Joel Beinin, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joel Beinin (JB): I lived in Cairo for most of the time between September 2004 and December 2008. During this period, the wave of strikes and collective actions by Egyptian workers escalated dramatically. Workers invited me to visit factories and other workplaces where strikes were underway and asked that I write about what they were doing. So I began writing journalistic articles for Middle East Report, Le Monde Diplomatique, and similar outlets. I also wrote a report for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (2010, with research assistance from Marie Duboc, who was then my doctoral student).
After the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, I was well positioned to look back and assess the contribution of the workers movement to the formation of a culture of protest that ultimately delegitimized Mubarak. I didn’t have much residential or research experience in Tunisia. But it was very clear to me that a comparable—but also in important respects different—dynamic was at play in the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. So I decided to combine and streamline my Egyptian articles, fill in some gaps, travel to Tunisia for two brief research trips, and write the book as a comparative study.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JB: The book empirically catalogs and classifies strikes and other forms of workers’ collective action going back to the 1970s, their escalation in the 2000s, during the uprisings against the autocrats, and their continuation into the next period at an even higher pitch. In fact, such struggles are continuing to this moment. Its most important conceptual contribution is to situate the movements in Egypt and Tunisia in the framework of the imposition of neoliberal economic reform and structural adjustment programs (ERSAPs) on Tunisia, from the mid-1980s, and Egypt, from 1991. The labor movements were the most salient expression of the deteriorating conditions of life under the regime of neoliberal globalization, or “flexible accumulation,” as the regulation school of political economy terms it.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JB: I have been working on Egyptian labor history since my PhD thesis and the publication of Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882‑1954 (Princeton University Press, 1987; co-authored with Zachary Lockman). It has never been the only thing I have researched and written about, but I have always come back to it. The recent murder and torture of the Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, who was researching the independent trade union movement in Egypt, suggests that it will be quite a while before anyone takes up this subject again.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JB: The book appears in the Stanford Briefs series of Stanford University Press. The series is designed to address issues of current interest in a language and format that is accessible to the educated general reader. The books are generally no longer than 45,000 words—less than half the length of the typical academic monograph. There is some political economy theory in the book—primarily about the transition from a developmentalist to a neo-liberal economic model—but it is, hopefully, presented in an accessible language. I have already assigned the book to an undergraduate class, and they were able to deal with it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JB: Together with my former PhD students, Toby Jones and Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, I have just begun to work on what we are tentatively calling a “Global Atlas of Oil.” We suspect it will narrow down to the Middle East after the opening chapter. The excitement of the project is that we will be using digital mapping techniques. The Stanford Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis is providing me with research assistance and advice because I have no previous experience in spatial history.
J: What were the advantages and disadvantages of a comparative analysis of labor movements in both Tunisia and Egypt?
JB: The most important contribution of the comparative analysis was to be able to point out that class and political economy were far more salient elements of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (and I might have added Bahrain and Morocco) than most Western (and even local) accounts were willing to acknowledge. The biggest exceptions in this regard are Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising and Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny’s Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Our perspectives are roughly similar. However, Anne and Mostafa devote considerable attention to devising a “correct” political line and to tactics and strategy than either Gilbert or I do: an appropriate distinction between those who see themselves primarily as scholars and those who see themselves primarily as activists.
At the same time, the successful installation of a (highly problematic, to be sure) procedural democracy in Tunisia, in contrast to the establishment of an authoritarian praetorian regime far more vicious than that of Mubarak in Egypt, made it necessary to argue that class and political economy alone do not determine outcomes. In these cases, the historic relationship of the trade union movements to the state and the character of the workers’ social movements during the 2000s explain a large part of the difference. The character and political role of the Tunisian and Egyptian armies is also a factor, but this is mentioned only briefly in the book.
J: How is this book related to ongoing efforts to promote political economy approaches to the study of the Middle East and North Africa, such as the Political Economy Project or the workshops on New Directions in the Political Economy of the Middle East held recently at New York University and Stanford?
JB: The book was begun before either of these initiatives was formally consolidated. I have learned a great deal from the discussions at the events convened by the initiatives and with the individuals who are involved in them. The best thing that could happen is that graduate students interested in political economy will read the book and conclude that they can do a better job or contribute something new by coming at the issues from a different angle (or by extending the analysis to Morocco or Bahrain). One of my PhD students has just begun her field research on a social history of the Gafsa phosphate-mining basin in Tunisia from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. This region is salient in the story my book tells (along with similarly depressed neighboring regions like Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid), but I didn’t have the opportunity to delve into it in depth. Unfortunately, field research in Egypt or Bahrain is too dangerous to contemplate at this time.
