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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Workers and Egypt's January 25th Revolution: Shifting the Discussion from "Autocracy/Democracy" to Political Economy and Equity

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

The two main frameworks for understanding Egypt among political scientists over the last generation have been “civil society and democratization” (transitology) or, since no transition to democracy appeared to be taking place, the “consolidation of authoritarianism.”  Recent events have proven these approaches inadequate, though the former was perhaps more wrong-headed than the latter.  Opposition parties, non-government-owned print media, and the vast majority of NGOS played no role in organizing the demonstration of January 25, 2011 and little role in sustaining the popular uprising it generated.

Since neither of the prevailing paradigms adequately explains the Egyptian (or other Arab) uprisings, the focus of explanation has been on the demonstration effect of Tunisia and the “Facebook youth.”  There is no doubt that these are elements of the picture.  But these fashionable explanations ignore or minimize, just as the previously prevailing understandings of the Mubarak regime did, the enormous wave of workers’ collective action since the late 1990s.  Millions of workers have participated in over 4,000 strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of protest, affecting nearly every major population center and every sector of the economy.  This is the largest and most sustained social movement in Egypt and the Arab world since the end of World War II (except for the Algerian war of independence).  It was also an important laboratory for democracy; these actions were led by elected strike committees or local leaderships, not the official trade unions.
While usually unarticulated, this workers’ movement was a response to the neoliberal economic restructuring of Egypt that has been underway since 1991 and even more vigorously since the installation of the now departed “government of businessmen” in July 2004.  The US government and the corporate media are understandably reluctant to give workers the role they deserve in the history of the movement leading to Mubarak’s demise.  When have elites ever willingly given subalterns their rightful place in history (or in actual societies)?  But the stakes here are even larger than that.  

Focusing exclusively on social media makes Wael Ghoneim and Google the heroes of the revolution – an indirect endorsement of “neoliberal globalization light.”  Understanding what happened in Egypt (and elsewhere) and situating it in its proper regional and global context requires some attention to political economy and class – categories long out of fashion.  This is not a call for a return to economistic Marxism.  Rather, it is an endorsement of the call by Geoff Eley and William H. Sewell, Jr. to seek a pluralist synthesis of social history and cultural history that situates the developments in Egypt and the Arab world as a response to the neoliberal reconstruction of capitalism since the early 1970s.  This approach offers both a deeper historical understanding of the events and a way to make them part of global history.

The bloody-minded arbitrariness of the Mubarak regime, the propensity of the police to engage in torture for no apparent reason, and the pervasive kleptomania of the elites were the immediate targets of the demonstration of January 25, 2011, which was initiated largely by employed educated youth who were seeking both personal freedom and more meaningful ways to contribute to their societies, although some calls included economic demands as well, especially among workers in Suez, which became one of the less-noticed epicenters of revolt.  When the demonstrations became larger and more threatening to the regime, unemployed and underemployed educated youth and factory workers facing loss of benefits and wages due to privatization of their workplaces became allies despite have no organized connection to each other over the last decade.

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