Egypt: The workers advance

Issue: 139

Philip Marfleet

A striking feature of Egypt’s Revolution is the extraordinary number of people engaged in struggles in the streets and workplaces, and in formal and informal organisations. The absolute numbers, together with the proportion of the population involved and the continuity of their struggle, may mark the Egyptian upheaval as unique in modern history. This pattern also marks the Egyptian Revolution as a mass popular upheaval—a “people’s movement” in which a number of common aims brings together activists across the society and therefore, at certain points, across classes. Levels of engagement are nonetheless uneven; so too is the location of struggle, which has moved back and forth from city squares to workplaces, campuses and neighbourhoods. This article looks at the changing locus of struggle and the increasing confidence of Egyptian workers who, during 2013, have reasserted their potential as a force for further change.

The 18 days of January-February 2011, during which Tahrir Square was continuously occupied by protesters committed to remove Mubarak, revealed the depth of accumulated hatred of the regime and of Egyptians’ aspiration for change. Repeated attacks by police and baltagiyya (thugs) on protesters in the square and in cities across the country were met by renewed mobilisations. In effect, Mubarak challenged the movement to double and redouble its support, testing the people’s resolve: on each occasion it met the challenge, bringing millions into the streets. A key feature of the revolution was established: the involvement of huge numbers in public action sufficient, at a deadly cost, to neutralise the police. At the same time the movement challenged military chiefs with the prospect of massive violence if the armed forces—conscript bodies—were mobilised. The movement did not at first succeed in its main aim, however. Street protests alone did not bring down the president, whose fall was eventually precipitated by mass strikes. These, relates Sameh Naguib, “spread like wildfire, with both economic demands and the main revolutionary demand of removing Mubarak”.1 All key sectors of Egyptian industry were involved: textiles, steel, transport, Suez Canal workers, civil servants and even the army’s own military factories. At this point army chiefs seized direct control of the apparatus of state, declaring that their Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would “remain in continuous session to…protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt”.2 Faced with the challenge of confronting both the streets and striking workplaces with massive armed force, or removing the dictator, SCAF opted to sacrifice Mubarak.

In the months that followed there was a concerted wave of further industrial action. Strikes across the public and private sectors pursued all manner of demands, notably tathir—cleansing of owners, managers, security chiefs and trade union leaders associated with the Mubarak regime. Independent trade unions were established in scores of workplaces and across key sectors of industry. More workers took part in collective action than at any time since the anti-colonial movement of the 1940s.3 By the summer of 2011 the strike movement had subsided, however, the focus of activity returning to the streets, where young activists confronted SCAF in a series of heroic and bloody battles to defend their new freedoms. The pattern was sustained throughout 2011 and 2012: notwithstanding further strikes and widespread unionisation, the agenda for radical change was pursued primarily by means of rallies, marches and public protests of all kinds. These reached their peak in November and December 2012, when following a constitutional declaration by the Brotherhood’s President Muhamed Mursi, further huge demonstrations filled the streets of all major cities. In Cairo some 2 million people marched on the presidential palace. A veteran activist described the scenes:

I thought that Tahrir [in January-February 2011] was the summit of our movement but events at the ittihadiyya [the presidential palace] exceeded everything. The scale of the protests was immense and mood was confident and defiant. When the Brotherhood tried to intervene their members were driven away ferociously. The army was helpless. It was another demonstration of the raw determination of the movement.4

The streets were leading the revolution, challenging the police, the army and the Brotherhood, which had secured the presidency in June 2012. Within weeks the pattern changed, however, and during 2013 the locus of struggle has moved to the workplaces.

Strikes and occupations

The scale of street mobilisation has decreased, while industrial struggles have been more numerous, more prolonged and more closely linked across cities, regions and specific sectors of the economy. In 2012 the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) recorded 3,817 “labour strikes and economically motivated social protests”: during the first quarter of 2013 it counted over 2,400 such events.5 These figures should be addressed with some care: ECESR records not only collective withdrawals of labour and workplace occupations but also vigils, demonstrations, blockades and hunger strikes among which some have been “citizen actions” including protests over rising prices, lack of fuel and clean water, and power cuts. The headline figures are nonetheless significant, revealing that industrial struggles intensified after the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi as president. According to ECESR, over 70 percent of all actions during 2012 occurred after Mursi took office, reaching an average of over 450 strikes and protests each month between July and December.6 Between January and March 2013 they surged again, with an average of 800 separate events each month, and preliminary evidence suggests that since March this figure has again risen sharply. Most strikes have raised wage demands; other issues have included job security, mismanagement, bullying, corruption and factory closures.

