The workers’ movement, revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt

Mostafa Bassiouny & Anne Alexander

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Discussions of the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution rarely mention the workers’ movement, focusing instead on the idea of a social media-fuelled youth rebellion. However, any attempt to understand the course of the revolution must necessarily grapple with the role of the workers’ movement.

Directly after the downfall of Mubarak on 11 February 2011, workers’ struggles appeared as an independent factor in the revolutionary process, distinct from the youth of Tahrir Square or social media activists or even the political forces opposing the regime. Despite the exit of protesters from Tahrir and increasing calls on Egyptians by prominent political figures for them to ‘return to work’, and ‘restart the wheel of production’, millions of workers transmitted the revolution into their workplaces.1 Fierce battles against ‘the remnants of the regime’ spread throughout government institutions and across the public and private sectors.2 These strikes and protests continued the wave of workers’ struggles which had begun before the fall of Mubarak, spreading to the subsidiaries of the Suez Canal Company, the Public Transport Authority in Cairo, Post Offices, government institutions, military production factories, media institutions belonging to the regime and other workplaces between 6 and 11 February.

The extension of the revolutionary struggle to the workplace challenged efforts by reformist forces, whether Islamist or liberal, to confine the meaning of ‘revolution’ within the limits of constitutional reform and the development of electoral mechanisms. Through their struggles to ‘cleanse the institutions’ workers discovered the impossibility of separating the political struggle against the former ruling party from the struggle for social justice.3

Sometimes this discovery led to radical results: for example, in Manshiyet al-Bakri Hospital in Cairo, workers threw out the director and elected a new one, and strove to put in place mechanisms of direct rather than representative democracy, thus improving patient care.4 Cairo Airport workers forced the recruitment of a civilian director for the first time (as opposed to one from the military), and local government workers in Alexandria sacked an unelected general from his post as leader of the neighbourhood council. Teachers organized one of the biggest strikes in Egyptian history in September 2011, not only to improve their own pay and conditions but also to reform the curriculum and to end the burden of private lessons falling on citizens.5 These examples point to the importance of ‘reciprocal action’ between the economic and the political aspects of the class struggle, as Rosa Luxemburg outlined in The Mass Strike.6

This article argues that this process of reciprocal action played a pivotal role in the development of the revolutionary process in Egypt. It also argues that a way to understand the counter-revolution is to see it as reciprocal action in reverse, where the political aspect of the class struggle tends towards the reproduction of tyranny and the mechanisms of repression and exploitation, as could be seen in Egypt from the autumn of 2012 onwards. This article will attempt to clarify why spontaneous collective action is not, in itself, enough to deepen the interaction between the economic and political aspects of a revolution, particularly in the context of a clash with the state. Revolutionaries need to win over many activists in the ranks of the working class to a political vision of their role in the revolution which recognizes the importance of deepening and intensifying the revolutionary process, especially in the course of the clash with the organs of the state, in order to open up space to empower the workers’ movement and develop its political impact. This vision differs from perspectives that propose the separation of the workers’ movement from politics and from the idea that the role of its leadership is to protect workers from politicization. It also stands in contrast to a view of workers’ strikes and protests as a weapon to be used by the opposition in battle with the regime, rather than as an integral element in the process of working class self-emancipation. This article concentrates instead on the challenges for the working class of expressing a political perspective as a class ‘for itself’, as Karl Marx proposed.

The rise of a mass political movement7 and its roots

The beginning of the Egyptian movement in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 2000 may well be the appropriate point from which to trace the events which would culminate in the revolution in January 2011. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because the flowering of a solidarity movement with Palestine came after a long period of apathy in the Egyptian street, during which forms of social and political protest had noticeably retreated, while the regime used the rhetoric of ‘fighting terrorism’ to control the opposition and prevent demonstrations. The second reason is the geographical spread and timescale of the movement in support of the Palestinian Intifada, which involved universities, schools, political parties and professional associations, and which organized street protests across many provinces, expanding participation beyond the political elites to popular areas. The movement’s wide geographical spread and extended timespan over three years between September 2000 and March 2003 presented an excellent opportunity to develop organizational mechanisms, drawing new generations of young people into political activity.

