I just saw Joel Beinin give a talk here at the University of Washington on the Egyptian uprising. One of his main points was that the events of 2011 did not come out of nowhere, but rather were heir to a long series of popular struggles in Egypt. While Beinin acknowledged the importance of the middle classes (liberals, professionals, intellectuals, etc.), students, and tech-savvy young people, he was keen to highlight the importance of workers’ struggles. He argued that over the last twenty years there have been thousands of strikes and other actions by Egyptian workers, most of which were not organized (and often even opposed) by the official unions and their leadership. The strikes were typically wildcat strikes, spontaneous and organized by a grassroots leadership (often led by an elected, ad hoc strike committee). Beinin was good in that while he wanted to emphasize workers’ activism, he didn’t make the tired old-Left argument that “only the working class” can be the agent of history, that the Arab spring is reducible to workers’ struggles against neoliberalism, and that those workers’ must organize into a party to seize the state. However, he also didn’t seem to see much potential in Egypt for such grassroots worker activism in the long term, since, he said, each action was highly localized and unable to see beyond the walls of its own factory. I am not quite sure his pessimism is warranted, given the remarkable energy and courage the workers showed. In any case, there seem to be multiple resonances with the long history of self-generated and -managed workers’ struggles (e.g. Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany, Poland, Hungary…), struggles that concerned themselves not only with wages and working conditions, but also with the development of democracy: they insisted on workers’ capacity to control and manage economic production for themselves, without managers and without capitalists. At the very least, I think the workers’ struggle is an element of the Egyptian uprising that should get more attention than it has.
I have an audio recording of the talk. If you are interested email me and I can send it on.