Hatem Tallima of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists puts this changing pattern into context:

There’s a much greater readiness now to use the strike as a default strategy when owners and managers won’t respond to workers’ demands. For decades under Mubarak the repression made collective action very difficult but the revolution has allowed fast learning and now people move much more rapidly to the strike. This itself is part of political generalisation within the revolutionary process.7

These developments are evident in key sectors of industry such as transport. In February 2013, 1,200 dock workers at Ain Sukhna port on the Red Sea coast maintained a 16-day strike to demand secure jobs. Even the US-based Bloomberg business service was impressed, reporting that “not a single shipping container moved into or out of Egypt’s principal port for Asian trade”.8 Following a partially successful outcome (the Egyptian government agreeing to hire the strikers through a state-owned company), Bloomberg observed that the dispute “showcased workers’ growing activism two years after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak”.9 In April rail workers undertook a strike said to be the largest stoppage in the sector for over 30 years, with 73,000 workers involved, demanding increased pay and holidays. Government and the state media did their best to break the strike, warning that the army would take over the railway system. One striking driver told AlMasry AlYoum: “Neither the army nor the police are capable of driving or operating these trains… We even operate the army trains for the armed forces”.10 When government officials attempted to get Cairo Metro workers to drive railway trains, Metro unions also threatened to strike. As action continued, the military leadership attempted to conscript rail workers. Drivers received orders stating that they had been assigned to work “in a military capacity for the armed forces” and that those who delayed in reporting for duty would face a six-month jail term or a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds [£500] or both.11 A further threat of strike action on the Metro in solidarity with the railway workers and forcing an immediate retreat by the army, cancelling the attempted conscription, brought a promise from management to implement strikers’ demands. The dispute was promptly followed by a further stoppage in railway maintenance workshops: more than 1,000 workers at the historically important Shubra depot in Cairo demanding shorter hours and longer holidays.12 Meanwhile workers at Cairo Airport, which has seen increasing levels of militancy, staged a highly effective strike following the death of a colleague in an industrial accident.

There have been parallel developments in manufacturing and public services, including in sectors entirely new to collective action. In 2012 over a quarter of disputes took place at privately owned industrial enterprises, among which unionisation is a recent development.13 In March 2013 workers in power stations took action and drivers of microbuses, integral to the whole road transport system in Egypt but who have not hitherto organised collectively, mobilised over availability of diesel fuel. In Mahalla al-Kubra drivers parked buses in squares and on railway lines: traffic across the entire city came to a halt.14 There were similar stoppages in Alexandria, while in Giza drivers blockaded the Cairo ring road, paralysing traffic around the city.15 In May 2013 musicians and staff at Cairo Opera House took strike action against the culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, who had sacked their director earlier. When the curtain went up for the evening performance of Aida the audience saw hundreds of performers and staff holding placards: demonstrations took place later outside the theatre.16

March also saw strikes among police and the Amn Markazi (Central Security or CSF—the riot police). The scale of the police movement is unclear but at least 60 police stations and 10 CSF camps were involved across the country.17 Police activists established a “7 March Movement”, its name echoing the 6 April youth movement which was prominent in pro-democracy actions during the final years of the Mubarak era and is still a key current within the revolutionary networks. One of the founders told Egyptian media that action began in the southern city of Assiut: “The police stations decided to strike one after the other—it was a domino effect. We put the idea to discussion and policemen responded”.18 The campaign’s demands included a new pay structure and dismissal of the interior minister, accused by police activists of forcing them to play a “political role” in recent conflicts.19

Political generalisation

The CSF is a key component of the state security apparatus, boosted continuously under Mubarak until by 2011 it numbered 450,000.20 The force recruits through conscription, receiving young men from poor, mainly rural, backgrounds who are judged unfit for the armed forces proper, often on the grounds of illiteracy: many are from the most deprived regions of Upper Egypt. Recruits are placed in desert camps in which they are underfed and grossly underpaid; they enter a brutal regime in which they are trained, on pain of extreme disciplinary measures, to operate as the state’s frontline enforcers. The CSF has been used many times to assault demonstrations, break strikes and occupations, intimidate meetings and rallies, and prevent people voting in local and general elections. In January and February 2011 it was used unsuccessfully to contain mass demonstrations in Tahrir and across Egypt.