The Palestine solidarity movement also paved the way for the movement opposing the American war on Iraq, through the connections built between political forces and the professional unions, which had interacted in order to support the Palestinian Intifada. The protest movement against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point in the development of political mobilization in the Egyptian street for two reasons. Firstly, it involved a very successful mass mobilization, especially at the outbreak of war on 20–21 March. The call by the Coalition Against the Invasion of Iraq for demonstrations at the beginning of the aggression was answered by very large numbers, with thousands demonstrating in Tahrir Square in Cairo at the first hours of the invasion. The demonstrations only ended when the security forces broke them up violently at night. On the following day, which was a Friday, demonstrations began after prayers at several mosques, the largest taking place at Al-Azhar. Although the security forces attempted to disperse them, some protesters managed to reach the outskirts of Tahrir Square, where the security forces again broke up the protest and arrested a large number of people. The regime’s response then reached new levels of violence: the security forces blocked the entrance to Al-Azhar on 21 March and flooded the courtyard with tear gas, arresting large numbers of worshippers who were trying to protest. This level of violence underlined the importance of a struggle for democracy and the opening of a public space for protest and political action.

Increasing signs that Gamal Mubarak would succeed his father as president during 2004 made the project of democratic reform all the more urgent, and led to the formation of coalitions demanding democracy and rejecting the inheritance of power. The most significant of these was the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), which was formed in December 2004. In addition, other movements emerged, most importantly Youth for Change, Artists and Writers for Change and Journalists for Change.

These developments helped to integrate the groups of young people who had been associated with the mass political movement since 2000 into new groups: for example, a group defending the judges’ movement for judicial independence during 2006. With the development of communication technologies, the rise of satellite channels not controlled by the state, and the growth of privately-owned newspapers during the same period, ideas of change, reform and democracy had an unprecedented opportunity to spread and have an impact.

However, during these early years the regime was able to absorb the impact of this movement, even though that movement had begun to voice criticism of Mubarak himself – a topic which had been off limits for the opposition during the entire period of his rule since 1981. In 2005, hopes for change began to recede after Mubarak was elected for a new presidential term, and the following year, the regime managed to control the judges’ protests. Then, in 2006, the regime also enacted constitutional changes that would have enabled Gamal Mubarak to inherit power.

Towards a new workers’ movement

The regime’s breathing space did not last long. At the end of 2006, the emergence of a new workers’ movement shifted the balance in the struggle for change in Egypt. A strike by textile workers at the public sector Misr Spinning plant in al-Mahalla al-Kubra in December 2006 can be considered the beginning of a new phase in the movement for change. Founded in the 1930s, Misr Spinning is one of the largest spinning and weaving companies in Egypt; the struggles of its workers had become a reference point for the Egyptian labour movement.8

There had been continuous workers’ protests during the years preceding December 2006, including important strikes such as those in the cement industry, the textile sector, the railways and elsewhere. However, the strike by the Mahalla workers in December 2006 marked the onset of a different trajectory in workers’ struggles, brought about by qualitative changes which could be considered marking the rise of a new workers’ movement. The workers at Misr Spinning in al-Mahalla began their strike on 7 December 2006, demanding payment of their annual bonuses, as specified by law for public sector firms. The strike followed a week-long ‘pay strike’ where workers had refused to cash their pay cheques in protest at the company’s failure to add the annual bonus to their pay. This was the biggest workers’ protest in terms of numbers involved since the protests by workers in the Kafr al-Dawwar Spinning Company in al-Beheira governorate in September 1994, which had ended in a clash with security forces. The Misr Spinning strike continued from 7 December to 16 December and ended with negotiations that led to some of the workers’ demands being met. This was in itself a transformation in the way that the state dealt with workers’ protests. Generally, the state had previously relied on repression, as it had done with the workers’ protests on the railways in 1986, at the ESCO textile mill in 1987, within the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989, and in other protests during the 1980s.

The ending of the Misr Spinning strike without violence by the security forces, and the meeting of some of the workers’ demands, dispelled the fears that had been created by the experience of earlier protests, in which workers had been fired upon and killed, detained or lost their jobs. Workers’ understanding that the state’s response had changed triggered a wave of industrial action in a variety of sectors: going on strike became an everyday activity in Egypt. Strikes were also of a longer duration than they had previously been.

There are multiple reasons for this change in the behaviour of the security forces. The most important was the liberalization of the media which was taking place in this period, which allowed the news of the strike to spread more quickly. At the same time, the security forces were hesitant about direct attacks on protesters in the face of online solidarity campaigns and increased media coverage both inside and outside the country. The authorities were also divided on how to deal with strikes, as a result of contradictions and conflicts between the regime’s own labour organization, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), and the Ministry of Labour.

