On 11 February, 2011, I stood in Tahrir Square surrounded by millions celebrating the toppling of Mubarak following eighteen solid days of battle. Around me were people from all walks of life: Saʿidis (Upper Egyptians) who came all the way from the south, street children turned rebels, family members of martyrs who were killed during the eighteen days, enthusiasts from the elite, leftist feminist women, members from the Muslim Brotherhood—you name it. In between the shoving of the crowd, the incipient boredom with the monotony of the celebrations and the exuberant vibes, the chants were pretty standard: “down, down with Mubarak,” “the people have toppled the regime,” and, sometimes from the more religious, “God has toppled the regime.”
I then, suddenly, noticed to my right a circle of young men, perhaps twenty of them. They held each other by the arms and screamed their hearts out, “I will get married, I will get married, Iwill get married,” as they turned in circles. Their chant took me by surprise. If one had spent hours writing papers to explain how Mubarak’s ouster brought the intimate and the political together, that chant had basically nailed it in no time.
The chant also highlighted how generational differences played into the interpretation of the uprising. For many young people, the toppling of Mubarak marked the possibility of realisation of many of their shared aspirations, from an ability to marry, to availability of jobs and a simple decent existence without daily harassments from the police. Local and Western media often overplayed young people’s persona as “the revolutionaries of Tahrir,” at times to infantilize the movement. But it is not incorrect that they often led the mobilization during these early days and in other events to follow. Not only that, but their repertoire of resistance strategies and tactics was different from those who came to be considered of older generations.
The Egyptian and Arab uprisings in general were repeatedly viewed from a demographic and generational dimension, leading commentators to argue that the uprisings were largely against patriarchy and the patriarchal family. While this is partially true in that the struggles were largely against the so-called father figures in different institutions, including Mubarak himself who addressed the people as “his children,” we still know very little about how these generational struggles relate to the class politics of these movements and most importantly to the creation and transformation of values that give meaning to people’s lives and viability to community.
Inspired by the month-long factory occupation that took place in December 2013 at Egypt’s oldest and largest state-owned fully integrated steel plant, the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISCO) in Helwan, I map out how generational discourses about politics are at times intertwined with contestations of class between older, organized, stable workers who enjoy middle-class privileges and younger workers who experience greater precarity in their lives. The recruitment of young workers at EISCO came after a sixteen-year hiring freeze between 1991 and 2006 in the entire public sector of Egypt—an attempt to slim down the sector, which in turn sharpened the generational gap between younger and older workers. So while older workers were between fifty and sixty years old, young ones were at most thirty. This institutionalized generational divide in the public sector has been largely overlooked in the analysis of the revolution.
On my first day at the occupation in early December 2013, young workers were welding the gates of the plant to “prevent old workers from escaping the occupation.” As they welded, some of them said they were doing so because “old people are not revolutionaries.” I then wanted to understand why old people were not considered revolutionaries, especially since the following day people like ‘amm Farrag, a crane operator in the mill I conducted most of my first fieldwork in, added to my confusion when he timidly confessed to me that he was among those who jumped the fence because he was too old to stay and had different obligations.
I place the politics of the occupation within the long-term ethnographic fieldwork I did in Egypt since the eve of the revolution between October 2008 and August 2010 and again following the start of the revolution from August 2013 to June 2014. I add to this to encounters from my personal participation in the revolution since 2011.
The tendency in the writing about the revolution has also been to focus on the centers, on Tahrir, to cover the major social movements that emerged among middle-class youth or from the so-called “downtown scene.” What I attempt to do here is write a story of resistance from the fringes, from a place far away from Tahrir and one that only caught up with the collective actions three years into the revolution—an attempt that others are doing in writing about the quieter voices, the voices of the underclass, and in the very praise of the margin. My contention is that the periphery as a place of theorization offers a nuanced read of the possibilities of revolutionary politics and its limits. From the factory in Helwan, an industrial area south of Cairo, I examine how at times of change, the crux of class politics and what I call politics of value become intelligible to a broader audience and force us to understand the struggle in different terms.
