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Egypt Under Empire, Part 3: From Nasser to Mubarak

Egypt Under Empire, Part 3: From Nasser to Mubarak

By: Andrew Gavin Marshall

Originally published at The Hampton Institute

Egyptians Prepare In Tahrir Square For The First Anniverary Of The Revolution

Part 1: Working Class Resistance and European Imperial Ambitions

Part 2: The “Threat” Of Arab Nationalism

Between 1952 and 2011, Egypt was ruled by three military dictators: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Nasser placated labour unrest and imposed many social programs that benefited the population. Sadat subsequently began to break down the ‘social contract’ with Egyptian society, and when Mubarak came to power in 1981, the following three decades witnessed the imposition of a neoliberal order, complete with crony-capitalists, corrupted bureaucracies and a repressive police force. Three decades of increased poverty, polarized wealth and power, and increased labour unrest all laid the groundwork for the 2011 popular uprising.

As Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952, he successfully crushed labour militancy in the country, and even executed two labour leaders as a symbol of the new regime’s lack of tolerance for radical labour actions. Nasser engaged in a power struggle for a brief period, before assuming complete power in 1954, at which point independent political organizations were banned and he “ushered in a populist-corporatist pact between labour and the state,” in which “the state controls the bulk of the economic, political, and social domains, leaving little space for society to develop itself and for interest groups to surface, compete, and act autonomously.”[1]

Labour groups were organized “into a limited number of singular, compulsory, non-competitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories.” In 1957, the government created the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions (GFETU), monopolizing labour unions under the government, purging the radical leaders and co-opting the moderates. Since this period, “trade unions have functioned as an arm of the state rather than as democratic representatives of workers.” Thus, labour activism and actions largely subsided throughout the 1950s and 60s.[2]

Despite violent repression of independent political organizations, communists and militant labour groups, Nasser became incredibly popular both within Egypt and across the wider Arab world. He established a one-party state and a large security apparatus “to crush any and all dissent.” However, his articulation and actions related to Arab nationalism and Arab socialism – the twin pillars of his ‘revolution’ – sought to free Egypt and the Arab world from imperial domination, and to undertake a social revolution domestically as “part of an informal social contract where the population accepted constraints on its political freedom in exchange for the promise of higher living standards and a stronger nation.”[3]

A large network of social services was established, which “provided employment, education and healthcare, as well as subsidized transportation and food.” This program also entailed “spending large sums of money on the military, which was seen as the protector of the nation from external enemies.” These social programs helped to “create a modern middle class” in Egypt.[4] The allegiance of the middle class to the authoritarianism of the regime was secured by the government guaranteeing state employment to all university graduates.[5]

Nasser also implemented major agrarian reforms, which between 1952 and 1961, “redistributed about one seventh of the country’s cultivable land from large landowners… passed on to the landless and near landless fellahin rather than kept for direct use by the state.” This led to an “improvement of rural incomes and agricultural production,” and attempted to undermine the influence of the large landowning class of Egyptians.[6]

With the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Nasser’s government suffered a humiliating defeat, and Nasser’s death in 1970 led to the emergence of a new dictator, Anwar Sadat, also emerging from the military, who ruled the country from 1970 until 1981. Undertaking a policy of ‘de-nasserisation,’ Sadat sought to undo many of Nasser’s more progressive policies, earning him the favour of the West. Among such policies were to return the “confiscated” land to the large landowners within Egypt by employing an ‘open door’ market-oriented program called infitah. The intifah helped to create the conditions for a real estate and credit boom, ultimately adding to Egypt’s foreign debt as the country became increasingly dependent upon foreign financing and ‘investment.'[7]

The infitah – or “opening” – wrote Hibbard and Layton, “offered an alternative vision of economic development to that of Arab socialism;” beginning a process of liberalization and an influx of Western capital, “to integrate Egypt into the Western capitalist system.” Sadat’s policies also oversaw the gradual elimination of Nasser’s social programs and “the abandonment of Nasser’s anti-imperialism.” The country quickly became more trade dependent, having to import staple foods, and foreign financing was limited to non-productive sectors of the economy. Egypt increasingly exported its labour to the Persian Gulf, which helped to reduce the problems of unemployment at home, and increased the country’s reliance upon remittances from its foreign workers sending their wages back home. In 1974, labour remittances, oil exports, tourism, foreign aid and the Suez Canal accounted for nearly a third of Egypt’s foreign income, a number that exploded to 75% in 1980. A new commercial elite developed with extensive ties to the state, while economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society accelerated.[8]