[The following piece was written for the Stanford University Press blog, and represents an extension of the arguments of Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt]
Tunisia’s Periphery Rises Up Again
On 16 January 2016 twenty-eight-year old Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed college graduate from Tunisia’s impoverished Kasserine governorate, learned that his name was suddenly removed from a list of seventy-five candidates for government jobs. They had been approved for employment six months earlier by Kasserine’s governor and first delegate. In desperation, Yahyaoui climbed atop a utility pole where he was electrocuted. Whether or not he intended to commit suicide is uncertain.
Solidarity protests targeting unemployment immediately erupted in Kasserine. A sit-in at the governorate headquarters began on 18 January. On 19 January two unemployed graduates threatened to jump to their deaths from the roof of the government building. The next day protests against unemployment reached the coastal cities of Tunis and Sousse.
The protests in solidarity with Ridha Yahyaoui and the demand of the youth of Kasserine for employment reprises events in the neighboring, and only minimally less miserable, governorate of Sidi Bouzid, five years ago. On 17 December 2010 a street vendor who had been harassed and insulted by the police while attempting to earn a minimal livelihood, poured gasoline on his body and ignited himself in front of the governor’s office. Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked solidarity protests featuring demonstrators chanting, “A job is a right, you pack of thieves!” This protest movement ultimately toppled former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 and inspired uprisings throughout the Arab world. In 2016 protestors in Kasserine and beyond chanted “Work, Freedom, Dignity.”
The Nobel Prize for Peace awarded last fall to the Quartet of civil society organizations fostered the mistaken impression that Tunisia was exceptional in having achieved a stable democracy in contrast to the obstruction of popular aspirations expressed during the other Arab uprisings of 2011 in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Tunisia does now enjoy a procedural democracy, albeit one with increasing limitations. But, the economic and social discontent expressed by the desperate demise of Bouazizi and Yahyaoui has only intensified.
In 2010 the national unemployment rate was under thirteen percent. By 2015 the figure rose to 15.3 percent. Unemployment rates in the center-west and southern regions of the country (including Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid) are typically nearly double the national average. In 2015 the OECD estimated national youth unemployment (ages fifteen to twenty-four) at nearly forty percent.
Two of the Quartet members, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), along with the Union of Unemployed Graduates (UDC) and the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), were in the forefront of organizing demonstrations in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and beyond. Protests eventually extended to sixteen (of twenty-four) governorates. Youth defied the curfew proclaimed on 20 January and torched the offices of the ruling Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) ruling party in Kasserine.
The government understands the problem, but has no solution. On 20 January the cabinet announced that 5,000 unemployed in Kasserine would be hired for new public sector jobs. Another 1,400 were to be hired through an existing employment program. However, on 22 January, Finance Minister Slim Chaker revoked the promise of 5,000 new jobs in Kasserine, claiming that the previous announcement was due to a “communication error.”
The government has responded less harshly to the protests than was the norm during the Ben Ali regime. Nonetheless, security forces have liberally used tear gas (rather than live ammunition) to disperse demonstrators and wounded at least fourteen. Much of the privately owned media has amplified the government’s effort to frame the events in the discourse of national security and counter-terrorism.
National security is a real issue. There were three major terrorist attacks in 2015. Armed groups from northern Mali have relocated to the mountain range near Kasserine and established a low-level insurgency. Police are subjected to periodic attacks. On its eastern border, Tunisia is threatened by spillover from the collapse of the state in Libya, which has become a base for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Demonstrations have apparently subsided since 26 January, although the sit-in at the headquarters at the Kasserine provincial headquarters continues as of 30 January, augmented by a hunger strike. About fifty women continue to demonstrate daily in front of the municipal building of Jebiniana in the Sfax governorate. Additional details are difficult to verify, as there has been a virtual news blackout.
Whether or not protests resume, Tunisia is in a precarious state.
“There will be another revolution if the social and economic circumstances do not change,” said President Béji Caïd Essebsi on the fifth anniversary of Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Nidaa Tounes, a big-tent coalition of secularists ranging from former communists to former Ben Ali supporters has split. Over two dozen of its deputies have left, and it is no longer the largest party in the parliament. The terrorist attacks have reduced tourism to a catastrophically low level. The economy is not expected to grow at all in 2016. None of its traditional elite political forces—secular or Islamist—imagine an economic program substantially different than the one Tunisia has pursued since the mid-1980s.
The UGTT leadership has taken a distance from the violence involved in the protests against unemployment while continuing to play its traditional role. On 19 January, faced with a UGTT threat to call a general strike, the employers’ association (UTICA) agreed to increase wages for about 1.5 million private sector workers. But for the unemployed, the streets are their only recourse.
[For more information on Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, or to purchase the book, click here.]