Egypt's History of Struggle

The uprising in Egypt demands the attention of communists and revolutionaries in general. If we want to make sense of events there, however, we need some grounding in Egypt's prior history of struggle. The following piece from Solidarity's journal Against The Current covers some of the major points in that history and raises some issues (the role of Nasserism and the national question) that undoubtedly demand further discussion. As always, publication on Kasama does not imply an endorsement of the views expressed in this piece but is rather an invitation to discussion for suggestions of other useful readings.

According to a report published by Reuters on July 13, 2009 , 77 million of the 80 million Egyptians live on less than $ 1 a day. Around 30 % of the workforce is unemployed, 7 % of children miss schools because of poverty. There are no fewer than 100 thousand homeless/ street kids. While Egypt's official foreign debt is around 12 billion dollars, several of Mubarak's corrupt ruling elites have stolen almost half this figure from Egyptian banks without guarantees and left the country with this money.

from Solidarity

Egypt's Long Labor History

By Atef Said


THE EGYPTIAN WORKING class is one of the oldest in the region, with a long history of internationalist solidarity. Egyptian loading and longshoremen workers in 1947, for example, boycotted the Dutch ship in Canal Suez in solidarity with the Indonesian people’s independence struggle. The union of the workers issued a statement against colonialism in general. They did not allow the ship to service or go through the Canal despite the resistance and efforts made by English and French administrators.

The early 20th century began with a wave of strikes, partly in reaction to discriminatory policies adopted by British colonial administrators who favored European over Egyptian workers. In 1900 the first trade union was established, “the league of cigarettes makers.” By 1919 Egyptian workers played a significant role in the anti-colonialist protests, and two years later 90 trade unions established the National Federation of Egyptian Workers.

Because of the impact of trade union activism in spreading anti-colonialism protests as well as socialist ideology, the government dissolved the federation in 1924. Yet over the next two decades workers continued protesting against both their working conditions and colonialism; by the end of the 1940s there were almost 500 unions. In 1946 Egyptian workers and students established what was known as the higher committee for students and workers against British occupation. One important critique is that during the 1940s and ’50s the left adopted the strategy of the nationalist-bourgeoisie first.(1)

One of the most controversial historical periods in the history of the left and the working class was the period of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-1970). Nasser's regime claimed to be a regime of social justice. Known in the Arab-speaking Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa as a leader for the non-allied movement in the context of the cold war, Nasser was also seen as a supporter to third world liberation (anti-colonialist) movement. But for the Egyptian working class Nasser has more complicated and contradictory image.

On the one hand, Nasser was the leader who nationalized Egyptian economy, transforming it into a state socialist economy. Theoretically speaking the working Egyptian class “owned” the means of production. While granting trade unions many rights, Nasser made sure these unions were designed in a hierarchical structure that put them under the control of ruling-party officials. One of the significant events during Nasser's era that may reflect a substantial attitude of the new regime toward workers with the death penalty of two workers, Mustafa Khamees and Abdel Rahman al-Baqary. The regime did not tolerate a labor strike by Kafr al-Dawar workers, just in twenty days after Nasser's coup de etat.(2) Khamees and al-Baqary were tried by an exceptional court and were executed because of their leadership of the strike.

The second reason that makes Nasser's period contentiously debated is the 1956 decision of the Egyptian Communist Party's leaders to dissolve, based on their argument that socialism was in the making under Nasser. Many leftists consider this decision a severe mistake. The leaders invited all the party to contribute to Nasser's socialism. Some party members rejected the decision and re-established it in 1975.

In the beginning of the 1980s workers expected Mubarak (who took office following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamist-influenced military dissidents – ed.) to be a more tolerant president, towards oppositions including labor activism. One reason for this belief is the fact that Mubarak started his reign by releasing political leaders and oppositions who had been arbitrarily detained in the last days of Sadat's era.

But throughout the 1980s and the 1990s Mubarak's police apparatus attacked workers’ strikes. In some cases, the police killed workers such as the case of the steel mill workers' strike in 1989. Strike leaders were arrested and brutally tortured over several weeks. Other examples include attacking the textile and spinning workers in Kafr al-Dawar in 1994 and, more recently, Mahala al-Kobra in 2008.

