workers’ consciousness, as the focus of their protests shifted from the “little Mubarak” in their workplace, to higher up the institutions of the state. September’s strike wave marked a seismic shift in both independent organisation and consciousness among Egyptian workers. Around 500,000 workers participated in strikes and protests that month alone, a significantly higher figure than the entire previous six months. While the numbers of participants were probably lower than February, the significance of September’s strikes lay in the qualitative shift towards coordinated national and sector-wide strikes. The most important of these was the national teachers’ strike, but other large coordinated strikes included a sector-wide strike of sugar refinery workers and nationally coordinated strikes and protests by postal workers. This dramatic shift in terms of the degree of coordination between workplaces resulted in another important change: these were mass strikes articulating generalised social demands with a degree of common purpose which in itself constituted a formidable political challenge to the ruling military council. Moreover, the teachers’ strike, which mobilised 250,000 to 500,000 strikers, explicitly demanded the resignation of the minister of education, a Mubarak appointee, and other strikes, such as the Cairo Public Transport Authority workers’ strike, began to raise similar demands.8

During these three phases the relationship between the social and democratic aspects of the revolution was configured in different ways. February’s mass strikes both before and after the fall of Mubarak had an essentially similar impact on the regime: the sheer scale of workers’ largely uncoordinated protests and strikes had a powerful “disorganising” effect, making it impossible to insulate the rest of society from the mass protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. After the fall of Mubarak the continuation and broadening of this strike wave still served to “disorganise” the regime, dispelling the illusion of a rapid return to “normality”, and forcibly placing the social demands of the working class and wider layers of the poor on the political agenda. The inability of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to reimpose normal labour relations in the workplace (or more accurately, the generals’ helplessness as workers dramatically shifted the “frontier of control” between workers and bosses in their favour)9 was all the more politically important as it coincided with a lull in the mass street mobilisations, and preceded the constitutional referendum which represented the first serious attempt by the reconfigured regime to use the electoral process to create a new veneer of legitimacy.

Although the levels of strike activity dropped after February, throughout the period March to August workers’ protests continued to act as a “reservoir” for the wider popular revolutionary movement.10 Workers were not yet able to organise their own demonstrations on a scale that matched the peaks of the reviving mass street protests. Yet workers’ collective defiance of new laws criminalising strikes and protests, the continued ferment in the workplaces and the hundreds of workers’ demonstrations during this period played a vital role in keeping open spaces to organise from below. Nor was the revival in mass street protests a smooth process: early attempts to retake Tahrir Square and re-establish a permanent protest camp in March and April were brutally crushed by the military police and security forces.11 It was not until 27 May that calls for Friday protests that were openly critical of the army succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands.12 Even the biggest of the waves of street protests—the demonstrations and sit-ins of early July—ended with the forced removal of protesters from Tahrir on 1 August. Since then there have been periodic eruptions of very large protests, particularly in early September, but the SCAF has retained the ability to crack down on demonstrations as the slaughter of protesters calling for an end to the oppression of the Christian Coptic minority on 9 October illustrates.13

The mass strikes of September 2011

Towards the end of August the character of the strikes went through a qualitative change. Several features of the September strikes indicate this shift. The first point is related to the scale of workers’ protests in September compared to previous months. Rough estimates compiled and extrapolated from media reports suggest that more workers were involved in collective action of all kinds (strikes, protests, sit-ins) in September than during the whole of the previous six months.

Table 1: Estimated number of workers involved in collective action
Source: Reports by Awlad alArd NGO and press reports

March 82,000
April 65,000
May 57,000
June 57,000
July 33,000
August 65,000
September 500,000-750,000

Compared to the pre-revolutionary strike wave, September 2011 also marks a dramatic shift: around the same number of workers took part in collective action that month as did during the whole of 2008.14 Coordination of strikes and protests also increased sharply in September compared not only to previous months, but also to the pre-revolutionary strike wave. The overall number of episodes was significantly fewer but the increased numbers participating points to the consolidation of the strike wave into fewer, coordinated disputes.

