Revival of the Workers’ Movement in North Africa

We share a second extract from ‘Revolution is the choice of the people: crisis and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa’ by Anne Alexander. The extract provides an astute historic and comparative analysis of the revival of the workers’ movement, which played a vital role in the mass protests and revolutions of 2011 and 2019.

In both 2011 and 2019 strikes and protests in the workplaces played a vital role in the development and trajectory of the revolutionary crisis, although not in every country. This chapter explores how the revival of organised workers’ self-organisation and confidence to take independent collective action over the decades before the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria played a critical role in creating the conditions for the eruption of revolution. It argues that the intervention of organised workers also made a significant difference to the evolution of the revolutionary crisis itself with high points of workers’ struggle often coinciding with the opening of fractures in the state apparatus, such as the wave of strikes which erupted just before the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak in 2011. Finally, we’ll explore the limits of the revival of the workers’ movement and the role of reformism both in the form of the trade union bureaucracy and the legacy of Stalinism and Arab nationalism.

Workers’ resistance, I will argue here, was firmly rooted in the multi-dimensional social, economic and political crisis which had emerged out of the previous decades of uneven and combined development. It was one of the possible outcomes of the combined crisis of both the neoliberal model of economic development, and the state capitalist model which preceded it, and whose material and ideological legacy continued to shape large parts of the economy. The waves of strikes and protests organised by workers constituted a social movement involving millions of people. Moreover, before the explosion of the uprisings, workers’ protests and strikes were by far the most well organised and often the biggest forms of collective action by the poor. Workers also in many cases pioneered mass public forms of collective action, including street protests and sit-ins which generalised during the uprisings of 2011-2013 and 2018-2020.

An upturn in workers’ collective action

Despite the lack of reliable statistics and all the challenges mentioned above, there is overwhelming evidence of huge upsurge in strike activity across the region from the mid-2000s onward. For Tunisia, where the official data probably bears some relationship to actual patterns of strike activity, the graph below shows three major peaks of legal strike activity since 1970—in 1977, 1985 and 2011, with the 2011 peak being significantly higher than the 1977 peak. Bearing in mind that the graph only shows legal strikes, and thus illegal strikes are not represented in the data at all, in terms of numbers of strike days ‘lost’, 2011 represented a huge leap compared to previous years. Unusually for the region, Tunisian workers have been able to exercise the right to strike legally. Since the 1970s the Tunisian state has also recognised the UGTT trade union federation’s right to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers. These two mechanisms have allowed the union bureaucracy to use strikes and threats of strikes as a tactic to pressurise employers into making concessions, while also often acting as a kind of “safety valve” for the frustrations of rank-and-file workers.

In Egypt, there was no mechanism for workers’ resistance to find an outlet in legal strike action, and before the growth of independent media in the 2000s, there was precious little reporting of strikes to serve as an alternative source of data. However, both Egyptian activists and academics with long experience of research on the Egyptian workers’ movement broadly agree that there was a dramatic qualitative shift in the numbers of strikes from the mid-2000s onward. This accelerated after December 2006, when textile workers at Misr Spinning in al-Mahalla al-Kubra won a historic victory in a major strike which mobilised thousands of workers against their bosses and the state. The timing of Algeria’s uprising and the workers’ revolt which preceded it differed from those in Tunisia and Egypt, although the overall pattern was very similar. The economic crisis of the late 1970s, which propelled the Algerian ruling class towards neoliberal restructuring triggered major waves of strikes. Despite a crackdown on the left in the UGTA trade union federation, the strike wave continued to build in strength during 1983-6, with 3528 strikes in the public sector and 2298 in the private sector across the country during this period. The strike wave paved the way for the explosion of riots and protests across Algeria in October 1988, ushering in an intense period of crisis in the state, which was only resolved by the intervention of the army in 1992. The catastrophe of the ‘Black Decade’ of military repression and the civil war which followed it was a major factor inhibiting Algerians’ willingness to risk collective action for the ten years afterwards, helping to explain why Algeria joined the ‘second wave’ of uprisings in 2019-20 and not the ‘first wave’ in 2011. However, the ten years before the mass popular mobilisation of 2019 saw major strikes in education, health, transport and industry, many of which involved thousands of workers at a time, and some of which mobilised tens of thousands (such as the teachers’ strikes). Sudan’s experience of strike action in the decades before the uprising began in late 2018 had something in common with Algeria, in that the crisis of the 1970s had come to a head in a popular uprising in 1985 resulting in a political revolution which removed Jaafar Nimeiri from power and installed a democratic government under Sadiq al-Mahdi, which was itself overthrown in a coup led by Umar al-Bashir working in alliance with Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamist movement in 1989. Strikes by doctors and lawyers and judges in 1983 and 1984 had paved the way for the 1985 uprising, while during the revolution they joined railway workers, textile workers, bank workers together with engineers, academics and nurses in a general strike. A combination of worsening economic crisis and an intensification of struggle over South Sudan created conditions for Al Bashir’s coup in 1989, which was accompanied by fierce repression of independent trade unions and professional associations. The revival of strike activity pre-figured the uprising of 2019. There were doctors’ strikes in 2010 and 2011, following strikes by teachers, railway workers and water carriers in 2009. Despite difficult conditions, some of the strikes became much more than localised battles. For example, a strike by doctors in 2016 demanding protection for healthworkers from assault in the workplace spread to 65 hospitals nationwide. Strikes were not restricted to public services: strikes against privatisation by stevedores in the cargo port in Port Sudan mobilised 20,000 workers in May 2018.