The contestations over values at work show the persistent attempts by the young precariat workers to use this revolutionary moment to “free their soul.” The soul according to Bifo is not restricted to intellectual faculties, but include the affective and libidinal forces that allow a world to come together through attentiveness, and ability to relate and care for others. Freeing their soul thus involves freeing their “cognition, affects, emotions, aesthetic textures and experiences at work” from the alienation of work and creating alternative values.[3 Placing the contestation of values at the heart of the analysis of class politics makes the latter less static, materialist, and at times teleological
I shift the emphasis here from the alienation of the soul at work to document the opening of what Bifo calls “happy singularisations” and a refusal and negation of Politics, namely state politics, which is mostly based on totalitarianism. By looking at the nuanced and the everyday, I want to bring forward a story of workers’ resistance to the commodification of their labor and their reinterpretation of the value of their immaterial labor to shape their struggle.
The uprising in the steel plant highlights how precarity is rather a continuum that reveals itself in different spatio-temporal nodes. Rather than stick to a distinction between the stable workers inside the plant and the precariat outside, the dynamics between older and younger generations here reveal the differences within what would be otherwise considered a single ‘working class’.
The different contract types that the young and old have held between 2007 and 2010 -since the application of the new Labour Law 12 of 2003 in the plant (the first daily and fixed-term and the second permanent) and the enduring reasons for the first’s precarity despite having acquired stable contracts in 2010, forces us to re-articulate what we mean by the working class and to take into consideration the various claims to exclusion within the working class. This need to reconceptualise the working class beyond the standardisation of the exception, that is the Standard Employment Relations based on the classical bargaining model, is crucial for understanding how new forms of collective action that do not depend on union representation in local enterprises emerge globally today.
Into the Factory
Although labour protests, sit-ins and occupations were a usual recurrence since 2006 and, increased since Mubarak’s ouster, yet, the media continued to take great interest in the steel plant occupation. Almost all mainstream channels sent reporters to cover the occupation by the day and the newspapers wrote regular pieces about it. EISCO was built under Nasser in the 1950s and has since been considered a symbol of a strong postcolonial state. The plant bears resemblance to many landmark steel plants like Stalin’s Magnitogorsk, Nehru’s Bihlai and Suharto’s Krakatau, which embody the nationalist ideals of modernisation and self-determination of their times. These steel plants are prone to having what Kotkin calls “a magical aura, and a glow” that represents “their basis for state power and identity.”
Various regimes that followed Nasser thus built on this “social capital,” which is partially why the now 13,000-strong workforce was left to operate despite the enterprise accumulating debt and was neither privatized nor liquidated like many other public enterprises in Egypt. In fact only a few months prior to the occupation, then–President Mohamed Morsi gave his May Day speech from EISCO while standing behind a freshly painted green rolling mill. With the change of regime, the new Prime Minister Mihlib under General Sisi also visited the plant, promising to protect the public sector. The political value of EISCO remained equal to or more important than its financial status.
[Front page of Al-Ahram: “The state will not let go of the public sector:
Mihlib approves a plan to revive the iron and steel industry and repay workers their dues”
with a photo of Mihlibat EISCO. (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)]
EISCO was also home to the largest and most militant collective actions in Egypt’s postcolonial history when workers went on strike twice in 1989. The militancy of workers and the violence with which state security forces intervened, killing one worker- Abdel Hay Mohamed Hassan- and detaining hundreds, made managers dread a repeat of 1989. The often-overlooked steel workers’ resistance had thus forced the state to maintain its support of EISCO.