Despite police brutality workers never completely stopped striking, but the frequency declined. Workers did not see how to stop privatization and the structural adjustment, and this sapped their militancy. But as the rate of exploitation went higher, and workers realized that they were expected to work more and take lower wages, their anger increased.

Significantly in the 1990s, the propaganda machine accompanied International Monetary Fund polices. For example, the state succeeded in convincing more than half a million workers to leave their work in an early retirement program. Many workers regretted their decision. They ended up without a job, or with a worse job. Many were forced to spend the compensation.

As new industrial cities were constructed, the government gave huge tax cuts to investors. But the workers were expected to work sometimes for 12 hours or even more, and were not protected by unions at all. Two words can sum up the 1990s from the workers’ viewpoint: defeatism and anger.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) re-emerged during Nasser’s era, but it became a hierarchical arm of the state, a way to control unions and its members. The ETUF structure is a pyramid shaped, with the union’s units at the bottom and the ETUF on the top. In between are the 21 national general unions to which workers belong. Workers only elect officers in their unit and can only belong to one general union. Therefore within the ETUF there is no accountability or real representation. Since Nasser, the union’s president has been a member of the ruling party.

Many labor activists have told me that both the general unions and the ETUF work against workers in most if not in all cases. Many function as spies against the workers. Despite of the fact that Mubarak's regime claims that the country has a multi-party system (on paper), trade union structures have never changed. In fact, due to legal amendments that increased the trade union’s bureaucratic forms, the term of office has been increased to six years. According to the official ETUF website(3) there are 2,200 union units organizing seven million workers. That is, only 25 % of all Egyptian workers are unionized.

Despite the repressive and bureaucratic features of Egyptian trade unions, there were many important strikes that worked against the repressive state and the workers’ acceptance of defeat. One of the most remarkable workers’ event was a national uprising initiated by Egyptian workers in January 1977 under the Sadat regime, at the beginning of the early negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Known as the bread uprising, this was a national protest against the government's intention to raise the prices of basic goods.

The uprising began with textile workers demonstrating in the Supurp section of Cairo (in the Helwan district) as well as by the navy in the Alexandria arsenal. Despite the government's defeat, following the strike the police led a massive wave of arrests of labor activists and leaders of different socialist groups. The uprising and labor strikes at this time also exposed the reactionary nature of the ETUF, which worked against the workers in the uprising.

Many analysts suggest that the 1977 became the Egyptian regime's nightmare, where workers and opposition groups, mainly leftists were capable of occupying streets of Cairo and other major cities and gain the sympathy of the rest of Egyptians. The reason for this was the fact that the demands of the demonstrators were the decent minimum demands of most of Egyptians. The uprising was described by many analysts and activists as Egypt's lost revolution.(4)

Recent facts published by the Egyptian independent paper al-dostor shows that in 2006 that the annual budget for internal security was $1.5 billion, more than the entire national budget for health care. This number has increased after the protest waves in 2005 and 2006. Further, the security police forces comprise 1.4 million officers, nearly four times the size of the Egyptian army. Several activists and analysts agree with the paper that Egypt has become a police state, par excellence, an affirmation that is very common these days among public intellectuals and activists of human rights.

In his recent book al-a'yam al-akheriya, or the last days, the Nasserite writer Abdel Halim Qandeel suggests that if we added the number of police sergeants and formally hired spies (moukhbreen), the total number of police persons in Egypt would be 1.7 million. He suggests that there is a police person to every 37 Egyptians (this ratio is double the number during the pre-Islamic revolution Iranian dictator Reza Pahlavi, Qandeel suggests).(5)

According to a report published by Reuters on July 13, 2009 , 77 million of the 80 million Egyptians live on less than $ 1 a day. Around 30 % of the workforce is unemployed, 7 % of children miss schools because of poverty. There are no fewer than 100 thousand homeless/ street kids. While Egypt's official foreign debt is around 12 billion dollars, several of Mubarak's corrupt ruling elites have stolen almost half this figure from Egyptian banks without guarantees and left the country with this money.