The public services in revolt

The character of the strike waves demonstrates their roots in the twin crises of industry and public services under neoliberalism. In public services, strikes were a response from below to the neoliberal assault on education, health and public administration, which encompassed the relative degradation of pay and working conditions, increasing use of sub-contracting and various models of precarious labour, and the intensification of managerialism and factory-like discipline. Striking workers in the public services, especially those in education and health also sometimes explicitly positioned themselves as fighting for broader social goals, defending the rights of the poor to healthcare and education and challenging the logic of the market and competition. Almost every country discussed here shared a common experience of mass strikes in public services in the years preceding the popular uprisings. One exception is Syria, which we will discuss in more detail below. Teachers, health workers and low paid clerical workers in public administration (muwazzafin in Arabic) were the main groups whose collective action powered repeated strikes which were not only often some of the largest in terms of numbers of participants but also among the most significant in terms of mobilisation on a national scale and engaging the state in direct confrontation. These public service strikes were often highly participatory, mobilising thousands of people in creative and democratic forms of organising and left a rich organisational legacy both inside existing trade unions and professional associations, and outside them in the form of new independent union networks and trade unions. The other significant feature of public services was that the institutions of the state could act as a kind of scaffolding for collective action, providing a platform for workers to aggregate their grievances and frustrations and gather in sufficient numbers to begin to have an impact on national politics and state policies in relation to both their own terms and conditions of employment, but also crucially by positioning strikers as fighting on behalf of wider layers of the population to demand greater investment in health, education and local government services.

Mass strikes by teachers in primary and secondary schools were a ubiquitous feature of the public services revolt in almost every country discussed here. Tunisian primary and secondary school teachers staged several national strikes in the years before the popular uprising began in 2010, including a national strike over working conditions and pay in late October that year. The teachers’ strike movement grew further in size and scope during and after the 2011 uprising. There were national primary and secondary school strikes almost every year between 2012 and 2019. Demands over pay and conditions continued to be important but the movement also set its sights on curriculum reform, calling for the revision of materials from the Ben Ali era. Teachers in secondary and primary schools have also been central to the public service strikes in Algeria during the last two decades. Some of the most militant struggles have been led by casualised teachers, who organised a “March of Dignity” in March-April 2016. Following the government’s refusal to provide permanent jobs for nearly 30,000 teachers on temporary contracts, activists organised a march from Béjaïa to Algiers which captured the imagination of local people in the towns en route who came out to offer solidarity and support. The March of Dignity followed a seven-week long strike by teachers in the southern regions in 2013, and a month-long stay-away in March 2014.

