Middle East History: Egypt

Workers at the Point of Production:
Moral Economy and Labor Protest

Source: Chapter III of Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions, and Economic Restructuring, Marsha Pripstein Posusney (1997) New York: Columbia University Press.
Transcribed: for marxists.org by Sam Berner 2008.
Proofread: by Alvaro Miranda (August 2020).
Portions of this chapter appeared previously in Irrational Workers: The Moral Economy of Labor Protest in Egypt, World Politics 46, No. 1 (October 1993): pp. 83–120, and in Collective Action and the Consciousness of Egyptian Workers, 1952–87, in Zachary Lockman (ed.), The Historiography of Middle East Labor (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993).

Economic liberalization measures affect workers in a variety of ways and can elicit potentially contradictory reactions. For example, as consumers, workers may welcome the influx of new products into the market fostered by trade liberalization, but they may also fear the job loss that might result from foreign competition with domestically produced goods. Workers as consumers will face inflation from the lifting of price controls and/or the removal of subsidies, but they may not object if these are counterbalanced by wage increases. Privatization threatens the privileges of public sector employees, but workers may welcome the prospect of participation in ownership or expect to receive higher wages and/or have greater advancement possibilities in the private sector. On an individual plant level, efforts to reduce the fiscal deficit can result in layoffs, pay cuts, or forced overtime at different parastatals. Nevertheless, public sector rationalization, like privatization, may be seen by some workers as an opportunity rather than a takeaway.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to capture the potential for varied workers’ responses to different liberalization measures. This chapter seeks to infer ordinary workers’ sentiments on such issues by examining collective action at the point of production, from the early 1950s through the late 1980s. Such protests often constitute, in and of themselves, a reaction to economic reforms, and hence a statement of their participants’ perspectives on the particular issue. Collective struggles also provide important clues to the more general economic philosophy of workers, especially in light of the unavailability of other types of data. In Western democracies, researchers seeking to ascertain workers’ opinions of different policy issues could conduct random surveys, or rely on disaggregated voting data or the pronunciations of union leaders chosen in fair and freely contested elections. Students of workers in authoritarian countries lack access to such sources. Citizens who can be fined, imprisoned, tortured, or murdered for speaking out against the government cannot be presumed to answer surveys honestly or vote the way they truly feel; the information available to them is in any case filtered through media carefully controlled by the government. Union leaders co-opted into the ruling party and subject to government vetting may or may not represent their members.

This inquiry is guided by three competing perspectives of workers’ attitudes – moral economy, Marxism, and rational choice – laid out in the Introduction and reviewed here. Against them I explore the frequency of plant-level struggles and their timing in relation to economic conditions and policies, as well as the nature of the protests and the specific causes and demands raised. My claim is that these factors combined lend strong support to a moral economy interpretation of Egyptian workers’ behavior, in which workers objected to reforms that constituted a perceived violation of their belief in reciprocal rights and responsibilities between themselves and the state.

In the moral economy I propose, workers viewed themselves in a patron/client relationship with the state. The latter was expected to guarantee workers a living wage through regulation of their paychecks as well as by controlling prices on basic necessities, and to ensure equal treatment of workers performing similar jobs. Workers, for their part, provided the state with political support and contributed to the postcolonial national development project through their labor.

In support of this interpretation, I will demonstrate here that labor protests occurred more frequently when the economy was deteriorating, suggesting restorative protest aimed at preventing erosion in the workers’ standard of living. The immediate causes of these actions also give strong indications of feelings of entitlement. In many cases, workers were seeking to regain earnings that had been taken away. This contrasts with “new” or “aggressive” demands, by which I mean increments to real wages, or improvements in working conditions, that do not grow out of comparisons with the past. Moreover, where workers were seeking actual raises, it was most often in the context of seeking parity with others who had just been granted the increase. Thus it was a preexisting egalitarianism that workers were seeking to restore. Feelings of entitlement were also evident in protests which erupted as a result of unmet promises by management or the government.

Support for this particular type of moral economy also comes from the fact that in almost all protest incidents, the workers’ demands were directed against the state. Moreover, workers revealed their view of their own obligations by eschewing actual work stoppages in favor of symbolic protests which signaled that they remained loyal to the cause of production, even while feeling aggrieved.

Another important feature of these plant-level protests is the fact that they occurred almost strictly outside of the formal union structure. In addition to casting further doubt on standard neoclassical assumptions about workers, this phenomenon helps to shed light on how union leaders balance pressures from below with those from above. Finally, the reaction of the government to informal labor struggle is also examined here. The combination of repression and concession employed by successive Egyptian administrations appears aimed at isolating and quickly ending all manifestations of discontent, to preserve the regime’s persistent claim to widespread legitimacy among workers.

To support these arguments, the empirical material in this chapter has been organized by analytical categories. This is a departure from the historical presentation that has obtained thus far, and necessitates that various aspects of the numerous collective actions discussed below are parceled out into different sections. While the reader may therefore feel that the full flavor of these individual events has been sacrificed, I believe that the overall picture of local level labor protest in Egypt is ultimately clearer for this approach. [1]

Macroeconomic Conditions and the Pattern of Labor Protests

Neoclassical arguments assume that workers make decisions about whether or not to halt production based on opportunistic cost-benefit analyses of the likelihood of winning strikes. Downplaying any sense of developing class consciousness, labor market theories hold that strikes are most likely to occur when expected monetary and/or job gains exceed expected losses, conditions usually associated with a tight labor market. [2] In contrast, orthodox Marxism, while positing periodic crises which may contribute to workers’ recognition of their common class interest, generally anticipates a fairly linear increase in labor protest, both in frequency and in the numbers of workers involved, as class consciousness develops and solidarity grows. [3] Finally, a moral economy perspective would envision a greater number of protests – but not necessarily strikes – when economic conditions are deteriorating, causing workers to feel that elite commitments to them have been violated.

As explained in the Introduction, the sophisticated correlations of macroeconomic indicators with strike behavior performed by scholars of industrialized and democratic countries are not possible in a developing and authoritarian country like Egypt. Consequently, this section makes no attempt at precise correlation between the two. Nevertheless, I believe that the available evidence does suggest that Egyptian workers are most likely to protest when the economy is deteriorating, thus contradicting rational choice predictions and lending support to the moral economy view. There is also some indication that the overall level of protests which occur when real wages are falling is increasing, so that Marxist arguments cannot be ruled out on this basis alone.

The Nassir Years

As we saw in chapter 1, the two years immediately following the Free Officers’ coup were characterized by an economic downturn in which employment declined and, at least in 1953, real wages fell; growing numbers of workers were subjected to an extended probationary period upon hiring. The British Labour Attaché, writing in the fall of 1953, considered the military government to be unpopular among workers for these reasons, and reported frequent instances of labor unrest that year. [4] Workers also sought to resolve their problems through other channels. Beinin has documented a dramatic increase in the number of “industrial disputes” (as measured by formal grievances raised by workers) recorded by the Egyptian Federation of Industries. [5] The number of disputes peaked at 71,841 in 1953, more than five times the 1951 level of 13,658; the three-year average for 1953–55 was 44,453 grievances per year, more than 2.5 times the 1949–51 average of 16,197. Noting that the pre-coup figures were themselves high by historical standards, he suggests plausibly that the post-1952 increase stems from a hope among workers that the new government would be more sympathetic to their complaints, as well as the fact that workers could no longer seek legal recourse through striking. However, the figures may also reflect the heightened problem with summary dismissals, since a growing proportion of these cases involved individual complaints. [6]

Conditions for workers appear to have improved somewhat when the international recession of the early 1950s ended. As we saw in chapter 1, the real wage index rose during the second half of the 1950s. [7] In addition, industrial employment began to pick up after 1956, with a noticeable spurt in 1959, possibly due to the mandated reduction in the legal working day that year (see table 1.1). In response, there was a marked (40%) decline in the average number of grievances filed by workers between from 1955–58, over the previous three years, suggesting that labor discontent was abating. [8] It also appears that labor protest declined dramatically during this period, except for the year 1956. Mutawalli al-Sha’rawi claims that there were 120 sit-ins, work stoppages, and other job actions in the Kafr al-Dawwar area that year; Tomiche documented a strike by dock workers in Alexandria. [9]

The socialist decrees of July 1961 brought immediate material improvements in workers’ living standards along with an elevation of their status in society. [10] The minimum wage was doubled for many workers while the industrial work week was reduced, and pensions, injury compensation, and health insurance were enhanced. Additional prohibitions against firing public sector workers were enacted in 1962. The effects of all this legislation on real wages is shown in table 3.1.

Politically, the new legislation had the effect of further tying workers’ interests to the state. The Nassir government took on a distributive function by subsidizing the cost of many essential food items, as well as energy, and controlling the prices of many other goods; the regime also obligated itself with ensuring the compliance of private capitalists with minimum wage standards and other laws protecting workers. While workers in the expanded public sector now depended on the state for their very livelihood, these other measures served to institutionalize the economic dependence of private sector workers on the state in other ways.

Nassir explicitly promoted the idea that the state’s largesse constituted privileges which workers had to earn by increasing productivity. This was sanctified in the National Charter of 1962: “Every citizen should be aware of his defined responsibility in the whole plan, and should be fully conscious of the definite rights he will enjoy in the event of success.” [11] However, Egypt began to retreat from socialism soon after the initial experiment began. After mid-1965, no new social legislation was introduced. Instead, investment expenditures were cut and a forced savings plan was implemented, where one-half day’s pay per month was deducted from all public employees’ salaries and put into a special account; there were also some price and tax increases and several factory closures. A 1965 revision in the labor code re-allowed paid overtime, although it did not make it mandatory. [12] As a consequence of these measures, hours of work increased considerably that year, while hourly real wages fell (see table 3.1).

Real Wage Index and Hours of Work, 1961–1967
Year Hrs. Work/Wk (a) RWI/Hr. (a) Weekly RWI
1961 48  47 140
1962 47 151 141
1963 45 177 159
1964 44 190 168
1965 53 157 166
1966 52 161 167
1967 49 162 158
Source: Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, The Political Economy of Nasserism, p. 33. Reprinted with permission.
Note: Base year 1950. Based on the SEWWH; see explanatory notes to table 1.4.

After Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war the government initiated another round of price and tax increases, and there were renewed calls for workers to sacrifice for the “battle” (al-ma’raka). The work week was increased from 42 to 48 hours without compensation to workers, forced savings were increased from one half to three-fourths of a day’s pay per month, and additional measures, such as cancellation of paid holidays and/or “donation” of compensatory pay for meals, uniforms, shift work, or dangerous jobs, were attempted in some plants over the next year. [13] In manufacturing real wages fell again in 1967 and remained below their prewar levels the following year (see tables 3.1 and 3.2).

