Workers and Thieves
Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt
Joel Beinin


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Workers, Collective Action, and Politics
chapter abstract

The social movements of Tunisian and Egyptian workers and those affiliated with them were the most persistent contestations of the 2000s and the largest demographic component of the culture of protest that empowered Arabs to want the fall of autocratic regimes during the popular uprisings of 2011. However during the 2000s, mobilizations of workers and the unemployed infrequently demanded democracy or regime change as such and were not well integrated with movements of the oppositional intelligentsias. Because of its relative autonomy from the state, the UGTT was able to detach itself from the Ben Ali regime, reform itself, and ultimately decisively influence Tunisia's post-Ben Ali trajectory towards procedural democracy. In contrast, ETUF remained loyal to Mubarak until the end. Newly established independent unions and federations did not have the organizational capacity, resources, or political experience to similarly influence the post-Mubarak political agenda.

1 Colonial Capitalism to Developmentalism
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 provides the historical context for the argument of the book, tracing the economic development of Egypt and Tunisia and their labor and leftist political movements from the colonial era (colonial capitalism) and their trade union movements through the era of decolonization. In the Nasser era in Egypt and early post-independence Tunisia (the 1950s and 1960s) both countries adopted national developmentalist economic policies (peripheral Keynesianism and import-substitution industrialization). The IMF and the World Bank supported such policies until the decade-long economic crisis of the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s.

2 The Washington Consensus
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 follows the histories of the Egyptian and Tunisian workers movements, trade union organizations, and leftist parties as they contended with the installation of new economic policies (the neoliberal Washington Consensus). During the 1980s and early 1990s strikes, none of them supported by ETUF, became a regular phenomenon in Egypt for the first time since the early 1950s. In Tunisia both wildcat strikes and shorter warning strikes authorized by the UGTT reached historically high levels.

3 Insurgent Workers in the Autumn of Autocracy
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 argues that in Egypt and Tunisia (but much less so than in Egypt), middle class mobilizations for human rights and democracy became more active in the 2000s. However workers movements and in Tunisia an uprising of unemployed in the Gafsa phosphate mining basin in 2008 comprised by far the largest mobilizations against autocracy. However, there was a considerable gap between the abstract calls for democratization by the middle class intelligentsias and the economic demands of workers and the unemployed. The contentious actions of Egyptian and Tunisian workers and the unemployed in the 2000s suggest that "political opportunity structures," in the terminology of social movement theory, the "expansion of civil society," and theories of democratization do not reliably explain the origins, character, capacity to persist, or the divergent outcomes of the movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

4 Popular Uprisings in 2011 and Beyond
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 argues that workers' mobilizations were central to the movements to oust presidents Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Moreover, those mobilizations continued after the ouster of the autocrats. In Tunisia, pressure from second level leaders on the UGTT to support the uprisings eventually resulted in the reform of the UGTT and its central role in the consolidation of procedural democracy. In Egypt, the workers movement could not compel the ETUF to stand with them and the movement against Mubarak. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress were too inexperienced and lacked sufficient organizational capacity and resources to influence post-Mubarak politics decisively. The organizational weakness of the Egyptian labor movement and the political illusions of some of its leaders explain, in part, the consolidation of a more vicious form of authoritarianism under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Conclusion: Workers, Social Struggles, and Democracy
chapter abstract

Workers and those affiliated with them played a central role in the 2011 popular uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia a reformed UGTT was ultimately the decisive force in the consolidation of procedural democracy. Democracy in Tunisia was not due to its stronger civil society. In Tunisia, as in Egypt "civil society organizations" – most commonly understood as NGOs – except for the Tunisian Bar Association, did not launch the uprising. The UGTT was the overwhelmingly preponderant force in the Quartet (along with the Bar Association, UTICA and the LTDH) that established procedural democracy. The economic and social demands that were at the core of the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt remain unanswered.