The Remaking of the Arab Working Class

Joel Beinin

Once powerful Arab left-wing movements took a battering in recent decades, but they’ve reemerged since 2011 to play a vital role in struggles for freedom and social justice. Rebuilding strong labor organizations is crucial for democracy in the Middle East.

Demonstrators take to the streets after the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) calls for a general strike in Kairouan on December 3, 2020. (Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Since 2011, media coverage of the Arab uprisings has focused on the contest for power between old-guard regimes, liberal pro-democracy activists, and Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. But labor unions and left-wing organizations have also played an important role in the political struggles of North Africa and the Middle East.

From the Tunisian trade-union movement and Egypt’s wildcat strikes to the Sudanese Professionals Association, action by organized workers has often been of pivotal importance in the fight for political freedom and social justice. Whenever counterrevolutionary forces have gained the initiative, working-class organizations have been the first to suffer from the chilling effect of repression.

Joel Beinin is a leading historian of the Middle East, and the author of Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. He spoke to Jacobin about the record of Arab left and labor organizations across a decade of intense political drama.

This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

You’ve spoken about the fact that left and labor organizations played a more significant role in the Arab uprisings of the last decade than is widely appreciated in the Western media. Could you tell us something about the role those forces played in Tunisia and Egypt?

Joel Beinin

First of all, Egypt and Tunisia are very different, because in Egypt, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation was established by the state in 1957, five years after the military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Nasser had until then refused to allow a national trade union federation. From that point to this very day, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation has been effectively an arm of the state apparatus.

Consequently, every strike that has happened in Egypt since the late ’90s, with the exception of one or two, has been a wildcat strike in Anglo-American terms, which is to say they were all locally organized in workplaces by leaderships that had emerged in the course of various struggles. This was very encouraging, because it meant that there was an enormous movement of locally and democratically organized labor struggle. There were some 2,700-plus strikes recorded in Egypt from 2004 until the overthrow of [Hosni] Mubarak. That’s on top of an already very escalated rate of strikes since the late nineties.

After Mubarak was overthrown, the rate of strikes skyrocketed, and it looked very impressive that there was a large-scale social movement of workers in motion. In the course of the uprising itself, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions was organized — that is, a trade union federation that was not connected to the state or to the existing Egyptian Trade Union Federation.

All of this was nearly totally repressed in the wake of the military coup of July 3, 2013, which ultimately installed the head of the armed forces, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in power. He is now the president of Egypt. There was a wave of strikes in the six months after Sisi came to power. But due to censorship, there has been hardly any news of any labor activity at all in Egypt since late 2015.

Looking at all of what happened in Egypt over the last fifteen years, what we see is a very impressive social movement of workers from below, that appeared to have a lot of democratic and even revolutionary potential, that has been completely repressed. That has to do with the inability of workers — and this is not through any fault of “misleadership” or anything like that; the circumstances were very, very difficult — to coordinate beyond a single workplace.

For example, there were efforts to set up a coordinating committee for the ten textile factories in the Nile Delta, and it simply couldn’t be done. Workers had one day off a week, travel was difficult and expensive and inconvenient. People were going to be surveilled by the internal security apparatus. It was just too big a task. So that’s where we are now in Egypt.

Tunisia is a very different story because there the national trade union federation, which is known by its French acronym, UGTT, was established a decade before Tunisia became independent in 1956. It was the principal social base of the main pro-independence party. Its scope of action was severely limited by [Habib] Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, when he adopted a more autocratic direction, and ultimately even more so by his successor Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011.

But the union was always there and always legal. It always struggled for shop-floor issues, wages, working conditions, and so on. It had an enormous amount of legitimacy when the national uprising began in Tunisia.

The leadership of the UGTT had been for years completely co-opted by the regime. At first, the national leadership of the union simply called on the security forces to be somewhat less violent in repressing the movement. But below the national leadership, regional and sectoral leaderships were completely supportive of the movement.