Protest activity remained quite low during the early 1960s, with only a few documented incidents through 1964. However, an escalation accompanied the policies of retreat. Despite the support of union leaders for these policies, workers objected; Hussein reports a number of strikes breaking out at the end of 1966 in response to the renewal of overtime, as well as cases of workers evading disciplinary measures, slowing down work, and even paralyzing or breaking machines to express their anger at the deteriorating economic and political situation. [14] There are also indications that workers in some plants successfully resisted forced salary reductions in 1965, and there were numerous protests against them again in 1968 (see chapter 4, and below).

Wages recovered in 1969 and 1970, and there is no record of labor incidents during those years. Helwan, the most industrialized city in Egypt, did become a center for incipient labor activism at the time. Mass meetings organized by leftists for workers to discuss political and economic issues grew to include 4,000–5,000 workers. Harsh criticisms were leveled at both Arab Socialist Union (ASU) officials and company managers, and in 1969 the Minister of the Interior ordered the Socialist Institute where the meetings were held closed. Labor activists then organized smaller meetings of workers around different plant or occupational issues. [15] However, it was not until 1971, when wages were eroding again, that this groundwork materialized into actual protest activity which challenged Sadat after he assumed power. That year saw at least five incidents, the largest involving 30,000 workers at the Helwan ironworks, and the following spring workers struck several textile factories in Shubra alKhayma. These actions correspond roughly to another period of declining real wages; in the latter half of 1972 and throughout 1973, when wages were improving, there is again no record of protest activity (see table 3.2). [16]

Real Wage Index in Manufacturing,
Year RWI
1966 100
1967   95
1968   98
1969 106
1970 103
1971   99
1972 108
1973 107
Source: Gerald Starr, Wages in the Egyptian Formal Sector, p. 17.
Calculated from the SEWWH.

Three Perspectives on the Data

Taken by themselves, the 1950s data can support a variety of interpretations about workers’ behavior, but standard neoclassical approaches are clearly counter-indicated. If expected net gains, a function of the likelihood of workers quickly winning their demands, were the main motive behind collective action, why were there more incidents in the 1953 recession, and in 1956 when industrial employment was at its nadir? Neoclassical theory is equally unable to account for the 1960s information. Purely opportunistic logic would dictate that protests increase in the early 1960s, when macroeconomic conditions were most favorable, and decline thereafter, but the opposite occurred. Even if repression and the lack of union support were acknowledged to be the operative factors in preventing collective action in the 1950s, and sharply limiting it in the early 1960s, we would need to show some change in these to account for the resurgence of protest in the middle of the decade. But there was no apparent change in the propensity of the state to punish protesters, the nature of the official penalties for work stoppage, or the loyalty of union leaders to the regime.

Goldberg’s application of rational choice argues that collective activity ceased after 1952–53 because the state was providing for workers basic needs, especially job security. Thus any expected gains from struggle would be minimal, and likely outweighed by potential costs. This is somewhat more plausible, especially if we assume some lag between the enactment of the tighter protections against firing in the spring of 1953 and their actual implementation. However, it leaves the 1956 events unaccounted for and overlooks the evidence, cited in chapter 1, that job security was still largely lacking in the 1954–55 period when no job actions were reported.

Goldberg’s argument about job security could explain the paucity of protests between 1961 and 1964, but the problem then is to account for the increase in collective action thereafter, since the new job security provisions remained in effect. Moreover, collective struggle can provide workers with material gains other than job security, namely higher wages and other benefits, and Goldberg himself implies that workers with relatively secure jobs engaged in collective action for such gains before 1952. Why then would they not do so even more in the 1960s, when there was supposedly such little fear of job loss?

Without drawing on political and institutional factors, Goldberg can answer this only with the added assumption that workers now saw no reason to pursue further gains even though the risks were minimal. This implies a certain critical package of real wages and benefits to which workers assigned a high utility, whereas additions to it were less valuable. In this case, the expected gains of collective action would generally exceed their costs when the goal is to achieve or restore this package, but costs would exceed gains for increments to the package. Formally, this implies a critical point at which the slope of the utility function changes. However, this exercise in deductive logic runs into a problem because of the wage differentials which existed in the public sector according to skill and experience, as Goldberg himself notes. Because of this, to explain the absence of protest before 1964, we must assume that the critical level of wages was that earned by the lowest-paid workers, since otherwise they would still be motivated to collective struggle to achieve that package. In that case, it should be these workers who resorted to protest against takeaways thereafter; for the higher-paid workers whose incomes remained above the critical point even after takeaways, the costs of collective action would still outweigh the benefits. In other words, if it was older, more experienced workers who were most prone to aggressive collective action in the 1940s, as Goldberg suggests, it should be only the youngest and least skilled workers who saw the need for defensive struggle two decades later. The available evidence thus far is insufficiently detailed to test this hypothesis, but it is contradicted by the data on subsequent years, presented below. [17]

The 1950s evidence is consistent with the neo-Marxist approach of Beinin and Lockman, and Beinin [18], who hold that the revolutionary potential of workers in the pre-coup period did not materialize because their class consciousness was supplanted by nationalism, especially after Nassir’s triumph over Nagib in 1954. In explaining the decline of labor militancy after 1952, they also emphasize the military regime’s repression of labor protest and its purge of the left from the unions, phenomena which Goldberg treats as an effect of workers’ basic contentment rather than a cause of their failure to manifest discontent. In this vein, the reported upsurge in 1956 can be explained not in economic terms, but as a manifestation of nationalism surrounding the 1956 Suez War. Presumably, in that context, the regime would have been less likely to repress labor actions that were directed against foreign-owned plants.

Neo-Marxists might then see in the 1960s’ resurgence of collective protest evidence that workers had begun to regain class consciousness. Michael Buroway has argued that under systems of “state capitalism,” or “state socialism,” workers will recognize that they have a collective interest in opposition, not to private capitalists, but to “the authorities.” [19] In this regard, it is noteworthy that few Western scholars have considered Nassirism to constitute any genuine kind of socialism. It is commonly held to be a form of state capitalism, where the latter is defined by a large public sector in an environment where private enterprise continues to exist, the market remains the principal means of distribution, and state ownership signifies little in the way of actual workers’ control over the means of production. [20] Even so, the specific timing and underlying causes of the protests described here are problematic for this explanation, since they suggest only restorative goals. Why would increasingly class conscious workers not use collective action to seek more fundamental change in the system?

Finally, this data supports the moral economy argument that labor protest is precipitated by workers’ anger over deteriorating conditions and/or unmet expectations. The protests in 1952–53, when the new regime failed to improve wages and working conditions, clearly conform to this explanation, and the upsurge in 1956 can be seen as a reflection of disappointed hopes aroused by the new constitution and the increasingly populist rhetoric of the regime that year. There are other reasons to suspect that Egyptian workers were prone to expectations of reciprocal rights and responsibilities between themselves, their employers, and/or the state. Urbanization brought to the working class peasants who may themselves have been reared in an agrarian moral economy, i.e., one in which peasant communities share norms about mutual obligations between themselves and landowning or governing elites. After careful consideration of alternative explanations for peasant protest in Egypt prior to 1952, Nathan Brown found that moral economy offers the best analysis of that phenomenon. [21] These beliefs may then be transferred to employers in an industrial context, as Sabel noted of immigrant “peasant workers” in Europe. [22] There is also a basis in Islam for the belief that workers and employers have mutual obligations to one another; indeed, Nassir’s pronouncements to this effect may have resonated among workers partly because they tapped into preexisting Islamic notions of fairness and justice in employment relationships. [23]

The moral economy perspective can account for the defensive nature of collective action in the 1960s and early 1970s with the simple assertion that workers came to accept what the state had given them as an entitlement, and were therefore angered when they began receiving less remuneration than before with no reduction in their responsibilities. While a moral economy approach does not require, as Goldberg’s logic does, that the lowest paid workers would be most likely to protest, it is reasonable to speculate that those whose very subsistence is threatened by takeaways would experience the greatest anger. Indeed, Goldberg’s risk averse workers who would struggle only to protect a minimum level of income and benefits resemble peasants-cum-workers living in a moral economy.

The 1970s and 1980s

In the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Sadat’s government again increased forced savings. This time deductions rose from three-fourths of a day’s pay to one full day’s pay per month. Then in the spring of 1974, Parliament passed the infitah (economic opening) law, confirming Egypt’s new openness to Western trade and investment. Inflation, spawned by demobilization after the war, was exacerbated by the resultant influx of imports. Real wages fell in 1975, and remained below the pre-war level the following year as well (see table 3.3). Then the beginning of 1977 saw Sadat, under pressure from the IMF, announce the partial removal of subsidies on a wide range of items.

While workers remained quiet in the first year after the war, they responded to the aggravated inflation by renewing, and later intensifying, collective activity. This reaction began in the fall of 1974, which saw four protests. At least as many incidents occurred the following year, with some larger factories involved. There was also a demonstration against the government’s new economic policies at a central Cairo train station. The workers’ chants at the demonstration reveal their dissatisfaction with their eroding earnings: “Where is our breakfast, Hero of the Crossing?” (the latter phrase is a reference to Sadat), and “In the days of defeat, the people could still eat.” The year 1976 saw a slight increase in the number of protests, including a strike by bus drivers, which paralyzed parts of Cairo for several days. [24]

When the subsidy lifting was announced in January 1977, workers walked off their jobs in industrial establishments throughout the country. Egypt erupted in rioting that left 79 dead and 1,000 wounded, with widespread destruction of property and 1,250 to 1,500 arrests. As with the January 1975 demonstration, the workers’ chants reflect a feeling that things had been better in the past. There were cries of “Down with Sadat,” “Nassir always said, ‘Take care of the workers,’” “It’s not enough that they dress us in jute, now they’ve come to take our bread away,” and the simple word, “Nassir.” The rioting ended only when the government reinstated the subsidies. [25]

After backing out of the IMF’s stabilization program, Sadat was afforded greater room to maneuver by an easing of Egypt’s external constraints. The moves toward peace with Israel contributed to this in several ways: the reopening of the Suez Canal brought an influx of sea-traffic paying tolls, and there was an increase in Western tourism, especially after joint trips to the two countries could be booked. In addition, Western aid began flowing in. At the same time, Egypt benefited directly from the oil price boom in terms of export earnings, and indirectly because thousands of Egyptians found employment in the burgeoning Arab Gulf economies and sent part of their salaries home as remittances. [26]

Sectoral Wage Trends, 1973–1987
Year Public Sector Private Sector
1973 100 100
1974 101   92
1975     4   90
1976   97 102
1977 108 115
1978 104 114
1979 114 129
1980 113 123
1981 121 127
1982 127 129
1983 123 134
1984 128 147
1985 121 141
1986 108 126
1987   99 115
Source: Ragui Assaad and Simon Commander, Egypt: The Labor Market Through Boom and Recession, p. 26.
Reprinted with permission from Ragui Assaad.

