Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt

Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt

by Joel Beinin

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Since the 1990s, the Middle East has experienced an upsurge of wildcat strikes, sit-ins, and workers' demonstrations. Well before people gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, workers had formed one of the largest oppositional movements to authoritarian rule in Egypt. In Tunisia, years prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings, the unemployed chanted in protest, "A job is a right, you pack of thieves!"

Despite this history, most observers have failed to acknowledge the importance of workers in the social ferment preceding the removal of Egyptian and Tunisian autocrats and in the political realignments after their demise. In Workers and Thieves, Joel Beinin corrects this by surveying the efforts and impacts of the workers' movements in Egypt and Tunisia since the 1970s. He argues that the 2011 uprisings in these countries—and, importantly, their vastly different outcomes—are best understood within the context of these repeated mobilizations of workers and the unemployed over recent decades.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804798648
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/11/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. He has written or edited ten books, most recently Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, co-edited with Frédéric Vairel (Stanford, 2013) and The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (2010). His articles have been published in leading scholarly journals, as well as The Nation, Middle East Report, The Los Angeles Review of Books, South Atlantic Quarterly, Le Monde Diplomatique, and others.

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Workers and Thieves

Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt

By Joel Beinin


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9864-8



The dominant position of foreign or resident European capital and the national/racial component of relations between labor and capital were central features of colonial capitalism and the formation of working classes in both Tunisia and Egypt. But there were also significant differences. Egypt was nominally independent, a far richer prize, and strategically located at the crossroads of the British Empire. Tunisia was a settler colony, albeit on a much smaller scale than neighboring Algeria. Settler workers established strong unions informed by the language of socialism and class. Their blindness to colonialism prompted Tunisian workers to form their own trade unions informed by a nationalist understanding of class. Among Egypt's relatively small population of resident Europeans and Levantines there were some pioneer trade unionists and socialists. Resident Greek cigarette-rollers went on strike in 1899 and subsequently formed Egypt's first trade union. But as early as 1908 Egyptian nationalist politicians — lawyers, journalists, and other modern professionals — embraced workers and led many trade unions. They avoided the language of class until Marxists reintroduced it in the 1930s. The Tunisian nationalist intelligentsia was slower to support workers and their issues, so trade unions became a salient, relatively autonomous actor in the nationalist movement.


From the 1860s to the 1950s, the distinctive elements of Egyptian colonial capitalism were cultivation and export of raw cotton; concessionary contracts with Europeans for infrastructure, transportation, and public utilities projects; and financial bondage to European banks. The most important transportation concession was the Suez Canal. It opened in 1869 and was built, owned, and operated by a Paris-based multinational corporation. The Egyptian government supplied twenty thousand corvée laborers annually during the decade of the canal's construction. In return, it received 44 percent of the company's shares. Under financial duress, Khedive Isma'il sold Egypt's shares to the British government in 1875.

Egypt's state bankruptcy in 1876 and a popular movement of resistance to European economic and political domination in 1879–82 led to British military occupation of Egypt in 1882. A nationalist uprising in 1919 compelled Britain to issue a unilateral declaration of independence in 1922, although Britain retained ultimate power in collaboration with the monarchy it created, the large cotton-growing magnates, and an emergent urban business class. From the formation of the first nationalist parties in 1907 until 1954, ending the British occupation was the principal issue in Egyptian politics.

The Euro-American financial crisis of 1907 triggered a collapse in the global market price of raw cotton and its byproducts, which comprised over 90 percent of Egypt's exports. Tal'at Harb, a financial manager for the Egyptian Sugar Company, seized the occasion to begin campaigning for economic diversification and industrialization. By then a cosmopolitan Egyptian bourgeoisie including aspiring industrialists was in formation, consisting of resident foreigners, Levantine minorities, and indigenous Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

The 1919 nationalist uprising was the formative moment for themobilization of both labor and capital under a patriotic banner. In March the British arrested and deported Sa'd Zaghlul, the leader of the Wafd (delegation) Party, which had been formed only months before to demand Egyptian independence. During the ensuing national uprising, urban workers engaged in dozens of strikes, formed new trade unions, and readily conjoined their workplace issues with the nationalist cause.

In 1920 Tal'at Harb and his colleagues established Bank Misr (Misr is the Arabic name for Egypt). He promoted it as the first Egyptian-owned bank with a mission to finance industrial development. Bank Misr's flagship enterprise, established in 1927, was the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company — popularly known as Ghazl al-Mahalla after the central Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, where it is located. At the end of World War II Ghazl al-Mahalla employed twenty-five thousand workers and was the largest industrial enterprise in the entire MENA region.