As a senior plant official explained to me during my doctoral fieldwork that management vowed that a 1989 never again occur in Helwan. Given the sheer size of EISCO and its location among many other plants in Helwan, he said, management feared that “if EISCO rises, Helwan rises, and if Helwan rises, everything else rises.” To the state, EISCO was not just an enterprise that is meant to generate surplus; it was also one which, though once a centre of fierce opposition, had since been tamed and policed for over twenty years and was now a potential means of exerting political control and generating broad electoral support for the ruling National Democratic Party. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EISCO, for example, was required by state security intelligence to be a member of Mubarak’s NDP and once in office, to hold the position of the head of the party’s branch in al-Tibbin. With the abolition of the NDP since the revolution, these overt practices have been reduced to the continued presence of state security personnel in the plant’s premises and their policing of everyday life. State security personnel continue to hold an office right next to that of the CEO.
Inspired by the same political calculations in 2009, the Minister of Industry visited the plant and out of the blue ordered an extra fifteen days’ bonus pay to all. The gossip in the plant considered that this was because of upcoming parliamentary elections in late 2010. Politics at EISCO highlight not just the strategies of capital but the power of labour. Enterprises like EISCO with their political importance to the state, both as symbol of the nation and because of the regime’s fear of their ability to destabilise it, reflect what Kingfisher and Marovsky have called neoliberalism’s “limits” manifested in its “contradictions, fractures, partialities and contingencies and both its dialectics with and determination by other social forces.”
Hence, while the neo-liberal doctrine brought a stagnation of salaries and erosion of benefits in most public enterprises in Egypt, nominal wages at EISCO rose almost tenfold between 1990 and 2009 and by 2009 yearly bonus pay for each worker had reached fourteen months’ worth of basic monthly wage.
[EISCO’s company town, which is home to about three thousand households
of workers and engineers (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)]
An “Apolitical Occupation”
When, in late November 2013, some of my friends at EISCO called to say they started a sit-in, I did not realize that it would turn out to be the largest collective action in the plant’s history since 1989. Their factory occupation lasted around a month and was prompted by management withholding the workers’ annual bonus, the largest sum of money they receive per year. EISCO workers plan their major life events on the assumption of using the bonus to repay everything at the end of the year. In protest, the indebted workers then stormed the head of industrial relations department.
Within a few days of protesting, workers’ demands became more elaborate. Their first was “they wanted to work.” The plant had experienced a coal shortage for over a year, and workers feared this was leading to a gradual closure of the plant. They wanted coal and they wanted to work. More demands were added to the list as the protest developed and eventually included ousting the corrupt union and the CEO. Friends at the Mosireen film collective documented in a short film about the occupation how workers developed their demands and resistance strategies.
The occupation was led by young workers who had joined the plant from 2007 on fixed-term and daily-waged bases. Their contracts were made permanent in 2010 in a last-gasp attempt by Mubarak to buy support for his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the parliamentary elections. They were mostly sons and relatives of older permanent workers, since the plant gave priority in employment to workers’ children. The young workers also made up about 2,300 of the 13,000 labor force of EISCO. A large group of them had been regular Tahrir-goers and saw themselves as responsible for bringing Tahrir home.
Young workers organized most of the occupation horizontally, without a clear leadership. I would not say they were leaderless, but I would maybe use the accurate term Alia Mossallam uses about Egyptian protests since the revolution, which is “leaderful.” The suspicion of representation was also widespread. The plant’s union was considered corrupt, and members were generally seen as spokespeople for the management, with the exception of a couple of union members who joined workers in their personal capacity. This I see as part of a crisis of representation that emerged in one form or the other in recent political mobilisations around the world. It also speaks to the informalization of collective struggle beyond union structures both in south of Europe and the global south.
Workers insisted on negotiating directly with the government when they protested at the cabinet office in downtown Cairo. When one of the two union leaders rallied some young workers around him and met with government representatives behind closed doors, he was considered a traitor by the rest and was given a due welcome by the occupiers. The overt appreciation of equality was a newfound practice.
