We share an extract from ‘Revolution is the choice of the people: crisis and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa’ by Anne Alexander. The passage deepens our understanding of the complex class structure of the Middle Eastern and North African societies in which uprisings and revolutions erupted in the 2010s. It looks at how neoliberalism produced a crisis and profound transformations among the middle class and proletariat while propelling them to play a major role in popular resistance against the military-bureaucratic machines at the heart of the state.
The middle class in crisis?
What exactly were the threats which propelled residents of the well-to-do Khartoum neighbourhood al-Riyadh into the streets against the dictatorship in Sudan? And were these repeated in other uprisings? Before we can attempt an answer to this question, we need a brief digression to explore what being ‘middle class’ means in the societies we are discussing in this book. The Marxist analysis of capitalism is rooted in the idea that it is characterised by the struggle between the two ‘polar’ classes: the bourgeoisie, who own and control the means of production (and frequently dominate political institutions and steer the direction of the state, although this is not essential), and the working class, whose only way to survive is to sell their labour power. Yet, this abstract model of two armies facing each other across a battlefield frequently appears to bear little resemblance to the actual historical development of classes and class struggle. Just as in Marx’s day, there are classes and fractions of classes in between the working class and the bourgeoisie, which are sometimes pulled towards accommodation and compromise with the bourgeoisie and at other times pushed by recurrent economic and social crisis into confrontation alongside workers and other layers of the poor. Grasping what defines this ‘in-between’ position is important: class in the sense that Marx meant it cannot simply be read off from income, level of education or taking home a wage. There are some sections of the middle class who make a living from the ownership of property or trade. Both objective and subjective circumstances could push them into rebellion against the state, and some of this layer of the population of Syria’s provincial towns were propelled into revolution in the spring and summer of 2011 by a combination of the encroaching crisis in the countryside and the actions of the regime.
Much more important in terms of the social basis of the revolutions, however, was the crisis of that part of the middle class associated with the state during the neoliberal period. Again, some clarification is important here: working for a government institution does not in itself make you middle class, even in societies where very large numbers of the poor do not have access to regular work at all. The key test here is whether your role involves controlling the labour of other people, and the degree to which that gives you autonomy in relation to those higher up the managerial food chain. State employment expanded massively during the state capitalist period, apparently offering a route towards prosperity, influence and power for some of the generations which came of age in the era of the anti-colonial revolution. It oversaw huge growth in the public education system and the institution of a social compact which promised their sons and daughters a straight path from school to university qualifications in subjects designed to fit them for service in the state as it built a modern society. The onset of crisis and the neoliberal turn by the ruling class threw these plans into disarray. While state employment actually rarely shrank, or at least not for civil servants, health workers and education workers, its status, pay and working conditions were systematically degraded. Moreover, the state’s role as a ladder which anyone could apparently climb if they had the motivation to ‘better themselves and make a ‘better society was disrupted. Power and influence in the neoliberal period coalesced in new channels, some of the people who wielded it owed their social rise to business success but frequently they were the sons and daughters of the very top layers of the state bureaucracy. While the idea that the state was genuinely an instrument of meritocracy was always a myth, this does not make the rage at corruption and nepotism of those shut out of it any less real.
A further set of pressures which weighed heavily on both the middle class and the poor during the neoliberal period was the systematic downward shift in the burden of services supporting the reproduction of social life as well as the production of capital such as housing, healthcare and education. The state capitalist turn had created welfare, health care and housing systems which redistributed some of the wealth in society downwards through providing basic medical services, public education and subsidising rents. During the neoliberal era, this process was partially reversed, not just because less state investment was directed towards these areas, but also because they became once again frontiers for private capital accumulation. The people who suffered the most from this process were workers and the poor, but the burdens of paying more for education and health care also weighed on the middle class.
There were sections of the middle class which did much better during the neoliberal period, some who benefitted from the expansion of trade and the financial sector in particular. The social basis of Umar al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan partially rested on the expansion of this layer of society, for example. Migration to the Gulf during the 1970s and 1980s played an important role in refreshing the private sector middle class across the entire region. This was partially a result of the increasing differentiation between the economies of the region as the new centre of capital accumulation in the Gulf took off: high wages in professional and managerial roles for migrants could be turned into capital to invest in property and businesses back home. But it also reflected the growing importance of those who could act as brokers between the interests of Gulf capital and their home countries—helping to identify investment opportunities, fixing up trading partnerships, and carrying the social and cultural practices of the Gulf’s religiously conservative society to new receptive audiences. As Sameh Naguib points out, there was a layer of the Egyptian Islamist movement’s middle class base who were deeply influenced by this social process during the 1980s.