Numerous other measures to appease labor followed shortly in this context. There was an immediate 10% raise in pensions and an exceptional raise for public sector workers. In the private sector, new workers received raises of 5% after the riots, while all those with more than one year’s experience were entitled to a 12.5% increase. Abd al-Latif Bultiya, then still Minister of Labor, issued a number of new directives aimed at speeding the settlement of individual and collective workers’ complaints, and generally improving industrial relations. The following year, salary scales in the public sector were revised, increasing the minimum there to E£16 per month, and resulting in about a 20% increase across the board; private sector workers with one year’s experience got a 15% raise. This trend continued into the new decade. In 1980, a new monthly cost-of-living allowance for public sector workers was put into effect. That same year the minimum wage was upped to E£20 per month, and the following year Sadat decreed an additional increase to E£25 per month. [27] These concessions helped to keep parastatal workers’ wages ahead of inflation. As demonstrated in table 3.3, real wages in the public sector recovered in 1977 to surpass their prewar levels and, though dipping slightly in 1978 and 1980, rose strongly through 1982 to be almost 30% higher than they were a decade earlier.

Part of the regime’s approach aimed at narrowing the wage gap between the public and private sectors, and the ETUF was given a greater role to play here. In the private sector, national collective agreements were negotiated between the confederation and the Federation of Chambers of Industry and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in 1979 and 1980. A 10% wage increase was granted in both agreements. Sadat ordered another 10% raise in 1980, and the 1980 legislation equalized the minimum wage across sectors. Then a new labor law (No. 137), passed before his assassination in 1981, required annual raises for private sector workers. The size of the increase is decided in tripartite meetings between representatives of government, businessmen’s organizations, and confederation officials. [28]

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians left for jobs in the Gulf oil states. Migration bid up the cost of labor in the formal private sector, causing nominal wages there to surpass those in the public sector for the first time, so that real wages there grew more rapidly (see table 3.3). [29] As before, workers did not take advantage of the new prosperity to push for even more gains. On the contrary, there is written documentation of only one incident between 1977 and 1981. [30] It is possible that more job actions did occur, but went unrecorded because of a clampdown on the leftist press after the riots. Barakat told me there were as many wildcats during these years as in the 1974–76 period. However, he was in prison most of this time and could not provide details, and I was unable to unearth any corroborating evidence.

Husni Mubarak, who came to power in October 1981, was initially not as forthcoming with workers as his predecessor. Mubarak seemed bent on reducing the burden of social welfare programs on the state treasury. There were no new increases in the minimum wage, and in 1983 he announced that there was no money to pay for workers’ raises; budget tightening measures were introduced in some individual parastatals as well. [31] Nevertheless, the increase in real wages continued during his early years, as shown in table 3.3. Labor protests did resume in 1982–83. Although there was no repetition of large public demonstrations as in 1975–77, the number of incidents during these years does seem to rival the earlier period. [32] The coincidence of these actions with a time of rising wages makes this the only period when collective action appears aggressive, but the events of the subsequent years confirm the general correspondence between worker protest and deteriorating, rather than improving, economic conditions.

By 1984 oil prices were softening and some of Egypt’s expatriate workers in the Gulf were losing their jobs; Mubarak intensified his efforts to reform the economy. There were some price increases in 1984, along with an attempt to increase the workers’ contributions to insurance plans. A new round of price hikes, especially on energy products, came in 1985 as Egypt once again entered negotiations with the IMF, and currency reform began. These measures accelerated inflation, and real wages began to fall in 1985. There were also frequent calls in the official press for privatization and public sector reform, threatening the benefits enjoyed by workers in the parastatals. [33]

Workers reacted with a marked upsurge in walkouts, factory occupations, and other actions. The level of struggle overall was considerably higher than in the mid-1970s; in 1986 alone, 50 incidents were reported. Some of these protests were quite protracted, and involved large numbers of workers, prompting opposition members of parliament to demand an inquiry into the causes of labor unrest. With the economy continuing to deteriorate, this strike wave remained in progress at the end of the 1980s. [34]

The Three Perspectives Revisited

Marxism can again account for this pattern with the claim that workers were developing an increasing sense of the state as a class enemy; hence the 1980s’ strike wave appears more extensive than its 1970s’ precursor. Moreover, if Marxist leadership is required to channel this sentiment into collective action, the persecution of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s can explain the hiatus of protest then. Yet if class consciousness was growing, we should also expect to see that workers increasingly challenged the private sector, showed solidarity across plants, and struggled for systemic change; the succeeding sections will show that this was not the nature of the protests that occurred.

Simple rational choice models are again contradicted by the upsurge in collective protest at a time when macroeconomic conditions made the possibility of winning demands less likely, and vice versa. For Goldberg the most salient feature of this period is the continued absence of enthusiasm for unions among workers, despite the fact that the infitah widened income inequalities; this is because there were now “returns to skill that are sufficiently high for workers to be more than willing to do without unions.” [35] Thus he again raises the notion of a remuneration package above which the costs of organizing exceed the benefits; however, it is now the earnings of those workers at the upper rung of the ladder, whose new alternatives to unionization are moonlighting or expatriate jobs in the Persian Gulf. This contradicts his earlier analysis of the 1960s, which suggested that the critical minimum was the wage and benefit package given to the lowest paid workers. Thus, we are again left with no satisfactory explanation for why workers in the 1960s did not resort to aggressive collective action: if workers were willing to pay the not inconsiderable costs of moonlighting or prolonged separation from families in order to achieve higher wages during infitah, why would they not pay the costs of collective activity to win such gains in the 1960s, when the risks of protest were supposedly so low?

Goldberg’s logic is stymied by the authoritarian controls on labor that he either ignores or treats only as effect. His argument can be reconciled with repression only if we specify some subsistence package of wages and benefits that the lowest-paid workers were willing to risk punishment in order to achieve or restore. To explain the periods of quiescence we have seen here, we must then add that for any income above this minimum, the risks of punishment surmounted any potential gains.

However, adding political/institutional factors to the imputed utility function of workers requires believing that workers regularly made everyday decisions based on highly complex cost/benefit equations. The moral economy explanation requires neither training in advanced mathematics nor the assumption that workers used sophisticated calculators to determine why they protested when they did – only the simple understanding that the deterioration of a living standard they had come to expect provoked anger.

Entitlement Protests

If the relationship between protest frequency and economic conditions seems too murky to discern definitively between the three perspectives, the superiority of the moral economy approach becomes clearer when one investigates the specific causes of workers’ protests. Virtually all of the incidents reported above grew out of a sense of injustice among workers, a feeling that they were being denied something to which they felt entitled. Anger over elite failures to live up to workers’ expectations precipitated protest.

As a guide to understanding what workers may perceive as entitlements, table 3.4 shows the system of wage determination which prevailed in Egypt from the 1960s through 1980s. Significantly, for public sector workers, the supplements shown to the basic wage often exceeded the latter. Moreover, since many of these supplements were provided at the discretion of individual plant managers, they created an arena for struggle between workers and managers at the local level.

Reaction to Takeaways

The most common form of entitlement protest was a reaction to threats to full or partial disruption of workers’ customary income stream. In post-coup Egypt, its earliest manifestation was actions in 1952 and 1953 directed against job loss. At the large Shurbagi Spinning Company in Imbaba, workers occupied the factory when an entire shift was threatened with layoff. In another incident, oil refinery employees went on a hunger strike to obtain reinstatement of 20 workers who had been fired. Several other protests in the early 1950s revolved around wages and benefits. At the Eastern Tobacco Company in Giza, there was a flare-up over the loss of a religious holiday, and at the Marconi Wireless Company, workers struck over the firm’s delay in paying a semiannual bonus. [36]

One of the few strikes to occur in the early 1960s, at the Tanta Tobacco Company, was prompted by management’s withdrawal of bonuses. [37] We saw above that the take-backs which accompanied the crisis of 1965 also engendered numerous protest actions. Workers’ discontent was manifested in other ways as well; when the leaders of the ETUF urged members to work harder and sacrifice a portion of their earnings there was resistance, and implementation of the ETUF’s specific proposals was spotty at best (see chapter 4).

Egyptian workers initially responded to the calls for sacrifice after the 1967 war, but when corruption and mismanagement in both the military and the public sector were exposed in its wake, some workers began to question the sincerity of the “battle” and to resent its burdens. Sabir Barakat, who was involved in one of the protests at that time, explains how participants were motivated by a sense of injustice: “A law was issued in 1968 to deduct 25% of workers’ compensations for what was called at the time the war effort. We were surprised when we discovered that this was being applied to our salaries which were really only pennies that didn’t suffice – it fed us only because it had to. We couldn’t bear any deductions so when this took us by surprise we started to resist it.” [38]

Opposition to takeaways also provided the opening salvo to the period of heightened activism which accompanied the infitah. In September 1974, workers occupied the Harir textile factory in Helwan, protesting the forced savings which they declared were no longer necessary; with disengagement talks under way, the rationale for workers’ sacrifice in the name of fighting Zionism had disappeared. They won a change in the savings plan for workers throughout the country: the deductions were reduced by almost 60% to one and one-half percent of salary, and now applied only to workers earning more than E£30 per month. [39]

Components of Wages in the Public Sector
Item   Determination
1) Minimum wage, plus   Set by law for each of various job categories
2) annual raise (‘ilawah duriyah), plus Guaranteed by law on condition of satisfactory performance based on job category
3) “exceptional raise” (‘ilawah istithna’iyah) Granted by government at times, generally
in response to labor discontent; a percentage of 1) and 2) above
Additions to BASIC WAGE (a)
1) Compensations (badalat) (for meals, uniforms, shift work, dangerous jobs, etc.)   By management; subject to negotiation
2) Monthly incentives (huwafiz) Based on production; percentage decided by management within range set by law; can be negotiated
3) Annual Production reward (mukafah) Guaranteed by law if production plan is met
4) Periodic bonus/grant (minhah) usually at start of school year, May Day, major religious holidays Declared by government or at management
discretion; a percentage of basic wage
Source: Interviews with union leaders, especially Niyazi Abd-al-Aziz and Abd al-Rahman Khayr, and workers.
(a) These additions can be up to several times the workers basic wage, but are not included in it when raises are calculated.

A 1974 strike at the private sector Tanta Tobacco Company occurred when the owner suddenly switched workers from a monthly to a daily pay rate, resulting in about a 30% decline in wages. Workers held a sit-in at a public sector plant that year after being denied their annual production reward because the production plan was not met, despite company acknowledgment that the shortfall was not their fault. Bus drivers who struck in 1976 were incensed over the company’s delays in paying their traditional holiday bonus; their walkout ended when the bonus was issued. [40] Riots in January 1977 over the subsidies were an obvious manifestation of labor and other popular outrage. [41] Finally, the mid-1970s also saw the first attempts to forestall privatization, perceived as a form of takeaway since public sector workers enjoy certain benefits not commonly available to private sector employees, mainly job security, health and accident insurance, and in some cases access to subsidized housing. Involving all levels of the labor movement, the battles against privatization are covered in the next chapter.