Some liberal thinkers in Egypt and beyond often reduce the problems of Egypt today to issues of corruption or lack of democracy. This description lacks accuracy. The writer agrees with many activists in Egypt that Egypt is led by a coalition of corrupt bourgeoisie, a corrupt ruling technocrats and a dictator.

Despotism works alongside the cruelty of neoliberalism. While the recent workers' strikes were responding to the brutality of neoliberalism, the pro-democracy activism was responding to Mubarak's despotism. However, both kinds of protests (workers against neo-liberal policies and opposition groups against dictatorship) are expected to coinverge in the near future, if Mubarak stays in power.


  1. For this reason, there has been an ongoing debate among Egyptian leftists about the presumable mistake of prioritizing the national question over social justice issues. Many Egyptian communists, especially those of the Egyptian Communist Party, made a mistake of diverting the workers’ struggle towards the national question. Despite the validity of this critique, it seems to me that such a critique is exaggerated as it assumes leftist groups had substantial influence within the working class. back to text
  2. See back to text
  3. For more details about the history of the Egyptian working-class struggle see the booklet of Said and Bassiouni’s Banners of Strikes in the Egyptian Sky, published by the Socialist Studies Center in 2007. The booklet can be accessed through back to text
  4. See a very thorough study about the uprising written by the leftist journalist and blogger Hossam Al-Hamalawy in this link: back to text
  5. Bahlavi, like Mubarak, was backed by the U.S. government. back to text
ATC 142, September-October 2009




People in this conversation

  • Guest - chicanofuturet

    Karl Marx

    <b>“Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” </b>

    Today,we see these prophetic words materializing before our eyes,taking on deeper realizations and meanings,approximating those great truths spoken by Karl Marx and F Engels in 1848.

    Egypt,2011.The working class and poor revolting taking to the streets to protest oppression,brutal repression of basic democratic rights and liberties.
    We are profoundly inspired,deeply proud of our brothers and sisters in Egypt carrying the torch of democracy and freedom into the streets of Cairo,Alexandria,Suez..

    The Egyptian working people,especially the young,bear striking and disarming resemblance to their working class brothers and sisters in most other parts of the world.To the bourgeoisie and the ruling class they would cynically remark of the workers.."They all look alike".

    The Egyptian people want the same things we working people in the US and western Europe seek..democracy,liberty,opportunity in life,freedom from tyranny and oppression.There is a great worldwide historical conjunction in process-resisting US imperialism,opposing domestic tyranny on the basis of classical Marxist working class and democratic issues.
    “Workers of the World, Unite."

    The chains of the past..religion,race,nationality are being gradually broken apart.In the Arab world we witness Islamic fundamentalism increasingly being challenged by pro-democracy and freedom movements based on working class interests.Inexorably,all religions and nations shall in time will eventually yield to democracy,class struggle,then socialism.

    Pan-Arabism,Latin American unity(the Bolivarian revolution)are in large part rapidly growing regional bloc responses gaining momentum in opposition to US and western imperialism,neo-liberalism.

    US Imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism share similar interests.
    They both despise democracy,equality and liberty..they both hate working class independence, socialism and most of all Communism.

    It is my belief that communists should conditionally and critically support,express solidarity with independent regional movements-Pan-Arabism and Latin America unity(Bolivarian revolution)which seek to protect themselves from the stranglehold of US and western European imperialism,neo-liberalism.

    Communists should encourage and promote the democratic components of class struggle,internationalism and working class unity within these various movements.This would be progressive as we are helping lay the foundations for future socialist struggle-revolution in these areas.

    I don't believe communist revolution is in the cards in the foreseeable future for most of the world.

    What will more than likely precede Communist revolution will be stages of regional national struggles-national struggles and revolutions for self-determination.

    Only when the chains of US Imperialism are smashed or seriously weakened will the people begin to awaken and reject the drugs of religious opium whether they be reactionary Christianity or Islamic fundamentalism.
    Then the people will embrace,nurture,cherish democracy,equality,working class opportunity..making them their primary demands.