Egypt regained tariff autonomy in 1930, enabling the government to ban imports of sugar and cotton thread and encourage agrobusiness and industrial enterprises. During both world wars large allied armies stationed in Egypt employed hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. The Anglo-American Middle East Supply Center established during World War II promoted industrial production for the war effort. Modern transportation networks, state-supported private enterprises, and allied military requirements made Egypt the most industrialized Arab country with the largest working class by the end of World War II.

Nonetheless, Egypt could not manufacture producer goods or agricultural machinery like tractors or harvesters. The fundamental contours of the political economy were unaltered: cotton remained king. The departure of the allied armies after World War II collapsed the domestic market. Tens of thousands of first-generation industrial, transport, and service workers were morally and economically shocked to find themselves "arbitrarily fired," as they understood their situation. Local capital was too weak to provide an adequate number of comparable jobs or compete with the renewed flow of imported manufactures.

Stimulated by the growth of the textile industry, and supported by cosmopolitan intellectuals engaged in renewing Egyptian Marxism, a trend advocating trade union independence from all political parties emerged in the 1930s. Marxist-influenced workers led large textile workers unions in suburban Cairo during and after World War II. Three strike waves in 1945–46, 1947–48, and 1950–51 infused the nationalist movement with a progressive social component, inextricably intertwining class and national identities.


Predatory loans by French banks led to Tunisia's state bankruptcy in 1869. Its finances fell under joint British-French-Italian control. Political control followed. France declared Tunisia a protectorate in 1881.

In the nineteenth century, Italians were the principal European settlers. Italian and French settlers employed Tunisian sharecroppers to cultivate olive trees in the Sahel (the coastal plain extending south of Hammamet through Sousse and Monastir to Mahdia) and French or Tunisian laborers in the vineyards of the Mejerda River valley. To offset the Italian presence, France promoted settlement of its citizens and their investment in agriculture. By 1930 the rate of mechanization and productivity of settler colonial agriculture in Tunisia was greater than in metropolitan France. When Tunisia became independent in 1956, French citizens comprised some 145,000 of its 255,000 European settlers.

The single most important French economic interest in Tunisia was mining and export of raw phosphates. The Compagnie des phosphates et des chemins de fer de Gafsa (CPCFG) received a concession in 1896 and began exporting raw phosphates after completing its railway line to Sfax in 1899. In the late 1920s Tunisia's twenty-one thousand miners (including 3,600 Europeans) formed the largest single component of its industrial workforce. But the CPCFG contributed little to Gafsa's development other than employment. The railway was "the equivalent of an oil pipeline: a long-distance system of inhaling the resources of Gafsa."

French and Italian railway, tramway, postal, public service, and construction workers established Tunisia's first trade unions before World War I and its first labor federation in October 1919 — a section of France's Confédération générale du travail (CGT). French socialists (La Section française de l'international ouvrier) and communists (the Tunisian section of the Communist Party of France) were the main political forces in the CGT. They imagined that the more "advanced" French working class would lead the colonies to socialism. Therefore they opposed separate Tunisian national trade unions and Tunisian independence.

French citizens' wages were officially one-third higher than indigenous wages. In August 1924 Tunisian dockworkers in Tunis and Bizerte went on strike demanding a unified wage equal to the twenty-four francs a day earned by dockworkers in Marseille. Other sectors followed. The European unions refused to support the strikers, prompting the formation of the first Tunisian national trade union federation, the Confédération générale tunisienne du travail (al-Jami'a al-'amma al-tunisiyya lil-shughl, CGTT) led by the legendary M'hammed 'Ali Hammi. French authorities viewed this first mobilization of the emergent Tunisian working class as an anticolonial uprising. In 1925 they dissolved the CGTT and exiled most of its leaders, including Hammi.

Tahar Haddad, a professor at the modernist Zaytuna mosque-university, befriended Hammi and briefly succeeded him as the leader of the CGTT. While Haddad was critical of capitalism and familiar with European Marxism, he articulated the foundational doctrine of Tunisian trade unionism: the primacy of the anticolonial struggle. Consequently, Haddad joined Tunisia's first nationalist party, the Destour (Liberal Constitutional Party, al-Hizb al-hurr al-dusturi). The Destour program prioritized the demand to restore the Constitution (dustur) of 1861, the first in the Middle East and North Africa. It supported the principle of "equal pay for equal work." But it had in mind primarily government clerical workers. It eschewed mass politics and disdained manual workers. When the Destour did not defend the CGTT, Haddad left the party.

Despite being foreign dominated, the CGT filled the vacuum left by the demise of the CGTT. It eventually embraced "equal pay for equal work." French authorities conceded the demand for public sector workers in 1936.