They opened their offices to protesters. They helped them make banners and signs and gave them logistical advice, and ultimately the UGTT provided the kind of alternative national organizational and logistical framework for the uprising that didn’t exist in Egypt. When [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, the autocratic president, was ousted in January, three UGTT members were made cabinet ministers in a new, transitional cabinet.

Then there was an objection from the social movement that had ousted Ben Ali that some members of that cabinet were high-ranking officials in the previous ruling party. The UGTT members resigned, and they did that twice. The trade union federation as a national block had quite a lot of influence in the early days of the post–Ben Ali period.

Ultimately, it was the UGTT which insisted that the deadlock in the constitutional congress that was established to write a new constitution for Tunisia be broken. They united with the bar association, the employers’ association, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights and told the political parties to get this together — and they did.

Consequently, Tunisia has, nominally at least, the most democratic constitution in the Arab world. It does not say anything about Sharia law being valid in Tunisia. It says that men and women have equal rights. Of course, many of the things in the constitution are not fully implemented in practice, as is often the case. But this is nonetheless a significant accomplishment.

The UGTT and, more importantly, its constituent unions, especially unions like the primary-school and secondary-school teachers’ unions, have been quite militant in the years since Ben Ali was ousted in 2011. Now, however, Tunisia is facing a major economic crisis. The government simply hasn’t got enough money to finish the current budget year. It is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a second time for a new loan.

The IMF will seek to impose, as it always does, conditions that will limit government expenditures, meaning wage freezes for public-sector workers, who still comprise a pretty substantial proportion of the wage labor force. The third government this year has recently been installed and the UGTT is negotiating with that government, which probably will resolve those negotiations with some modest salary increase for some workers at least.

This is important because inflation is now running at 17 percent a year, but there is no fundamental change of direction. This means that the UGTT will become complicit in whatever neoliberal measures the Tunisian government is going to be compelled to accept in exchange for another loan from the IMF.

So things don’t look great in Tunisia, either, but they are still much, much better than in Egypt, because, for all of its problems, the UGTT exists. It does have a certain amount of autonomy from the regime. It has very high standing among the public, which goes all the way back to the role that it played in the national movement in the 1940s and early 1950s. There is some organizational framework that can be built on for future activities.

Daniel Finn

In the two countries that you’ve been talking about, Egypt and Tunisia, what has been the relationship between on the one hand workers’ organizations, trade unions and also wildcat actions by workers, and on the other hand political organizations of the Left, to the extent that those groups have any real influence or real weight?

Joel Beinin

In Egypt, all political parties were debilitated and had no real, significant influence or even contact with any group of people, let alone workers, with one exception. That is the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists organization, which is the sister party of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

It’s not the case that they led workers anywhere in doing anything. But there were several labor journalists who were members of the party or close to it who played absolutely heroic roles in reporting on the wildcat strikes that took place in the decade before Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

They also played an important role in the period when there was a little bit more freedom of maneuver after Mubarak’s fall, organizing labor events and so forth. One of them, Mostafa Bassiouny, in collaboration with Anne Alexander, a member of the British SWP, published a book about the role of workers in the uprising. It’s rather more dogmatic than I like, but nonetheless very good in terms of its reportage.

In Egypt, no significant political forces had much to do as political forces. When it came to Mostafa Bassiouny and a few others like him, yes, they were members of the Revolutionary Socialists, but that’s not why workers welcomed them to report on their strikes and agreed to be interviewed by them. They respected them as courageous individuals who were willing to take chances to report the news.

Tunisia is a little bit different. It was also the case there that all the legal political parties were debilitated in Tunisia and did not have the confidence of any group of workers or any other social group at all.

The one partial exception was the Communist Workers’ Party, which until the ouster of Ben Ali in January 2011 had what we might call an Albanian line. They were illegal. Some of what they did was managed from exile, but they were present. There was a six-month-long rebellion in the phosphate mining basin from January to June 2008, and they were the main force that publicized and encouraged it.

