Workers and Thieves
Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt
Joel Beinin



Workers, Collective Action, and Politics

In 2004 Kamal ‘Abbas, the general coordinator of Egypt’s Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, told me, “The best thing that can be done for democracy in this country is to promote the rights of workers.” An upsurge of wildcat strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations, and other workers’ collective actions that began in the late 1990s was escalating as we spoke. But neither of us understood its full significance at that time. During the 2000s only a handful of Western journalists occasionally reported on these contestations. Inside the Beltway think-tankers almost completely disregarded them. No journalists or foreign policy “experts” considered these collective actions in the context of the accelerating privatization of Egypt’s public resources and the attendant loss of job security, social services, and workers’ status as productive contributors to the national economy—the most common contentious issues.1

Until the January 25, 2011 popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, most observers of contemporary Egypt focused on its putative economic and political liberalization and its role in the nonexistent Palestinian-Israeli “peace process.” Euro-American scholars and foundations engaged in democracy promotion and their Egyptian counterparts enthused about the expansion of civil society since the 1980s, by which they typically meant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Only three foreign foundations and two local NGOs devoted serious attention to Egypt’s largest social movement in half a century.2

The regime of Tunisia’s President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, despite promises of political liberalization after he seized power on November 7, 1987, was even more repressive than Mubarak’s in the 2000s. International advocacy NGOs duly documented Tunisia’s egregious human rights violations. But most Western Tunisia experts and political leaders expressed only pro forma concerns about them. Instead they focused on what French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy and many others acclaimed as Tunisia’s “economic miracle.”

Tunisian workers engaged in an even larger number of strikes and collective actions than their Egyptian counterparts in the 2000s, although they are less well documented due to more severe media censorship. A six-month-long rebellion in the Gafsa phosphate-mining basin in 2008 prompted by a demand for jobs targeted both the phosphate mining company and nepotistic local officials of the national trade union federation (L’Union générale tunisienne du travail, UGTT), while the leadership of the phosphate miners union stood with the regime. The slogan raised in Gafsa—“A job is a right, you pack of thieves!”—reappeared three years later in Sidi Bouzid and the center-west regions where the uprising that ousted Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 began.3

Young cultural revolutionaries like Egypt’s Ramy Essam and Tunisia’s “El General,” youth groups like Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, Facebook pages like “We are all Khaled Said,” bloggers like Tunisia’s Lina Ben Mhenni and Slim Amamou and Egypt’s Zeinobia, and digital media like were certainly factors in mobilizing the 2011 popular uprisings. However, the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera had a far larger audience and a broader impact than any digital media or radical cultural expressions. Moreover, digital media and radical cultural expressions were not the principal factors in the most intense contestations that unfolded in the decade before those uprisings.

Using the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, this book seeks to explain why the experts were wrong and Kamal ‘Abbas was right. Workers’ participation in the social ferment preceding the ouster of the autocrats and in the political realignments after their demise was far more important than most observers have acknowledged. However, the role of workers cannot fully be explained by their economic grievances.

Who are the workers Kamal ‘Abbas was referring to? Throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the terms “workers” (al-‘ummal) and “working class” (al-tabaqa al-‘amila) are commonly used and understood, although popular definitions are imprecise. Who is included in the working class, and why this is a commonly used term, depends on a complex matrix of historically forged local and national economic, political, social, and cultural relationships. Workers do not have fixed, immutable identities, universal forms of consciousness, and certainly not a predetermined historical trajectory.

Workers are “free” wage laborers in two respects: they are free to seek employment in the market and to accept it on the best terms available, and free of independent access to the means of production. In the MENA region wage labor is often seasonal. Some industrial and agricultural workers or their families also own or rent small plots of agricultural land. Since the early twentieth century, an important part of the North African (Maghrebi) working class has migrated to France in search of jobs that did not exist at home. Labor migration in the MENA region became widespread with the oil boom of the 1970s. Egypt has been, since then, the leading Arab labor exporter, with important consequences for the experiences and consciousness of its workers. Those employed in mechanized transport and industrial enterprises, as well as handicraft artisans and the self-employed who possess little capital other than their hand tools, have been members of trade unions and are popularly considered part of the working class.

White-collar workers are powerful actors in the Tunisian labor movement. Schoolteachers and healthcare, postal, and telecommunications workers have long been the most militant members of the UGTT. Many were radicalized during their university studies and brought their political commitments into their unions, where they often served as the organic intellectuals of insurgent forces in the middle and lower levels of the UGTT. As they aged, some became bureaucrats, pragmatists, apologists for autocracy, and opportunists. Others persisted in maintaining a variety of left political views.

In Egypt, the enormous contingent of civil servants and lower-level white-collar public employees (muwazzafun) is unionized and affiliated with workers. But they have never engaged in public contestation with the regime; indeed they have comprised one of its principal bases of support. Teachers belong to a corporatist Teachers Syndicate established by the regime in 1954.4 Until recently, teachers as well as municipal tax assessors, postal workers, university professors, and publicly employed health professionals were not associated with manual or clerical workers. They came to be so during the workers movement of the 2000s.

The MENA region has the highest level of youth unemployment in the world, concentrated among those with a tertiary education, and within that category, among women. The unemployed, especially university graduates among them, do not belong to the working class. But they are children of the working class. Many were able to go to university because their families benefited from the social welfare policies of postcolonial Egypt and Tunisia. Therefore, campaigns of unemployed degree holders demanding jobs may be allied with, and even an organic part of, workers’ struggles, depending on the political orientation of the leadership. In Tunisia, activists of the Union of Unemployed Graduates (L’Union des diplômés chômeurs, UDC) were leading figures in the social struggles of the late 2000s. In Egypt, while their lack of opportunity was a factor in the social tensions leading to the 2011 popular uprising, unemployed degree holders have no organization and therefore no political leverage.