At night when some returned home, they organized over a closed Facebook group with about 480 workers and deliberated until two in the morning on what strategies to adopt in different days. On two occasions, they hired buses that took them to downtown Cairo to protest by the metallurgical holding company and the cabinet. Some older workers had participated in all these events, but they remained a minority compared to the majority of young ones. Almost three years since the toppling of Mubarak, the Revolution was starting to resonate in distant workplaces. Young workers saw themselves as continuing what was started in 2011. Even if the structures of power had not changed, they were now more empowered to resist what they saw as corruption and to organise on egalitarian basis.
[In the bus on the way to the cabinet, a young worker holds a sign:
“sixteen months or nothing. We will not accept anything less.” (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)]
Finally, in direct response to the prevalent counterrevolutionary state and capital discourse that suggested that all protests are disruptive and emanate from selfish interests that are fiʾawiyya (factionalist) or the accusations that the protesters were “politically motivated” by being mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the workers chanted “walasiyāsiya, wala fiʾawiyya, maṭalibna ʿummaliyya” (“neither political nor factional, our demands are those of labor”). And this was the first so-called apolitical occupation I had taken part in.
Precarity: A Temporal Experience
Throughout the occupation, young people complained that the older ones would not take risks, did not participate enough in the daily activities of the occupation, and often put their individual interests over the mutual good. They shared anecdotes about older workers jumping the fences and fleeing the occupation when the younger workers locked the plant gates to keep as many in. They also reminded their interlocutors that the older ones sold out and settled to a final offer by the government that was way less than what they wanted. When, a few months later, older workers organized a protest against the pension cuts, young workers refused to participate. Their argument was crudely “they did not support us in our demands, we do not support them in theirs.”
Young workers explained older ones’ attitudes by the fact that they had at most ten to fifteen more years to go in the plant, whereas the plant held the future of young workers, who had at least thirty more years to go. Although holders of permanent contracts, their precarity was ingrained in time and space. Younger workers’ lives were in the future; older ones’ were behind them. Younger workers’ lives were in the future; older ones’ were behind them. This is not new to global social movements, analysis of which have dealt extensively with the tendency of movements to be led by and mostly constituted by young people who have more time, a different understanding of time and commitment to symbolic struggles.
Young workers’ memories of precariousness, toiling with no contracts or security for years before finally securing a permanent job at EISCO, were still vivid. Their violent labor history was shaped by constantly moving around the different governorates of Egypt, and sometimes abroad, persistently chasing the next job. This history was now overwhelmingly shaped by uncertainties about a future that looks increasingly like the past. For many, it felt like they were at an impasse clinging to desires for a future that is far-fetched, producing what Berlant calls a “cruel optimism.” 
This longer-term experience is strikingly different from that of older permanent workers, many of whom got their jobs upon graduation from industrial schools, sometimes being forced by law to take up jobs in the public sector. Many had worked in the same workplace, or the same shop floor, for twenty or thirty years. With the stability of their contracts, they often acquired housing and land property that gave them long-term security. Housing property became widely possible when in 2006 the plant sold the houses of the company town to workers on instalments. In my work on the period prior to the revolution, I argued that stable work contracts at EISCO act as a potential property that gives workers the opportunity to become middle class, a potential that some build upon successfully while others don’t.
The local distinction between Wazifa and Shughul—the first denoting white-collar employment and blue-collar work in the public sector, the second implying just work—confirms that those who are in the former category are often seen as very different from the latter. Workers’ understanding of wazifa as a form of property resonates with historical debates on property relations in the Arab world, wherein property was delineated as both milkiya (‘ownership’) and wazifa (‘office’), respectively emphasising different claims to ‘things/objects’ and ‘persons/individuals’ as two ways of thinking of property relations.
This distinction was salient in my fieldsite- with EISCO households often having very different life cycles, family structures, values and aspirations than other workers’ households in the unorganised sector around the plant. In addition, the old permanent workers at EISCO demanded that priority be given to their own sons and daughters, if not more distant relations in the allocation of new jobs. This is mostly why older workers considered their jobs as a form of security that gave them ʾistiqrar. In their words, they viewed the plant as having turned them from a nobody into a bey, and like a generous mother, the plant, some said, it gave them everything in life.