One of the features of the revolts discussed in this book has been the important role played by ‘professionals’. This was perhaps most obvious in the Sudanese Revolution where the Sudanese Professionals Association emerged as a political actor in the uprising. The SPA is a network of independent trade unions and professional associations representing both public sector workers and members of what used to be called ‘the liberal professions.’ However, in every country discussed here, both collectively and individually groups such as doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers and engineers played important roles in the uprisings. In some cases, their professional networks became vectors of rebellion, as with the example of the Tunisian Bar Association, which was one of the earliest national organisations supporting the growing revolutionary mobilisation. ‘Professional’ is a complicated label, however, which can be applied to people in a variety of class positions. A doctor for example could be working for a wage in a public hospital or running their own business selling medical services for a profit (or doing both of these at the same time, as is common for senior doctors in the Egyptian health care system).
While there is not space here for a proper discussion of what constitutes a ‘profession’ in the contemporary Middle East, understanding some aspects of the role of professionals in the revolutionary crisis is important. Firstly because professional associations (whether formally constituted and regulated by the state or ‘alternative’ ones) sometimes played extremely important roles as spaces for dissent, as well as taking on practical organisational tasks in generalising protests. In some of the countries discussed here, the state partially or sometimes fully lost control over professional associations representing lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, and sometimes even judges, in the decades before the uprisings. This was certainly the case in Egypt, where Muslim Brotherhood supporters were elected to leadership roles in several of the important professional associations during the 1980s and 1990s. To a more limited extent, the professional associations could also serve as a refuge for left and liberal opposition currents. This aspect of the role of professionals in the revolutionary process had strong elements of continuity from previous generations—lawyers and journalists who went through a European-style education were some of the most important carriers of nationalist ideas in the region from the late 19th century onwards.
However, there was a second aspect of this process where the role of professionals can only be understood through the lens of changes in the class structure under neoliberalism. A persistent feature of social changes wrought by the neoliberal turn across the region was the ‘downwards’ pressure on some of the occupations which historically fell under the term ‘professionals’, or perhaps more accurately, on some layers within those professions. ‘Downwards’ here means that their working lives became progressively more like those of workers: their relative pay declined, the advantages conferred by higher levels of education diminished, they lost autonomy in their jobs to managers who imposed tighter discipline and demanded greater productivity through mechanisms such as performance related pay. This process of proletarianisation was uneven, it affected people at the beginning of their careers more intensely, and it did not automatically mean that everyone subject to its pressures automatically drew radical political conclusions. Nevertheless, it was one of the reasons for the combativity of some of the ‘professions’ which has too often been subsumed under different explanations of ‘middle class rebellion’.
One group which was subject to this pressure was junior doctors. During the neoliberal period, they saw the relentless degradation not just of their own pay and conditions, but of the whole public health system. In Egypt, some doctors profited from health privatisation, and made fortunes as medical businessmen. However, increasingly large layers of younger doctors, forced into double-shifts in the public hospitals in the morning followed by more work in private clinics in the afternoon and evening, began to look to other ways to fight back. They started to discuss, and finally to actually mobilise for collective action as wage-workers inside the public health system, taking strike action with the twin aims of forcing the state to improve their own conditions and to invest more in health. Teachers were another group subject to even stronger downward pressures during the neoliberal era than doctors. Reforms to the education system pushed teachers towards supplementing their meagre pay in the public education system with other kinds of work, or by becoming themselves agents of privatisation and commodification. Many were driven into double-shift working offering private lessons (or working for private education providers), thus colluding in increasing the burden of private payments for education falling on working class, poor and even middle class families desperate to secure a decent education for their children.
Egyptian teacher activists often linked the struggle for decent pay to the battle to abolish private lessons as an additional tax on the poor. One striking teacher in September 2011 put it this way:
First thing to say is that isn’t true that we teachers are against Egypt. We want to see a rebirth of education. We are on the side of ordinary people who have to spend up to 50 percent of the money in their pockets on private lessons. We’re standing with them, with the Egyptian economy and with the Egyptian people. But we’ve also got the right to be able to go home at the end of the day and spend time with our kids. This is so that I can have time to sit with my son.
The pressures of proletarianisation were not only reflected in the experience of work for many people who saw themselves as ‘professionals’, they also translated into new means of collective action and class-based forms of organisation started to emerge in layers of the population which previously had little history of this kind of struggle.