In 1982, Kafr al-Dawwar textile workers occupied their local union headquarters protesting reductions in their incentive pay. Workers of the No. 36 munitions factory in Helwan held a sit-in in 1983, demanding a cost-of-living increase and payment of incentives that had been withheld. Four thousand workers occupied the Nasr Pipe Manufacturing Company plant in 1984, demanding payment of production incentives and rewards, and the resignation of new management that had changed overtime rules. In March of that year, workers staged a series of protests related to the refusal of the Daqahaliya textile factory to pay overtime; April saw 4,000 workers occupy the Shubra Company for Engineering Products charging that poor management had led to a decline in their incentive pay. [42]

The major national takeaway of 1984 was a new law doubling workers’ contributions to health insurance and pensions, first issued in the early summer. Implementation resulted in workers at the Nasr Car Factory and several other large plants refusing their paychecks, and an in-plant demonstration in Alexandria; at the Transport Authority a strike was threatened. These incidents led the Prime Minister to halt further application of the law and form a committee to reexamine the issue. Parliament reissued the law in late September, but this time implementation was staggered to avoid simultaneous protests. The deductions hit first in Alexandria, where more than 10,000 workers in two large textile factories refused their paychecks, an ironic form of protest analyzed below. They began in Kafr al-Dawwar two weeks later, and coincided with a decision by Mubarak to raise prices on a number of subsidized items. The result was three days of strikes and riots in the city reminiscent of January 1977, as workers and other townspeople cut telephone lines, blocked transportation, destroyed rail cars, and set fires. [43]

Al-Ahali charges that a high government policy committee called on public sector managers to lower supplemental pay in 1985, and an upsurge in anti-takeaway protests that year lends support to this accusation. [44] At the Miratex Company in Suez, workers struck for three days in February over declining incentives; the company closed the plant so the action would not spread to the other factories. A new protest broke out there in September over the company’s failure to pay the traditional bonus for the opening of the school year. Night shift workers at a Suez refining company occupied their plant in July over declining incentives, and in that same month there was a two-day sit-in over incentives at the Talkha fertilizer plant. In July, workers at the East Delta Bus Company refused their paychecks, protesting reductions of up to 50% in take-home pay; a similar action later occurred at a flour mill in Alexandria because of declining incentives and overtime pay. A one-day work stoppage at the Beni Suaf Weaving Company brought management promises to restore wages and purchase new equipment to offset declines in production, so that incentive pay and bonuses could increase.

In Mahalla al-Kubra, 3,000 workers struck the Sigad textile plant in May 1985, protesting management’s failure to pay the May Day bonus; the action broke up when the company promised to issue the checks. Then in October, 1,200 workers from one shop at the large Misr Spinning and Weaving (hereafter MS & W) plant refused their paychecks for three days because of declining wages. This protest resumed in February 1986 with a demonstration of 500 workers in front of the local headquarters, calling for the union to adopt their demands. [45]

One of the largest incidents of the 1980s occurred at Mahalla al-Kubra in September 1988, after Mubarak announced that the parastatals would no longer issue workers the customary grant used by workers to purchase new clothing and supplies for their children. In what came to be known as the “uprising (intifada) of school grants,” women workers were the first to walk out in anger. As the ranks of marchers grew, the Minister of the Interior ordered the plant closed for three days, which swelled the number of protesters to 30,000. [46]

Some of the most prominent and prolonged protests over takeaways in the 1980s were at wholly private sector or joint venture enterprises that had been created under the auspices of the infitah laws. When the tax incentives they had been granted expired, various of these companies began to scale back operations and/or cut workers’ salaries. Thus some 700 workers held a sit-in for three days at Arabb, an electrical products joint venture, in February 1986, objecting to declining compensation and incentives. At the Arab Wood Furniture Factory (Atico), management stopped paying workers’ salaries in May 1986, and announced in July that the factory would close, laying off 920 employees. The parliamentary committee supposed to approve such closures rejected the company’s proposal, but the company refused to honor the committee’s decision. On August 12 and 13, more than 650 workers occupied the headquarters of the ETUF, demanding back pay from May and the reopening of the plant. Despite a court ruling in their favor, workers had not received any of their back pay by the end of 1987, and were threatening a new round of sit-ins.

A similar situation developed with the American-owned McDermott Company, which had requested permission to suspend operations in July 1985, and began to dismiss workers before receiving an answer. In January 1986, in a measure workers charge was aimed at forcing them to quit, McDermott cut the wages of its remaining workers by 50%, in addition to deducting one-third of their salaries for the previous two months. In the fall, workers began a series of protest actions aimed at company as well as government targets. The McDermott case continued into the spring of 1987, when a court ruled that the company must rehire 300 workers and sell assets to provide them with back pay. When the company refused to implement the ruling, the workers began a new round of sit-ins. [47]

Finally, the occupation of the Helwan Iron and Steel plant in August 1989, also discussed in chapter 2, represented a protest against a takeaway of a different type. This action was precipitated when the Minister of Industry ousted two leftists who had been elected as workers’ representatives to the management council. The minister’s actions constituted a blatant attack on the workers’ established right to choose these representatives. [48]

The theoretical issues surrounding takeaways are similar to those of protest in deteriorating economic conditions, and have already been addressed in depth. For Marxist analysis, the defensive actions described here represent a problem only in the absence of a greater number of aggressive struggles for more far-reaching change. This evidence weakens Goldberg’s case for rationality, however, because the sheer numbers involved would seem to belie his necessary prediction that defensive protest is the province of only the lowest paid workers. The better-compensated employees who participated in such defensive protests were thus either making mistakes in weighing their utilities – where is that calculator? – or else they were acting altruistically in support of their less-fortunate colleagues, and hence not selfishly rational. Moral economy avoids this conundrum by assigning the motivating factor behind protest to anger over violated entitlements, rather than cost/benefit calculations. [49]

The Demand for Parity

A second type of entitlement protest revolves around notions of fairness in the wages earned by different types of laborers. Distributional norms reflect workers’ evaluations of how much they contribute to production in relation to others. Egyptian workers have demonstrated a belief in parity, i.e., that similar work should yield similar rewards. They have also exhibited opposition to widening disparities between the wages of manual workers and those afforded to civil servants and company managers.

After the 1961 socialist decrees, discrepancies in benefits and protections available to public versus private sector workers (see chapter 4) became an issue for the latter. This was behind several sit-ins and work stoppages at the private sector Tanta Tobacco Company in 1961 and 1962, as the workers sought and ultimately won a new minimum wage that had been declared for the public sector. Then, in the winter of 1972 the Cabinet agreed in principle to entitle workers in large private sector establishments to the same minimum wage, working hours, and holidays that public sector workers received. [50] Delays in implementation of the decision (which became Law 24), and resistance to it from company owners, prompted a large demonstration by private sector textile workers in Shubra al-Khayma, and several smaller strikes there over the next few months. [51]

Expectations of parity with public sector workers were also implicit in the demands of workers in the infitah companies mentioned above, since such lay-offs could not have occurred in the parastatals. Some of the incidents also involved explicit demands for other protections afforded to government workers. The workers at Arabb, in addition to seeking restoration of their previous pay levels, also objected to the company’s overall labor policies, which included arbitrary firings, false work contracts, oppression of temporary employees, and restrictions on union activity. Some 7,800 workers at the Johns Company, an American concern, struck for one day demanding various compensations and the application of Egyptian labor laws to foreign companies.

Parity protests have also emerged within the public sector, when workers at one plant see their counterparts at another receive an increase in the discretionary component of wages. Thus the most prominent concern behind the 1971 action at the Harir textile factory was the demand for a 5% “exceptional” raise, which had been granted to workers at a similar plant in Imbaba. Later that year, when the government was negotiating with the Helwan steelworkers demanding a “nature of work” compensation, the president of the ETUF went to the nearby Harir plant and promised its workers parity with whatever the steelworkers won, to preempt any new outbreaks of militancy there. [52]

A 1975 protest at the MS & W factory in Mahalla al-Kubra was the culmination of a prolonged effort by returning servicemen to receive full wages for time spent on the battlefront. The employees who worked during the war earned an hour per day overtime, but the returning soldiers had received only a straight seven-hour per day compensation. After months of complaining to union, ASU, and management officials, the workers heard that a decree in their favor had been issued, and that their counterparts in Harir had already begun to receive the overdue money. When management denied these reports, workers staged a sit-in at the local union headquarters demanding an investigation, and shortly thereafter they occupied the factory itself. [53]

That same year workers occupied the Shubra al-Khayma cableworks, demanding parity in incentives and compensation with the nearby Delta Ironworks employees. [54] And while the bus drivers who struck in 1976 were seeking their traditional holiday bonus, they were moved to action only after learning that their counterparts in Heliopolis had recently received two such grants. [55] Spinners in Minya occupied their factory in 1983 seeking pay parity with workers in other shops. In 1986, after workers at the Esco textile factory in Shubra al-Khayma won a prolonged battle for holiday pay (see below), the protesting workers at the MS & W plant added this to their own list of demands. Their victory in turn sparked a series of similar actions in Mahalla al-Kubra.

While the socialist ideology of the 1960s praised the contributions to society made by manual workers, managers were rewarded more. Workers accepted this, but did object to government measures which would have widened these discrepancies, or elevated the status and privileges of lower level white-collar employees. Sabir Barakat’s account of the 1968 protest against takeaways at Delta Ironworks reveals how such concerns contributed to the workers’ actions:

We had senior civil servants and workers who used to get something called gas compensation – if someone took their own car to work he got a compensation of 25 pounds per month. In those days a skilled worker earned only 12 pounds a month. So we made a campaign around the issue, saying “if there is a serious need to expand the Treasury, in front of you is an amount that can be borne by the people who can afford it. The worst that will happen is that they won’t come to work in a private car and will have to come in company cars like the rest of us – which is really no sacrifice – yet you demand from us a very hard life.” ... They gathered us in the cafeteria of the company and gave rhetorical socialist speeches to us, saying “If you have in your hand a piece of bread, don’t you give your brother a bite? Even if all you have in your hand is one piece and it isn’t enough to satisfy you, you have to sacrifice a bite to the army for the war.” The response of the workers was: “When we have in our hand a piece of bread and our brother is hungry, but we have a third brother who has an expensive cake, it’s very natural that he who has the cake gives up half of it, then I’ll give up a bite.”