Consequently, when Ben Ali was ousted and there were finally new elections, in their new guise as the Workers’ Party, they became part of the Popular Front. The Popular Front, including some of their members, became the third-largest parliamentary faction in the first legislative elections.

The Popular Front split, and one faction has aligned itself more closely with the government. The People’s Party faction is not doing that, but they are still there. So in Tunisia there was, especially in the phosphate mining basin, which is historically a big center of labor struggle, this far-left, Maoist-Albanian party that was active.

Another important force in Tunisia was the Union of Unemployed University Graduates. These were people who had been leftists in university and who, given the very high rate of unemployment in Tunisia among university graduates, couldn’t find jobs when they graduated. They did link themselves to labor struggles.

They were present in the phosphate mining uprising in 2008 and in several others subsequently both before and after Ben Ali’s departure. The Union of Unemployed University Graduates isn’t a political party. But it’s a stable political formation that has had an ongoing relationship with certain sectors of the working class and popular forces, especially in the depressed southwest and south of the country. Other forces were also active, but they came late to that story and were much more distanced from the actual struggle.

Daniel Finn

What was the relationship, if indeed there was a relationship, between these labor and left-wing organizations and the more liberal pro-democracy campaigners and organizations that would achieve much more recognition in the Euro-American media, whether or not that’s commensurate with their actual influence on the ground in Egypt or Tunisia.

Joel Beinin

There was not much of a relationship, to put it quite sharply. The vast majority of labor mobilizations, strikes, and protests in Tunisia and Egypt in the decade before 2011 did not address the question of democracy or regime change. They were almost entirely focused on wages and stability of employment, because there was pressure to privatize both in Egypt and Tunisia from the IMF and other international financial institutions.

Public-sector workers who had relatively good working conditions and job security would, if their enterprises were privatized, lose those benefits. Sometimes there were also protests against particularly tyrannical managers who were aligned with the ruling party. There were exceptions, but that was the main character of labor mobilization and protest in those years.

The urban-middle-class elements, which are quite small, to be sure, in both Egypt and Tunisia, were organized primarily through nongovernmental organizations or were members of parties that had no real presence on the ground outside the capital cities. Those parties were typically not present even in the distant neighborhoods of the capital cities far from the center. Such forces had little contact with workers, and at first didn’t even see the workers’ movement as anything that was related to the struggle for human rights and democracy.

For example, in Egypt, the April 6 youth movement took its name from a strike that was supposed to happen in the mammoth textile mill at al-Mahalla al-Kubra in the central Delta. The strike didn’t happen because the security forces intervened and split the leadership — it’s a long and ugly story. But the April 6 youth movement people were not in touch with the workers before the date of the planned strike. I don’t believe they were in al-Mahalla al-Kubra on that day — I was, and I didn’t see them.

It’s true that one of them, Esraa Abdel Fattah, called on her Facebook page for people to stay home on that day, because originally this was supposed to be a national general strike. But that never had any chance of actually happening. There’s no way to tell how many people stayed home in response to this call on her Facebook page.

She was brave putting that out there — I don’t want to take that away from her. They put her in jail as a result of that. She got out, and then she was back in jail — although she’s since been released once more — because the Sisi regime is even more repressive and tyrannical than the Mubarak regime.

The April 6 leadership in particular got lots of international attention because they had attended certain events and they were using techniques that were promoted in the West. But after the uprising that ousted Mubarak, one of the leaders, Ahmed Maher, said straight up in an interview with Le Monde diplomatique that the workers played no role in the revolution.

The Le Monde diplomatique reporter who interviewed Ahmed Maher had the presence of mind to interview people who had other views. One of them was a movie producer who comes from a communist family — although he himself was not a communist activist at all — and he said “of course, the strikes were part of what made it possible.”

No, the workers didn’t call for Mubarak’s ouster, but there was a social movement that went on for a long time. That can’t be disconnected from what happened on January 25, which was the start date of the Egyptian uprising.