Table 2: Number of episodes of collective action
Source: Awlad alArd NGO

March 123
April 90
May 107
June 96
July 76
August 89
September 56

September’s strike wave was dominated by the national teachers’ strike, which was itself the single largest episode of coordinated strike action in Egypt since the 1940s. Estimating the number of striking teachers is extremely difficult. The Ministry of Education claimed that only 1,400 schools, or 4.3 percent of the total, were affected by the strike, but reports in the independent media suggested a far wider impact, with possibly half of Egyptian schools shut down.15 However, if the teachers’ strike is discounted, September still shows a significant shift towards large, coordinated strikes. Seven strikes and workers’ protests involving more than 10,000 workers have been reported since March, with five of these occurring in September.16

Moreover, the bodies engaged in coordinating September’s strikes were generally independent unions. At a national level, the teachers’ strike was organised by the Independent School Teachers’ Syndicate and the Egyptian Teachers Federation. The Independent Union of Postal Workers coordinated the postal workers’ strike, while the initiative for the Cairo bus workers’ strike was the Independent Union of Public Transport Authority Workers. Sugar refinery workers had not, at the time of writing, founded an independent union, but their strike, which shut down the entire publicly-owned sugar sector, was organised by a joint strike committee called the Sugar Companies Front for Change.17 Underlying national and sector-wide coordination are often dense webs of local coordinating bodies. Teachers in Al-Arish in Northern Sinai, for example, set up a Conference of the Strike Committees to link up school-based strike committees with each other at a regional level.18

A workers’ offensive against neoliberalism

A week after the fall of Mubarak around 40 leading worker activists met at the Centre for Socialist Studies in Giza and agreed a joint statement that was later published under the title “Demands of the workers in the revolution”. The programme of radical reforms outlined in the document included raising the minimum wage and imposing a maximum wage of no more than 15 times the minimum; freedom to organise trade unions, protests and strikes; the complete abolition of casual contracts; renationalisation of all privatised enterprises; the removal of corrupt managers, improvement of healthcare and the dissolution of the Mubarak-era trade union federation.19 This list was not an exercise in fantasy politics by a small group of left wing activists, but rather a distillation of the demands that were already been raised in hundreds of workplaces. Over the following six months different elements in this “workers’ programme” would be raised by hundreds of thousands of workers in the course of their strikes and protests. The aggregated demands of the more than 700 separate episodes of collective action reported between March and September bear a remarkable similarity to the activists’ declaration. The same themes dominate: job security and the abolition of fixed-term contracts, an end to management bullying and corruption, a far-reaching purge of the old regime’s officials, the return of privatised companies to the state, a living wage and the redistribution of wealth by cutting salaries at the top, increased state investment in health, education and public sector manufacturing.20

Once again the strikes of September show a marked shift in the articulation of workers’ demands. Rather than being raised in countless individual workplaces, the larger strikes, and in particular the teachers’ strike, brought together the same key elements but this time reinforced them with the force of half a million organised workers. Demands raised by striking teachers began with the sacking of the Mubarak-appointed minister of education, but also included investment in public education, a minimum wage for teachers of 1,200 Egyptian pounds per month, the building of new schools, and the extension of permanent contracts for fixed-term and supply teachers.21 Public transport workers demanded wage rises, an end to corruption in the public transport authority and investment in the aging bus fleet. Textile workers in the giant Misr spinning plant in Mahalla al-Kubra threatened to strike in early September and forced the government to open negotiations which ended with an agreement by the government to improve pay and conditions across the textile sector, and to direct investment in the public sector textile mills.22

The war that Egyptian workers have waged against casualisation is testimony to the offensive character of workers’ struggles. Strikes and protests at every level from the workplace to national strikes have demanded an end to fixed-term contracts, and the mass transfer of workers already on fixed-term contracts to permanent employment. Likewise, although strikes over delayed payment of wages have been common since February, a much larger proportion of industrial action over pay is of an offensive nature, generally focused on the demand for a 1,200 pound minimum wage and the implementation of promised rises in bonuses across the public sector.

The campaign to reverse the privatisations carried out by the Mubarak regime has scored some remarkable victories, with court decisions annulling the privatisation of department store Omar Effendi, the Shibin al-Kom textile factory Indorama, Tanta Flax and Oils Co, and number of other public sector companies. This campaign has been entirely driven from below, largely through strikes. Workers at Indorama in Shibin al-Kom have taken strike action 128 times since 2006. In themselves these struggles are extremely politically important, as they provide tangible proof that neoliberal restructuring can be reversed. Workers’ determination to force these concessions from the state through their own collective action also has the potential to develop into an even more direct challenge to the government’s neoliberalism. Workers from Tanta Flax took matters into their own hands and occupied the factory at the beginning of November, following the failure of the government to implement the court decision to return the company to the public sector.23

Another popular demand is the call for the implementation of a maximum wage. This is not a rhetorical device, but a demand that has a resonance among wide layers of workers, and is impatiently raised in meetings and interviews. As one of the Cairo public transport authority workers put it at a meeting of trade union activists in the Centre for Socialist Studies in August, “You talk about setting a minimum wage. Listen, you can’t set a minimum wage without setting a maximum wage, to stop these people who get huge salaries laughing at the rest of us… We want ‘a decent minimum wage and a maximum wage for those living in palaces’ just like we write on our banners”.24