But younger workers feared they were getting none of that. With the plant making persistent losses over the past years and the shadow of closure looming, younger workers had little control over their lives and their potential property was jeopardised. After all, being precariat, as Butler puts it, is recognizable in “the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other.” The insecure life chances and the ability to sense precarity as an “affective condition” one that engenders conflicting loyalties in “moral affects,” here primarily about their relation to older workers, became increasingly dominant. While the young workers I cover here do not fall into the category of informal sector workers or daily workers who experience violently insecure life conditions, and whom I write about elsewhere the workers here experienced great precarity and violence as they found themselves at the risk of falling out of that middle class they fought hard for, for so long.
The Politics of ʾIstiqrar (“Stability”)
In Helwan, like most of Egypt, ʾistiqrar meant access to both tenured employment and the means to reproduce the conditions of “a good life” in the context of the family, including through marriage. Prior to the revolution, workers at EISCO described their work as a form of ʾistiqrar (“stability”). ʾIstiqrar was a social value that gave workers respect in their communities and social meaning to their work.
As the revolution unfolded, ʾistiqrar was evoked repeatedly, often in reference to Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak in turn adopted a discourse of ʾistiqrar as a governing technology. Over the years he reminded the Egyptian people that ʾistiqrar was his legacy both domestically and internationally, using it as a pretext for repressive policies and for limiting the democratic field. In February 2011, in a last-ditch effort to hold onto power, Mubarak threatened the Egyptian people with a choice between him as ʾistiqrar or “chaos”.
[Al Akhbar (13 October 1981): “Yes to ʾIstiqrar…Yes to democracy and prosperity:
The people announce their support for Mubarak as president to continue Sadat’s legacy”
(Photo courtesy of Cairodar.com)]
ʾIstiqrar was then perpetuated as a counterrevolutionary discourse by those in power since Mubarak’s ousting. It became tied to a state and capital imperative about the importance of ʿawdat ʿagalit al-ʾintag (“the return of the production wheel”) and by extension the end of protests. The revolution has been framed as posing a threat to ʾistiqrar.
Through what I termed a “politics of ʾIstiqrar,” my earlier research showed how, prior to the revolution, managers at this state-owned steel plant manipulated the meaning and value that workers ascribed to their work and life in a way that turned permanent work contracts into a potential form of property right that workers were to bequeath to their children and a new claim for class exclusions. The immaterial labor of expanding networks and relations was thus made into a resource that is part of calculations regulating labor regimes that turn this politics into norm. ʾIstiqrar was turned from a social value into a productivist and calculative one, one that enables some workers to access state resources and dispossesses many others who could not set foot in the plant.
During the 2013 occupation, workers have reinterpreted the multiple meanings of ʾistiqrar. In the month-long collective action, there were no overt references to wanting ʾistiqrar in neither the chants nor everyday deliberations, perhaps because workers were aware of its connection to anti-labor counterrevolutionary narratives. ʾIstiqrar, however, informed the decision of many to not participate in the occupation, especially engineers and older workers, who had joined the neoliberal trope that believed the only way to resist is to work.
Young workers’ most recent negotiation of ʾistiqrar moved away from the calculative nature of the politics instated by Mubarak and brought to the very open the essences of the social values they worked for. In other words, they sought to recreate what Munn calls “the value [they] regard as essential to community viability,” or as Graeber formulates it, they wanted to establish the value that reflects their own actions and is understood “as the importance of action.”
In a meeting of a workers’ organization I was privy to after the occupation, young workers discussed their inability to keep raising demands, such as the priority of employment being given only to children of workers. Mohamed, who was present in the meeting, said this was “a racist demand.” Although beneficiaries of ʾistiqrar politics themselves, wherein hiring workers’ children is core to the transformation of immaterial labor into labor calculation regimes, they were, at least partially, still challenging these politics that allows the state to control how value is created in community. The good life that stability brought now had to include elements of equality and not just individual well-being. This was new.