Such policies did not occur without resistance, however, with opposition emanating from academics, state bureaucrats and workers, with strikes and “popular unrest” occurring throughout the mid-1970s, with a major transport worker strike in 1976 and large bread riots in 1977. Sadat responded to the labour unrest and food riots by sending in the military to crush the protests. Sadat oversaw the construction of an alliance between the large landowning class, the business class, and the conservative religious elite, and even sought to build ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Further, Sadat rebuilt ties with the United States, and even established an alliance and peace treaty with Israel, negotiated by the Carter administration in the U.S. as the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords. With that, Sadat lost a great deal of popular support, and Egypt’s Islamists rejected him. Sadat was ultimately assassinated by an Islamist group in 1981.[9]

In 1981, Hosni Mubarak then took control of Egypt, also emerging from within the military and continuing the trend of maintaining the military dictatorship established since 1952, and deepening the economic ‘reforms’ begun under Sadat. Under Mubarak, the military and economic elites became more closely integrated, and with the imposition on the Emergency Law following Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak wielded more authoritarian power, suspending the constitution and dismantling the rights of citizens, also allowing for “detention without charge, press censorship and other restrictions on civil liberties.” A new – parallel – legal system was constructed, relying upon military courts, purportedly for use against ‘terrorists’ but used to persecute any and all forms of political opponents.[10]

Mubarak oversaw – during the 1980s and 1990s – a massively expanded entrenchment of neoliberal economic and social reforms in Egypt. Mubarak also pursued a major campaign against Islamists, who were making political gains with segments of the population by capitalizing on the poverty and popular anger toward the government, largely brought on as a result of the economic reforms. Mubarak’s Egypt thus became a major human rights violator, all the while receiving immense financial and military aid from Western governments, namely, the United States. The role of the security services – in particular the police forces under the control of the Interior Ministry – became more predominant throughout Mubarak’s rule, with torture and other abuses widespread.[11]

The military plays a very large role in the economy as well, and under Mubarak, military officials were appointed as regional governors, village chiefs and put in charge of state-run companies. The military itself has undertaken large land expropriations, runs companies and factories, giving it a major role to play in manufacturing, agriculture, construction, gas and consumer industries. The military, however, keeps most of its economic activities secret, and does not pay taxes while often using “conscripted labourers” for its workforce.[12]

Mubarak began to implement further ‘reforms’ to the agrarian sector along neoliberal lines during the 1980s. The Agriculture Minister Yusuf Wali began implementing agriculture sector liberalization policies in 1986, working “hand in hand with USAID and the World Bank.” The U.S. stressed “market-oriented” reforms and promoted export-led growth, as USAID invested $1.26 billion in the agricultural reforms. These reforms continued over the 1990s, and resulted in widespread dispossession of small farmers and a further alliance between economic and military-political elites.[13]

The major neoliberal reforms in Egypt arrived under Mubarak with the signing of a 1991 Economic Restructuring and Adjustment Program with the IMF, demanding liberalization of trade and prices, privatization, and labour ‘flexibility,’ as well as the removal of several social safety net measures.[14]

The ‘new economic elite’ that emerged in Egypt as a result of the IMF’s programs of the 1990s were closely tied to the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who headed the NDP. Prominent businessmen became more influential in policy-making circles and “the number of businessmen elected to Egypt’s parliament increased from 8 in 1995 to 150 by 2005.”[15] Public spending on social services was dramatically cut, state-owned industries were privatized and employees fired, resulting in “staggering hardships for the majority.”[16]

