Behind Egypt’s Revolution Is a History of Worker Discontent, Expert Says
Stanford University's Joel Beinin, who directed Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo from 2006 to 2008, tells a UCLA audience that the generals who made Mubarak go took seriously the threat of large labor strikes.
Published: Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Once you let people organize around anything, then they know how to organize.
When the history of the Egyptian revolution is finally written — and the story is far from over — the more than 2 million Egyptian workers who mobilized for better wages and treatment in recent years will deserve a chapter, a Stanford University historian told about 60 people in Bunche Hall attending a Feb. 15 lecture sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.
"If I try to think what was going on in the generals' heads when they finally told Hosni Mubarak, 'The game is up,'" said Professor Joel Beinin, "it's likely that the possibility of large-scale strikes, which were beginning to happen and are still going on now, was in their minds." Beinin directed Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo from 2006 to 2008.
One of the army's first decrees following President Mubarak's resignation was to end trade union meetings and all strikes. Since 1998, 2 million workers in the country have staged at least 3,500 strikes, sit-ins and other mobilizations, creating "the biggest social movement in the Arab world, at least since World War II," Beinin said.
The movement was never centrally organized and was almost completely ignored by the Western press, he explained. It had roots in economic policies that, although first announced under President Anwar Sadat, really began to take off following the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when half of Egypt's foreign debt was forgiven, and it signed an agreement with international lending agencies. By 2002, the government had privatized 190 enterprises.
Economic growth and investment did follow the changes, but they benefitted only the "authoritarian kleptocracy" headed by Mubarak, according to Beinin. The one bright spot for workers was local labor organizing, much of it in the newly privatized industries.
"Workers made huge gains in certain places, and even where they made more limited gains, they weren't shot down dead as they were in the 1980s and 1990s," the historian said. The government could afford to make concessions and needed to protect its global image. "If they roll tanks into a town and mow people down for striking, then foreign direct investment isn't going to come into the country," Beinin said.
After Palestinians rose up in 2000 and again when the United States invaded Iraq, Mubarak's government began to permit unofficial street protests to let people "blow off steam" about political issues that united Egyptians.
"This is where an authoritarian regime makes mistakes, because once you let people organize around anything, then they know how to organize around something else," Beinin said.
The professor cited many causes for the 18 days of escalating protest that toppled Mubarak, including "fashionable" explanations having to do with a Dec. 17 self-immolation in Tunisia and the "We are all Khaled Said" page on the Facebook social networking website. Said was an Egyptian youth who was murdered by police in Alexandria.
Beinin also noted that conditions have been ripe for rebellion in Egypt for decades and that technology has been there to assist.
"The Arab world has been a tinderbox for some time, and many people who have been watching Egypt thought this should have happened 10, 20, 30 years ago and gave up thinking that this might happen."
Going forward, said Beinin in response to questions, there is probably no danger that Egypt will turn toward any sort of Islamic rule, something that neither demonstrators nor power players have demanded. A far more likely result is a continued domination by the army, which has been "the core of every regime that has ruled Egypt since July 23, 1952."
The demonstrators, Beinin said, "are not strongly present in the negotiations with the generals about what's going to happen. So they can either be sold out, or they will have to mobilize again and come out into the streets again."