CSF loyalty to the government cannot be guaranteed. In 1986 a CSF rebellion against officers’ brutality and inadequate food and conditions spread quickly across major cities. Scores of thousands of conscripts participated and the movement was only contained after the army killed hundreds of activists. Since 2011 there has been growing evidence of the impact on the CSF of the revolutionary movement. There were numerous reports in 2011 of CSF forces deserting—in some cases to join street protests.21 In May 2012 CSF troops at a base in Obour City, north east of Cairo, rebelled in protest at abuse by their officers, occupying the highway until troops arrived and concessions were negotiated.22 In March 2013 some 8,000 members of the force in the Suez Canal area rejected orders to deploy in Port Said against anti-government protesters. CSF chief Maged Nouh was seized and held by strikers, among whom some left their camp to protest against the interior minister, accusing him of complicity with the Muslim Brotherhood and denouncing President Mursi for “repeating the mistakes of the former regime”.23

Mursi has used both regular police and the CSF more and more often during 2013 to tackle street protests and strikes. Activists believe that following events at the ittihadiyya in November 2012 he struck a deal with the main security agencies whereby, in exchange for increased budgets and pay rises for the senior ranks, police and intelligence agencies would protect the Brotherhood, which under Mubarak had been their main target for repression. In cities from which police largely disappeared after the fall of Mubarak they have returned to assault demonstrations, especially protests at Brotherhood offices. In February 2013 they confronted demonstrators in Port Said protesting over an outrageous court decision in which judges handed down capital sentences on 21 football fans—scapegoats for massive police violence in the city’s stadium a year earlier. They used live weapons, killing 27 demonstrators: in response, furious crowds drove security forces from the city and when President Mursi declared a curfew thousands of people occupied the streets to show their defiance. Humiliated, and apparently deeply affected by what they saw as illicit instructions to attack the demonstrators, CSF troops in Port Said, Suez and Ismailiyya refused to obey officers and challenged the interior minister as to the legitimacy of his orders—in effect a further mutiny. There is no compelling evidence that the CSF is about to fracture—but the Port Said events and the recent police strike suggest that security forces cannot be used by Mursi as if nothing has changed since 2011.

Political crisis

Mass protests in Port Said are an exception to the pattern of diminishing street activity during 2013. There have been fewer very large protests in major cities and Tahrir Square in Cairo has been relatively quiet. Provincial cities, especially in the Nile Delta, have seen many small discontinuous protests: in February there were scores of attacks on Brotherhood offices, with skirmishes involving the CSF and the military police. These were uncoordinated, however, with loose aims apart from expressions of hostility towards the Brotherhood. This reflects a general crisis of politics in the Egyptian opposition, which is particularly acute in the major political parties.

In November 2012 leading parties formed a National Salvation Front (NSF) of organisations opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, aiming to take a unified stand against Mursi’s constitutional declaration and the referendum which followed. The Front combined radical nationalists such as Hamdeen Sabahi of the Popular Current Party, with liberal reformers such as Mohamed El Baradei of the Destour (Constitution) Party and Amr Mousa of the conservative Conference Party, with its links to the Mubarak networks—Mousa was foreign minister under Mubarak for a full ten years.

Assessing the Front’s record over its first six months, Taylor and Saleh describe “a weak and fragmented secular opposition” incapable of mobilising the millions of people hostile to Mursi and the Brotherhood.24 The Front has failed to agree on any of the pressing issues which confront the opposition:

Should the opposition engage and compromise with Mursi for the sake of national unity, or boycott and try to weaken him to make it harder for the Brotherhood to control the country? Should they participate in parliamentary elections that many believe will be skewed towards the Brotherhood, as they say all post-revolution votes have been, or stay away at the risk of being marginalised and looking like bad losers? And should they back a proposed loan from the International Monetary Fund as essential to pull the economy out of crisis despite the tough terms that would be attached, or oppose it on grounds of national sovereignty and social justice—or just sit on the fence?25

Taylor and Saleh quote an NSF official to the effect that the coalition has been hampered by a “battle of the egos” among its leaders.26 Hatem Tallima of the Revolutionary Socialists comments that their inability to develop coherent positions means that the Front represents “salvation—but for Mursi and the Brotherhood”.27 He continues:

They [NSF leaders] have lost all their bets in confronting the Brotherhood. Sabahi in particular believed he could strike deals with the police and the army against Mursi. In fact it’s Mursi who has bought time with these arrangements. And Sabahi has lost much support among activists and those who voted for him [in the presidential elections of 2012] by working with feloul [“remnants” of the Mubarak regime such as Amr Mousa] who he hopes can provide him with more influence.28

