Revival of Popular Movements: An excerpt from Egypt’s Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution

Chapter 4 – Revival of Popular Movements

The themes of working class struggle and severe state repression of social movements have been concurrent throughout Egyptian history. The origins of a modern industrial proletariat in Egypt date back to at least the 1870s and grew continuously until the 1919 anti-colonial uprising. Left-wing socialist political thought grew slowly and steadily this period, but gained a wider audience after the First World War as the modern industrial proletariat became a distinct and important social force. Competing with the political Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist politics of the Wafd, the popularity of left-wing politics culminated with the coming to power of Nasser, at which point the size and scale of the industrial working class exploded in conjunction with the massive state investment in modern industry. Yet, the state domination of political and economic life also meant that independent left-wing thought was mostly extinguished during this period, only to reemerge as a dialectic force in opposition to Sadat’s intifah policies during the 1970s. The 1990s and 2000s witnessed an enormous increase in contentious labor action and a concomitant revival in popular politics, a vital precursor to the ousting of Mubarak in 2011.

The Growth of a Modern Working Class in Colonial Egypt

Left-wing political thought was imported to Egypt as foreign skilled workers immigrated to the country primarily from Italy and Greece, but also from other European states. As these workers mingled with the nascent Egyptian proletariat, radical ideas about the role of labor and the working class in modern society gained modest ground. As these workers mingled with the emergent Arab working class – particularly cigarette rollers, printers, and service workers – anarchist, socialist, and anarcho-syndicalist thought developed as small but important political currents within the Egyptian working class. The first major strike was led by Cairo cigarette rollers in 1899, with other strikes following in their wake. As most of Egypt’s large industrial employers were of foreign origin, and the British army occupied Egypt since the 1882 Urabi revolt, Egyptian working class activity converged with nationalist demands aimed at ending foreign dominance. This early working class activity, concentrated in transport and public utilities, laid important foundations for when the 1919 national popular uprising against the British would take place.

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Leading up to and playing a role in the 1919 Revolution against British colonialism, the working class was a vital force in achieving the marginal form of independence won in 1922, which still kept Britain in control through an acquiescent monarchy. Despite the important role of organized working class action, however, the working class was granted neither the economic demands nor the political freedoms, such as the right to form unions, it sought. Indeed, as Anthony Gorman points out, the British “oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers.”[1] Aside from a brief time during World War II in which trade unions became legal, workers were never allowed any form of legal, collective organization. Indeed, despite the nationalist Wafd party won every relatively free parliamentary election during this period, the party’s elite largely represented the Egyptian landed aristocracy. Of the 50 cabinets formed during the tumultuous years of 1914 to 1952, on average some 58% of cabinet members were landlords.[2] Thus, after the installation of an ostensibly independent monarchy, the high politics of the elite were oriented around the “triangle of opposing interests”[3] manifest in the monarchy, the British High Commission, and the nationalist elites, while Egyptian popular politics outside of elite control operated largely within the ideological domains of political Islam, radical nationalism, and Communism. The social base of these emerging political ideologies was largely drawn from workers, peasants, students, and the lower middle classes, including young military officers.

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