In 1934 a group of French-educated young men from the Sahel led by Habib Bourguiba broke away from the Destour and founded the more assertively nationalist Neo-Destour Party (New Liberal Constitutional Party, al-Hizb al-hurr al-dusturi al-jadid). The multinational composition of the CGT and its opposition to Tunisian independence was a negative factor for the Neo-Destour that overrode its substantial contributions to workers' economic struggles. Therefore the Neo-Destour sought to rebuild a national labor federation under its aegis.

Farhat Hached is generally considered the founder of that federation — the Union générale tunisienne du travail (al-Ittihad al-'amm al-tunisi lil-shughl, UGTT). In 1944 he resigned his post as assistant secretary general of the CGT to organize Tunisian workers on a national basis. By November Hached and Ahmed Tlili, a native of Gafsa and an advocate for its phosphate miners, formed a southern federation of Tunisian trade unions. A sister northern federation was established shortly thereafter.

In 1946 the two regional federations united in the UGTT, which claimed 80,000 members by 1952. The 1955 census of the NeoDestour tallied 221,000 members, but no more than 12,000–15,000 activists (militants). The UGTT was by far Tunisia's largest civic organization and could mobilize thousands of workers. Hence, it constituted the most important social base of the nationalist movement. This allowed the UGTT to remain alliedwith but organizationally autonomous from the Neo-Destour. The UGTT enhanced its political clout through Hached's close alliance with Bourguiba and his Francophile, secular-modernist faction of the Neo-Destour.

During a brief period of armed struggle for independence and consequent French repression, Hached was the principal nationalist leader living in Tunisia. On December 5, 1952 terrorist settlers acting on orders of the French Counter-Espionage Service assassinated him. Hached's death bequeathed to the UGTT unassailable nationalist legitimacy, which it retains to this day.

Idolization of Hached's leadership and martyrdom for the national cause tends to obscure the historic tensions between the UGTT and the Neo-Destour and the regional/class conflicts in Tunisian political history. Three of the five historic UGTT founders — Hached, Habib Achour, and Mohammed Kraïem — hailed from the Kerkennah Islands. Another of the five, Abdelaziz Bouraoui, was born in Sfax. Tunisian railway workers on the Sfax-Gafsa line independently formed a union in 1944. Thus the historic social base of Tunisian national trade unionism was the southern axis of Gafsa-Sfax-Kerkennah, which later mounted several challenges to Bourguiba and his economic policies.

The rivalry between Sfax and Sousse and the underdevelopment of the interior regions of the center-west and the south in contrast to the coast have been constant undercurrents in both national and trade union politics. The marginalized regions have disproportionately embraced forces opposed to coastal elites — communists, Youssefists (see below), and Islamists. Regional deprivation and class exploitation intersected in Gafsa, as they still do today. The Francophile modernism of Bourguiba's wing of the Neo-Destour and his allies in the UGTT never commanded unchallenged support there. Thus, the CGT led nearly half the 159 strikes in the Gafsa phosphate mining basin from 1946 to 1956 and joined with the UGTT in leading an additional one third of them.


Overt colonialism ended in most of the global South in the decades following World War II. During the same period Western states and bankers, hoping to avoid a recurrence of the Great Depression, remade global capitalism. The 1944 Bretton Woods Conference established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to regulate the postwar economic order." Fordism-Keynesianism," in the terminology of the regulation school of political economy, captures the essential features of the new regime of capital accumulation.

Fordism-Keynesianism was based on domestically oriented mass production and mass consumption (introduced by Henry Ford, pioneer of the moveable assembly line) and government-managed demand and spending to stimulate employment (advocated by John Maynard Keynes). Fordism-Keynesianism was politically secured by the New Deal and European social democracy, which established a compromise between labor and capital that delivered the high wages, high productivity, and high profits in Western Europe and North America from about 1948 to 1971. The success of Fordism-Keynesianism depended on U.S. military power and economic supremacy, the dollar's function as an international currency, and U.S. leadership in shaping the economic reconstruction of Europe and Japan.

Fordism-Keynesianism in this form was not a feasible regime of capital accumulation in the decolonizing countries of the global South. The typical economic entailments of colonialism were limited mechanized industry and low-wage, low-consumption economies with large subsistence agriculture and seasonal wage labor sectors. Therefore, the IMF and the World Bank fostered developmentalism, an economic strategy based on import-substitution industrialization: replacing imported consumer goods with domestically manufactured products targeted to local markets and protecting uncompetitive "infant industries" with high tariff barriers. Large agricultural landholdings were redistributed to enhance social equity and increase the purchasing power of poor, or more commonly middling, farmers. States led economic development through planning and public investment in industry, public utilities, and strategic economic sectors like petroleum, and provided a substantial social safety net for urban workers. Developmentalism has also been termed "peripheral Keynesianism," a term indicating that, like Fordism-Keynesianism in the developed capitalist economies, it secured a class compromise comparable to the New Deal or European social democracy. I use both terms interchangeably.