The lengthening duration of workers’ protests during this period provided a new opportunity to develop organisationally. Workers had to protect equipment and buildings from sabotage and supply provisions during their protests. Likewise, negotiations required choosing representatives. This organizational development produced negotiations committees, organizing committees, protest leaders, provisions committees and security committees. These would lay the foundations for the future development of independent trade unions, beginning with the Property Tax Collectors’ Union, which was founded in December 2008.

The new workers’ movement was also characterized by the wide participation of women, to a much higher degree than in previous worker mobilizations. The 2006 strike at Misr Spinning was started by women, and the nursing sector, where large numbers of women work, played a major role. Women leaders also appeared in many other sectors to a much greater degree than had previously been the case.9

The period after the Misr Spinning strike in 2006 also saw the evolution of workers’ demands in parallel with this organizational advance. The Misr Spinning workers’ strikes provide an illustration of this qualitative shift. After the success of the 2006 strike, workers organized a further strike in September 2007 demanding the improvement of working conditions, the development of the company and action to hold corrupt elements to account. After a week of strike action, some of these demands were met. Just a few months later, in February 2008, Misr Spinning workers organized a street demonstration demanding a rise in the national minimum wage for all Egyptian workers. This was a major shift in consciousness as for the most part workers’ protests had previously only raised demands related to their own company. Moreover, they tended to focus on the ‘variable’ portion of the wage bill (composed of bonuses and allowances), as opposed to basic pay. Thereafter, the demand for a raise in the national minimum wage became a semi-permanent fixture in the list of demands of workers’ strikes in different workplaces.

The most important outcome of this strike wave was the emergence of new independent unions. In the ETUF elections of November 2006, just a few weeks before the Mahalla strike, the security apparatus and the government took the unprecedented step of excluding from office all of the major worker activists who had previously held elected positions. It was thus no surprise when ETUF stood side by side with management during the Mahalla strike in December. Workers responded by attacking the official union offices, throwing the ETUF officials out of the company and gathering signatures to a statement withdrawing confidence from the ETUF factory union committee.

The first attempts to found an independent union did not relate to Mahalla, however: they emerged out of the protests by property tax collectors which began in September 2007 and continued until December 2007, when their demands were met. This extended period of protests led to the formation of a committee to lead the movement and to negotiate in the name of the property tax collectors – effectively a trade union. Shortly after the end of the protests the tax collectors agreed to found a union as a natural extension of this committee.

The foundation by thousands of workers of a trade union outside of state control, after half a century during which trade unionism had been subsumed by the state, was a major democratic step forward. In fact, the independent unions which were formed in 2008 and thereafter were the sole mass organizations not under the control of the state. They also constituted a direct challenge to ETUF, which is one of the most important state institutions and which had been used as an instrument to control workers by successive Egyptian presidents since its founding by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957.

It is important to note here that one of the factors which mobilized this new workers’ movement during this period was the neoliberal economic policies of the International Monetary Fund, which were initiated by the regime from 1991 onwards. The Egyptian state’s economic policies between 1952 and 1970 had been characterized by centralized planning, and even after the growth of the private sector and the economic changes which Anwar al-Sadat initiated, the state continued to play the central role in the economy, through its ownership of public sector projects and companies. The form of labour relations established during the Nasserist era continued to dominate the labour market in Egypt. Moreover, ETUF retained its importance for the regime as a tool of political mobilization during elections and in order to build support for important policies, ranging from the peace treaty with Israel to the policies of Structural Adjustment adopted after 1991.

These economic reforms led to the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the role of the state declined. The stable labour relations which workers had enjoyed during the previous era began to break down as market forces asserted their dominance. This development was reflected in changing practices by the workers’ movement that emerged after 2006. For a long time, workers in Egypt had relied on ‘work-ins’ as a means of protest, occupying their workplaces without stopping production. This tactic reflected the political culture of Nasserism, where production was considered a national goal, and the factory was seen as the property of the people. By contrast, after 2006, the majority of workers turned to strike action, reflecting the impact of Structural Adjustment and its direct subjection of the production process to market mechanisms rather than national development goals. The new workers’ movement can thus be considered a delayed reaction to the imposition of the neoliberal reform programme after 1991, and the retreat of the state from the Nasserist social contract, as well as the paralysis of ETUF.