The re-constitution of the working class
We will explore the character and scope of the workers’ mobilisations which both paved the way for the uprisings and shaped their trajectories once underway in the next chapter. However, to make sense of that process, we first need to investigate how neoliberal reforms restructured the economy and society and what difference they made to the nature of work itself. Across the Middle East as a whole, during the first decades of the 21st century, workers began to mobilise once again in large numbers to defend themselves collectively from the depredations of capital. Despite predictions that waged workers would not fight because they formed a privileged layer inside societies where few enjoyed the luxury of a stable, paid job, millions went on strike. Despite claims that the partial disappearance of ‘old’ industries would bring an end to traditions of working class militancy, new layers of activists in health, education and the civil service discovered how to build unions and organise collective action. The disruptive capacity of some groups of workers, such as transport and logistics workers was enhanced by the growing reliance of capitalists in different parts of the world on cross-border production chains and international trade.
The scale of the recovery of workers’ self-organisation and militancy underscores how capitalism in the neoliberal era, just as in its previous incarnations, still “has no choice about teaching its workers the wonders of organisation and labour solidarity, because without these the system cannot operate”. Workers still retain powers of concentration and combination, and the power to disrupt the flow of profit, even in societies where they are not the absolute majority, and under conditions where their bosses have a whole range of ideological tools at their disposal to fragment and disorganise their struggles. Taking some very broad statistical measures to sketch out the changes in the class composition of the societies discussed in this book, shows some common features which are worth further investigation. Firstly, let’s look at the relationship between employees and the other categories of people who are part of the labour force. While there are some employees who are highly paid agents of capital, this category has to be the core of the working class in Marx’s definition. One of the long-term trends in the social organisation of labour under neoliberalism has been the promotion of both entrepreneurship and self-employment as alternatives to waged labour. Famously, neoliberal economist Hernando de Soto even claimed Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the uprisings was simply a frustrated small businessman: “like 50 per cent of all working Arabs, he was an entrepreneur, albeit on the margins of the law, who died trying to gain the right to hold property and do business without being hassled by corrupt authorities.”
Yet during the period when neoliberal reforms accelerated in most countries discussed here, the proportion of the total labour force made up by employees as opposed to employers, the self-employed or people working for other members of their own families grew. The exceptions were Iraq and Yemen, where the reduction in waged work was likely an effect of war. In almost all countries discussed in this book, employees formed a substantial majority of the total labour force, except for Sudan and Yemen, where the proportion was 44 percent and 47 percent respectively in 2020. Moreover, in most countries, the category which shrunk the most was what the International Labour Organisation calls “contributing family workers” (in other words people whose boss is a family member, and who have no real say over what happens in the family business) while the proportions for “employers” and “own-account workers” stayed relatively similar. The trends in data about the proportion of people in the labour force for approximately the same period are complicated by the very large differences between male and female participation, and by the fact that some countries have little data available.
Nevertheless, some interesting patterns emerge. Bahrain, which has the most developed economy of the countries discussed here, and almost no agricultural sector to speak of, being largely dependent on oil and services, has by far the highest labour participation rates, including for women. Rates of women’s participation in the labour force rose significantly in Bahrain in the two decades between 1991 and 2010, from just under 30 percent to 43 percent. In Algeria and Tunisia, male labour participation rates dropped noticeably between the 1990s and the present, down from 77.5 percent in 1996 to 66.2 percent in Algeria between 1996 and 2017, while in Tunisia they fell from 75.3 percent in 1989 to 68.3 percent in 2017. However, a rise in female participation partially offset this drop. Egypt’s labour participation rates were relatively stable during the same period, hovering around 70 percent for men and 20 percent for women. There was a large leap in women’s participation in the labour force in Lebanon between 2004 and 2019, up from 20 percent to 29 percent, and a slight rise for men, up from 69 to 70 percent. The small amount of data available for Sudan also showed a big rise in women’s participation for the two years available: up from 23 percent in 2009 to 28 percent in 2011, while the male participation rate dropped slightly from 73 to 70 percent. Iraq showed low rates of women working, around 12 percent, while the rate for men was around 72 percent for 2007 and 2012. The largest changes were to be found in Yemen, where women’s participation rates collapsed from nearly 22 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2014, while the rate for men declined from 69 percent to 65 percent.
In the mid-1990s, Syria’s rates of labour force participation were similar to Egypt’s and Tunisia’s, however after 2000 participation for both men and women declined noticeably, most sharply for women. Unlike Iraq, Algeria and Yemen where the data shows the scars of sanctions and civil war, in the Syrian case this underlines the combined violence of the neoliberal transition and ecological crisis in peacetime conditions before the 2011 uprising. The general picture which emerges is thus one where either a substantial majority, or a growing proportion of the population are directly dependent on wage labour of some kind, rather than ‘being your own boss’ or ‘becoming a boss’, to survive. There are of course other kinds of transformation which have disrupted these patterns, including devastating external military interventions and civil wars, but these trajectories illustrate the continued centrality of waged work under neoliberalism, just as in any other sort of capitalism.