Sabahi had drawn thousands of young activists to the Popular Current, founded in September 2012, on the basis of his commitments to continuing the revolution, securing basic needs and protecting historic interests of workers and peasants in the welfare state. Invoking the traditions of President Nasser—Sabahi has been a lifelong Nasserist—he also won much support for backing the Palestinian cause. Enthusiasm gave way to anger among young supporters, however, when the organisation joined the NSF. One of the party’s leading activists, Khalid El-Sayed, argued: “Most of the members of the Popular Current rejected the idea of forming a coalition with organisations led by feloul. It was against what the revolution stood for”.29 There have since been many resignations from the party. In January 2013 youth of the Destour Party, which had also grown rapidly since it was founded in September 2012, occupied the organisation’s headquarters in Cairo to protest against undemocratic procedures and unacceptable policies of the leadership. In March 2013 a number of leading activists resigned, declaring that the party was dominated by power-seekers. One defector said: “There is a group of people controlling the party that believes they will win the majority in parliament and will become ministers”.30

Liberal and reformist parties in general are in crisis. Their rank and file members have drawn confidence from involvement in mass struggles in the streets and workplaces, and identify with aspirations of the activist movement to continue the revolution, notably the demand for “Bread, freedom, social justice”. Within the new parties they are confronted by authoritarian figures consumed with personal bids for power and oriented on institutions of the state as the key arena for political activity. This also affects the most radical wing of the NSF, the Socialist Popular Alliance, or tahaluf, which at the time of writing faces the loss of its committed socialist activists. The Alliance was formed in 2011, grouping members of the tame “leftist” electoral platform permitted under Mubarak, the Tagammu’ or rally, together with radical social democrats and revolutionary Marxists who had earlier been members of the Revolutionary Socialists. Former members of tahaluf say that its left wing activists, who have been prominent in the revolutionary movement from its earliest days, received undertakings that they would be fully represented in the organisation’s leading bodies and in selection of election candidates. They have in fact been progressively marginalised as, under the direction of the Tagammu’ faction, tahaluf has adopted increasingly conservative policies and promoted favoured reformist figures for the polls. As with the Popular Current and Destour, disillusioned members are overwhelmingly young, energetic and angry at the failure of their party to meet the aspirations of the revolutionary movement. A former member comments:

Neither the Salvation Front nor any of its leaders offer a social strategy for the revolution. They do not address the questions faced by the people—prices of food and fuel, employment, a fair minimum wage, housing, rents, increasing poverty. They don’t take care of the people—they take care of their own ambitions.31

For Sabahi, El Baradei and the others the main concern is to negotiate new deals with the military and even the Brotherhood, to which they are formally opposed. They are retreating, moving away from the mass movement which created the political space they now occupy. This accounts in part for the reduced level of street activity in recent months: rather than focus popular concerns on further changes needed to secure the gains of the revolution, NSF leaders have been consumed with manoeuvres and with deals struck in private. The role of Hamdeen Sabahi has been particularly important. In the presidential elections in 2012 he gathered millions of votes across Egypt’s major cities, carrying some industrial centres of the Nile Delta by large margins. Given the opportunity to build on this achievement, Sabahi has led the Popular Current away from public activity, leaving a vacuum on the left of national politics. Hisham Fuad of the Revolutionary Socialists says: “Hamdeen and all the parties of the Salvation Front have failed to deal with workers’ pressing problems—but workers don’t have the luxury of disappointment. The questions of bread, wages, and everyday living become more and more important”.32

Pressure on the mass of people has been increasing relentlessly. The economy is in a tailspin: since the fall of Mubarak there has been a 60 percent drop in foreign exchange reserves and steady erosion of the value of the Egyptian pound—between December 2012 and May 2013 it fell by 12 percent against the US dollar, with serious implications for a state that imports the bulk of its staple foods. Investment has collapsed and there has been a sharp rise in unemployment. Prices have risen steadily, with serious impacts on the 25 percent of the population that spends half of all its income on food.33 The economist Galal Amin argues that this is the worst crisis for decades: “without fear of making a mistake [the worst] since the 30s”, he says.34 Samir Radwan, who was finance minister in the months following the fall of Mubarak, says: “You are talking about nearly half of the population being in a state of poverty… Either in absolute poverty or near-poor, meaning that with any [economic] shock, like with inflation, they will fall under the poverty line”.35 Amin comments: “Nobody cares about the poor now”.36

Mursi has adopted most of Mubarak’s economic agenda, entering talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $4.8 billion loan which, he hopes, will facilitate further borrowing internationally. The IMF loan has not materialised, however. Mursi has hesitated to impose new subsidy cuts demanded by the fund: he has no objection in principle but realises that sweeping cuts may mean the end of his presidency. Sustained national protest over IMF-inspired attacks on the poor would present an enormous challenge. The mood in the CSF is unpredictable, while so far military chiefs have not dared to risk a conscript army in open battle with the people.