As labour was under sustained attack, they fought back, with twice as many labour protests in the 1990s than took place during the 1980s. With the 1991 IMF program, Egypt was firmly entrenched in a neoliberal ‘order,’ which would accelerate over the following two decades. Fifteen years following the IMF program’s beginning – by 2006 – Egyptian workers had been subjected to continuous hardships and exponentially increased their resistance to it.[17]

The privatization program led to the unprecedented plundering of the Egyptian economy into the hands of relatively few economic elites. Out of 314 state-run companies, 209 were privatized by 2005, “leading to a massive displacement of public sector workers, and with it a further weakening of the struggling labour movement.” The number of workers employed by public sector companies was cut in half between 1994 and 2001. The IMF praised the privatization program in 2006 for having “surpassed expectations.” Wealth and power was concentrated “in the hands of a tiny layer of the country’s elite,” and a few large conglomerates dominated the major sectors of the economy. As Henry Veltmeyer wrote, “Mubarak – and the Egyptian state as a whole – represented an entire capitalist class.”[18]

Neoliberal reforms were further implemented under Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif (2005-2011), which saw businessmen take a more direct role in managing the state, with six major government ministries being run by six major businessmen in the areas of trade and industry, housing, transportation, health, agriculture and social welfare. Taxes were dramatically cut for corporations and elites and dramatically increased for the rest of the population. Corruption and embezzlement of public funds was rampant as the privatization programs effectively subsidized “the private sector at the expense of the nation as a whole.”[19]

The costs of food, fuel and transportation skyrocketed, while Prime Minister Nazif instructed protesting Egyptians to “grow up.” Thus, in 2006, Egypt witnessed a new wave of labour unrest.[20] Independent forms of worker organization re-emerged and in 2006 alone, “there were 220 major strikes involving tens of thousands of workers in the largest strike wave that Egypt had seen in decades,” and which were increasingly linking up with peasant movements protesting against the large landowners.[21]

In 2006, a three-day strike of workers at a weaving and spinning factory in El-Mahalla was “a major turning point in the history of the Egyptian workers’ movement,” marking a total work-stoppage and for a much longer duration than strike action prior and helped in the formation of new workers associations with more democratic accountability, directly challenging the state monopoly over unions.[22]

The strike was “the largest and most politically significant industrial strike since a dispute in the same workplace in 1947,” having roughly 24,000 workers participating, with over 10,000 occupying the factory for three days and nights, and on the fourth day the government granted a concession by offering a 45-day bonus. This set off a wave of worker protests and strikes across the country over the following years. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.7 million workers participated in protest actions, including private and public industrial workers, postal workers, educational administrators, workers in transportation, tax collection, healthcare, and other sectors. The recent years of labour unrest has been referred to as “the largest social movement in over half a century” taking place within Egypt.[23]

Between 2006 and 2008, Egypt recorded annual growth rates of 7%, and in 2009 – while much of the world was experiencing negative growth – Egypt recorded a 4.6% growth rate. However, between 2008 and 2009, poverty in Egypt increased from 20% to 23.4%, while roughly 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 per day, one-third of the population is illiterate, and youth make up roughly 90% of the unemployed. Thus, while the neoliberal reforms of the previous three decades produced high growth rates, “it has [also] led to worsening living standards for the majority of the population and the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority.”[24] Between 1998 and 2010, there were between 2 and 4 million workers who took part in between 3,400 and 4,000 strikes and other labour actions.[25] There were 266 strikes and labour actions in 2006, 614 in 2007, and they reached roughly 1,900 in 2009.[26]

As strikes escalated, the demands for higher wages and more democratic union representation evolved into demands for the end of the Mubarak regime (and the neoliberal reign of Prime Minister Nazif). One strike organizer in 2007 told a radio program, “We are challenging the regime.” At strikes, workers were chanting, “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!” Images of signs at protests circulated, reading, “Down with the Government. We want a Free Government.” One strike leader who was arrested in 2007, said upon his release: “We want a change in the structure and hierarchy of the union system in this country… The way unions in this country are organized is completely wrong, from top to bottom. It is organized to make it look like our representatives have been elected, when really they are appointed by the government.”[27]