Basically, you have had in Egypt and Tunisia a debate over what the uprisings were about: Were they led by middle-class, liberal elements? Who are not bad people — maybe I’m sounding very harsh about them, but I don’t mean to say that they’re in any way not reputable, respectable people.

However, they had a certain view of what the movement was about, which was a pretty limited liberal-democratic project. Or were these movements about the failure of neoliberalism in the Middle East and North Africa — the failure of a particular mode of capital accumulation over many decades, since the international financial institutions started to promote it in the region in the late ’70s?

Daniel Finn

You’ve described the distinction between Egypt and Tunisia, but there’s also a much more striking distinction to be made between those countries and Syria and Libya, where to begin with, as I understand it, you can’t really identify a similar role being played by workers’ organizations in the uprisings of 2011. Perhaps not unrelated to this, you had a rather rapid descent into conflict in both countries, which gave rise to a full-blown civil war, which is still in progress, both in Syria and in Libya — albeit in rather different forms. Why do you think there was that absence, compared to Egypt or Tunisia, of labor and left-wing forces?

Joel Beinin

First of all, in both cases, you had very, very harsh repressive regimes, much more so than in Egypt under Mubarak or Tunisia under Ben Ali. In Libya, the working class is very small. What we would traditionally think of as the working class was essentially limited to the oil industry and its related infrastructures — transportation and so forth.

There just weren’t that many people who could be organized in unions to begin with, and no form of independent labor organization was tolerated. Anyone who did anything of that sort was very, very harshly repressed. There was essentially no organized political opposition to Gaddafi inside Libya for many, many years. People were in exile.

Syria is a little different because while there was never a large trade-union movement, there was a Syrian trade union federation. It was completely co-opted by the state, beginning in the 1960s, after the Ba’ath came to power in 1963.

The Ba’ath’s official name is the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party. They were anti-Marxian socialists who nonetheless in the 1960s carried out the classical program of import substitution industrialization, land reform, and moderate income redistribution. They compelled all forces to join a national front led by them.

It was like the situation in Egypt, where trade unions often voluntarily decided that the Nasserist program was a pretty good one compared to what they had before, so they said, “Okay, we’ll go along with this undemocratic trade union federation that the regime is establishing.” In Syria, most trade union leaders, seeing that the alternative was harsh repression, said, “Okay, we’ll go along with this.”

But then from the death in 2000 of Hafez al-Assad, the leader who had come to power in 1970, his son Bashar adopted economic policies that were comparable to those imposed by the international financial institutions in other Arab countries. That meant that the social contract was broken in a similar way as it had been in Egypt.

There were plenty of reasons to protest, but the regime had at that point for more than thirty years seized control over the whole trade-union apparatus. There was no way to organize it to participate in any kind of protest. When the movement broke out for democracy in Syria in February 2011, it came from places that were very unexpected: youth in Daraa, a medium-sized town in the southeast of the country.

If it had not been for the fact that the regime had oppressed them so harshly and humiliated them and their families, that protest might have been quashed and gone nowhere. But because the regime understood that it was no longer able to meet the needs of the people in the way that it claimed to do, it needed to exercise that kind of repression. This was what led — not immediately, it took some time — to the transformation of what was initially a nonviolent protest movement into a civil war.

Daniel Finn

You wrote in your piece for Jacobin last year about the second wave of Arab uprisings that began after a period of retrenchment and counterrevolution. We saw a new upsurge in Algeria and Sudan over the past couple of years. You also spoke about the role that left and labor organizations played there, and how they fitted into certain political traditions in both of those countries. Could you say a little about that?

Joel Beinin

I’ll deal with Sudan first, because in a way, until the coronavirus epidemic broke out, Sudan was looking like the place that would have the best chance to institute a revolutionary regime. It doesn’t look like that’s the case any longer. Sudan is one of the three countries in the Middle East and North Africa — the other two are Iraq and Iran — where historically there were strong communist parties.