Workers did not refuse ʾistiqrār politics altogether. Throughout the occupation, they declined to go on a full strike out of fear of a heavy-handed state security intervention and also in attempt to keep work stoppage as a weapon of last resort. But many had also genuinely believed in the antilabor productivist rationale that was instated with the ʾistiqrār of Mubarak and used in further propaganda by the counterrevolutionary regimes since.
Young workers did not challenge wholly the productivist regime that evaluates the value of one’s life by their ability to work. Yet the occupation was an important moment to question some of the politics of ʾistiqrār. This allowed new values like egalitarianism to emerge and critique ʾistiqrar in the discursive deployment of a generational discourse about militancy. Like the protestors of Occupy Wall Street, young, indebted, and having played by the rules of the game, they were failed by the system and attempted to question it. And like other revolutionary contexts, young workers were empowered by the revolution both in their workspaces and in spaces they captured for their own leisure, even when clear structures in the state were not completely transformed.
Radical changes in workplaces, like the emergence of workers’ councils in Iran in the early days of the revolution, are often short-lived and almost forgotten, but they remain important for the change of consciousness they bring in the process. This very refashioning of the self in revolutionary processes makes revolutions persist in the face of the many bumps they face on the long-term. The change in values that I document here during the occupation should therefore be seen in the light of the long-term self-making projects and the differences in values informing the growing class divide between the stable workers and the precarious ones.
Generational politics are very important to revolutionary politics in Egypt. Being a member of a particular generation tends to engender different expectations about the struggles, as well as fears, that shape people’s choices. Various analyses have looked at the difference between “the youth” and older generations to highlight how the revolution was waged mostly by young people against patriarchy using new technologies privy to them. But there is remarkably little attention to what the institutionalization of generational divides by the state has meant to class politics and the politics of value creation in Egypt.
The very special moment of the factory occupation reveals how the lines of the generational struggle coincide with class lines between older workers with stable employment who consider their contracts a form of private property that can be bequeathed and younger ones who face a precarious future, had participated in or were inspired by Tahrir, and wanted to bring Tahrir home. I have suggested that the metanarrative around ʾistiqrār continued conditioning workers to what Bifo calls a “politics of totalitarianism” attached to the state. Yet these moments of rebellion have also provided opportunities for workers to question the values that inform their lives, which were otherwise previously commodified in the process of surplus generation and securing hegemony. This contestation of value was particularly clear in the newfound appreciation of egalitarianism, which makes them different from the fence-jumping, middle-class workers. Academics tend to ignore these “happy singularisations” or to present them with a lot of scepticism. I hope to have showed here that a critical ethnography of resistance does not have to be an ethnography of cynicism.
[This article was first published by FocaalBlog in November 2014 under the title “‘Old people are not revolutionaries’: Labor struggles and the politics of value and stability (ʾistiqrār) in a factory occupation in Egypt.” ]
A large number of workers I write about in this essay have been dismissed from work, face jail sentences, or have been sent to distant sites of the plant in various governorates because of their political participation in the occupation. Ayman Hanafi, a young worker and a main organiser of the occupation, died by suicide following his dismissal from work in 2014. Combining the temporality of academic writing and that of the struggle has been persistently difficult. I am grateful for Jadaliyya and the FocaalBlog for enabling a space to write something relatively timely and perhaps accessible.
 Let me forewarn the reader that I do not plan to address here whether we should consider the events since January 2011 an uprising, revolt, revolution, or even “refolution,” to quote Bayat. Events are still unfolding, and I consider it best to follow the language my research informants use to refer to them. I therefore use revolution to describe the events since 2011.
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 A year later in December 2014 when management refused to pay workers any of the annual bonus pay, workers went on full strike and stopped working for a few weeks. This was a sign of both the deepening of the crisis, but the equal deepening of the revolutionary logics among workers whose increasingly precarious conditions led them to challenge the logics of ʾistiqrar more.
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