The interaction between the workers’ movement and the mass political movement

The workers’ movement brought the Egyptian street back to life following the retreat of political mobilizations against the regime after 2006. Although the slogans and demands of the workers’ movement were not as radical as the political mobilization, which criticized the president and opposed the inheritance of Mubarak’s power by his son Gamal, it deepened the practice of democracy and developed organizational and movement mechanisms which strongly benefited the political movement.

The events relating to 6 April 2008 were a turning point in the development of the mass political movement in Egypt, and illustrate the reciprocal action between the workers’ movement and the political mobilization. The workers of al-Mahalla had announced their decision to strike on that day, demanding (among other things) a rise in the national minimum wage. Opposition political forces, headed by Kifaya (which united the majority of the forces pushing for change), then called for an Egypt-wide general strike on the same day. In the end, neither the general strike nor the al-Mahalla strike took place (the latter was aborted by the security forces); instead, a popular uprising exploded on 6 April against rising prices and poverty in al-Mahalla. In protests that lasted three days, crowds tore down pictures of Mubarak, and the Prime Minister was forced to visit the town and the factory in an attempt to calm the situation, offering concessions to the workers and local people.

Many of the characteristics of the workers’ movement would go on to influence the revolution in January 2011: occupying public squares, organizing committees for provisions, for negotiations and to protect facilities, and the wide participation of women. These practices were disseminated by the media and social media to the whole of society, moving organically from the domain of the workers’ movement to the wider domain of the revolution.

The role of workers during the 2011 uprising and the fall of Mubarak

By the time the revolution erupted in January 2011, the workers’ movement had made significant progress in organization and mobilization. Its impact on society was considerable: workplace sit-ins and workers’ street occupations had become part of contemporary protest culture and the movement was considered one of the principal factors that might bring about change in Egypt. Despite this progress, because of the absence of independent workers’ organizations with sufficient social weight or political experience, workers’ participation in the popular uprising at the beginning of the 2011 revolution took two principal forms. The first was the opening of a ‘second front’, with the eruption of a huge wave of strikes and sit-ins (which continued after the fall of Mubarak through battles to remove members of the ruling party from management). The second was through the battles between the security forces and protesters in the streets, squares and popular neighbourhoods, where many workers fell victim to the bullets of the security forces.

Workers were of course among the crowds on the streets on 25 January 2011 and thereafter, but there was no distinctive workers’ presence during this period. With the imposition of long hours of curfew, workers found it difficult to assemble at workplaces, which had mostly been closed by the authorities, who decreed a holiday. However, as soon as the curfew was relaxed, the workers’ movement began to make its mark on the revolution. In Suez, for example, workers from more than 10 companies called for a sit-in on 6 February, including at four subsidiaries of the Suez Canal Company, and at the Lafarge Cement and Glass Company. Workers at Telecom Egypt also announced a sit-in, while cleaning workers in Giza began a sit-in and strike, blocking one of the principal highways in the area, as did workers from Abu-al-Siba’i Spinning and Weaving Company in al-Mahalla.

This first substantial wave of workers’ protests lasted from 6 to 11 February and involved widespread action, with almost no sector of the economy unaffected. The strike by Telecom Egypt workers spread to employees in the public telephone exchanges, who organized numerous protests in Cairo and the provinces. Workers in the railway workshops and in the Cairo Public Transport Authority bus garages joined the strikes and protests. Postal workers converged in protest outside the Post Office in Ataba Square in central Cairo and their movement quickly spread to the provinces. Critical workplaces such as the airport and the military production factories were likewise affected, as were some of the oil companies and textile mills in Helwan, south of Cairo, and Kafr al-Dawwar in al-Beheira province. The health sector was similarly drawn in: nurses in hospitals in Assyout, Kafr al-Zayyat and Qasr al-Aini, and at the Heart Institute in Cairo, announced strikes. Printers and administrative staff in the state-owned magazine Rose el-Youssef refused to let the managing editor and chair of the board (both of them close to the regime) into the building. Meanwhile employees at the state’s ‘Workers’ University’, a training centre for the regime’s trade union cadres, had already declared a strike and locked up their boss, the deputy president of ETUF and a member of the ruling party.