The call for tathir (cleansing) of the state institutions continues to be one of the core demands of the strike movement at every level. A favourite slogan on the teachers’ demonstration of 24 September was “The teachers demand the downfall of the minister”, in an echo of the famous slogan of the uprisings against Ben Ali and Mubarak. Tathir has been one of the most frequent strike demands of the past eight months, but the focus of demands for the removal of figures from the old ruling party has shifted in many cases from workers’ immediate managers to senior officials, and beyond to cabinet ministers. The explosion of combined strikes and student protests across most Egyptian universities in September demanding democratic elections for university presidents and heads of faculties and the removal of Mubarak’s appointees from senior management positions is an illustration of the continuing vitality of the struggle for tathir.

The development of independent workers’ organisation

The revolution dramatically accelerated and deepened the process of re-building independent workers’ organisation in Egypt which had become visible with the foundation of the property tax collectors’ union RETAU in late 2008. RETAU’s formation marked a historic break with the experience of the previous 60 years. It was the first independent trade union to be founded since the creation of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957.25 Under Nasser the trade unions functioned as an arm of the state, although at the lowest rungs of the union bureaucracy space remained for committed and principled activists to represent members’ interests at a workplace level. The name of the ruling party to which the bureaucrats at the top of the federation pledged allegiance changed from the Arab Socialist Union to the National Democratic Party as Nasser was followed by Sadat and then Mubarak, but the essential purpose of the trade unions remained the same. They had a dual role: 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”. Consistent with both of these roles the trade union bureaucracy acted ruthlessly in concert with the repressive apparatus of the state to crush workers’ attempts to organise collective action and build their own independent organisations. This did not mean that the state was able completely to stop strikes and workers’ protests. On the contrary, there were periodic explosions of big, important strikes which often developed rapidly into highly politically charged confrontations with the full might of the state, such as the 1984 and 1994 uprisings by textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra and Kafr al-Dawwar, the 1986 rail workers’ strike and the 1989 Helwan steel workers’ strike. The state did succeed, however, in preventing the development of independent workers’ organisation able to coordinate action between different workplaces and build networks which were capable of sustaining themselves between strikes.

The deepening of neoliberal policies in the 1990s stripped the Nasserist state of its social role: privatisation transferred hundreds of thousands of workers to private sector employers who did not provide the same kind of workplace-based benefits and job security as their public sector counterparts, while those who remained employed by the state saw the relentless deterioration of their pay and conditions. All that remained of the Faustian pact between workers and the Nasserist state was the authoritarian apparatus of coercion. Ironically, it was the ruling party’s decision to tighten its grip on the official trade union apparatus by driving out from the lowest levels of the elected bureaucracy a layer of trade union reps who still commanded a high degree of respect from their work colleagues, which played a key role in the breakdown of the ETUF’s monopoly of workplace organisation. The trade union elections of November 2006 saw a number of these activists, including Kamal Abu Aita, future president of RETAU and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, lose their elected positions. Liberated from the pressures of accommodating to the ETUF bureaucracy, many of these activists played a leading role in organising strikes and some began to work systematically towards breaking the grip of the ETUF unions over the workplaces.

As Mustafa Bassiouny and Omar Said noted in their 2007 pamphlet, a number of features of the strike wave after December 2006 aided the growth of more stable forms of independent workers’ organisation than had previously been possible. Strikes lasted longer, sometimes for a week or more, and thus demanded a greater and more sustained organisational commitment than disputes that were either quickly settled or crushed by the security forces.26 A tactical shift by the authorities who attempted to deal with most strikes by negotiation, rather than direct repression, was also highly significant as directly elected negotiators were able to gain valuable experience in representing striking workers’ interests to the employers and the state. The example of RETAU in reflecting both these features is important. The genesis of the independent union lay in the Property Tax Collectors’ Higher Strike Committee, which was composed of delegates from a national network of locally-elected strike committees built up by activists in the property tax authority, and which negotiated a successful end to the strike in January 2008.

Even so, the process of consolidating the Higher Strike Committee and transforming it into an independent union took almost another year after the strike victory. RETAU was formally founded in December 2008 and its general assembly was attended by around 4,000 delegates. In the year before the revolution three other independent unions representing teachers, health technicians and pensioners were founded. Equally importantly, underground networks of activists in other sectors were also beginning to consolidate. Strike organisation and building independent organisation went hand in hand in sectors such as the Public Transport Authority and the Postal Service. Summer 2009 saw serious attempts to coordinate strike action across several governorates. A strike by bus drivers in the Public Transport Authority in Cairo in August 2009 was led by activists who would later go on to found the Independent Union of Public Transport Authority Workers after the revolution, including Ali Fattouh, the union’s first president.