The New Year’s Day 1975 demonstration in Cairo mentioned earlier was precipitated by the prospect of increasing disparities between blue- and white-collar public servants. Toward the end of 1974, the parliament had begun discussing an employment reform bill which proposed long-delayed promotions for thousands of civil service workers, and revised the job classification scheme to eliminate the lowest-paid categories. Union leaders serving in parliament pushed to have the reforms extended to the public sector as well, but Abd al-Aziz Higazi, then Prime Minister, spoke against the union’s proposals. Abd al-Rahman Khayr circulated copies of Higazi’s remarks among Helwan workers, charging that they reflected a hostility toward manual laborers characteristic of the new government. His coworkers not only agreed, he said, but were also incensed by newspaper advertisements for expensive and luxurious New Year’s Eve celebrations at Cairo’s fancy hotels, one of the first manifestations of the new flamboyance of the upper class under the infitah. Khayr and others therefore planned their protest for the morning of January 1, at the time when the party-goers would be heading home from one of the nearby exclusive hotels. Demanding extension of the employment reforms to blue-collar workers, the workers also chanted against the ostentatiousness of the wealthy. [56]

The reform issue also had a role in the 1975 incident at MS & W in Mahalla al-Kubra, mentioned above. After the workers’ initial action, the company president promised to release the soldiers’ checks. But before the disbursements were made, the news broke that parliament had decided on employment reform only for civil servants; workers took over the factory the following day, demanding the overtime pay, extension of the employment reforms to industrial workers, and improved health conditions. When security forces stormed the plant three days later, their families and other townspeople raided the homes of the company’s managers and put their luxury goods out for public display, thus also reflecting a sense of injustice at the perception of widening income disparities between manager and employee. [57]

In the moral economy view, all of these incidents involve perceptions of fairness and justice, and while workers were seeking real gains in income, the protests were also restorative in demanding a return to previously established patterns of wage differentials. However, for rational choice and Marxist explanations, the aggressive aspect of these incidents would seem to be most important. Marxist explanations can now show that workers will try to renegotiate the terms of their exploitation, and, especially in the latter incidents, there is evidence of developing class hatred toward state managers. The question for Marxists, though, is why didn’t this class consciousness go further, to a broader movement that advanced a different program for society altogether?

The neoclassical approach must explain why workers engaged in protest for incremental gains that were not worth the risks before someone else obtained them. There is no logical reason why the utility of these gains would suddenly change, so we must assume that the answer lies in the expectation of achieving them, i.e., that some workers’ getting a wage increase made it seem a winnable demand to others for whom it previously appeared unobtainable. This, however, means discussing how workers’ expectations from the state are derived, and that is the province of norm-based explanations. Even more importantly, this also requires believing that workers actually did compute their hypothetical cost/benefit equations, which means they assigned money equivalents and expected likelihoods to each and every possible form of punishment. This assumption was not necessary when protest was purely defensive, since we could say that workers would risk any punishment to protect their subsistence, but it is needed to explain collective action for incremental gains beyond that point. Thus, the project to impute rationality to workers must now propose that they made complex and dispassionate calculations of the expected disutility of a beating, bullet, or whiplash. And, by trivializing these measures, it also has the perhaps unintended normative consequence of legitimizing them. Perhaps Goldberg’s denial that collective labor protest indeed occurred in Egypt after 1952 was an attempt to avoid this dilemma.

Entitlement Protests: Unmet Promises

A third type of entitlement protest is one which does involve new demands. These are, however, demands to which workers feel entitled because of promises made by company management, the government, or the courts. Thus, anger over unmet expectations is the impetus to workers’ actions.

The incident involving most demonstrators in the early 1960s, at the MS & W plant in Kafr al-Dawwar, was such a protest. Prior to nationalization, the company’s owners had routinely deducted a portion of workers’ salaries for an insurance fund. After the state assumed this responsibility, workers expected that these back deductions would be returned to them. When they were unable to win this demand through months of negotiation with the plant’s new managers, they occupied the factory; the three-day protest ended with an agreement by the company for immediate partial repayment of the deductions. [58]

Unmet promises were also behind the 1972 Shubra al-Khayma incidents that followed the Cabinet’s decision to equalize benefits and protections between the two sectors. The Ministry of Industry delayed in issuing the law limiting private sector working hours and, believing that the government was reneging on that issue, hundreds of workers walked out of their plants and marched through the town. A second march ensued the next day, when the papers published the minister’s decree and the workers returned, only to find themselves locked out of the plants by employers who were hostile to the new legislation.

The February 1983 sit-in at the Nasr Company for Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals occurred after the company had reneged on verbal promises to meet the workers’ demands for increased incentive pay, and compensations for lunch and back-shift employment. March 1984 saw 400 workers do a sit-in for several hours at a military plant in Heliopolis, demanding payment of a previously announced raise. The above-mentioned protest at the Johns Company was primarily in response to the company’s failure to fulfill a two-year-old promise to provide workers with health insurance.

At the Esco textile factory, 1985 saw workers awaiting a decision on a court case arguing that a 1981 law entitled them to pay for one day off per week. An initial ruling issued in their favor in October 1984 had been rejected by the management, which appealed the case. The situation boiled over in January 1986 after an appeals court again found in the workers’ favor. When the company failed to recognize the ruling, workers refused their paychecks. That action brought no result, and on January 30 about 10,000 workers – more than half the company’s total employment – took over the factory. The incident ended on February 2 with the establishment of a ministerial “Committee of Five,” including representatives of the local union and textile federation officials, to examine the issue; however, workers left their blankets in the plant to facilitate resumption of the occupation if deemed necessary.

The Committee of Five announced a compromise decision to pay Esco workers for two days off per month. Workers rejected this, refusing their February paychecks, and won a new decision that two additional days off would be paid beginning the following year. The holiday pay would not be retroactive to the issuance of the 1981 law, however. Many workers accepted the deal only reluctantly, and several months later, in the context of continued tense relations between employees and management, there was a new occupation demanding the retroactive pay. This sit-in was smaller than the previous one, but nevertheless it involved thousands of workers. After it was smashed by police, workers began to collect donations to take the back-pay case to court. [59]

A strike by train drivers (as they are called in Egypt) in the summer of 1986 is especially illustrative of how protests can erupt from prolonged official frustration of workers’ expectations. The wildcat strike grew out of demands originally raised by the workers in a 1982 slowdown. The drivers waited for three years and got no response from either the government or their federation officials. Finally, in December 1985, the Minister of Transportation and the head of the Railway Authority met with them. These officials promised on the spot to resolve some of the issues, and pledged to investigate the others and meet with the workers again.

Four months later nothing had changed, and the workers began a renewed campaign of sending telegrams to the authorities. After ten more weeks elapsed with no official response, the drivers and conductors announced a sit-in at the headquarters of their league on July 2. The occupation ended later that night when the Deputy Minister of Transportation came, and promised that his superior would meet with the workers again on July 7. That day about 1,000 workers gathered for the meeting, only to learn that it had been put off because the minister was busy again. The council of the league sent an urgent telegram to Mubarak, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of the Interior expressing their anger and frustration. Only when there was no reply did the trains stop running. [60]

The 1989 factory occupation in Helwan can also be understood partly in terms of unmet promises. The two leftist workers’ representatives to management ousted by the Minister of Industry had succeeded, after many frustrating months of effort, in winning a promise from management to increase workers’ incentive pay. When they were removed shortly after the increase was announced, workers had reason to suspect that the promise would be retracted.

Rational choice explanations require that these outbreaks of protest must be attributable to some change in workers’ cost/benefit calculations. Here, presumably, the promises made by elites led workers to revise their expectation of gain and perhaps also to lower their expectation of punishment. But this cannot explain the long gap evident in many of these cases between the first sign of renege and the actual protest – why didn’t collective action occur right away? Perhaps time was needed for workers to organize and mobilize, but the more time elapsed, the more expectations of gains should have lowered again, while expectations of risks increased. Moral economy has an answer for this: the steadily mounting anger of workers which ultimately reached the point of making them willing to risk repression in order to restore justice.

Spontaneity and Informality: The Bonds of Solidarity

A striking feature of the incidents described here is their lack of union leadership. Unless there was representation by leftists on the board, local leadership was at best not involved and at worst actively hostile to these protests. Workers, in turn, increasingly accompanied their protests with attempts to invalidate the unions.

For example, at one of the public sector protests in 1975, local leaders told workers they had no hopes of receiving the customary annual production reward. When the workers held a sit-in anyway, the company yielded. After this, the workers withdrew their confidence from the local and formed a committee of delegates to meet regularly with management. The federation involved, however, issued orders canceling the activities of the delegates’ committee. [61]

Similarly, the leadership of the MS & W local in Kafr al-Dawwar condemned the 1984 uprising there, and assisted the government in trying to identify leftists to be prosecuted as “agitators.” Workers in this plant had begun a petition campaign to withdraw confidence from the local because of its unresponsiveness to the base even before the outbreak of events. At Esco, members of the union local supported the workers’ original action, although they did not initiate it. After accepting the government’s compromise on behalf of the workers, however, they condemned the second sit-in, which rejected this offer, and declared themselves “not responsible” for the workers’ behavior. Finally, the 1989 Occupation of the iron and steel plant at Helwan targeted the union local, which had supported the government’s removal of the two leftist representatives to the management council and tried to claim credit for the management’s decision to increase incentives. After the occupation began, the union leaders fled the factory and urged the authorities to storm the plant.

Federation and confederation leaders often ignored these protests; if called upon by the government to represent the workers, senior unionists routinely condemned their tactics first. After the bus drivers’ strike in 1976, the head of the Land Transport Workers’ Federation publicly apologized to Sadat, and Salah Gharib, then president of the ETUF and the Textile Workers’ Federation, issued a statement of “deep regret” after the 1975 protest at Mahalla. [62] And in response to the 1986 train drivers’ strike, the president of the Railway Workers’ Federation issued an official apology to the Prime Minister, and asked that the workers’ league involved in the protest be dissolved. [63]

In numerous cases, workers donated part of their salaries to support the families or pay the legal expenses of those detained as a result of these incidents. There is, in addition, evidence of popular support being mobilized for protesters from the ranks of non-workers. This is especially true in the industrial mill towns, such as Mahalla al-Kubra and Kafr al-Dawwar, which are surrounded by more rural areas. Here, almost all residents of the town are relatives of mill workers. During the 1975 uprising at Mahalla, townspeople accompanied workers in demonstrating and raiding the homes of factory managers, and at Kafr al-Dawwar in 1984, townspeople joined workers in battling police. During the Esco protest, committees in several nearby neighborhoods organized to send food to the workers occupying the plant.