Fear of lasting damage to the armed forces seems to be behind a statement from General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi of SCAF that that there will be no return to military rule in Egypt. His speech in May 2013 caused dismay among feloul, leaders of liberal and nationalist parties, and supporters of the Brotherhood who hope for army backing. Al-Sisi said:

Nobody solves their problem with an army, and armies should be kept out of political problems. Try to find a method of understanding among yourselves [civilians] as, if the army takes to the street, Egypt will have very dangerous problems that may delay its progress for the next 40 years. 37

The statement was said to have left many political leaders “speechless”: some had been anticipating an announcement that the army would seize power. Instead Al-Sisi insisted that politics must be a civilian affair and that the job of the army is solely to secure elections.38 Though this guarantees nothing, it suggests that the vigour of the revolutionary movement, and especially the effectiveness of recent workers’ actions, has concentrated the minds of military chiefs.

Streets and workplaces

Economic crisis and its impacts put into context the cost of vacillation and retreat by the NSF. In an interesting defence of “Egypt’s dismal opposition”, the liberal academic Thomas Carothers pleads for time for its leaders to develop stable, coherent organisations.39 He comments:

There are multiple reasons most newly emerging parties lack a grassroots organisational network or base. Grassroots organising is particularly difficult in post-authoritarian contexts. Citizens who have lived through decades of repressive rule are usually suspicious of any and all political parties, viewing them in light of their negative experiences with whatever dominant party ruled previously.40

There is something in this: decades of repression mean that those who pursue visions of pluralist democracy may struggle to establish party structures and to create stable memberships. In the case of Egypt, there are particularly high levels of public scepticism about all parties. Removal of Mubarak was eventually achieved by means of sustained mass action: the only coherent opposition organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially opposed the uprising of 2011 and has since attempted to end the process of change, losing much of its pre-revolutionary support. Large numbers of activists nonetheless entered new parties with high hopes. They have been quickly disappointed: all the leaders of liberal and radical currents which dominate the NSF are focused upon the state and their wish to share power with those who dominate it—the officer elite of SCAF. Carothers’s argument, directed mainly at an American foreign policy audience, anticipates “transition” from authoritarianism to a form of representative politics somewhat less ugly than the Mubarak order. But revolutionary upheavals are not processes that offer unlimited opportunity for activists to construct parties on the bourgeois democratic model. Rather they are struggles for power in which the main contending classes address their overriding interests. In the case of Egypt, the mass movement has needs and aspirations which cannot be satisfied by the liberals and nationalists of the NSF, who are providing a lifeline for the Mursi government and those with a stake in the economic order created and nurtured by Mubarak.

The crisis of the NSF makes a recent shift in struggles from the streets to the workplaces particularly important. Streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces are not separate areas of political action—as demonstrated by the mass strikes prompted in 2011 by events in Tahrir. Workplace organisation, however, with its capacity to unify collective interests at the point of production, can advance political agendas rapidly across sites and industries. Workers’ struggles in Egypt have recently increased not only in number and in scale but in terms of organisation and politics. Committees have emerged in some factories in Suez and in the new industrial centre of Sadat City—the first firm evidence of specific workplace organisation above the trade union level and with continuity through local and national disputes. In 10 Ramadan City near Suez over 60 workers from eight factories met in April 2013 to discuss coordination of their struggles, and activists are attempting to form a council of Suez workers. Haitham Mohamedein of the Revolutionary Socialists says:

We are starting to see a different sort of politics in the workers’ movement, with efforts to build local rank and file organisation and to link struggles. Workers have learned from the experiences of the streets, where the main issues have been democratic demands, and have fused these with demands which arise from their own experiences at work—the cost of bread, the minimum wage, the requirements for family life.41

These promising initiatives are at an early stage and so far restricted to cities in which industrial struggles have been continuous and intensive. There are parallel developments, however, across some sectors of industry—notably in transport, where activists are attempting to create a network of militants from the docks, railways, buses, microbuses, the Cairo Metro, and the airports.