The second Palestinian Intifada in 2000 helped spawn new social movements within Egypt. The Cairo Conference was held in 2002 in an attempt to organize disparate social groups around two main shared positions: anti-neoliberalism and anti-war. In 2004, this led to the formation of the Kefaya (“Enough”), the Egyptian Movement for Change.[28] This was aided along by a major demographic change within the country, where by 2011, roughly 52% of Egypt’s population was under the age of 25, and it was this group which disproportionately lacked employment, with roughly 95% of post-secondary educated youth being unemployed or working in fields unrelated to their education with very low pay. It was this demographic which became increasingly mobilized around non-ideological movements such as Kefaya, organizing a series of anti-Mubarak protests between 2004 and 2005, demanding democracy and accountability. The younger members of this group then established the April 6 Movement, “an organization that emerged in support of the 2008 strike by textile workers in Mohalla al-Kubra.”[29]

A number of other social groups and protests organizations emerged from 2004 onwards, including Students for Change, Youth for Change, University Professors for Change, Workers for Change, Artists for Change, and the People’s Campaign for Change, among many others. In 2005, as Kefaya organized a massive anti-Mubarak protest, an organization of Egyptian intellectuals was formed as the National Assembly for Democratic Transition. Lawyers, journalists and other professions increasingly took part in protests.[30]

The April 6 Youth Movement began to support the Mahalla workers’ strike in 2008, with founder Ahmed Maher having started a Facebook page that quickly reached over 70,000 members. As support grew, the government crack down ensued, with roughly 500 activists arrested over the following two months, including Maher (who was also tortured).[31]

Since the Mubarak government made it illegal to hold meetings of more than five people, with a heavy-handed approach to information control and news censorship, Facebook and other Internet-based social media platforms quickly became very popular among young Egyptians. Roughly one in nine people in Egypt have Internet access, and 9% of those who have access used Facebook, making it the most visited website in the country, following Google and Yahoo. The Facebook page for the April 6 movement, reported the New York Times in 2009, was the page “with the most dynamic debates” among young Egyptians, “most of whom had never been involved with politics before joining the group.” The Facebook page provided a venue for young Egyptians “to assemble virtually and communicate freely about their grievances.”[32]

The United States has been a major sponsor of the Egyptian dictatorship, giving it extensive leverage with the regime. Between 1948 and 2011, the U.S. provided Egypt with a total of $71.6 billion in bilateral foreign aid (most of which consisted of an annual aid package of $1.3 billion in military aid from 1987 to present), and since the peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. ‘aid’ in the world (after Israel).[33]

Another large international sponsor of the Egyptian dictatorship was the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which also heaped praise upon the Tunisian dictatorship of Ben Ali prior to its overthrow. In a 2010 report on Egypt, the IMF noted that the country had been following the Fund’s advice on economic reforms, though continued to recommend “phasing out energy subsidies” and increasing privatizations. The IMF further noted that, “the relationship between Egypt and the World Bank Group has been transformed and markedly improved over the last few years as a result of the progress Egypt has made in implementing reforms.”[34]

In 2010, labour unrest continued throughout the country, with one strike organizer telling the press in May of 2010, “The government represents the marriage between authority and money – and this marriage needs to be broken up… We call for the resignation of Ahmad Nazif’s government because it works only for businessmen and ignores social justice.”[35]

Egypt was clearly on the edge of an uprising, all that was required was a ‘spark’ – which came in the form of the Tunisian uprising in December of 2010 and January of 2011. With the overthrow of the long-time dictator, Ben Ali, in Tunisia, Egyptians were motivated to mobilize against Mubarak.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, Research Director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and hosts a weekly podcast show at BoilingFrogsPost.

Notes

[1] Rabab El-Mahdi, “Labour protests in Egypt: causes and meanings,” Review of African Political Economy (Vol. 38, No. 129, September 2011), page 390.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Scott Hibbard and Azza Salama Layton, “The origins and future of Egypt’s revolt,” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (Vol. 12, No. 3, October 2010), pages 198-199.

[4] Ibid, page 199.

[5] Rabab El-Mahdi, op. cit., page 390.