In Egypt the initial spur for collective action among teachers was the implementation of a new pay and grading structure by the Ministry of Education in 2017 which imposed new professional standards and performance-related pay. The new ‘Cadre’ sparked a ferment of grassroots organising and protests, which laid the basis for the emergence of a new independent union for teachers in July 2010. Just over a year later, in September 2011, the new union was leading hundreds of thousands of teachers in national strike action with far-reaching demands encompassing pay, conditions, and the resignation of the Minister of Education. Teachers’ strikes have also been major vectors of resistance in Lebanon, Sudan and in other countries such as Morocco and Jordan. Strikes by health workers, particularly junior doctors, are also an extremely common feature of the public service strike waves of the past decade across most of the region. There were mass strikes in the health sector in Algeria 2010, 2011 and 2013 leading to a major open-ended strike in November 2014. Junior doctors were an active component of the healthworkers’ strike movement: from late 2017 until the summer of 2018, they were on strike against poor pay, job insecurity and appalling working conditions. Other health workers joined them for a three-day national general strike in hospitals in January 2018. Strikes by doctors and health professionals has played a key role in developing combative forms of union and strike organisation in the health service in Sudan. A major strike by doctors in 2016 demanding protection from assault for frontline health staff spread to 65 hospitals across the country by 9 October. The road from ‘economic’ to ‘political’ demands was short. In the same month as the Doctors’ strike, one of the key coordinating bodies, the Sudan Doctors’ Central Committee (SDCC) joined with the Sudanese Journalists’ Network and the Alliance of Democratic Lawyers to form the Sudanese Professionals’ Association.

We are standing firm:’ Algerian school teachers on strikes in spring 2021 (Pic: taken Middle East Solidarity)

Teachers and healthworkers were not the only public service workers whose frustrations boiled over into strikes and protests. In Egypt, low-paid civil servants in the Property Tax Agency organised a historic national strike in 2007, which laid the foundations for the first independent union for more than fifty year. The strike was notable not only for its scale— mobilising tens of thousands of property tax collectors across the country—but also for the strikers’ creative tactics. The journey towards the strike started in September 2007, at a rally called by activists in the Property Tax Agency’s Giza office to demand parity between their pay, and that of colleagues doing similar work for the Ministry of Finance. Sit-ins and protests spread to other offices around the country, and local mobilising committees began to come together on a regional basis. Mahmud ‘Uwayda and activists from al-Mansoura travelled in a 22-bus convoy with activists from other offices in Daqahiliyya province, reaching the centre of Cairo after a 25-km march from the Ministry of Finance. They found thousands of their colleagues already waiting for them:

We were greeted with open arms and cheers, by smiling, laughing, cheerful faces as if we had known them for years. The place itself was no stranger to us either, as we had walked there the 25km from the Ministry of Finance… The drums, tambourines and megaphones, the joy and the shouting: some people cannot believe that the numbers on that day were more than ten thousand. And everywhere you heard the beautiful chant: ‘a decision, a decision … we’re not going home without a decision’.

Holding their nerve for nine days of constant protest, which ended with marathon negotiations between the Higher Strike Committee and the Minister of Finance, Boutros Ghali, the tax collectors won a significant victory, equivalent to a 300 percent pay rise. As we will discuss later, this victorious strike was also the first step towards the founding of the first independent union in Egypt for fifty years. Workers in public utilities, such as water and electricity have also played an important role in the strike waves. Workers employed by the Lebanese state electricity company, EDL fought major battles in an effort to reverse the trend towards casualisation.

Patterns of industrial resistance

The crisis in industry was of a dual nature, comprising the unresolved problems of the ‘old’ industries of the state capitalist era, combined with the cyclical crises of ‘new’ industries which had either transitioned to private ownership or were built up during the neoliberal era and oriented on the export market. Despite the best efforts of the state, employers and compliant national trade union leaderships to prevent it, neither privatised industries nor the new manufacturers proved able to completely stop the re-emergence of strikes and the rebuilding of workers’ self-organisation in the workplaces.