On July 23, 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser led the "Free Officers" in executing a coup d'état. Most Egyptians came to consider the coup a revolution based on the land reform of September 1952; significant wage increases for urban workers; the evacuation of British troops by 1956; construction of the Aswan High Dam and other major industrial projects; Egypt's leading role in the nonaligned movement; and most audaciously, nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 23, 1956.


Excerpted from Workers and Thieves by Joel Beinin. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Contents and AbstractsIntroduction: Workers, Collective Action, and Politics chapter abstract

The social movements of Tunisian and Egyptian workers and those affiliated with them were the most persistent contestations of the 2000s and the largest demographic component of the culture of protest that empowered Arabs to want the fall of autocratic regimes during the popular uprisings of 2011. However during the 2000s, mobilizations of workers and the unemployed infrequently demanded democracy or regime change as such and were not well integrated with movements of the oppositional intelligentsias. Because of its relative autonomy from the state, the UGTT was able to detach itself from the Ben Ali regime, reform itself, and ultimately decisively influence Tunisia's post-Ben Ali trajectory towards procedural democracy. In contrast, ETUF remained loyal to Mubarak until the end. Newly established independent unions and federations did not have the organizational capacity, resources, or political experience to similarly influence the post-Mubarak political agenda.

1Colonial Capitalism to Developmentalism chapter abstract

Chapter 1 provides the historical context for the argument of the book, tracing the economic development of Egypt and Tunisia and their labor and leftist political movements from the colonial era (colonial capitalism) and their trade union movements through the era of decolonization. In the Nasser era in Egypt and early post-independence Tunisia (the 1950s and 1960s) both countries adopted national developmentalist economic policies (peripheral Keynesianism and import-substitution industrialization). The IMF and the World Bank supported such policies until the decade-long economic crisis of the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s.

2The Washington Consensus chapter abstract

Chapter 2 follows the histories of the Egyptian and Tunisian workers movements, trade union organizations, and leftist parties as they contended with the installation of new economic policies (the neoliberal Washington Consensus). During the 1980s and early 1990s strikes, none of them supported by ETUF, became a regular phenomenon in Egypt for the first time since the early 1950s. In Tunisia both wildcat strikes and shorter warning strikes authorized by the UGTT reached historically high levels.

3Insurgent Workers in the Autumn of Autocracy chapter abstract

Chapter 3 argues that in Egypt and Tunisia (but much less so than in Egypt), middle class mobilizations for human rights and democracy became more active in the 2000s. However workers movements and in Tunisia an uprising of unemployed in the Gafsa phosphate mining basin in 2008 comprised by far the largest mobilizations against autocracy. However, there was a considerable gap between the abstract calls for democratization by the middle class intelligentsias and the economic demands of workers and the unemployed. The contentious actions of Egyptian and Tunisian workers and the unemployed in the 2000s suggest that "political opportunity structures," in the terminology of social movement theory, the "expansion of civil society," and theories of democratization do not reliably explain the origins, character, capacity to persist, or the divergent outcomes of the movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

4Popular Uprisings in 2011 and Beyond chapter abstract

Chapter 4 argues that workers' mobilizations were central to the movements to oust presidents Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Moreover, those mobilizations continued after the ouster of the autocrats. In Tunisia, pressure from second level leaders on the UGTT to support the uprisings eventually resulted in the reform of the UGTT and its central role in the consolidation of procedural democracy. In Egypt, the workers movement could not compel the ETUF to stand with them and the movement against Mubarak. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress were too inexperienced and lacked sufficient organizational capacity and resources to influence post-Mubarak politics decisively. The organizational weakness of the Egyptian labor movement and the political illusions of some of its leaders explain, in part, the consolidation of a more vicious form of authoritarianism under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Conclusion: Workers, Social Struggles, and Democracy chapter abstract

Workers and those affiliated with them played a central role in the 2011 popular uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia a reformed UGTT was ultimately the decisive force in the consolidation of procedural democracy. Democracy in Tunisia was not due to its stronger civil society. In Tunisia, as in Egypt "civil society organizations" – most commonly understood as NGOs – except for the Tunisian Bar Association, did not launch the uprising. The UGTT was the overwhelmingly preponderant force in the Quartet (along with the Bar Association, UTICA and the LTDH) that established procedural democracy. The economic and social demands that were at the core of the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt remain unanswered.

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