The social and political identities of Egyptian and Tunisian workers were inflected by the initial formation of working classes during the second half of the nineteenth century—the era of colonial capitalism. Private property rights were then gaining legal recognition, but coercive relations of production—sharecropping, forced labor, or recruitment by labor contractors—persisted. Europeans dominated the most lucrative economic sectors. The economies were extraverted and shaped by exports of cash crops or primary products and the hyperdevelopment of transportation to facilitate their movement. Urban quarters where Europeans and local elites resided enjoyed modern utilities and services. European overlordship limited the capacity of states to regulate markets and social relations and promote industrialization. Indigenous capital was weak and could not compete with most European manufactures.

The political and cultural identities of workers in the MENA region and the histories of their labor movements are inseparable from anticolonial struggles for national independence. Labor histories are both integral parts of the national histories of Tunisia and Egypt and central to the stories of their insertion into the global capitalist market. Until the end of the colonial era in the 1950s, “worker” often meant someone employed by a European enterprise or army or a waged employee supervised by a foreigner and who earned less than a European performing a similar job. Political parties and trade unionists alike often regarded workplace contestations as an integral component of nationalist struggles against colonial rule. Many workers were concentrated in urban centers and strategic, large-scale, modern enterprises and were more easily mobilized for anticolonial campaigns than the peasant majority. Therefore workers constituted a valuable political asset for nationalist parties and leaders of postcolonial states, perhaps none more so than Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952–70) and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba (1956–87).

Postindependence Tunisian and Egyptian workers employed in public sector industries and utilities were relatively privileged and took pride in their contributions to developing modern national economies. Their economic security and social status were increasingly undermined from the 1970s on. These threats constituted the broad context of several cycles of workers’ contentious actions in the decades before the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

The UGTT provided Tunisian workers with a national trade union organization that had its own sources of legitimacy, a history of political and economic struggle, and a degree of autonomy from the state. Bourguiba and Ben Ali never fully subjugated the UGTT. Dissidents at its lower and middle levels of leadership could often deploy its organizational structures for militant contestations on economic issues, which sometimes had political ramifications. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (al-Ittihad al-‘amm li-niqabat ‘ummal misr, ETUF) was created by the Nasser regime as an instrument of the state and continued to be so under his successors. The Nasser regime markedly improved the lives of working people even though ETUF did not actually represent them or offer them a political forum. Therefore, most workers eschewed politics and were suspicious of oppositional intellectuals who sought to intervene in their economic struggles and offer what they understood to be the “correct” political orientation.

This comparison does not naively idolize the UGTT. Like trade unions everywhere, it is encumbered with bureaucratic organizational structures and undemocratic practices. Like many other political figures and institutions in Tunisia today, the UGTT is rewriting its history to portray itself as a consistent defender of democracy and human rights. But its actual past is not pristine. No real historical person or institution can be. The number and magnitude of the errors, misjudgments, compromises and crimes that may be committed before being consigned to villainy is the terrain of historical interpretation and debate.

Workers and the groups associated with them are the principal historical subjects of this book. But I do not argue that the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings of 2011 were due solely to the collective actions of workers. Those uprisings were the outcome of many different determinations and even historical accidents, like the increased price of food from 2008 to the end of the decade. The workers movements do highlight the transformations in the political economy of the Arab region since the 1970s, which the Arab uprisings targeted, albeit mostly indirectly.

The social movements of Tunisian and Egyptian workers and those affiliated with them were the most persistent contestations of the 2000s and the largest demographic component of the culture of protest that empowered Arabs to want the fall of autocratic regimes. Mobilizations of workers and the unemployed infrequently demanded democracy or regime change as such. Consequently most NGOs and regime-approved political parties were not regularly engaged with them. Some even disdained their “apolitical” nature. Class prejudice, accommodations with “secular” autocrats to fight against Islamists, and the NGO-ization of politics impeded the understanding that democracy is an outcome of social struggles, not the proliferation of NGOs and housebroken parties, the “correct sequencing” of economic and political policy changes, and certainly not European culture or teleological progress toward the “end of history.”

The political economy of the workers movements in Tunisia and Egypt is similar. But the possibilities and limitations on workers’ agency were structured by their organizational capacities, their relationships with the intelligentsia, political parties, and NGOs, as well as changes in the local and global political economy. These factors explain why the UGTT decisively influenced Tunisia’s post–Ben Ali trajectory toward procedural democracy. In contrast, ETUF remained loyal to Mubarak until the end, and beyond. Newly established independent unions and federations did not have the organizational capacity or political experience to influence the post-Mubarak political agenda or prevent the installation of a praetorian autocracy more vicious than the Mubarak regime.


1. Young scholars open to understanding things in these terms began investigating the workers movement in the second half of the decade. Among them are Nadine Abdalla, Anne Alexander, Dina Bishara, Marie Duboc, Dina Makram Ebeid, Kristian Takvam Kindt, Marten Petterssen, and Brecht De Smet.

2. The most notable pre-2011 exception is the AFL-CIO-affiliated Solidarity Center, for which I wrote The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Washington: Solidarity Center, 2010). The Dutch Oxfam Novib and the Ford Foundation’s Cairo office gave grants to the CTUWS.

3. Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 239.

4. Arabic follows French in using the same word for a professional association and a trade union—niqaba or syndicat.