[6] Ray Bush, “Coalitions for Dispossession and Networks of Resistance? Land, Politics and Agrarian Reform in Egypt,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (Vol. 38, No. 3, December 2011), page 395.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Scott Hibbard and Azza Salama Layton, “The origins and future of Egypt’s revolt,” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (Vol. 12, No. 3, October 2010), page 200.

[9] Ibid, pages 200-201.

[10] Ibid, pages 201-202.

[11] Ibid, pages 202-203.

[12] Angela Joya, “The Egyptian revolution: crisis of neoliberalism and the potential for democratic politics,” Review of African Political Economy (Vol. 38, No. 129, September 2011), page 372.

[13] Ray Bush, op. cit., pages 396-397.

[14] Angela Joya, op. cit., page 370.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Scott Hibbard and Azza Salama Layton, op. cit., page 202.

[17] Rabab El-Mahdi, op. cit., page 395.

[18] Henry Veltmeyer, “Unrest and Change: Dispatches from the Frontline of a Class War in Egypt,” Globalizations (Vol. 8, No. 5, October 2011), page 612.

[19] Angela Joya, op. cit., pages 370-371.

[20] Rabab El-Mahdi, op. cit., page 395.

[21] Henry Veltmeyer, op. cit., page 612.

[22] Rabab El-Mahdi, op. cit., pages 397-399.

[23] Ibid, pages 387-388.

[24] Henry Veltmeyer, op. cit., page 611.

[25] Joel Beinin, “Egyptian Workers and January 25th: A Social Movement in Historical Context,” Social Research (Vol. 79, No. 2, Summer 2012), page 326.

[26] Ibrahim Awad, “Breaking Out of Authoritarianism: 18 Months of Political Transition in Egypt,” Constellations (Vol. 20, No. 2, 2013), page 278.

[27] Joel Beinin, op. cit., page 331.

[28] Angela Joya, op. cit., pages 368-369.

[29] Scott Hibbard and Azza Salama Layton, “The origins and future of Egypt’s revolt,” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (Vol. 12, No. 3, October 2010), pages 206-207.

[30] Angela Joya, op. cit., page 369.

[31] Ellen Knickmeyer, “Fledgling Rebellion on Facebook Is Struck Down by Force in Egypt,” The New York Times, 18 May 2008:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/05/17/ST2008051702711.html

[32] Samantha M. Shapiro, “Revolution, Facebook-Style,” The New York Times, 22 January 2009:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25bloggers-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

[33] Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, 27 June 2013: page 9.

[34] Patrick Bond, “Neoliberal threats to North Africa,” Review of African Political Economy (Vol. 38, No. 129, September 2011), pages 483-484.

[35] Joel Beinin, “Egyptian Workers and January 25th: A Social Movement in Historical Context,” Social Research (Vol. 79, No. 2, Summer 2012), page 339.

Egypt Under Empire, Part 1: Working Class Resistance and European Imperial Ambitions

Egypt Under Empire, Part 1: Working Class Resistance and European Imperial Ambitions

By: Andrew Gavin Marshall

Originally posted at The Hampton Institute

egypt

Egypt is one of the most important countries in the world, geopolitically speaking. With a history spanning some 7,000 years, it is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, sitting at the point at which Africa meets the Middle East, across the Mediterranean from Europe. Once home to its own empire, it became a prized possession in the imperial designs of other civilizations, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantine to the Islamic and Ottoman Empires, and subsequently the French, British and Americans. For any and every empire that has sought to exert control over the Middle East, Asia or Africa, control over Egypt has been a pre-requisite. Its strategic location has only become more important with each subsequent empire.

For the British to control India – their prized imperial possession – dominance over Egypt was a necessity. With the construction of the Suez Canal, Europe became increasingly dependent upon Egypt as a transport route for trade, energy and warfare, making Europe’s domination of the world increasingly dependent upon their domination of Egypt, particularly for the French and British. For the modern American Empire, which designates all of planet Earth as being under its hegemony, Egypt remains one of the most important countries over which to exert influence: with its strategic location to some of the world’s most prized energy resources, to the maintenance of the Canal route for the benefit of transport and trade – not least of all for America’s European allies – and due to Egypt’s ability to exert influence across Africa, the Middle East, the Arab/Muslim world as a whole, and indeed, across the so-called ‘Third World’ as a whole.