Thus, during the days just before the fall of Mubarak, something which resembled a general strike, without a central organizing core, took place in Egypt. However, the workers’ movement as a whole did not declare its support for the revolution directly. Some workers did raise slogans supporting the revolution, and workers echoed chants against the regime, but their demands were mostly economic or trade union-related. Despite this, it is impossible to ignore the process of reciprocal action between the revolution and the workers’ movement. It is notable that in working class areas, where the workers’ movement had emerged before the revolution, such as Suez, al-Mahalla and Alexandria, the popular uprisings were more energetic and effective.

The number of workers who were killed during the uprising provides the greatest proof of the contribution of the working class to the revolution. The workers’ movement not only paved the way for revolution, it also played a crucial role in securing its victory. It is difficult to obtain data on all of the martyrs of the revolution, but statistics shed some light on this issue. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, there were 841 martyrs. Unfortunately, data about their occupations is missing for most of these people,10 but a committee of the Egyptian Journalists’ Union collected data about 279 martyrs, and recorded the occupation of 120 of them. Of these 120, 74 were workers and the remainder were students or professionals. Available sources point to workers as forming a large proportion of those killed and injured: where the place of residence is indicated, most came from impoverished areas. The data concerning those injured during the revolution confirms the same pattern. According to the information gathered by the Association of the Heroes and Injured of the Revolution, of 4,500 people injured, 70 per cent were workers with no qualifications, and a further 12 per cent were workers with intermediate-level qualifications. School students (11 per cent) and those with higher-level qualifications (7 per cent) made up the remainder. It was workers and the poor who paid the heaviest price in blood during the Egyptian revolution, and it was their great sacrifice which made the downfall of Mubarak possible.

Organizational gains and political marginalization

The end of Mubarak’s rule marked a new phase in the workers’ movement. In its wake, workers’ protests accelerated and broadened, with the foundation of a large number of independent unions. In addition to demands for the improvement of wages and working conditions, workers’ protests called for more sweeping politicized changes, such as holding corrupt managers to account, the reopening of mothballed public companies, the renationalisation of enterprises privatised during the Mubarak era, a higher national minimum wage and the right to organise.11

The wave of strikes and sit-ins during the first stage of the revolution represented a partial fusion of the social and political aspects of the revolutionary struggle. At the same time it presented a serious threat to the forces of counter-revolution, and especially to the military and security apparatus at the heart of the old regime. These forces now worked anew to separate the political and economic aspects of the revolution. A clear paradox emerged: despite the impact of the workers’ movement on the revolution discussed previously, after Mubarak’s fall the workers’ movement did not continue to play the same role; it did not shape the trajectory of the revolution. On the contrary, as soon as Mubarak was out of the way, attacks on the workers’ movement began. One of the first decisions taken (on 24 March 2011) by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak’s removal, was to ban strikes and refer striking workers to the military courts. In addition, a broad-based campaign against the workers’ movement was launched across different media, labelling workers’ protests ‘sectional’, rather than part of the general trajectory of the revolution.

Many activists from reformist liberal and Islamist currents who had opposed the former regime took part in media campaigns against workers’ strikes and their ‘sectional’ demands. The only defenders of the workers’ movement were the revolutionary left and the nascent independent unions. The majority of the revolutionary youth forces concentrated on the struggle in the squares, unaware of the potential of workers’ struggles to deepen and expand the revolutionary process through confrontations with the regime inside the state institutions and companies in efforts to cleanse them of the remnants of the former ruling party.12

After the parliamentary elections in November 2011 and January 2012 (which led to an Islamist government), and the victory by the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate Mohamed Morsi in the presidential elections in June 2012, a state of political polarization emerged between Islamist and secular forces.. The secular forces interpreted the deteriorating economic and social conditions as a sign of the Islamists’ failure to manage the country, and not as a result of policies which had been implemented since the Mubarak era and continued under Morsi. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood interpreted deteriorating conditions as signs of a conspiracy by the state apparatus against Morsi, and not as a result of his adherence to the same economic policies as those applied by the old regime which had led to the eruption of the revolution.

With the creation of the National Salvation Front,13 and its leading role in the opposition to the Brotherhood, the retreat of social and economic issues accelerated. The Front was announced in November 2012 by a number of political forces, including reformists and elements close to the Mubarak regime, in order to resist the attempt by President Mohamed Morsi to amend the constitution. It concentrated on restoring the prestige of the state and the legitimacy of its institutions, such as the judiciary, the army and the police. Thus, despite the continuation of workers’ struggles during 2012 and at the beginning of 2013, the possibilities for coordination between the goals of the workers’ movement and political struggles in the streets and squares receded.