Organisation in the uprising

Workers’ participation in the uprising was pivotal to its success in forcing the removal of Mubarak. It is important to be clear about the nature of that participation, however. The existing independent unions were too small in relation to the scale of the movement for their presence as an organised force to shape the overall outcome of the uprising, or even influence its direction much. The intervention of strategic groups of organised workers who had not yet formally constituted independent unions, such the Public Transport Authority Workers, the postal workers and Suez Canal Company workers in the strikes during Mubarak’s final week in early February 2011 was probably more significant in terms of shifting the balance of forces between the revolutionary movement and the state at a crucial juncture. However, beyond the efforts of small numbers of activists (largely from the revolutionary left and the existing independent unions) who contacted worker militants and argued with them to build strikes in solidarity with the uprising, there was hardly any means of coordinating workers’ action between different workplaces and even less on a national level. Following Trotsky’s analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution, we can say that the strikes during the uprising were certainly responsible for “disorganising the power of the government”, but that they did not demonstrate the “organised power of the masses themselves over their component parts”.27

Nevertheless the political and organisational importance of the visible presence of the independent unions in the heart of the uprising can be seen clearly in retrospect. Only a few days into the revolution representatives from the four existing independent unions met in Tahrir Square and agreed to found the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).28 While they formed only a small fraction of the huge crowds, activists from the tax collectors’ union, with their banners and trademark blue baseball caps, were very visibly an organisation in the midst of a sea of individual protesters. When organised workers came to the square they presented themselves therefore not only as extra bodies to add to the crowds, but as a model of political and social organisation which, other workers were quick to grasp, could be replicated elsewhere. Interviewed at the founding conference of the independent rail workers’ union in Bani Sueif on 4 May, one of the activists in the new union explained how he heard about independent unions first in Tahrir Square from workers in the Public Transport Authority.29 The president of the independent union of workers employed by the oil multinational Schlumberger tells a similar story of meeting Kamal Abu Aita and activists from RETAU in Tahrir and being inspired to try out the model of independent unionism in his own workplace.30

Building mass organisation after the uprising

As before the revolution, the growth and development in workers’ organisations since the fall of Mubarak cannot be measured solely by looking at the rise of the independent unions. Rather, the independent unions have to be understood as one part of a broad spectrum of workers’ organisations encompassing temporary strike committees created in response to the concrete needs of the day to day struggle, to strike coordinating committees which are fast becoming independent unions, fully established independent unions, and even union committees affiliated to the Mubarak-era Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), some of which have retained roots and respect in their workplaces. Spurred on by the mass strikes of September, new coordinating bodies working at sectoral and regional level began to take root in the early autumn, such as a regional federation of unions in Suez and the first steps at coordination between independent unions in the Cairo hospitals.31

By late October the largest of the independent workers’ organisations at a national level was EFITU, a federation of independent unions claiming an affiliated membership of around 1.4 million workers.32 EFITU’s rival, the old state-run federation ETUF, was placed in limbo under a temporary executive appointed by the minister of labour in August. Some of the ETUF-affiliated “general unions” made efforts to present themselves to the media as legitimate workers’ representatives, such as the Land Transport Workers’ Union which intervened in the Cairo Public Transport Authority strike of September in an attempt to undermine the independent union which had led the strike.33

The spread of forms of strike action and independent organisation into social layers which have little tradition of identification with the workers’ movement adds to the richness of the picture. Hospital doctors, mosque imams, fishermen, Tuk-Tuk drivers, skilled craftsmen, intellectual property rights consultants, daily-paid labourers and the operators of the “scarab boats” that take tourists on Nile river trips are among those who have been drawn into the orbit of the workers’ movement, adopting forms of collective action and organisation shaped by the strike wave.