Workers’ organisation is both assisted and inhibited by the new trade union movement. Independent unions have grown steadily since 2011. There are two independent networks: the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), formed in January 2011, and the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC), launched officially in April 2013. EDLC originated in a split in 2011, when the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and unions under its influence broke from EFITU. Each federation claims some 250 unions, some organised at the national level, many organised locally at a single enterprise. Differences between the two are associated in part with their leaderships. EFITU was formed under the influence of Kemal Abu-Eita, leader of the Egyptian Real Estate Tax Authority Union, which in 2008 led a breakthrough in union activity by establishing a first national union independent of the official state-controlled federation of the Mubarak era. EDLC is led by Kemal Abbas, who founded CTUWS in 1990. Abu-Eita is a Nasserist and a member of the Karama Party; Abbas was formerly a member of Tagammu’.

Each federation has been effective in facilitating unionisation: each, however, favours a model which, under the circumstances of the revolution, may inhibit the most effective forms of organisation. It is increasingly clear that strong local organisation, linking workers across workplaces and sectors of industry, will play a key role in confrontations with the state. The new union federations have different priorities, however, including the development of stable national networks, effective internal administration and coherent national leaderships. In the context of mass struggles these can become bureaucratic obstacles. Haitham Mohamedein explains:

Of course, we are with the independent unions against employers and the state. But we also recognise that there are already problems of bureaucracy and when these hold back workers’ struggles we must be ready to criticise them—from within the unions.42

Revolutionary activists also point to what they call the “infatuation” of some union leaders with international trade union federations. The emergence of Egypt’s independent unions has been tracked closely by organisations such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). In 2010 the national trade union federation in the US, the AFL-CIO, presented its George Meany-Lane Kirkland Award for Human Rights jointly to Abu-Eita and Abbas. Never slow to co-opt new union leaderships, ITUC and other international networks have since been courting the Egyptian federations. One revolutionary activist in Cairo says: “We can do without constant invitations to Egyptian trade unionists to attend conferences at which they will be ‘taught how to negotiate’. We need to develop strong organisation of the rank and file, not to train more bureaucrats”.43


One important feature of recent struggles is the emergence of local initiatives for workers’ self-management. Under Mubarak much of the public sector was sold off to private businessmen in crooked deals in which favoured clients bought at knock-down prices and sold on, making huge gains, sometimes as part of asset-stripping exercises in which many employees lost their jobs. Adly describes a “state of corruption” in which “business and power interacted to pave the way for accumulation of private wealth”.44

Since 2011 a key demand of the independent unions has been for de-privatisation of these enterprises, retrieving them from their new owners and restoring jobs. This has been part of the revolutionary movement’s wider search for social justice, closely associated with tathir. Many strikes have been undertaken with these aims in mind; at the same time workers have pressured the government and used the legal system to seek judgements in their favour. In 2011 judges declared for the de-privatisation of a number of important enterprises: Omar Effendi Stores, Tanta Flax and Oils Company, Shebin El-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company, the Nasr Company for Steam Boilers, and the Nile Cotton Ginning Company.45 In 2012 a further judgement annulled the privatisation contract of Assiut Cement Company, which had been sold to the CEMEX corporation.

Apart from Omar Effendi (Egypt’s largest chain of department stores) these judgements were not implemented. In August 2012 workers from the Steam Boilers Company, joined by delegations from the Ideal Company and the Kouta Steel Company, staged protests outside the presidential palace and the cabinet building, demanding that government comply with court judgements and retrieve the companies from their private owners. When the government appealed against the 2011 decisions, a further definitive court judgement in relation to Shebin El-Kom Textile Company and the Steam Boilers Company directed that they should be restored promptly to public ownership, declaring that “Mubarak-era privatisation procedures raised suspicions of corruption, conflict of interests and a lack of transparency”.46 Still nationalisation did not proceed. Nile Cotton Ginning Company workers brought a further case, this time against prime minster Hisham Qandil, alleging that he had failed to implement a legal ruling on de-privatisation: in April 2013 a local court in Cairo found Qandil guilty, issued a one-year suspended sentence and called for his dismissal from the government.47

Workers at some plants had a different strategy. At Kouta Steel in 10 Ramadan City an elected Technical Committee won a ruling from the Administrative Court that the factory—closed by its owner for eight months—should resume production under the committee’s management. In February 2013 they sent a solidarity message to Vio.Me steel workers in Salonika, Greece—who had established a similar venture—explaining their action:

We learned that the factory owner had fled, and…a general assembly of the workers decided to place the factory under workers’ self-management. Hence the factory was reopened on 12 February 2013, as a cooperative under workers’ management…

We are now taking the final steps to resume the production process after having reconnected gas and electricity. The Kouta Steel Factory workers are all one in heart and mind, adamant to improve the factory and proceed with our experiment till the end.