In the past two and half years, Egypt has been experiencing an unprecedented revolutionary struggle. Egypt’s Revolution represents a popular uprising against a domestic dictatorship, the denial of liberties and freedoms, the repression of workers and dissidents, against a global socio-political and economic system (which we commonly refer to as ‘neoliberalism’), and against the American Empire and its many institutional manifestations. Any revolution within Egypt is inevitably a revolution against the American Empire. An uprising – not only against a long-time dictator and his authoritarian imitators who followed – but against the most powerful empire the world has ever known is a powerful symbol to the rest of the world, most of which has known the terror of living under domestic tyranny, and the reality of living under America’s global hegemony.

A good example can go a long way.

This series examines some of Egypt’s recent history as it relates to Empire, and as it has built up to Egypt’s unfinished Revolution.

Egypt and the State-Capitalist Imperial Order

The development of the Egyptian working class, labour activism and nationalism was intimately tied to the expansion of Western imperial expansion and domination over Egypt and much of the rest of the world. In the early 19th century, Egypt was increasingly an autonomous state under the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Muhammad Ali who initiated a process of state-sponsored industrialization. In 1819, his regime constructed European-style factories for military production, agricultural processing and textiles. By the early 1830s, there were 30 cotton mills on operation, employing roughly 30,000 labourers, who were largely recruited from among the landless peasants.[1]

Egypt’s attempt to industrialize followed the examples set by Britain and other European powers – as well as the United States – by imposing protective measures, tariffs on foreign goods and other subsidies for domestic industry in order to allow the country to compete against the heavily protected industries of the European and American economies. Egypt was not the only major country to pursue such a strategy, as India and Paraguay also attempted major state-led industrialization programs. In 1800, Egypt’s GNP was around that of France, higher than both Eastern Europe and Japan, and Paraguay also had comparable economic weight. They were attempting to industrialize, wrote Jean Batou, “in order to avoid dependency and underdevelopment.”[2]

Resistance to these industrialization projects was strong on the part of Britain and other industrial Western powers, which wanted these countries to be in subservient positions to their own. The Europeans – and especially Britain – pressured these countries to “open up” their economies to “free trade” competition with the heavily-protected industrial goods of the West. The result, of course, was that they could not compete on an even basis, and European industrial goods gained the major advantage, forcing these countries to focus on raw goods for export to the rich nations.

In Egypt, a great deal of resistance was also expressed by the new working class, and in the 1830s, the state-led industrialization programs began to decline. Following the death of Muhammad Ali in 1849, few of his industrial programs remained, “and Egypt was well on its way to full integration into a European-dominated world market as supplier of a single raw material, cotton.” If Egypt had succeeded in its industrialization programs, some have suggested, “it might have shared with Japan [or the United States] the distinction of achieving autonomous capitalist development and preserving its independence.”[3]

In the latter half of the 19th century, Egypt made an attempt at increasing its industrial potential, though this time relying primarily upon foreign capital from European powers. The most important example of this was with the foreign financing that led to the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, which “resulted in the development of the export sector of the economy and its necessary infrastructure,” and in turn, the development of a permanent working class.[4]

Great Britain was the first major power to undergo an industrial revolution, with other European empires and the United States soon to follow. Countries that underwent industrialization did so with heavy state involvement in the form of subsidies and protective tariffs and trade measures, allowing domestic industries and goods to gain a competitive advantage over those of other nations around the world. The global trading system – as an outgrowth of the development of the modern state-capitalist system – became a central facet in the construction and expansion of empire.

The imperial powers – predominantly in the North Atlantic region, the United States and Western Europe, with the later addition of Japan – had to maintain their own influence over the world by ensuring that the rest of the world did not follow their examples of industrialization, and thus, be able to compete with them for regional and global influence. Thus, industrialization – or ‘development’ – in the ‘core’ countries necessarily required de -industrialization – or underdevelopment – in the rest of the world, the global imperial ‘periphery.’