Despite this, a number of features can be clearly discerned. First, strike action remains the primary motor behind the growth and consolidation of workers’ organisation—as outlined above, new unions are constantly being built out of strikes, but existing unions have used the experience of repeated strike action to build and consolidate their networks at a sectoral and national level. Moreover, the stubbornness and the resilience of the state in the face of workers’ mobilisation has pushed workers in the direction of greater coordination, and encouraged them to direct their claims ever higher up the state apparatus. In addition, traditions of strike organising shape the democratic culture of the new workers’ organisations, giving the rank and file generally a high degree of control over union officials.34 Thus far the process can be seen as an organic one, with strike organisation running up against the limits imposed by the individual workplace, logically pushing workers towards coordination between workplaces and therefore developing forms of organisation which express the energy and anger from the base upwards and hold elected officials accountable. Rapid growth of the independent unions is reshaping the workers’ movement. Although new and fragile, the independent unions are no longer simply growing out of strike action; they are leading strikes and developing mechanisms of inter-union and inter-workplace coordination which in the case of the September teachers’ strike were capable of delivering a mass strike on a national level.

This is only part of the picture, however. A number of other factors have shaped the development of workers’ organisation so far. They include the actions of different sections of the state, from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the minister of labour, Ahmad al-Borai, to regional governors and the heads of the large public sector combines. Al-Borai’s policies have been important in creating a legal space in which the independent unions have been able to operate. This has created the conditions for the emergence of a bureaucracy in the independent unions which is subject to the same pressures from above and below as trade union bureaucracies anywhere.

The legal process for the registration and recognition of the independent unions has also affected the relationship between NGOs and the workers’ movement. A number of NGOs offer legal advice and campaigning support for the workers’ movement, such as the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS). The complex process of registration with the Ministry of Labour has made it vital for independent unions to secure sympathetic legal advice. Egypt has a long history of left wing lawyers working closely with the workers’ movement: Yusuf Darwish, one of the leading Communist activists of the 1940s, was lawyer to many of the unions of the era, and lawyer-activists like Haitham Muhammadain and Khaled Ali continue this tradition today. Attempts by some NGOs to play a directive role in the formation and leadership of the independent unions have been a source of considerable tension since the revolution, however. The CTUWS withdrew from EFITU in July 2011, following a sharp debate in which EFITU officials argued that NGO employees should not be allowed to take policy decisions on behalf of the federation.35

The composition of EFITU

By October 2011 over 70 unions had completed the formal process of registration with EFITU, although according to federation officials more than 40 further unions were in the process of doing so.36

Table 3: EFITU-registered unions by sector, October 2011
Source: EFITU

Sector Number of unions
Transport 15
Civil service/local government 10
Petroleum and gas 8
Manufacturing 7
Crafts 6
Food production/distribution 5
Agriculture/fishing 4
Tourism 4
Post/telecommunications 2
Construction 2
Education 2
Media 1
Banking 1
Health 1
Retail/wholesale trade 1
Electricity/water 1
Pensioners 1
Daily-paid labourers 1

Affiliated unions varied widely in size, from small unions of a few hundred members representing a single workplace or government institution, to well-established national unions such as RETAU (54,000 members), the Independent School Teachers’ Syndicate (40,000 members in May 2011) and the Health Technicians Union. Other powerful unions affiliated to EFITU included the Independent Union of Public Transport Authority Workers, the Union of Workers in Egypt Telecommunications Company, the Independent Union of Postal Workers and the cluster of unions representing airport workers (including the Civil Aviation Pilots Union, the Independent Union of EgyptAir Ground Staff, the General Independent Union of Airport Service Workers, the Union of Workers in the Egyptian Aviation Maintenance and Technical Work Company and the Independent Union of Security Workers in EgyptAir). Many of these unions played a central role in the mass strikes of the autumn: in particular the postal workers, teachers and public transport workers’ unions were the driving force behind the upturn in strikes from late August 2011.

One of the striking features of EFITU’s development is the growth of unions representing craftsmen and self-employed workers and the beginnings of organisations reaching into the vast layers of the Egyptian working class who are employed in the informal sector. The Union of Daily-Paid Labourers, which claims a membership of 1,500 workers in the Greater Cairo area, is a case in point. Self-employed workers represented in EFITU-affiliated unions include fishermen and skilled interior decorators. Craft workers’ unions include several representing small handicrafts producers such as the General Independent Union for Artists, Traditional Manufacturing and Popular Crafts which claims a membership of 18,000.

Reaching the parts other movements do not…

EFITU’s emergence as a pole of attraction for social layers far beyond the core of the workers’ movement in the public sector mirrors a wider social process which has seen the organised working class, through the pre- and post-revolution strike waves, begin to exercise a degree of social leadership among the struggles of the poor. The model of strike action combined with independent union organisation is now seen by millions of Egyptians as a mechanism to forge collective resistance to the relentless pressure on their living standards and conditions of work as a result of neoliberalism. There are important examples of this process happening “upwards”, affecting sections of the highly educated but relatively precarious middle classes, such as doctors and university lecturers, as well as “sideways” into sections of the urban and rural poor who, for both sociological and political reasons, have had little tradition of identification with the workers’ movement, although their living standards are comparable to those of the urban workers who form the core of the workers’ movement.