Events in the wake of the downfall of Mohamed Morsi on 30 June 2013 represented the most significant change in the revolution’s course.14 The intensifying repression against the workers’ movement was an important transformation; however, much more dangerous was the announcement by a considerable section of the independent unions of their backing for the new regime, along with a moratorium on strikes, announced in a joint agreement by ETUF and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. The threat contained in this announcement was not that it halted workers’ protests – these continued, albeit at a slower pace – but rather that it represented a transformation of the role of the independent unions. From striving for liberation from the state’s domination of the trade union movement, they now embraced the new regime, undoing the most significant of the gains made by the workers’ movement since 2006.

This underscored the contradiction between the scale of workers’ movement and the depth of its impact before and during the popular uprising in January 2011, and its political weakness after the fall of Mubarak. In seeking to explain this contradiction it is not enough to talk just about the domination of reformist forces or the constraints imposed by the Islamist–secular polarization on the political scene, even though both of these played a role in creating it. Rather, the contradiction has to be understood through an analysis of the weaknesses within the workers’ movement itself, both in terms of its connections to the political domain, and in relation to questions of organization and the role of its leadership, which lacked experience and coherence.

It is important to note here the retreats which the workers’ movement suffered during the 1990s, and even into the early 2000s. This period witnessed the disappearance of many experienced activists from the workers’ movement and the trade unions, who were not replaced by a new generation. When the workers’ movement rose again after 2006, it had lost much of the experience it had gained during preceding periods. The workers’ leaders who were formed after 2006 were a new cadre which had not accumulated experience in trade union work (in the sense of engagement in the struggle for workers’ interests within the workplace) or in political work. This was different to the experience of the cadre which developed during the 1980s, who were in general connected with the parties and organizations of the left. This is precisely what led to the separation between the workers’ movement and politics at a general level, and in some cases generated hostility among activists in the workers’ movement towards political action.

At the same time, the left, which had historically contributed to building the workers’ movement, was in a state of weakness and incoherence. The organizations and parties of the traditional left had practically dissolved following the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the organizations of the new left were still at a nascent stage of development, in hostile circumstances. On the other hand, the independent unions were in the process of being established, and their organizational capacity remained underdeveloped. They had not even been able put down deep roots among rank and file workers. Thus when the revolution erupted in January 2011, while the property tax collectors’ union, the health technicians’ union, the teachers’ union and the retired workers’ union gathered in Tahrir Square in order to found the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, this did not mean they formed a coherent organizational body; nor did they have strong roots among the mass of ordinary workers.


The separation between the political and social aspects of the workers’ struggle appeared at two principal levels during the revolution. Firstly, the revolutionary forces failed to win over large numbers of activists in the ranks of the working class to a political vision which centred the role of the working class in the revolution and the importance of deepening and radicalizing the revolutionary process, especially in relation to confrontation with the state so as to open up space for the workers’ movement to develop its political impact. Secondly, the lack of organizational experience in the independent unions themselves created another obstacle. The model of organisation which dominated was not radical enough, and lacked democratic mechanisms rooted in the workplace and among wide sections of rank and file workers.15 This problem appeared despite the formation of the first independent unions in the midst of mass strikes, which provided important experiences in self-organization at the base of the workers’ movement.

The weakness in these experiences lay in the lack of a political practice rooted in principles of working class self-organization, not just restricted to the domain of economics but also encompassing the capacity for workers to emancipate themselves in the political domain. This capacity can be built through engagement in political causes – such as solidarity with the Palestinian people, or support for women’s liberation, or struggles against religious sectarianism or to defend the environment. Crucially, it requires immersion in these political causes as workers, and not simply as citizens in the streets or voters at the ballot box.

During the first phase of the revolution, workers’ struggles began to break down the walls which separated the social aspect of the revolution from the political. Workers’ demands expanded from focusing on economic issues to confronting representatives of the regime in the workplace and in the institutions of the state. However, the spontaneous nature of this process was not sufficient to maintain the influence of organised workers over the trajectory of the revolutionary process, in the absence of an organic link to the revolutionary mobilizations which was rooted in the working class. This demonstrates the importance of political, rather than merely trade union, organization in order to ensure that the weight of the workers’ movement shapes the trajectory of change.