    Karl Marx-

    <i>Material force can only be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses. Theory is capable of seizing the masses when it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself. </i>

    <b>“Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” </b>

  • Guest - PatrickSMcNally

    There really hasn't been any sign of Pan-Arabism in any of this so far, and it seems rather doubtful that there ever will be. Pan-Arabism proved to be a complete failure in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. It wasn't simply a matter of a military defeat inflicted by Israel in 1967. Lots of movements in history have suffered military defeats and remained internally strong. But the way by which Pan-Arabism responded to the humiliation of the Six-Day War reflected a deep internal sickness. Islamic fundamentalism arose in large measure in response to this obvious internal sickness of Nasserism. From the scattered reports I've seen so far about these rebellions, they seem to reflect a widespread disillusionment among Arab, Persian and other masses in traditionally Muslim societies. But they don't indicate anything like Pan-Arabism.

  • Patrick:

    I agree. The actions have leaped from country to country because of the cultural, linguistic and political links in this Arab arc. But it is not motivated by pan-Arabism (in any way that has been publicized) -- those days of secular pan-Arabic nationalism (of a Nasser kind) seem to be long gone.

    I also think we will see echoes and impact in other countries where unpopular governments face an increasingly hostile population (Libya? Jordan? Perhaps as far away as China). That doesn't necessarily mean we should predict similar uprisings -- but simply that such events inspire people across the world (in part because of increased communications and the influence of outlets like Al Jazeera.)

  • Guest - chicanofuturet

    I found this article illuminating-

    From the
    Friday 28 January 2011
    <a href="/" rel="nofollow">after-tunisia-alaa-abd-el-fatah-egypt</a>

    On Twitter Tunisians responded to news that Egyptian protesters had borrowed two lines from their national anthem by telling us how they sang revolutionary songs by the Egyptian leftist duo Sheikh Imam and Ahmad Fouad Negm. From the internet and satellite TV a new pan-Arabism is born: my generation was not brought up on Arabist propaganda as past generations were, yet in our attempts to revolt we automatically find solidarity. Gazans have been watching the events with even more enthusiasm than Egyptians, for our victory will have a big impact on them.

    This is a reality born out of technology, geopolitics and shared circumstances, but it is also fragile. The internet also encourages sectarianism and consumerism; other identities are competing, such as the recent football wars between Egypt and Algeria. But thanks to Bouazizi, Sidi Bouzid and the Tunisian revolution, a pan-Arabism rooted in a quest for dignity and justice is now likely to dominate.

    <i>Alaa Abd El Fatah is a prominent Egyptian blogger.

  • Guest - PatrickSMcNally

    Alaa Abd El Fatah seems to more or less confirm my impressions so far. His usage of the term "pan-Arabism" seems to bear more resemblance to Carl Davidson speaking about Woody Guthrie than it does to Abdul Nasser. It's obvious that the sense of discontent has spread across the Arabic-speaking world with many overtones of patriotic populism. But it still seems quite far removed from the form of bourgeois nationalism which Nasser attempted to promote, which Khrushchev willingly backed, and which essentially broke down when tested at the time of the Six-Day War.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    Some insightful quotes from Zbigniew Brzezinski (plus a link to an essay):;aid=22963

    "For the first time in human history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive... The resulting global political activism is generating a surge in the quest for personal dignity, cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world painfully scarred by memories of centuries-long alien colonial or imperial domination... The worldwide yearning for human dignity is the central challenge inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening... That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing... The nearly universal access to radio, television and increasingly the Internet is creating a community of shared perceptions and envy that can be galvanized and channeled by demagogic political or religious passions. These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which America still perches...