In the labor market literature, strikes are commonly envisioned as being called by union leaders. One function of unionists is to gather the relevant information on economic indicators and management’s position to permit calculations of expected gains and losses. Unionists are also charged with administering the selective incentives seen as necessary to elicit rank-and-file participation in collective activity, since selfish egoism dictates free riding. [64]

For neoclassical theory, therefore, the informality of these protests raises a central question: how was the free-rider problem overcome? In part, the answer could lie in alternative leadership. The train drivers who struck in 1986 turned to their workers’ league, a formal rival to the unions, for organization. Elsewhere, a leadership role played by leftists is evident. Leftist cores have operated historically at the Delta Ironworks in Shubra al-Khayma, the Harir and Helwan Iron and Steel plants, and the MS & W factory at Kafr al-Dawwar, all the scenes of some of the largest incidents cited above. Abd al-Rahman Khayr, a longstanding Tagammu’ member, claims credit for organizing the January 1, 1975, demonstration at Bab al-Luq. The 1986 events at Mahalla were led by an independent group, the Workers’ Defense Committee, that was formed in the early 1980s under the auspices of the Tagammu’ but later split from the party. [65]

But while they are capable of providing organizational skills, leftist groups do not possess the resources to offer any selective incentives of a material type to workers. And many of the protests cited here, while resembling those in which leftists were active, were evidently spontaneous; the Esco occupation during 1985-86 is a notable example. Certainly the widespread walkouts associated with the January 1977 riots exceeded the organizing capabilities of the left.

The absence of formal organization behind these protests does not pose a problem for Marxist or moral economy theorists. Whereas rational choice theory embraces methodological individualism, both of these other perspectives presume the existence of group identities. Marxists believe that subaltern groups will develop bonds of solidarity based on their common oppression, and can find in these incidents evidence of incipient working-class consciousness. Moreover, to the degree that the frequency and scope of labor protest was manifestly higher in the 1980s than in any earlier decade, traditional Marxists can claim that such consciousness is indeed growing as Marx predicted. [66] The problem for Marxism, as before, is the restorative nature of most of these incidents, even those manifestly led by the left. There is also scant evidence of class-based solidarity extending from one industrial region to another, such as a protest in Alexandria to support workers in Cairo or Helwan.

Moral economy explanations see collective sentiments resulting from shared vulnerabilities, expectations, and norms of justice among subaltern strata. Class and community-based categories can be combined in this approach, and the actions shown here may signify participants’ blending a class-based identity as workers with a more community-oriented identity as sha’b, or common people. [67] In Egypt, Nassirism itself, with its emphasis on the contributions made by workers and peasants to the cause of national development, probably helped to cement such group-based feelings; leftist organizing in the late 1960s and beyond appears to have reinforced existing sentiments of solidarity and norms of cooperation among workers and their families and neighbors. Moreover, through their agitation and distribution of information, leftists may have heightened the anger of workers toward policy-making elites when accustomed patterns were broken.

Increasingly, rational choice theorists are coming to recognize the salience of norms and the prevalence of social bonds which facilitate cooperation among people. A body of game theoretic literature, in particular, seeks to show how cooperation can emerge as a norm after repetitive interactions among the same group of players, in which trust is rewarded and defection can be sanctioned. [68] I remain skeptical of the assumption of innate selfishness which underlies these models. Indeed, the prevalence of trust and cooperative behavior across so many cultures should lead neoclassicists to question this assumption rather than puzzle over the advent of altruistic norms. [69] Still, it is worth noting that Egypt’s public sector plants and mill towns, with their stable workforces and populations, respectively, may approximate the conditions under which these models operate.

At the same time, it is not my claim here that norms of solidarity will be uniformly present among all workers. In particular, while anger is seen here as a necessary condition for protest to occur, it may not be sufficient; two plants which follow the same economic policies toward workers might differ in their “protest proneness” according to the workers’ willingness to cooperate with each other, and/or their organizing capabilities. [70] Beyond the presence or absence, and the strategies, of leftist organizers it seems likely, minimally, that the size of a plant and the way in which production is structured – both categories of importance to traditional Marxist analysis – would influence whether, and how quickly, feelings of solidarity can develop. [71] Thus, while this study upholds moral economy as the best overall perspective for explaining collective labor protest by workers in Egypt, understanding the spontaneous and informal nature of these incidents is one area where Marxism, moral economy, and new directions in rational choice theory can usefully intersect.

Workers With and Against the State

The moral economy I propose is one in which workers are in a reciprocal, but patron/client, relationship with the state. This belief among workers is manifested in the nature of the protests themselves. It is also evident on the government’s part in the pronouncements labor protests invoke from regime elites, as well as in the policy response.

Symbolic Protest

That public sector protests are aimed at agencies of the state is intrinsically obvious. Yet even before the creation of the large parastatals, workers were turning to the government for redress of their grievances; the elevated levels of legal complaints filed in the 1950s, as discussed earlier, is in part a reflection of this. More recently, both government leaders and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have been targeted by protesting public sector workers. For example, after the insurance deductions were increased in 1984, workers at one textile factory in Alexandria demonstrated in their plant, with chants of “down with the NDP.” Elsewhere antigovernment slogans were chanted in marches to the local headquarters of the NDP, and several government offices. [72] During the 1988 protests at Mahalla, marching workers carried a large statue of a dog on which they had painted the name Husni Mubarak.

Private sector workers have also targeted the government in their protests, suggesting that they too view the state as the guarantor of their livelihoods. For example, the 1972 walkout by private sector textile workers in Shubra al-Khayma charged the government with reneging on promises to upgrade their benefits; as part of the protest workers blocked a motorcade carrying the Prime Minister. McDermott workers’ protests included sit-ins at the NDP offices in Suez and visits to the Minister of Labor at his home. When they were denied the annual production bonus in October, 500 workers occupied the company’s headquarters in Cairo, and later staged a sit-in in front of parliament, and when the company refused to implement the spring 1987 court ruling, the workers began a new round of sit-ins at NDP headquarters, and also caravanned from the Suez to the president’s palace in Cairo. [73]

Because of the interference of the government in union elections, the fact that most senior union officials were affiliated with the NDP, the historic conjoining of the posts of ETUF president and Minister of Labor, and the frequent unresponsiveness of these union officials to wildcat protests, some workers came to see the confederation itself as an instrument of the state. Hence the sit-in at confederation headquarters by the private sector Atico workers. In numerous other incidents cited here, workers occupied the office of their local seeking official union support for their demands.

But if workers expected the government to ensure that they were compensated justly for their labor, they also exhibited the belief that they had an obligation to the state. In particular, the nature of labor protest in Egypt suggests that workers saw their responsibility lying in production, to contribute to the postcolonial modernization and development of their country. The evidence can be found in the relative scarcity of actual strikes, in favor of protests which exhibited dissatisfaction while not interfering with work. This reflects the fact that workers themselves eschewed actual work stoppages, using them only as a last resort.

The closest alternative to strikes was the in-plant sit-in, during which management was ejected or ignored but workers continued running the factory on their own. This tactic was initiated in the 1963 incident at Kafr al-Dawwar, where the men continued round the clock production for several days to prove their loyalty to the country, but electrified the fence around the plant to prevent security forces or government officials from getting in. The 30,000 Helwan steelworkers who protested in 1971 also maintained production while sitting-in. Harir workers demonstrated inside their plant in 1971, and their 1974 protest against forced savings was also a factory occupation. The 1975 sit-in at Mahalla al-Kubra lasted three days, during which time production continued. Likewise, the workers who occupied the Shubra al-Khayma cableworks in 1975 kept the lines going while refusing to allow government or union officials to enter. In the first action of 1984, at the Nasr Pipe Company, the workers actually doubled output during their occupation. When the Esco workers occupied their plant in 1986, they continued working for two days. Only on the third day, when no responsible officials had come, was work suspended.

A second symbolic technique was a boycott on cashing paychecks. It was particularly used in the public sector, where workers say it was effective because it interfered with government accounting procedures. The boycott was first used by the workers of Delta Ironworks in their 1968 protest against salary deductions. By refusing their paychecks, but continuing to work, the workers demonstrated that they remained loyal to the “battle.” [74] The next documented use of this tactic was when 2,600 workers at the Tura cement factory refused their paychecks for two days in February 1982. We have already seen that some 10,000 workers in Alexandria boycotted their checks in 1984, and boycotts also occurred at several large factories in 1985 and 1986.

Another form of protest involved sending telegrams to government officials seeking redress of grievances. While milder than the tactics above, such messages can also provide insights into workers expectations of themselves and the state. Thus the initial reaction of workers at Delta Ironworks to Sadat’s 1977 removal of subsidies shows both their fear of, and disgust with, the government:

I suggested that we send a telegram to the officials denouncing them, but the other workers ... were afraid of denouncing the government. So in the end we decided to send a very satirical telegram. It read:

“To the President of the Republic:
We thank you for increasing prices, and raise the slogan, ‘more price hikes for more hunger and deprivation.’ May you always be a servant of the toiling workers.”

The protest organizers collected signatures and a small contribution from 600 workers in the plant in order to send this message.

The disgruntled railway workers first wired their concerns to the president, the Prime Minister, and other high government officials in 1982, and continued to press their case in this manner over the next four years. The urgent telegrams sent by the league to Mubarak in an effort to ward off the strike is particularly revealing of their moral economy beliefs. It concluded, “We are all waiting here at the league headquarters ... Some of the trains have already stopped running in abandonment of our responsibilities. The situation is getting more serious. It is almost 2 p.m. and at 6 p.m. this evening all of the trains will stop running” (emphasis mine). [75]

Significantly, even in those rare instances where workers have raised aggressive demands in the context of favorable macroeconomic conditions – the type of collective action which conforms to the simplest rational choice model – they used symbolic protest to press their case. Specifically these incidents were a 1982 sit-in by 6,000 workers at the Kalkha fertilizer plant, demanding a lunch compensation and revision of salary and promotion schedules, and a slowdown that same year by railway workers seeking a cost-of-living adjustment, insurance against accidents, an increase in the compensation for uniforms, and elimination of the requirement that drivers be personally responsible for paying compensation to train accident victims. The largest incident of 1983, an aggressive protest demanding a nature-of-work compensation at the Helwan Light Transport factory, was another factory occupation. [76]

While moral economy explains workers’ eschewal of strikes by their belief in their responsibilities, neo-Marxism can cast the same phenomenon in terms of the submerging of class to national consciousness. However, this should imply minimally that workers in infitah companies would have a greater propensity to strike, with an intermediate level in firms held by private but domestic capital; the data does not seem to confirm such predictions.

Neoclassical models could account for symbolic protest by specifying that workers obtain a positive utility from the feeling of contributing to the national project, although this does stretch the definition of selfishness. Alternatively, or in addition, symbolic protest could be explained merely as a strategy to avoid punishment, provided it could be shown that such actions actually accomplished that goal. The following section will demonstrate, however, that even symbolic protest was usually met with repression.

The Carrot and the Stick

The view that workers who actually or even seemed poised to cease production were harming the interests of the state was actively encouraged by successive regimes in Egypt. It was adopted by the new military rulers in 1952 well before the creation of the parastatals. When workers occupied the Shurbagi Spinning Company in Imbaba in 1953, the military came to disperse them. Some 400 to 500 were arrested and released only after signing an apology “to the state.” Later, as we saw above, Nassir explicitly promoted the notion of reciprocal rights and obligations between workers and the state.