The Sudanese Communist Party was decimated in 1971 because it supported a military coup. That coup looked like it was going to be progressive, but it failed. The Communists still exist, but they haven’t been a serious force in the country since then.

The main base of support of the party in Sudan was the Sudanese Workers’ Trade Union Federation. One of its strongholds was the railway hub at Atbara. It’s not accidental, I think, that there were several rounds of protests against inflation and austerity measures imposed by the international financial institutions before the main revolutionary upsurge in December 2018, which began in Atbara.

Sudan is also distinctive because, like Tunisia, it had a national network of, in this case, professional associations: the Sudanese Professionals Association, which unites doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, journalists, and all sorts of other professionals. Sudan doesn’t have what we would call a typical working class — an industrial working class — that is very large. But these are overwhelmingly professionals who work for wages and many of them are employed in the public sector, so in purely Marxian terms, they do constitute part of the working class.

Everyone agrees that they are the force that organized and led the uprising that ultimately led to the ouster of Omar al-Bashir and the installation of a transitional government in August 2019. What you saw in Sudan was something like Tunisia, in that there was a national network of workplace-based organizations that organized and led the movement. But the Sudanese Professionals Association was a relatively new formation. It was only a few years old when all of this began.

That shows the capacity for working people to organize themselves, even under circumstances of autocracy. The same thing didn’t happen in Egypt, and the reason it didn’t happen there, while it could happen in Sudan, has something to do with the fact that it was professionals who were involved in Sudan. These are people who are literate, who know how to use social media and smart phones and all of the modern methods of communication and organization.

In Algeria, the trade union federation, the UGTA, was a state-sponsored body. It emerged in 1956 in the middle of the Algerian war for independence against France. It was always aligned with the National Liberation Front (FLN). The FLN is nominally still the ruling power in Algeria. The top leadership of the UGTA is part of what in Algeria is called le pouvoir (“the power”).

Le pouvoir is a very shadowy phenomenon: who exactly it is composed of and the relations between them are unclear. Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with whoever was elected to any position. It’s a group of intelligence people, army people, business people, and the top leadership of the GTA.

In Algeria, the union thus had this historic relationship to the national liberation movement, which was of global significance. Algeria was a leading node of the global anti-colonial movement in the 1960s, and its system possessed enormous historical legitimacy. But it had become completely corrupted and ossified by the late 1980s.

When the new constitution was written for Algeria in 1989, workers were given the right to form independent trade unions not affiliated with the UGTA. Such unions were formed, but the government refused to deal with them.

Most modern, large-scale industrial and commercial establishments in Algeria belong to the public sector, so negotiating over wages and working conditions means you negotiate with the appropriate government ministry. The government simply refused to negotiate with them or grant them official recognition, even though the constitution said that they were legal.

It took until 2018 for a national confederation of independent trade unions to form; it consists of thirteen unions. There are also a few other different independent formations. All of them were supportive of the national uprising that began in early 2019 in opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to run for a fifth term in office.

There were general strikes in the course of the movement to get Bouteflika to resign, which ultimately the army forced him to do. There was also a general strike in opposition to the army’s attempt to impose early elections in December.

That general strike was impressive. It showed lots of support, but it wasn’t adequate to stop the December elections. There was an election in which no more than 40 percent, and possibly less than 10 percent, of the population participated. Nonetheless, a new president was installed: Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Tebboune had previously been prime minister under President Bouteflika, so he represented the old regime. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the main military figure of the old regime — and the one who ultimately ousted Bouteflika — died of a heart attack in December 2019. He was replaced as head of the armed forces by a much less formidable figure, which suggests that the military is a little less powerful under the current regime than it was previously.

But one consistent element of the new regime was the repression of the independent trade-union movement. During the uprising itself, there was a flowering of independent trade unionism. Leaders of the independent unions came out and supported the movement and issued statements supporting a transition to a democratic regime.