The period between 1770 and 1870 marked “the first phase of the underdevelopment process” for many countries and regions in the world. In 1770, “the present Third World probably had a real income and an industrial product per capita comparable to those of the rest of the world.” Multiple countries attempted state-led and protected industrialization processes in the early nineteenth century – notably Egypt and Paraguay, though lesser efforts at state-led industrialization were made in what are modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Brazil, with more isolated and less state-involved efforts in Mexico and Colombia. By 1870, however, the gap had widened significantly between the industrial powers (Western Europe, North America and Japan), which exported manufactured goods, and the rest of the world, which largely focused on exporting commodities needed for industry.[5]

The “specialization” of economies in the Global South – the ‘Third World’ – made them dependent upon the export of raw materials to the rich, powerful countries, and thus, kept them in a subservient position within the global order. This has been referred to as the “Great Divergence” between the powerful countries and the rest of the world, where the powerful countries industrialized themselves and de-industrialized others.[6] In short, the powerful countries became – and remained – powerful by virtue of their ability to undermine and disempower the rest of the world, pushing them away from independence and autonomy into a position of dependence on the ‘core’ economies.

In 1870, roughly 70% of Egypt’s exports were cotton, and by 1910-14, this had risen to 93%. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, at which point the country was essentially ruled over by Lord Cromer, “a devout believer” in the ‘free market’ (for every country except Britain). Cromer’s rule of Egypt (1883-1907) coincided with many of the “formative” years for the Egyptian working class, as labour became increasingly exploited in sectors dominated by European capital.[7] Out of a total population of 11 million, Egypt had approximately 350,000 male workers in the 1907 census, with 100,000 in transport and 150,000 in commerce. Thus, by the early 20th century, “Egypt had a modern working class concentrated in its two largest cities and ready to make itself heard.”[8]

Anarchism and a Radical Working Class in Egypt

Added to the increased domestic formation of a working class, a large presence of foreign workers was brought into Egypt to provide the necessary skills for building the country’s infrastructure. Waves of immigrant workers came from Europe, notably Italy and Greece. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many of these migrant workers brought with them to Egypt the emerging ideologies and philosophies of resistance and revolution which were spreading among the European working classes, notably socialism and anarchism. Italian workers began forming anarchist groups within Egypt, and others soon followed. Egypt’s anarchists quickly established close connections with anarchists in Greece and Turkey, and were developing connections with groups in Tunis, Palestine and Lebanon.[9]

From the 1880s onward, anarchist groups within Egypt – still primarily European in membership – were forming educational groups and starting publications around the country. As the domestic Egyptian labour movement grew, so too did the influence of anarchists, notably anarcho-syndicalists. While still largely Italian in makeup, the anarchist community in Egypt became increasingly multi-ethnic, with the increased presence of Greeks, Jews, Germans, and several Eastern European nationalities. Arab Egyptians became increasingly involved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically within the working class, and notably among the cigarette workers, printers and service employees.[10]

The first major strike in Egypt took place in 1899 among the Cairo cigarette rollers. More strike activity took place in the following years, incorporating both foreign and domestic workers within the country. The primary issues for workers were the long hours, low wages, minimal benefits and oppressive management. Since almost all of Egypt’s large employers were foreign, and the country was under foreign (British) occupation since 1882 (to 1922), “the struggle of Egyptian workers for economic gains converged with the nationalist movement seeking to end British rule.”[11] Thus, resistance to domestic tyranny within Egypt inevitably required resistance to imperial hegemony over Egypt by outside powers.