Sadat and Mubarak, even while trying to retract the state’s role in the economy, perpetuated this philosophy. Sadat condemned the 1971 sit-in at the Helwan ironworks as “an undemocratic act” and blamed both the 1976 bus drivers’ strike and the riots shortly thereafter on communist agitation, implying that loyal workers would never otherwise leave their jobs. A decade later, Mubarak vilified the Esco and Mahalla workers’ actions as “a lack of nationalist responsibility.” [77]

Moreover, despite their differences in overall economic strategy, the Nassir, Sadat, and Mubarak governments pursued very similar policies with regard to labor protest. The actions were quickly put down by a combination of repression and concession. Only the largest incidents were ever mentioned in the official press, and these were customarily blamed on outside agitators. Preventing any escalation of the protest, and maintaining an image of national harmony and worker satisfaction, thus seemed to be far more important to Egypt’s rulers than minimizing financial concessions. At the same the consequences of these actions was to reinforce the moral economy and thereby pave the way for future protests.

As an indication of the arbitrary use of power in Egypt, the nature of punishment itself appears to have derived more from regime perceptions of the severity of the incident than from any precise legal framework. When only a small single plant was involved, the immediate handling of the problem was usually left to the discretion of local police, with national security agencies and government figures called in only if the protests could not be quickly broken up. However, protests which involved issues of national policy, large numbers of workers, and/or more than one plant, brought rapid intervention from the highest levels of government.

Thus when the Tanta workers held a sit-in in the early 1960s, the company summoned local police. The men were beaten with rifle butts, and their union leaders were blindfolded and taken to the police station where they were kept concealed. Ultimately, federation officials summoned from Cairo negotiated their release, along with a contract in which workers won restoration of the bonuses as well as other new benefits. But workers who refused their paychecks at Delta Ironworks a few years later were taken immediately to state security police. Their intimidation there had an effect, as Barakat relates, but here too concession was also involved in ending the protest:

They arrested 22 workers ... They came back two days later completely silent and went to pick up their checks. We tried to get them to talk but they refused to say a word. After that the stand of the workers began to weaken. But Abd al-Nassir in those days was smart – on the same day he sent orders that these deductions shouldn’t harm the salaries of the workers and they returned the deductions to us – and that ended the situation.

Around the same time, the Minister of Defense repealed a decision to deduct the transportation compensation and any salary increases due to promotions from workers at another military plant; all back deductions were returned. [78]

Local police sometimes treated workers with particular brutality. Three of the leaders of the 1971 Harir protest were tied to their cell doors and periodically beaten with clubs and whips. Only the intervention of Mohammed Heikel, then editor-in-chief of al-Ahram, brought about an end to the beatings and the provision of medical care for the victims, who still bear scars from this incident. [79] After police arrested workers during the 1985 Sigad strike, one woman was beaten in front of her husband, and the arrest of a male worker while his wife was in labor caused her to name the baby “Ifrai” (release). The Sigad detainees were placed in cells flooded with sewer water, forcing them to stand until arraignment. [80] Not surprisingly, though, the volume of arrests appeared to be greater in the more prominent incidents. When security forces stormed the Helwan ironworks plant in 1971, some 3,000 workers were arrested. Seventy-six of the protesters who blocked the Prime Minister’s motorcade in 1972 were detained. Significantly, public sector workers have been able to return to their previous employment after release from prison, although those singled out as organizers have sometimes been subject to punitive transfers.

Attempts by security forces to suppress peaceful protests have sometimes contributed to their escalation into violence. The 1975 New Year’s demonstration turned into a mini-riot when police attempted to prevent the protesters from marching to a nearby government building; dozens of arrests and a witch-hunt for the action’s organizers followed. When security forces raided the MS & W plant in Mahalla al-Kubra in 1975, 2,000 were arrested; 50 workers may have been killed that day. [81] Barakat argues that police initiated the violence in January 1977:

On the second day we struck at the factory ... We went out and demonstrated. They tried a tactic on us – they said they would search us as we were leaving. They took workers in their cars to examine them. There are three bridges near the plant ... They dropped workers off at each one, in order to divide us. The result was that there was a demonstration at each bridge, and while each group was marching it was attacked by the police. [82]

Yet each of these events was also met with significant concessions. After the 1971 Helwan sit-in, Sadat quickly promised to investigate and ameliorate workers’ grievances. In June 1975, following the series of protests documented above, the employment reform measures were approved for public sector workers. [83] Sadat also approached leaders of the bus drivers’ federation to discuss their members’ grievances immediately after their 1976 strike. A similar meeting was held between the Minister of Transportation and leaders of the Railway Workers’ Federation, and resulted in an increase in their annual production reward. [84]

As we have seen, Sadat also quickly repealed his decision to lift subsidies in the face of the January 1977 riots. Furthermore, soon thereafter he held his first formal meeting with ETUF leaders since before the 1973 war, and agreed to demands not only for wage increases, but also for greater union input into management and governmental decision making. In addition, the Minister of Labor issued a number of new directives aimed at speeding the settlement of individual and collective workers’ complaints, and generally improving industrial relations. Periodic wage increases in both sectors continued over the next few years. [85]

Despite Mubarak’s moves toward political and economic liberalization, this combination of repression and concession continued during his presidency. At the Helwan Light Transport factory, security forces armed with tear gas, clubs, and electric prods surrounded the plant and broke the occupation, but management did agree to the workers’ demand. [86] Three workers died in clashes with security in the 1984 Kafr al-Dawwar riots, and there were over 120 arrests. As a result of the riots, though, Mubarak repealed the price hikes on pasta and cooking oil. [87] During the 1985 incidents in Mahalla, security forces raided the wool factory where workers were holding a sit-in, and arrested 160. The next day, the company closed the plant, putting the workers on forced vacations; another 257 workers were arrested outside the factory. [88] The second Esco sit-in was similarly smashed by the police, who stormed the plant on the third day of the sit-in, arresting over 500 protesters. [89] Nevertheless workers in these cases also won at least part of their demands.

When the train drivers struck, the government called out the army to run an emergency bus service, and the central security police to attack the striking workers. They were clubbed, kicked, and beaten, and over 100 were arrested. Security police continued to hunt down the leaders of the action and those who were arrested were dealt with harshly. Some were denied food and bedding for two days. Unlike any other case cited here, the workers were charged with violations of the emergency laws and arraigned before supreme state security courts, which are empowered to impose indefinite sentences. These courts are supposed to deal only with cases of armed terrorism. The speed and severity of this response would seem to reflect the centrality of the services suspended by the trainmen, and the high visibility of a railway strike relative to the protests at individual industrial establishments. Nevertheless, after the strike was broken the minister finally found time to meet with groups of workers. Most of their demands were met, and some were given financial rewards for agreeing to return to work. [90]

An equally heavy hand was applied to the 1989 occupation of the iron and steel factory in Helwan. An initial sit-in during mid-July ended peaceably with a concession by the company president on the incentive issues, and a promise to look into their demand that the elected workers’ representatives be reinstated. But when a larger occupation began two weeks later, after it became clear that the sacking would not be reversed, the plant was stormed by security forces. One worker died and a hundred were severely injured. Over the months that followed, several hundred workers were arrested and two, identified as leaders, were brutally tortured. Moreover, members of a committee of intellectuals formed in support of the workers were also jailed and severely beaten. As in these other cases, the government also made significant concessions to the workers’ demands, the list of which had grown during the occupation.

It is instructive to contrast these cases with the government’s response to the protests at the infitah companies, where workers might arguably have felt less strongly that their labor was contributing to the national project. None of the incidents in foreign-owned firms were met with the same official repression visited upon workers in wholly Egyptian-owned facilities. This suggests that the regime had its own ambivalence about these enterprises, or at least did not want to risk inviting more debate on their role by appearing to side with the companies.

It does appear that punishment was more swift and sure when an actual work stoppage occurred, or seemed imminent. We have also seen that workers sometimes began a struggle with a relatively mild tactic, such as sending telegrams, and then escalated to more pronounced and thereby riskier actions like paycheck boycotts and plant occupations. Rationality can thus account for workers’ reluctance to strike as a defensive strategy. But this would leave us without an explanation for the fact that workers did ultimately risk repression, short of assuming again that they assigned precise disutilities, in money terms, to each possible form of punishment.

Such a complex and ultimately authoritarian exercise is not necessary to explain workers’ behavior. While positing a commitment among workers to maintain production, the moral economy approach also suggests that their anger toward the state mounts as their demands go unmet, making them prepared to take more radical action and face greater risks until the government fulfills its obligations. At the same time, to the extent that repression was more severe for actual strikes, this would only serve to confirm workers’ beliefs that their contributions to production were important and worthy of remuneration. In this regard, both aspects of the government’s policy toward labor protest served to reinforce the moral economy in workers’ eyes. Hence the Western governments, multilateral lending agencies and academicians urging Egypt to adopt market-oriented reforms should have been the first to insist that the long-standing prohibition on strikes be lifted.

In their own right, the struggles of Egyptian workers had a significant effect on the success or failure of various economic reforms in Egypt. We have seen here that protests emanating from the point of production impeded the government’s ability to lower subsidies and remove or modify price controls. By resisting cutbacks in various types of supplementary pay, workers also posed a strong obstacle to efforts to cut the fiscal deficit through public sector rationalization.

Workplace struggles have also been used here as a means to make broader inferences about the attitudes of workers toward economic issues. Among the possible and competing explanations of workers’ behavior, the evidence most strongly supports a moral economy interpretation, in which workers believe there are reciprocal rights and responsibilities between themselves and the state. Workers contribute their effort in production, and expect the government in turn to ensure their jobs and their livelihoods.

While there is evidence here of a rising level of labor protest, Marxist and neo-Marxist theories are not vindicated. For Marxism, the problem is why more collective struggle, and of a different type, did not occur. If class consciousness entails recognizing state managers as the enemy, workers should have been advancing a program for change, not restoration. At the same time, the private sector, domestic and foreign, should have come under increasing attack as workers pushed for state ownership to be extended there, even as they struggled to capture the state. If the failure of workers to struggle aggressively for a new society does not condemn Marxist theory, we must conclude that the Egyptian left did not successfully articulate for workers a vision for a better alternative future.

Explanations in the rational choice framework which start by assuming selfish egoism on the part of individual workers prove unable to explain why they risked severe repression to engage in collective action for minimal financial gains. Rationality may well be the best explanation for the opposite of the phenomena studied here, i.e., for the fact that on any given day, the vast majority of Egyptian workers were not engaged in visible collective activity. Indeed it is precisely because the risks associated with collective action were so high in Egypt that it required an emotionally driven suspension of rationality in order for protest to occur. Thus the argument here is neither that rationality cannot explain collective action in systems that are both economically and politically liberal, nor that Egyptian workers were uniformly and routinely irrational. Rather the claim here is that temporary “moments of madness” were required to surmount the barrier of fear surrounding protest in authoritarian countries like Egypt.