Meanwhile, sectors of the economy which retained their importance from the state capitalist era, including some sections of heavy industry such as steel and cement; transport, communications and logistics, also saw major strikes in most countries discussed here. Regional UGTT offices in Tunisia built up their industrial muscle and resources through coordinated strike action in the major industrial zones in Ksar Hellal, Monastir, Sfax and Bizerte, winning wage rises but also rights to hold union meetings on company premises and paid facility time for union activists.Throughout the 1990s, strikes in manufacturing made up a large percentage of all official strikes, peaking in 1994. By 2005-2007, however, the overall number of strike days was rising sharply, as other sectors took the lead. In Algeria, the 2016 strike at the SNVI (SNVI – Entreprise National des Véhicules Industriels), a major vehicle manufacturing plant in Rouïba played a role in preparing the way for the popular uprising in 2019. Although the industrial area where SNVI is located employed much smaller numbers than in the late 1970s, it still represented a significant concentration of around 32,000 workers in 100 productive units, the largest and most important of which was SNVI itself, with a workforce of 7000. Following two violent clashes between workers and riot police in January 2010 and December 2015 an 8-day strike erupted in November 2016 over the impact of the government’s national pension reform and the mismanagement of the factory. The strike was organised through the local UGTA branch, which called the action under pressure from rank-and-file and mid-ranking activists, despite the closeness of the UGTA national leadership to the regime. Pressure from the UGTA centre did bring the strike to a close in return for a management promise to consider workers’ demands, but without closing down all avenues for further resistance. Rouïba would emerge as one of the centres of the revolt against the UGTA leadership during the uprising in 2019. Relatively profitable industries, such as steel and the crucial hydrocarbon sector were not immune from strikes either. At the El Hadjar steel complex there were several major confrontations between management and the workforce between 2010 and 2013, leading to a rupture with the UGTA and the foundation of an independent union by 5,000 of El Hadjar’s workers. Falling hydrocarbon prices on the international market and the decline in proven energy reserves led to the government implementing austerity measures targeting workers’ pay and living conditions, leading to a long series of protests in the state oil and gas company SONATRACH including hunger strikes by workers in 2013, 2016 and 2018. The state-owned gas and electricity company SONELGAZ also saw the growth of an independent union and workers’ protests which triggered a wave of arrests of union leaders and the jailing of Raouf Mellal, the union president in 2017.

Workers at the Misr Insurance Company on strike in Cairo during the revolution. ‘We want change’ was their slogan (Pic: Socialist Worker)

In Egypt, large scale strikes in industry preceded the public services revolt. A major breakthrough came in December 2006 with the strike at Misr Spinning in al-Mahalla al-Kubra. The giant Misr Spinning plant, employing tens of thousands of workers and dominating the neighbouring town, was one of the iconic centres of the public sector textile industry (although its foundation by industrialist Talaat Harb in the 1930s actually long preceded the state capitalist turn in national economic policy). The factory had also a long tradition of militancy, having been the site of major strikes going back to the 1940s. The strike was triggered by a dispute over the payment of bonuses, and resulted in a complete victory for the workers, not only over their own management but also symbolically over the state, as the Minister of Labour Ai’sha Abd-al-Hadi was forced concede that the strikers’ demands would all be met and even that the strike days would count as paid holiday. The stunning success of the Misr Spinning strike soon triggered a wave of strikes over similar demands in other major textile factories across Egypt, with walkouts in Shibin al-Kom, Kafr al-Dawwar, Zifta, 10th Ramadan City, Al-Salihiyya and Burg al-Arab. By April the strike wave had spread from public sector textile plants (or those which had recently been privatised) to private sector textile firms including Makarem Group in Sadat City and Arab Polvara in Alexandria. The Egyptian strike wave was notable for the way in which workers’ collective action rapidly generalised across the divide between the public and private sector industries. One of the first signs of the recovery of workers’ confidence and willingness to fight back was not in the ‘old’ public sector industries, but in new industrial centres which had often been deliberately located in entirely new areas far away from the traditional centres of working class organisation.

Transport, communications and logistics workers also flexed their muscles during the strike waves. Major transport strikes in Algeria included action by staff at the state airline, Air Algerie in 2013, 2015 and 2018; railway workers who staged protests in 2014 and organised a 9-day strike in May 2016 demanding a 100 percent salary increase, and 3,000 public transport workers in Algiers who walked out on open-ended strike in December 2015. Transport workers in UGTA-affiliated unions generally organised strikes in defiance of the national union leadership’s efforts to maintain “social peace” with the government, in particular after the signing of a formal economic and social pact committing the unions to a four-year truce in 2006. The cargo workers and stevedores in Port Sudan have been one of the major groups of workers involved in strikes and protests to defend their jobs against plans to privatise the port. Attempts by the state-run port company to bring in new private investors on long-term concessionary contracts has met with determined resistance, including mass strikes involving 20,000 workers in May 2018.

‘Revolution is the choice of the people’ can be bought on 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.

Anne’s first extract can be read here.

Check out Anne’s blogpost where she gives herself space to add data, case studies and theory 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 relevant to the above extract.


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