    The youth of the Third World are particularly restless and resentful. The demographic revolution they embody is thus a political time-bomb, as well... Their potential revolutionary spearhead is likely to emerge from among the scores of millions of students concentrated in the often intellectually dubious "tertiary level" educational institutions of developing countries. Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million "college" students. Typically originating from the socially insecure lower middle class and inflamed by a sense of social outrage, these millions of students are revolutionaries-in-waiting, already semi-mobilized in large congregations, connected by the Internet and pre-positioned for a replay on a larger scale of what transpired years earlier in Mexico City or in Tiananmen Square. Their physical energy and emotional frustration is just waiting to be triggered by a cause, or a faith, or a hatred...

    [The] major world powers, new and old, also face a novel reality: while the lethality of their military might is greater than ever, their capacity to impose control over the politically awakened masses of the world is at a historic low. To put it bluntly: in earlier times, it was easier to control one million people than to physically kill one million people; today, it is infinitely easier to kill one million people than to control one million people."

    (Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Global Political Awakening. The New York Times: December 16, 2008:; “Major Foreign Policy Challenges for the Next US President,” International Affairs, 85: 1, (2009); The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign. The American Interest Magazine, Autumn 2005:; The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership. Speech at the Carnegie Council: March 25, 2004:; America’s Geopolitical Dilemmas. Speech at the Canadian International Council and Montreal Council on Foreign Relations: April 23, 2010:

  • Guest - sukhinder singh dhaliwal

    Really informative about Egypt's history of struggle.But assessing the workers economic struggles only and deciding that it is the main motivating force will be wrong under- standing.We, the Communists, will be committing the same old mistake of placing the workers interest above the interest of the nation.Peaceful and well organized Mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are strong basis for these nations to advance toward toward National Democratic Revolutions,which ensures liberation from imperialism (USA and others),Feudalism and other reactionary forces. Egypt and Tunisia mass- uprising must established adult franchise based democratic societies which must ensure that people are sovereign.Emergence of democratic regimes in Arab world is must for world stability.In the past USA and allies ensured that people of this area must remain in the feudal system.even they encouraged the religious fanatics in Islam to occupy the political sphere so that they can keep the people away from the influence of revolutionary impact of October revolution. Soviet and Chinese communist party regimes tried to counter the American influence in that area just to advance their interests.They were not interested to establish and strengthen the democratic way of life in the newly liberated nations. Actually they cannot perform that historically needed duty because they themselves were ignorant of democratic style of functioning even ideologically against it.Mankind needs communists but communists must learn from the old strategies,tactics and experiences which resulted in our destruction. Let us be clear that what Egypt,Tunisia and other Arab nations needs is to establish democratic society. Communists must work for that. Communists must work for the welfare of working class but must be looked upon first as the defender of national interest. They should never jump the stages of development.People will never tolerate any kind of dictatorships whether it is of King,military Imperialism or Communists(in the name of proletariat).Democracy and democratic functioning is must.

  • Guest - Radical-Eyes

    In understanding recent developments in Egyptian political economy and their relationship to emerging revolts and movements in Egypt I have found Paul Amar's article, from last week: "Why Egypt's Progressives Win," to be very useful and interesting.

    Actually I think it would be good to post some of Paul Amar's stuff here on Kasama for discussion and analysis.

    Of particular interest to me was this section on the working-class dynamics of this struggle:

    "It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brothers or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt especially during the last two years, and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilized every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women (of all ages) and youth (of both genders). There are structural reasons for this.

    First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalization and poverty; rather, it stems from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt’s workers are mobilized because new factories are being built, in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up, and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf Emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate and into manufacturing, piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure, etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or newly built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Persian Gulf, developers use Bangladeshi, Philippine and other expatriate labor. But Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the 6 April movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organizing and mobilizing process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz’ circulating a passionate Youtube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on 24 January 2011. Ms. Mahfouz, a political organizer with an MBA from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.

    The economic gender and class landscape of Egypt’s micro-businesses has been politicized and mobilized in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. As Julia Elyachar has argued, in the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. Thus the economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khalid Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror."

  • Guest - Radical-Eyes

    This piece from Paul Amar, published on Feb 1st, is also worth our study.

    Amar offers a kind of well-researched, structural, economic, political, and class analysis of Egyptian society...the likes of which I see very few putting forward. (This includes the "pro-working-class" left.)

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