Anarchists in Egypt created the Free Popular University (UPL) in Alexandria in 1901, “with the aim of providing free evening education to the popular classes… and drew widespread support from across the full range of Alexandrian society.” Classes were given on subjects from the humanities to the sciences, to discussing workers’ associations and women in society, with discussions given in a number of different languages, including Italian, French, and Arabic. As anarcho-syndicalists began building ties with the indigenous Egyptian workers, international (or ‘mixed’) unions were formed between domestic and foreign migrant workers in Egypt, which helped contribute to the 1899 cigarette rollers strike, among other actions.[12]

During World War I, Britain decided that Egypt was now a ‘protectorate,’ and over the course of the war (1914-18), the British “oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers.”[13] In 1919, there was a popular uprising against the British – called the 1919 Revolution – in which nationalists called for the British to leave Egypt and for independence. Workers participated in the form of strikes, demonstrations and clashes with police. Anarcho-syndicalists also played a part in supporting the protests and strikes of the 1919 Revolution.[14]

Ultimately, the British agreed to grant Egypt ‘formal’ independence by 1922, but in the decade and a half that followed World War I, the major political issues revolved around the negotiation of a treaty with Britain and the establishment of a parliamentary regime. The Wafd party, founded in 1918, would quickly become the “embodiment of the Egyptian national movement,” holding a great deal of popular support, winning all of the elections until 1952, but it was largely used as a party through which to co-opt the more radical labour and anti-imperialist elements within Egyptian society. The Wafd encouraged union organization, but only under its umbrella, not independently. When a treaty with Britain was reached in 1936, the Wafd began to lose some of its influence as new political organizations formed, such as the precursor to the Muslim Brotherhood. Labour struggled for more rights, seeking to pass legislation that would, among other things, allow for independent unions. World War II, however, came with the imposition of martial law, but also with increased industrial development within Egypt, and thus, a growing working class.[15]

Between the end of the war and 1952, Egypt “saw the appearance of an active left inside and outside the workers’ movement, a new political scene characterized by new mass organizations and issues, and renewed nationalist struggle including guerrilla action against British forces.” In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser and the ‘Free Officers’ orchestrated a bloodless coup, abolished the monarchy and the parliament and installed a nationalist military government under the leadership of Nasser. The coup quickly resulted in the repression of the militant labour movement, bringing workers under the control of the government.[16]

The development and evolution of Egypt’s working class has been intimately tied to the development and evolution of Egypt’s relations with the Western imperial powers and their imposition of a global state-capitalist order. The struggle of workers continued over the following decades, providing a major impetus behind the conditions that led to the start of Egypt’s unfinished Revolution in 2011, where the conditions of workers remain tied to the imperial imposition of a state-capitalist order.

In the next part of this series, I examine the relationship between Arab Nationalism – as propagated by Nasser – and the American Empire’s efforts to exert its influence over the Middle East and much of the rest of the world.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, the research director of Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and has a weekly podcast with BoilingFrogsPost.

Notes

[1] Zachary Lockman, “Noted on Egyptian Workers’ History,” International Labor and Working Class History (No. 18, Fall 1980), pages 1-2;

Joel Benin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class,” MERIP Reports (No. 94, February 1981), page 14.

[2] Jean Batou, “Nineteenth-Century Attempted Escapes from the Periphery: The Cases of Egypt and Paraguay,” Review – Fernand Braudel Center (Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer 1993), pages 279-280, 291-292, 294-295.

[3] Zachary Lockman, “Notes on Egyptian Workers’ History,” International Labor and Working Class History (No. 18, Fall 1980), page 2.

[4] Joel Benin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class,” MERIP Reports (No. 94, February 1981), page 15.

[5] Jean Batou, op cit., pages 282-283.

[6] Jeffrey G. Williamson, “Globalization and the Great Divergence: terms of trade booms, volatility and the poor periphery, 1782-1913,” European Review of Economic History (Vol. 12, 2008), pages 357, 379.

[7] Joel Benin, op. cit., page 15.

[8] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., page 2.

[9] Anthony Gorman, “Diverse in Race, Religion and Nationality… But United in Aspirations of Civil Progress: The Anarchist Movement in Egypt 1860-1940,” in Steve Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism and Social Revolution (Boston, Brill, 2010), pages 3-6.

[10] Ibid, pages 8-10.

[11] Zachary Lockman, op cit., page 3.

[12] Anthony Gorman, op. cit., pages 18-23.

[13] Ibid, page 26.

[14] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., page 4; Anthony Gorman, op. cit., page 26.

[15] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., pages 4-6.

[16] Ibid, pages 6-7.