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The Labor Movement Shakes Egypt

Since the 1950s, the state-sponsored Egyptian Trade Union Federation held a monopoly over approving and organizing labor action.62 Laborers were thus disarmed and had few legal means of challenging employers. Nonetheless, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Egypt’s state-owned sector saw numerous instances of strike action.63 State-owned enterprises were sold to private investors, causing managers to cut labor costs to make the companies more attractive to investors.64 Mass layoffs, forced early retirements, and pension reductions became commonplace, making the economic future of workers all the more precarious.65 As the government ramped up privatization, labor actions increased and reached an average of one hundred per year from 1998 to 2003.66 Private investors purchased eighty state-owned companies in four years, amounting to 27 percent of the total state companies sold since 1991.67 The consequent labor cuts doubled the number of strikes from 2004 to 2006 to approximately two hundred per year.68

Growing discontent culminated in 2006 when twenty thousand textile workers in the city of Mahalla went on strike for three days after the municipal government reneged on its promise to give them a two-month bonus.69 Workers saw these bonuses as essential to their subsistence, as real wages had not increased since 1984.70 And although Egypt’s real gdp had grown by 7 percent for three consecutive years, from 2006 to 2008, few economic benefits trickled down to the workers.71 Quite the opposite: strong macroeconomic growth produced declining work conditions for Egyptian workers, as they were forced to make concessions to an economic climate that was welcoming to wealthy investors seeking flexible labor markets and weak labor laws.72

With Egypt’s new private-sector owners increasingly relying on short-term contracts, inadequate pay, and minimal benefits, the number of strikes increased exponentially.73 Indeed, after 2006, Egypt experienced “the longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II.”74 Labor conditions were so bad that historically complacent government employees joined blue-collar workers in protests.75 Over 2,100 strikes and other labor actions took place from 2006 to 2009. A string of successful labor protests emboldened workers to mobilize further.76 In total, over three million workers participated in 3,500-4,000 collective actions in the twelve years preceding January 25, 2011.77 Despite draconian laws restricting labor action and a lack of legal means for organizing outside the government-controlled union, laborers became increasingly apt at extracting concessions from the government.78

While the labor movement represented far more Egyptians than the political advocacy groups, the former’s agenda was narrowly focused on improving labor conditions and wresting union leadership from government control.79 Glaringly absent from the labor movement’s list of demands was a call for an end to civil rights abuses and political corruption.80 Nevertheless, the narrow labor agenda produced over a decade of strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations that ultimately set the stage for the January 25 uprising. Perhaps more importantly, when over a million workers went on strike and joined the demonstrations on February 8, 2011, the country’s economy effectively ground to a halt, giving the military pretext to abandon Mubarak.

The removal of a dictator did not bring an end to the dictatorship; instead, it simply removed Mubarak and his ndp allies and reinstated military generals as the new governors. The youth movement, defined by its participants’ outsider status and their lack of pol itical experience, was doomed to be pushed to the margins of the country’s new political arrangement. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite being well organized, was defined by exclusionary politics that made it all the more vulnerable to the political traps set by the military-security apparatus.

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