Not all elements of the overall model are present with equal weight in all sectors: some skilled professionals in the health sector, such as health technicians (radiologists, dental technicians and other similar grades), built union organisation while initially rejecting strike action as a tactic.37 However, the impact of strikes from other sections of health workers, particularly the doctors, combined with the failure of negotiations and other forms of pressure to meet their demands, has led to a radicalisation among this group of workers.38 For some groups of self-employed skilled and semi-skilled craftsmen, independent union organisation may be more attractive as a means of creating a collective voice to put pressure on the authorities, rather than a mechanism to organise strikes.

Nevertheless, the political impact of this process has already been great, ending decades of Muslim Brotherhood domination of the Doctors Union, for example, when a list of rank and file candidates led by the secular left won control of the majority of union branches, including Cairo and Alexandria, and took a quarter of the seats on the national union executive. This list was headed by the leading activists who organised the national doctors’ strikes of 10 and 17 May.

The doctors’ rebellion

The Doctors Union is a professional association which issues doctors’ licences to practise as well as representing them collectively in negotiations with the state. It was set up by Nasser and for decades was dominated by the ruling party. The Muslim Brotherhood won control of the union in the 1980s and completely dominated the upper levels of its leadership until October 2011, when the Independence List, an electoral coalition composed of rank and file activist groups, took 25 percent of the seats on the General Council.

Mohammed Shafiq, an activist in Doctors without Rights, a rank and file network which played a key role in the May 2011 strikes, argues that a combination of factors pushed doctors towards collective action:

After 11 September 2001, the possibilities of emigration to Europe or America for Egyptian doctors were reduced. There was also more competition with doctors from Pakistan and India in the labour market in the Gulf. At the same time the deterioration of the education system in Egypt hit them hard. An Egyptian MA used to be considered the equivalent of an MA in the UK in the 1950s and 60s. But as the quality of public education in Egypt declined, doctors found their qualifications were worth less and less. Even Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait started to prefer Pakistani and Indian doctors. So doctors and other professionals were in general oppressed during the 1990s into the early 2000s. This pushed them in the direction of workers’ struggles.39

Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood had transformed the Doctors Union into a “service union”, offering opportunities for doctors to buy commodities on hire purchase and shares in new treatment projects, while maintaining a comfortable deal with the ruling party behind the scenes:

It was in this context that Doctors without Rights was born. It is a group of trade unionists that offers a different conception of trade union activism: defending the interests of union members, including their material interests, and their social and economic rights. It began as a small group of a few dozen people, standing on the steps in front of the union headquarters, outside this huge organisation with money and a vast membership.40

An attempted strike in 2008 laid the foundations for the successful strikes of 2011. Yet it was the revolution that really transformed the situation. Radicalised by participation in the huge street protests, thousands of doctors packed into a general assembly of the Doctors Union on 25 March that set out a list of demands for the government to answer. When negotiations failed the road was open for Doctors without Rights activists to argue for a strike. The strikes of 10 and 17 May made organisational gains for the rank and file, involving thousands of doctors in mobilisations that shut down large parts of the health system. Despite some setbacks, including losing a vote to continue with the strike committee organisation at a general assembly on 10 June, the strikes created tumult inside the Brotherhood, and opportunities for the left:

The Independence List put up six candidates for the young doctors’ seats on the general council who are elected across the entire country. I was one of them. It is well known that I am a communist. The list got ten thousand votes. I got twelve thousand votes in total. Those extra two thousand votes came from the Brotherhood. I was putting forward the view that the union should be a fighting union, that the union is a shield and our sword is the strike.41

The revolution in Al-Azhar

Perhaps even more surprising than the emergence of doctors as leading advocates of strike action has been the rash of protests and strikes among employees of the ancient Islamic university Al-Azhar and religious officials employed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. These include protests and strikes by mosque imams, who are salaried officials of the state. In March 3,600 teachers in Al-Azhar affiliated schools in Dahaqiliyya province went on strike and organised sit-ins to demand the cancellation of a decision by the shaykh of Al-Azhar that only holders of a Diploma in Education would be eligible for employment.42 In May staff working in the shaykh’s offices organised a demonstration inside Al-Azhar itself to demand the sacking of consultants employed on inflated salaries. The same month saw two separate protests by dozens of imams who were sacked after being profiled as a “security threat” by the secret police, demanding reinstatement and the resignation of the Minister of Religious Endowments. A hundred unemployed graduates of Al-Azhar also organised a sit-in at the university calling for jobs for the institution’s 22,000 unemployed graduates.43