Numerous countries in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have evidenced trajectories of political and economic development resembling Egypt’s. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that reciprocal relationships between workers and the state similar to that described here have obtained elsewhere in these regions. The broader claim here, however, is not for the ubiquity of moral economies per se but rather for the association between anger, as a passion, and labor protest in repressive societies.

Finally, this chapter has examined the role of the formal union movement in relation to rank-and-file protests, and the reaction of the government to them. The state was found to employ a combination of concession and repression aimed at rapidly ending the incidents, with the apparent goal of preserving the impression of regime legitimacy. As we will see in chapters 4 and 5, this same concern led successive Egyptian governments not to pursue certain reforms, or to push them only halfheartedly, out of fear of arousing labor protest.

Except for those who are leftists, union leaders were not involved in the protests enumerated here, and often condemned them. It does not follow logically, however, that opportunistic unionists will in all circumstances side with the state against the rank and file. The next chapter argues that unionists, too, have legitimacy concerns, which cause them to respond differently to issues of national scope than to individual plant protests.


1. Earlier versions of the empirical sections that follow appeared in Posusney 1993. I have somewhat revised the formulations here, and incorporated some new information including, especially, the 1989 factory occupation at the Helwan ironworks. A section on the spontaneous and informal nature of rank-and-file protests has also been added.

2. For an overview of these arguments, see Kennan.

3. On the importance of solidarity to the Marxist notion of class consciousness, see Booth (especially pp. 168–69), and Elster (1985), p. 347.

4. ‘Amir, p. 91; Sayyid Fa’id interview, June 1988; FO 371/10293/JE2183/19.

5. Beinin (1989), pp. 76–78.

6. As noted in chapter 1, the Labor Offices immediately transferred individual grievances to the courts, and continued to process only collective complaints. Of these, those emanating from plants employing more than 50 workers went directly to conciliation committees. If conciliation failed, the cases would then go to an arbitration board, whose decisions were considered final. However, either party could appeal the verdict to the Court of Cassation. For plants employing less than 50 workers, the conciliation committee stage was replaced by mediation efforts on the part of Labor Office officials, with arbitration in order only when those efforts failed (see Girgis). For a contrasting interpretation of the grievance data, see Goldberg (1994).

7. The deficiencies in the data, along with contradictory sources, make it difficult for me to be more precise and decisive about wage trends. Hansen, p. 183, provides a graph which shows real wages climbing only in the first three to four years after the coup, and flattening thereafter until about 1961–62; he does not specify which CAPMAS statistics were used to plot this graph.

8. This is based on the data collected by Beinin (1989), p. 77. Grievance data is not available after 1958.

9. Interview with Muhammad Mutawalli al-Sha’rawi, March 1988; Tomiche, p. 44. The only reported job action after this upsurge was a politically motivated strike in 1959 at the Shabaha factory in Alexandria, protesting the arrest of communist labor leaders; Nasir went there personally in an effort to calm the workers. Sayyid Fa’id interview, July 1988.

10. Mabro and Radwan, pp. 135–37; Sa’id (1968), pp. 79–92; Khalid (1971), pp. 44–54.

11. Cited in Dekmejian, p. 140.

12. Waterbury (1983), pp. 93–97, 409; Abdel-Fadil, pp. 33–34.

13. al-’Ummal (hereafter U), August 1967, pp. 4–5, 18–19; al-Ahali (hereafter AH), October 24, 1984.

14. Hussein (1973), pp. 234–37.

15. Fa’id interview.

16. The rise in real wages shown in 1972 followed an increase in the minimum wage ordered by the government in March of that year. See Starr, table 2, pp. 13–14.

17. Goldberg’s argument should also imply different patterns of protest between public and private sector workers, although how they would differ according to his logic is unclear. Since private sector workers did not gain the same protections as those in the public sector, job security should have remained their dominant concern, and continued to be an incentive for collective action. Yet Goldberg could also argue that collective activity in the private sector would be weaker, precisely because the risks were higher – which is the dominant effect? Minimally, his logic should lead him to expect, as in the 1940s, variations in the frequency of private sector protest according to macroeconomic conditions, with interindustry differentials according to specific labor market conditions. My data is too imprecise to test the interindustry hypothesis.

18. Beinin (1989).

19. Buroway (1984), pp. 41–42.

20. See, e.g., the application of Buroway’s arguments to Egypt in Henley and Ereisha.

21. Brown (1990).

22. Sabel (1982), pp. 128–36.

23. See Posusney (1996).

24. Interview with Abd al-Rahman Khayr, October 1987.

25. Hinnebusch, p. 71; Baker, p. 165; Abd Al-Raziq, pp. 80–84; MERIP No. 56 (April 1977), p. 6; see also Shoukri (1981), p. 323.

26. For more on the economics of this period, see Waterbury (1985).

27. Rose al-Youssef (hereafter RY), No. 2551, May 2, 1977, p. 4; U, March 7 and 28, and May 16, 1977; Starr, p. 3; Salmi, p. 32; Waterbury (1983), p. 228.

28. Abd al-Aziz interview, February 1988; Starr, p. 4. Union leaders say that the maximum possible raise under this law is actually greater than that normally available to public sector workers.

29. The trend shown in table 3.3 is confirmed by interviews with numerous workers from both the public and private sectors.

30. AH, April 12, 1978.

31. MEED, 1982 and 1983 volumes.

32. The leftist weekly Al-Ahali was my primary source of information on the frequency, causes, and nature of labor protest in the 1980s. Hereafter only supplemental references are cited.

33. MEED, 1984–87 volumes.

34. See also works by Adli, El-Shafei, and Badawi.

35. Goldberg (1992), p. 157; italics mine.

36. This and all subsequent material on incidents in 1952–53 is drawn from Audsley, pp. 99–100; Gordon, p. 83; Beinin and Lockman, pp. 429, 434; and FO 371/102931/JE2183/19 & 20.

37. al-Tali’a (hereafter T), August 1976, pp. 55, 58. Subsequent references to the 1960s incidents at this plant are from the same source.

38. Barakat interview, October 1987. The incident described occurred in the Delta ironworks plant; all subsequent information concerning actions at this plant is from the same Interview.

39. Fa’id interview; U, February 3, 1975; AH, October 24, 1984.

40. T, September 1976, p. 55; al-Amal (hereafter AM), No. 141 (February 1975), pp. 10–11; al-Ahram (hereafter A), September 21–2, 1976; U, September 27 and October 18, 1976; RY, No. 2520, September 27, 1976, pp. 4–5; Khayr interview.

41. For a critical evaluation of leftist interpretations of the riots, see Beinin (1994).

42. Al-Sha’b, April 27, 1984.

43. MEED, October 19, 1984.

44. Awraq ‘Ummaliyah, No. 5, January 1986, pp. 6–7.

45. al-Akhbar, February 10, 1986.

46. Based on interviews with lawyers who represented workers detained during this event; see also Adli, p. 186. All subsequent information on this incident is also based on these sources.

47. A compromise agreement was finally negotiated between the Ministry of Labor, company officials, and workers’ representatives in October, 1987. Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, October 26, 1987.

48. See Abbas et al., and Al-Shafei, pp. 65–71. All subsequent references to the Helwan incident in 1989 are based on these sources.

49. It should follow logically that, if there are certain industries which are experiencing more takeaways than others, the level of protest there should be higher. This would therefore be an important test of moral economy. However, it would require documenting all instances of both takeaways and protests against them on an industry by industry basis; such detailed and accurate data was unavailable to me.

50. For workers younger than 18, the minimum wage was set lower.

51. U, October 16 and November 6, 1972. Subsequent references to the 1972 incidents are from the same sources.

52. Fa’id interview.

53. AM, No. 144, May 1975, pp. 10–14; A, March 22–23, 1975.

54. Shoukri (1981); Barakat interview.

55. A, September 21–22, 1976; U, September 27 and October 18, 1976; RY, No. 2520, September 27, 1976, pp. 4–5; Khayr interview.

56. Khalid (1975), pp. 130–31; interviews with Khayr and Abd al-Aziz Higazi, March 1988.

57. AM, No. 144, May 1975, pp. 10–14; A, March 22–23, 1975; Shoukri, pp. 240–41.

58. Interviews with al-Sha’rawi and M. Gamal Imam, October 1987; Tomiche (1974), p. 80. All subsequent references to this incident are based on the same sources.

59. Sawt al-Amal (hereafter SA), No. 5, August 1986, pp. 27–34.

60. Sharaf al-Din et al. (1986).

61. T, September 1976, p. 5; AM, No. 141, February 1975, pp. 10–11. The factory is unnamed in these sources.

62. A, September 21–22, 1976; U, September 27, 1976; RY, No. 2520, September 27, 1976, pp. 4–5, and No. 2450, May 26, 1975, p. 9.

63. On these incidents, see also El-Shafei, pp. 43–64.

64. See Olson.

65. El-Shafei, p. 52.

66. For an argument to this effect, see El-Shafei.

67. For more on the community solidarity of the Egyptian sha’b, see the study by Singerman.

68. See the volume edited by Cook and Levi, especially the chapters by Michael Taylor and Russell Hardin; Putnam, pp. 167–71, cites the community savings associations common in developing countries as an example of an institution which survives based on norms of trust. See Singerman, pp. 165–66, for more on these associations in Egypt.

69. See Frank for a persuasive case that behaviors which facilitate trust are in fact biologically selected.

70. Scott (1976) suggested much the same for peasants in his discussion of agrarian rebellions. See also Scott (1985), pp. 242–47, 320–26.

71. Investigating such differences was in fact my original goal in Egypt. I found that research conditions there rendered this impossible.

72. MEED, October 19, 1984.

73. Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, October 26, 1987.

74. Barakat interview.

75. Sharaf al-Din et al., pp. 28–30.

76. SA, No. 3, October 1985, p. 5.

77. El-Shafei, p. 56.

78. U, March 23, 1968.

79. Fa’id interview.

80. RY, March 17, 1986, p. 5.

81. Shoukri, pp. 240–41; Khayr interview.

82. Barakat interview.

83. U, June 23, 1975.

84. A, September 21–22, 1976; U, September 27 and October 18, 1976; RY, No. 2520, September 27, 1976, pp. 4–5.

85. U, January 24 and 31, 1977; AM, March 1977, p. 20.

86. SA, No. 3, October 1985, p. 5.

87. MEED, October 19, 1984.

88. al-Akhbar, February 10, 1986.

89. SA, No. 5, August 1986, pp. 27–34.

90. See also al-Akhbar and Reuters from July 9, 1986.


Last updated on 4 August 2020