The Egyptian Labour Movement and the Politics of Visibility


American University in Cairo

The beginning of the twenty-first century was a period of exceptional contention and mobilisation in Egypt starting with demonstrations against the US-led invasion of Iraq and protests denouncing Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime and his attempts to designate his son, Gamal, as successor. Workers have also voiced their grievances through strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest against poor living conditions caused by the erosion of wages, rising inflation and precarious employment. With two million Egyptians protesting in the workplace, these actions have been the largest wave of labour action since the fifties. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), a state-controlled organisation designed to control rather than represent workers, recognised only one of the 1,900 protests that took place during this seven-year period. This position led in several factories to workers’ initiatives to withdraw confidence from the trade union committees and, in the case of tax collectors and teachers, to the creation of independent trade unions.

How have workers’ protests been organised and what is their connection to the mobilisations that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in February 2011? To answer these questions, this paper argues that unfolding the dynamics of workers’ collective action is a prerequisite for understanding the scope of protests and their relationship to authority. I argue that labour action provides a heuristic for understanding a political culture that increasingly has been based on the “politics of visibility”, ie relying on overt acts to voice people’s grievances and that culminated in 2011. Based on an ethnographic study of two textile companies from the Nile Delta region conducted from 2008 to 2010, my presentation will focus on labour grievances, workers’ modes of organisation, and will examine how the ouster of Mubarak impacted upon the labour movement.