Anne Alexander is a researcher and writer based in Britain. She is a trade union activist and a member of the editorial board of International Socialism Journal.

Mostafa Bassiouny is an Egyptian researcher and journalist.


Translated from Arabic by Anne Alexander

Copy-edited by Ashley Inglis

Illustrations by Fourate Chahal El Rekaby

Sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung with funds of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany. This publication or parts of it can be quoted by others for free as long as they provide proper reference to the original publication.

Disclaimer: The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of authors and does not necessarily reflect a position of RLS

Suggested reading

For further suggestions in Arabic please see the Arabic version of this article.
Alexander, A. and Bassiouny, M. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice – Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. London: Zed Books

Bassiouny, M and Said O (2008), ‘A new workers’ movement: the strike wave of 2007’, International Socialism Journal, issue 118, 31 March, [Translation and adaption of the Arabic pamphlet published by the Centre for Socialist Studies in Cairo, December 2007, Raiyyat al-idirab fi sama’ masr: haraka ‘ummaliyya gadida 2007]

Marfleet, P. (2016), Egypt: Contested Revolution, London: Pluto

Shenker, J. (2016) The Egyptians: A Radical Story. London: Allen Lane.


1 Gamal, W. (2011) “Al-Sha’ab yurid agalat intag akhir”, Al-Shuruq, 26 April (archived at:

2 ‘Remnants of the regime’ (filoul al-nidham) became a widely used phrase in Egyptian political life in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. It generally referred to members of the ruling National Democratic Party who remained in positions of authority in public sector institutions and private companies.

3 The Arabic phrase ‘tathir al-mu’assasat’, was used frequently to refer to the process of removing corrupt and unaccountable managers associated with the ruling party. The word ‘tathir’ also has connotations of ‘purification’. The process and the phrase echo the saneamento (literally ‘cleansing’ campaigns carried out by workers during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974). See Alexander, A. and Bassiouny, M. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice – Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. London: Zed Books for more details.

4 Ibrahim, M. (2012) ‘A revolution in an Egyptian hospital’, British Medical Journal 344: e576,

5 School teachers in Egyptian state schools often provide supplementary private lessons for a fee to eke out their meagre pay. Parents are effectively blackmailed into paying for these lessons because the schools are so poorly resourced and overcrowded that it is the only way to pass exams, but they are a huge financial burden, especially for poorer families. Striking teachers argued that private lessons could be eliminated by improving teachers’ pay and providing state schools enough resources to provide a decent education for all. Alexander, A. and Bassiouny, M. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice – Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. London: Zed Books

6 Luxemburg, R. (1906) ‘The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions’, Marxists Internet Archive,

7 The Arabic term ‘al-hirak al-siyasy’ is translated here as ‘mass political movement’ but there is no neat equivalent in English. ‘Hirak’ sits somewhere in the conceptual terrain between mobilisation and movement, being usually composed both of ‘movement organisations’ and the mass of participants they mobilise.

8 Bassiouny, M. and Sa’id, O. (2007) ‘Rayat al-idrab fi sama’a masr’, 20 April 2014, Centre for Socialist Studies,

9 Kassab, B. and Shahba, O. (2018) ‘Al-nisa’a fil haraka al-ummaliyya al-masriyya’, ed. Bassiouny, M. Cairo: Dar al-Miraya.

10 Legal Support Unit for Freedom of Expression (2012) Daw’a fi darb al-huriyya – shuhada thawra 25 yanayir. Cairo: Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

11 Abd al-Salam, R. (2021) ‘Al-haraka al-ummaliyya fil thawra … wa kharij’, Al-Ishtaraki, 26 January 2021,

12 The series of documentary films created by the Mosireen media collective illustrates some of the contradictions between the social impact of the workers’ movement and its organisational gains, and its political marginalisation.

13 Formed at the end of 2012 from the forces opposing the Muslim Brotherhood including those on the right, the left and Arab nationalists, and even some which were close to the Mubarak regime.

14 Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, then Minister of Defence in Morsi’s government, removed Morsi from office on 3 July 2013, following mass protests on 30 June 2013 calling for early presidential elections. In the wake of Morsi’s downfall, hundreds of his supporters lost their lives during the dispersal of their protest camps by the security forces, mostly famously at Raba’a al-Adawiyya Square in Cairo and al-Nahda Square in Giza.