Of course, this does not tell us anything about the kinds of jobs that these wage workers are doing, and to what extent they are likely to confer the powers of combination and disruption we noted above. Workers’ ability to resist in an organised way, the history of the workers’ movement shows, is affected by factors such as the size of the workplace—with small workplaces, particularly those where people work directly with their bosses in small offices or shops, often being harder to organise than larger workplaces. There is also the separate, but important question of whether workers can take “economically effective action”, as Chris Harman put it, in other words whether if they withdraw their labour it hurts their bosses’ profits.
So how has the distribution of workers by economic sector changed in recent decades? Although these statistics are very blunt tools for understanding what has happened to the working class, some patterns emerge.Firstly, as we already noted, employment in agriculture declined overall in most countries, except Sudan and Egypt where the number of agricultural workers still dwarfs those employed in other sectors. In Tunisia, by far the largest employment sector in 2020 was manufacturing, followed by construction, agriculture and public administration. In Algeria, the largest sector was construction, followed by public administration, trade and manufacturing. The patterns of change by sector in Algeria show the impact of reconstruction after the ‘black decade’ of civil war during the 1990s: in the 2000s the steepest increases were in public administration and construction which overtook agriculture as the largest economic sector by numbers employed mid-way through the decade. Manufacturing, education and trade also grew rapidly during the same period. Around 2011, changes in government policy including austerity measures and a hiring freeze in the public sector are visible in the flat-lining of most of these trends except the trade sector.
In Egypt, after agriculture the second biggest employment sector in 1991 was manufacturing. The restructuring of public sector industry in the 1990s led to slow growth in manufacturing employment for the next two decades, and by 2011 construction and trade had overtaken manufacturing. However, after 2011, the growth in manufacturing jobs sharply accelerated again. The numbers employed in public administration in Egypt have been declining since the mid-2000s, as have the numbers employed in education since 2016, although the scale of the education sector in Egypt is extremely large, employing almost as many people as manufacturing in 2011. In Lebanon the largest employment sector since the late 2000s has been trade, followed by public administration, agriculture and manufacturing. Iraq’s trade sector is also the second biggest employer: followed by construction, public administration and education. A lot more detailed investigation would be necessary to provide a better assessment of what changes in the working lives of the people behind these statistics mean for their capacity and confidence to resist. However, there are some general points worth making. Firstly, while sectors such as wholesale and retail trade and construction which pose challenges to workers’ self-organisation because of either the small size of workplaces and high levels of casualisation and employment of migrant or seasonal workers did grow in many countries, there were either similar numbers or more people employed as state administrators, educators and healthworkers than in these sectors in every country. Although individual government offices or schools may not be especially large workplaces, the fact that they are part of a national infrastructure can be an accelerant to workers’ consciousness and self-organisation.
Secondly, although manufacturing in some cases declined or flat-lined, and in others saw a shift from relatively much larger public sector industrial workplaces to small or micro-sized private sector workshops, the picture was highly uneven. Crucially, in several countries discussed here, at the outbreak of the uprisings, privatisation and deindustrialisation had not entirely wiped out the old industrial sectors. For example, in Algeria, despite the closure of many industrial plants during the 1990s, some of the old citadels of labour militancy such as the public sector vehicle manufacture SNVI did survive and played an important role in the strike waves before and during the uprising. A similar point could be made about Egypt’s textile sector. Developments in one other strategically important sector—transport, communications and logistics—are worth mentioning here too. This sector of employment was one of the fastest growing in Egypt since the 1990s and in Sudan since the late 2000s and remains a major employer in most other countries. What this means for workers’ ability to organise is often complex—during the neoliberal period some parts of the transport sector have seen massive growth in ‘own-account’ working (with the expansion of taxi, microbus and tuk-tuk services for example), and the decline of publicly funded transport infrastructure, for example.
However, the degradation of transport infrastructure also negatively affects capital accumulation and the past two decades have also seen some investment and modernisation of those parts of the transport systems which are geared towards serving export markets, for example. The struggle of workers in Port Sudan over the privatisation and containerisation of the port is one example of how such changes can fuel resistance.
‘Revolution is the choice of the people’ can be bought on the bookmarks publications website
Anne Alexander is a revolutionary socialist and a trade unionist. She’s the co-author of Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution and an editor of Middle East Solidarity magazine.
Check out Anne’s blog where she gives herself space to add data, case studies and theoretical insights that did not make it into the book, which is over 400 pages. Her posts Some thoughts on the class structure and Counting workers part 1: looking for the ‘polar classes’ are particularly relevant to the above extract.