In June imams victimised by the security services organised a sit-in at the Ministry of Religious Endowments demanding their reinstatement.44 Hundreds of imams and preachers organised a demonstration in front of the ministry in August, presenting a list of demands that included the resignation of the minister, the sacking of corrupt officials and of consultants on inflated salaries and getting rid of all the generals who have the most important jobs inside the ministry.45 September saw coordinated strike action by imams and preachers in the Assyut governorate: 500 refused to preach the Friday sermon in protest at a cut in their incentive pay from 200 to 75 percent of their basic salary.46 October saw the struggles within Al-Azhar reach a new level. Thousands of Al-Azhar students occupied the university demanding an elected leadership for the university, an end to corruption, independence from the state and a new student charter.47

The cases of the Doctors Union and the radicalisation of Al-Azhar teachers and students raise particularly important questions in relation to the impact of the social struggle on the mass Islamist organisations, particularly the Brotherhood. There is no time here to explore in detail the best way for the left to act on the opportunities generated by the continuing tumult inside the Brotherhood as a result of the strike wave. Yet the example of the Doctors Union elections shows clearly how the left can use these opportunities to rebuild organisation and influence. It is worth reflecting on how a lack of understanding of the nature of mass Islamist organisations, and the social contradictions within them, could have sent left wing activists in the Doctors Union into the trap of pursuing an abstract political battle with the Brotherhood framed around the question of “Islamism” versus “secularism” instead of developing a strategy of using the social struggle in order to deepen the Brotherhood’s internal political crisis, and thus give the left time to build and organise.48

The question of political leadership

Can the organised working class in Egypt transform its social leadership into political leadership of the revolutionary movement? The mass strikes of September posed the question very concretely: near-simultaneous strike action on a national level by postal workers, teachers and doctors, coupled with industry-wide and sector-wide coordinated action by sugar workers and workers in the Cairo Public Transport Authority among others, caused crisis and paralysis at the top of the state. Moreover, the interaction of the social struggle with a revived and rapidly radicalising movement in the streets against military rule was interwoven with intensifying external and internal pressure on the SCAF over the question of Palestine.49 It is a measure of the SCAF’s crisis that instead of being able to use the elections to confer “revolutionary” legitimacy on a parliament dominated by bourgeois liberal and Islamist parties (both committed to stopping the strike wave) and the re-branded “remnants” of the old ruling party, the generals began to talk loudly about slowing down the timetable for the “handover” of power to a civilian government, thus triggering a new uprising in November.50

The fact that, in the context of a crisis of this depth, the Egyptian workers’ movement is building, for the first time in 60 years, the means to exercise authority over its constituent parts, and articulating through its strike demands what could be described as a transitional social programme, raises concretely the prospect of the most advanced sections of the working class moving into the leadership of a second revolution from below against Mubarak’s generals.

There are many subjective obstacles which would have to be overcome in order for this to happen, not least the extremely small size of the revolutionary left, and the new and fragile nature of the organisations which are coordinating workers’ struggles. Moreover, the generals’ repeated and direct use of sectarianism in an attempt to weaken and divide the revolutionary movement, most recently seen in the slaughter of protesters at Maspero on 9 October, is not only a stark warning of the form that a counter-revolution is likely to take, but also a reminder of the importance of setting workers’ struggles in their political context. At the time of writing this article major objective questions also remain as yet untested, for example whether the leadership of workers in relatively large workplaces will, in the context of a direct battle with the leadership of the army, exercise a strong enough attraction to keep the huge sections of the poor who are employed in extremely small workplaces engaged in various kinds of petty production, often under a boss who is also a close relative, on the side of the revolutionary movement.

Nevertheless, the lessons of the first ten months of the Egyptian Revolution are of immense significance for the left internationally. The rebuilding of independent workers’ organisation out of the strike wave and the role of the mass strikes of September in opening the path to November’s second popular uprising provide confirmation once again of the central role played by organised workers in the revolutionary process.

The Egyptian Revolution has already provided millions of people worldwide with a vision of collective self-emancipation that has proved its potency in mobilising protest from Barcelona to Oakland to London. If we win even a minuscule fraction of those millions around the globe for whom “Tahrir” is not a place but a process of liberation,51 to the perspective that it is only their power as organised workers which holds the key to the emancipation of humanity as a whole, we will have begun, in a small way, to live up to the promise of the 25 January Revolution and the hopes of those who made it.