However, already by the summer of 2019 — after Bouteflika was ousted, when the struggle about what was going to happen next was ongoing — the regime had started to arrest trade-union leaders along with other political and human rights leaders and journalists who supported the movement. One of them, the former head of the union federation, Raouf Mellal, has gone into exile and has been charged in absentia with serious crimes. Mellal has been ousted as the head of that federation by someone who is seeking to depoliticize it.

That appears to have been done at the behest of the regime, although I haven’t found anything that can actually prove that. But, since February 2020, the independent trade unions have had a much quieter role — especially because in March that year, in both Sudan and Algeria, the coronavirus essentially put an end to the movement.

Daniel Finn

In the wider Middle East, there are a number of countries that are not Arab that are nonetheless connected with its politics. Some of those countries have significant left-wing movements of their own — for example, Turkey, which has traditionally had quite a strong left. There’s also very strong Kurdish left-wing activism within the Turkish state. Has there been any interaction or influence from the more recent phases of the Turkish and Kurdish left on the Arab left-wing movements, or do they exist in separate cultural universes?

Joel Beinin

Not as far as I am aware of, and there are several reasons for this. One is that, especially in a place like Egypt, Turkey is viewed as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire ruled Egypt from 1517 until 1922. In the language of twentieth-century nationalism, the Ottomans were foreign occupiers.

Now that’s not actually how Egyptians viewed the Ottoman Empire during those four hundred years. They viewed it as a legitimate Muslim empire, and they recognized and gave allegiance to the sultan. Of course, there was nothing democratic about any of this because democracy didn’t exist. But the nationalist movement succeeded in painting Turkey as a bad thing, because of all this history.

The existing Turkish regime under the Justice and Development Party has what we could call a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. It thinks that it is the natural leader of the former Ottoman regions, including Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and so on. The Arab countries don’t like this very much at all. This means that there are considerable cultural and political barriers to overcome in order to establish any kind of solidarity.

Moreover, the Kurdish question, which is now really at the core of the Turkish left, complicates things in the Arab world. There are, especially in Morocco and Algeria, large Amazigh or Berber minorities, and there have been uprisings in both places among the Amazigh populations. This kind of Kurdish-Turkish friction is not what nationalist Arabs want to hear about.

In Syria, this is a live issue, because the Kurds in Syria are politically aligned with the left-wing Kurds in Turkey. They have been the most effective force against both the Islamic State and against the regime. If you are thinking about the unity of the Syrian state, and the regime certainly is, you don’t want to hear about the Kurds either.

Daniel Finn

Another non-Arab country in the Middle East, of course, is Israel. Relations with Israel have been a perennial source of contention and controversy in Arab politics. How does the question of Palestine factor into the thinking and activism of contemporary left-wing movements in the Arab world?

Joel Beinin

The Tunisian UGTT issued a press statement condemning what it called the agreement of shame — the agreement to normalize relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. All the leftist parties throughout the Arab world say they support the right of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, the right to have the refugees return, and so on. This has always been a rhetorical element that is present in the program of whatever leftist movements there have been.

To be sure, this idea is popular with people. Tunisians, for example, and Moroccans volunteered to fight with the Palestinians in 1948. But that was a long time ago, and that level of enthusiasm hasn’t been seen since the mid-1970s, let’s say. On the one hand, there is genuine sympathy for the Palestinians among broad sectors in almost every Arab country, and the Left takes up the issue. On the other hand, it’s not a practical item on the political agenda.

Daniel Finn

I think it’s fair to say, from what you’ve said and written, that the role of the Arab left or organized labor since 2011 has been as one force among several, but not the force or the leadership — as part of a “movement of movements,” rather than a movement in its own. Even in the best of cases, it was capable of contributing to the downfall of the old regime, and to some extent capable of contributing to the formation of a new system, but not capable of taking power with its own vision or its own agenda.