Though a thousand miles away from Greece, we send our strongest expression of solidarity and support to the workers of Vio.Me and to their newborn experiment in self-management. We also declare our absolute rejection of the austerity measures that affect first and foremost the working class, whether in Greece or here in Egypt.

We invite Vio.Me workers to start and [sic] exchange of our experiences in struggle, so that we can benefit from lessons learned from both experiments in self-management. Millions of workers are looking at us as a concrete reality and an awaited dream.48

By April 2013 the Kouta plant was in production. Hisham Fuad of the Revolutionary Socialists says:

The whole experience for the Kouta workers has been extremely difficult. They’ve had to endure months without wages, long legal proceedings, problems with companies that supply water and electricity, and general harassment from the government. But they’ve continued, showing that in the present crisis self-management is an option: it is not an answer to workers’ problems but it does show that private business can be challenged and that workers can play a role in their places of work.49

The experience at Kouta is being transmitted to other factories. At Cleopatra Ceramics, which employed 20,000 workers in Ain Sukhna and 10 Ramadan City, workers have been involved in continuous struggles since, in July 2012, its owner Mohamed Abul-Enein, a former a member of parliament for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and a notoriously cruel employer, abruptly closed the business. When he reneged on agreements concluded after a factory occupation, workers travelled to Cairo, marched on the Presidential Palace and obtained a deal negotiated by Mursi. When this too unravelled they stormed a government building in Suez, demanding punishment for Abul-Enein. Eventually they occupied the factory, resumed production on their own terms and sold products directly to secure an income.

The idea of self-management appeals strongly to workers who see empty factories and absent or corrupt owners. Their self-organisation marks a huge rise in confidence since the revolution and a willingness to challenge the business priorities of the Mubarak era and the Mursi government.
Self-management of private enterprises is not in itself a strategy to advance the revolution. As long as production is organised in line with the priorities of the market, those who take strategic decisions are obliged to compete with other enterprises and to transmit competitive pressures into the workplace. Combined with the demand for nationalisation, however, and in coordination with workers’ committees, these initiatives have an important role to play.

Mursi and the crisis

In a recent speech Mursi appeared to make major concessions to the workers’ movement, saying that privatisations and job losses were a thing of the past. In a televised May Day broadcast from the industrial centre of Helwan he said there would be “no more sale of the public sector; that is finished…and we will no longer do away with workers [sic]”.50 This indicates increasing pressure on the government from below: more unionisation, more widespread and intensive strike action, and general hostility towards private business and the ethics of the Mubarak era. It also marks an increasingly anti-capitalist mood and very widespread opposition to a new IMF loan and austerity policies certain to go with it. But Mursi’s speech has been greeted with scepticism: since 2011 workers have heard all manner of promises from ministers and from employers. One factor in the recent wave of struggles has been anger that undertakings made by many employers during the strike wave of 2011 have not been honoured. Firm agreements, especially on wages, jobs and union rights, have often been ignored: meanwhile the pressures of everyday life have increased relentlessly. At the same time, the president and the Brotherhood have lost much of the authority they gained as an opposition during the Mubarak years. They are viewed more and more clearly as a business-friendly party committed to the Mubarak agenda. When Mursi implements another round of austerity measures there is likely to be a concerted response.

In April 2013 radical activists launched the Tamarud (“Rebellion”) initiative. This aimed to collect signatures across Egypt calling for a new presidential election—in effect a vote of no confidence in Mursi. It has been unprecedentedly successful. Within a month organisers had collected 7 million names, with each signatory identifying her/himself by including their national identity number—an open statement of political engagement unheard of before the revolution.51 The campaign culminates in a mass demonstration to be held at the presidential palace on 30 June, the anniversary of Mursi’s appointment. Sameh Naguib of the Revolutionary Socialists says:

Tamarud has reached millions of people who see that Mursi and the Brotherhood want to bring their revolution to an end. It shows both how quickly Mursi has lost support and the people’s wish to defend their interests. Socialists have been deeply involved in Tamarud. We’ve found great enthusiasm to sign the petition in working class areas—striking workers have been signing en masse. Of course, feloul want to get on the bandwagon but they hesitate, especially since Al-Sisi’s declaration that the army won’t take power—for them the future looks more and more uncertain.52

Mursi is in a vice. The IMF, the World Bank and Mubarak’s former international allies, now his allies—the US, the EU, the Gulf states—insist that he takes further austerity measures. The Egyptian pound weakens by the day and there are legitimate fears of a speculative assault in the international financial markets, driving the local currency to a further low. Egypt can barely pay for grain imports critical to the survival of most of the population: further weakening of the pound could bring an abrupt crisis. Mursi’s own organisation is increasingly under the influence of a conservative faction led by the multi-millionaire Khairat al-Shater, which wishes to press on with neoliberal policies and to embrace the “Turkish model” of business-friendly Islamism.53 Meanwhile, the workers’ movement grows in confidence and activist networks prepare through Tamarud to renew public protests.

In this fluid situation the left has an unprecedentedly large audience. Paralysis of the liberal, nationalist and reformist parties has intensified work to establish a coalition of radical forces. A Revolutionary Alternative Front has been established, bringing together members and former members of the Popular Current, the Destour Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Strong Egypt Party of liberal Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abou El-Fotouh (not part of the NSF), the Revolutionary Socialists, and the 6 April youth movement. They are committed to pursue the revolutionary process, to reject deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces, and to exclude feloul. These developments have also brought greater interest in the socialist left and especially in the Revolutionary Socialists (RS). Surviving for over 20 years under the dictatorship, the RS has emerged during the revolution as a national organisation, present in every major city. It is the sole organisation focused upon workers’ struggles and active in the streets, on campuses and in united campaigns including Tamarud. It is attempting urgently to link the most effective workplace organisations and to draw activists to Marxist politics in which the international and historic experiences of struggle are brought to bear upon the Egyptian Revolution. The need for such a party has seldom been so clear. As the revolution continues, its opportunities and responsibilities become apparent.


1: Naguib, 2011, p25. See also Fahim and Kirkpatrick, 2011.

2: SCAF Statement of 10 February 2011, New York Times, 2011.

3: See Alexander, 2011, 2012.

4: Interview with a veteran activist, Cairo, December 2012.

5: Enein, 2013.

6: Enein, 2013.

7: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

8: Lynch and Marroushi, 2013.

9: Lynch and Marroushi, 2013.

10: Charbel, 2013a.

11: MENA Solidarity Network, 2013a.

12: The Shubra workshops were an important centre of worker militancy throughout the 1930s and 1940s. See Beinin and Lockman, 1987. See also CTUWS, 2013.

13: Einin, 2013

14: Fady, 2013.

15: Ahram Online, 2013b.

16: Saad and others, 2013.

17: Halawa, 2013.

18: Halawa, 2013.

19: Halawa, 2013.

20: Dunne and Revkin, 2011

21: El Hamalawy, 2012.

22: El Hamalawy, 2012.

23: Al Masry Al Youm, 2013a.

24: Taylor and Saleh, 2013.

25: Taylor and Saleh, 2013.

26: Taylor and Saleh, 2013.

27: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

28: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

29: Rashwan, 2013.

30: El Gundy, 2013.

31: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

32: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

33: All figures from Kingsley, 2013.

34: Galal Amin in Kingsley, 2013.

35: Kingsley, 2013.

36: Kingsley, 2013.

37: Quoted in Hussein, 2013.

38: Hussein, 2013.

39: Carothers, 2013.

40: Carothers, 2013.

41: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

42: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

43: Interview with a labour activist in Cairo, April 2013.

44: Adly, 2011, p1.

45: In the case of the Steam Boilers Company, privatised in 2000, workers alleged that the new owners had stolen shares and bonuses and laid off over 1,100 employees. In the case of Tanta Flax and Oils, privatised in 2005 and sold at a third of its real market value to a Saudi investor, a workforce of 2,850 had been reduced to less than 200-Al Masry Al Youm, 2012; Charbel, 2013b.

46: Ahram Online, 2013a.

47: Al Masry Al Youm, 2013b.

48: MENA Solidarity Network, 2013b.

49: Interview in Cairo, April 2013.

50: Middle East Online, 2013.

51: Ahram Online, 2013c

52: Interview in Cairo, June 2013.

53: See Marfleet, 2013, on the influence of the Brotherhood’s sister organisation in Turkey, the AKP.


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