1: This article was written while carrying out research for a book on the role of the workers’ movement in the Arab revolutions. I would particularly like to thank my co-author, Mostafa Bassiouny, for the many hours of discussions which lie behind this text. I would similarly like to thank other friends and comrades in Cairo including Kamal Abu Aita and Noha Mohammed Murshid from the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, Haitham Muhammadain, Sameh Naguib, Hisham Fouad, Wa’el Gamal, Mohammed Shafiq, and in Britain, David Renton, Charlie Kimber, Colin Barker, John Molyneux, Alex Callinicos, Judith Orr, Phil Marfleet and John Rose.

2: Alexander, 2011.

3: Luxemburg, 1906.

4: Alexander, 2011.

5: Trotsky, 1931.

6: I have not been able to find any detailed figures for February’s strike wave. Awlad al-Ard, an NGO which carries out social research, gives a total of 486 separate episodes of collective action by workers that month without specifying the numbers involved-Awlad al-Ard, 2011a.

7: This figure is derived from data compiled by Awlad al-Ard for its monthly reports on workers’ collective action. Awlad al-Ard uses press reports and therefore includes estimated numbers of participants for a large proportion but not all of its reports on workers’ strikes and protests. In order to estimate the total number of participants per month, I categorised episodes of collective action by size (under 100, 100-499, 500-999, 1,000-4,999 and so on), and calculated the proportion of strikes with recorded numbers of participants which fell into each category. I assumed that strikes without recorded numbers of participants would fall into the same pattern, thus allowing me to estimate the total number of participants per month. I only applied this method to strikes with under 5,000 participants, assuming that strikes with over 5,000 participants-as these remained relatively rare-were likely to have been reported on in detail by the media. See Awlad al-Ard, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d, 2011e, 2011f, 2011g, 2011h, for the original reports.

8: See Raslan, 2011, on the bus strike; MENA Solidarity, 2011, on the teachers’ strike.

9: The term ”’frontier of control”’ was coined by C L Goodrich in his 1920 study of shopfloor organisation and politics in Britain (Goodrich, 1920), and the context was re-explored in relation to the shuras of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 by Asef Bayat (Bayat, 1986).

10: Luxemburg, 1906.

11: Human Rights Watch, 2011; Beaumont, 2011.

12: Shukrullah, 2011.

13: Gaber, 2011.

14: Beinin, 2010, p16.

15: Ali, 2011.

16: Data compiled from Awlad al-Ard reports.

17: Gabha al-Taghyir, 2011.

18: Al-Lagna al-Tansiqiyya, 2011.

19: Egyptian Independent Trade Unionists, 2011.

20: Analysis of demands compiled from Awlad al-Ard reports March-September 2011 by the author.

21: MENA Solidarity Network, 2011.

22: Mahalla Workers, 2011.

23: Fouad, 2011.

24: Hammam, 2011.

25: Alexander, 2009.

26: Bassiouny and Sa’id, 2008.

27: Trotsky, 1907.

28: Interview with Kamal Abu Aita, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011.

29: Rizk, 2011.

30: Interview, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011.

31: Interview with Mohammed Shafiq, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011; Interview with Haitham Muhammadain, in Arabic, Cairo, 29 October 2011.

32: Interview with Kamal Abu Aita, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011.

33: Interview with Haitham Muhammadain, in Arabic, Cairo, 29 October 2011.

34: Interview with Haitham Muhammadain, in Arabic, Cairo, 29 October 2011.

35: Interview with Kamal Abu Aita, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011.

36: Interview with Noha Mohammed Murshid, in Arabic, Cairo, 27 October 2011.

37: Interview with Ahmed al-Sayyid, President, Health Technicians Union, in Arabic, Cairo, 18 March 2011.

38: Al Tahrir, 2011.

39: Shafiq, 2011.

40: Shafiq, 2011.

41: Shafiq, 2011.

42: Awlad al-Ard, 2011b.

43: Awlad al-Ard, 2011d .

44: Awlad al-Ard, 2011e.

45: Awlad al-Ard, 2011g.

46: Awlad al-Ard, 2011h.

47: Nur al-Din, 2011; Ali, 2011.

48: See Harman, 1994, for an important analysis of Islamism which has proved highly influential on the Egyptian left.

49: The storming of the Israeli embassy by protesters on 9 September, at the beginning of the strike wave, was the most important example of this.

50: See Kirkpatrick and Myers, 2011.

51: Which is of course entirely appropriate, as the word “Tahrir” means “liberation” in Arabic. It carries similar connotations to the English word “liberation” as an active process, rather than the more passive or neutral meanings associated with “hurriya”, or freedom.


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