There are two possible explanations for this, which are not necessarily mutually incompatible. The first would be a social explanation, which is that the working class simply doesn’t carry the same social weight that it did in the twentieth century — certainly not the section of the working class that can be organized into trade unions and formal organizations. The second explanation would be more political and ideological: the failure to seize the agenda or to seize the moment reflects a lack of historical self-confidence, because of all the defeats suffered by socialism and labor movements in their various forms and in different parts of the world. Do you think either or both explanations are valid?

Joel Beinin

I think both explanations have some validity, to a different extent, each of them in different countries, depending on the circumstances. For example, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran are the most industrialized countries in the Middle East. In Egypt, the core of the wildcat strike movement of the 2000s and the first few years after Mubarak’s ouster were textile workers — a classic sector of the industrial working class.

Now, what kind of textile workers were they? I think that’s an element of a third explanation that you didn’t mention. They were public-sector textile workers, who often worked in enterprises that were either about to be privatized or where there was fear of privatization. In some cases, it was in enterprises that were formerly public sector where strikes and protests occurred to demand that they be de-privatized and returned to the public sector.

The issues in that struggle are, first of all, backward-looking — we want to keep what we already had. We want the social contract that these nominally left-wing, republican military regimes in Egypt, Syria, or Algeria promised us. We want them to continue to deliver on their promise. That way of framing the struggle does two things.

First, it means that you are addressing the state and asking the state to do something for you. You are not saying, “The state is our enemy,” but rather, “Please mister minister of labor, listen to our appeal and overturn the decision of this other minister or of this other element of the state apparatus that decided to do A, B, or C.” Workers are often carefully calculating which element of the state apparatus is most likely to be sympathetic to their demand. I lived in Egypt in the mid-2000s and saw this many, many times. They were very good at figuring this out.

The second thing that struggling in this way does is that it excludes a whole sector of the working class which has, in fact, been growing. In Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria — although the dynamic there is a little bit different — and Iraq before the American invasion of 2003, there was essentially a freeze on hiring new, contracted public-sector workers.

In these countries, like in Europe, you don’t have what we have in the United States, where you go to work one day and the next day you can be told by your boss, “Thanks, I don’t need you anymore.” Instead, you go to work, you undergo a period of probation, which could be six months or a year, but after you’ve passed your probation, you essentially have a job for life, unless you’ve done something pretty awful. That kind of hiring was frozen in these countries at different points since the late ’90s.

But that didn’t mean that there was no hiring. It meant that workers were hired on what are called temporary contracts. That is more like the American system. Those workers would be hired for a day, a week, a month, or a year. At the end of their contract, they could be dismissed.

That whole sector of workers had nothing at stake in the way the struggle had been framed by the permanent workers, who wanted to maintain or restore the status that they had in the previous social-contract system. It was rare that permanent workers found a way to include the demands of nonpermanent workers in their struggle.

The one outstanding place where that happened was perhaps in Bahrain, where the Bahrain Federation of Trade Unions, which was established in 2004, has always been left-leaning. Bahrain, like all the other Gulf countries, has a huge migrant labor force. Among them are some one hundred thousand women: domestic workers, most of whom are Indians, Sri Lankans, or Filipinas. The Bahrain Federation of Trade Unions has long advocated that they be unionized.

On the one hand, there are the teachers, port workers, and workers in the national airline — fairly privileged workers by normal standards. But because of the left understanding of the union leadership, they have spoken up for and joined forces with these women who have no rights whatsoever. They’re not citizens and they can be deported on a moment’s notice. They’re subjected to sexual abuse all the time by their employers.

It’s the difference in the political perspective of the trade-union leadership that made that kind of appeal possible. The downside of that story is that the Saudis and the Emiratis marched into Bahrain and suppressed the pro-democracy movement in 2011. Even though the Bahrain Federation of Trade Unions still exists, it’s much weaker than it was before 2011. All forms of political opposition have been very harshly repressed.