Precarious revolution: labour and neoliberal securitisation in Egypt
The article draws on precarious workers’ engagement with the Egyptian revolution between 2011 and 2013. Despite their radical moves—reclaiming land previously appropriated by the state and staging various neighbourhood protests—the workers in this ethnography refused to associate with the revolution. Their curious position between radicality and dismissal of the revolution lays the groundwork to explore neoliberal securitisation. Although securitisation evolved globally alongside neoliberalism in order to facilitate accumulation by dispossession, the particular securitisation strategies used with disparate groups of workers, and their implication on the different ways workers make claims for a good life, still need further research. The article thus explores the class project of neoliberal securitisation. It argues that securitisation has generally been marginalised in studies of labour precarity, which have tended to point to the retrenchments of welfare benefits and insecurity under market conditions. By instead positing neoliberal securitisation as a class project, I show how the evolution of property relations is drawing new actors into the class struggle. The article thus re-centre class within the literature on labour precarity and the politics of security. Based on an ethnographic study in al-Tibbin, a town built around the largest and oldest steel factory in the south of Cairo, the article explores how the differential tactics used to securitise workers’ communities deeply impacted their repertoires of political action, becoming a catalyst for class struggle between various groups of workers. Securitisation thus co-constituted precarity by continuously drawing new subjects to the class struggle. Despite this, scholars and revolutionary actors have accorded more attention to the ‘spectacular’ resistance of organised workers in contrast to precarious workers’ ephemeral but influential engagements—a tendency that has been detrimental to the revolution’s trajectory.
KeywordsClass Precarity Labour Property Securitisation Revolution
In Egyptian popular memory, Friday, January 28th, 2011 is a contentious day. Three days into the revolution, protestors challenged the presence of police forces in most cities. Popularly called jumʿat al-ghaḍab (the Friday of rage), it marked the de facto start of the revolution, whose official start date was January 25th, a day previously celebrated as police day.1 On the Friday of rage, Mubarak’s regime ordered the shut-down of internet and mobile networks country-wide to cut off communication among protestors. This further fuelled people’s rage. On the day, protestors burned police stations and freed detainees, continuing waves of mobilisation that began in Suez Governorate a couple of days earlier and spread nationwide afterwards (Ketchley 2017). Fires, smoke and panic engulfed most cities. The mayhem that ensued made the future seem totally uncertain and open to boundless possibilities. This could have gone anywhere. The day ended with police forces acquiescing and disappearing from public life for a few months: a crucial development in popular politics in Egypt whose effects continued to ripple for years.
I conducted intermittent ethnographic fieldwork for thirty months in Cairo over a decade between 2008 and 2018. But discussing the Friday of rage remained sensitive, especially since national security forces had been reinstated. Only very few of the workers I did research with in Helwan, a large industrial city in the south of Cairo, had shared their thoughts about the events in haste and with a lot of caution. More than six years since the start of the uprisings, however, the events of the Friday of rage seemed distant enough to be spoken about from a socio-historical perspective. This article, thus, situates the Friday of rage and the popular politics it instigated in conversation with developments in the labour movement in Helwan. In doing so, it locates the literature on the securitisation of social movements within debates about class politics and the struggles of the labour movement that burgeoned in Egypt in 2011.
The research is prompted by my somewhat surprising realisation that in al-Tibbin, a company town home to Egypt’s largest public steel factory in the south of Helwan, many precarious workers who led and participated in the Friday of rage did not later associate with the revolution.2 Some even actively distanced themselves from all political developments following January 28th. Those celebrated by revolutionary forces as the courageous heroes of the revolution, the very instigators of the revolution even, did not consider themselves revolutionaries. Why did they feel this way? And what does this mean to the class politics and the trajectory of labour movement in an important industrial site like Helwan? This article probes some answers.
While the effects of securitisation on levels of mobilisation and political action of social movements is established in the literature (Della Porta and Fillieulle 2004; Della Porta et al. 2006; Della Porta and Tarrow 2012), I see two virtues in studying the securitisation strategies of workers’ movements in Egypt. The first is crucial to linking the trajectory of neoliberalism to the increasing securitisation of public life. With the exception of a few studies (Ismail 2006, 2012; Kandil 2012; Amar 2013), the two phenomena are studied separately in Egypt, with the latter often attributed to authoritarianism than to reflections of late capitalism. The securitisation of workers’ communities is, however, part of a larger class project that was magnified with the advent of neoliberalism, especially with the onset of Egypt’s structural adjustment program in the early 1990s. It enabled a new group of crony capitalists that emerged under Mubarak’s regime and benefited from the program to control the controversial socio-economic transformation (Kandil 2012). These crony capitalists pressured the regime to deepen the neo-liberal transformation and exert all efforts in protecting it. Ultimately, they influenced securitisation strategies. Some eventually became members of government and could do so directly. The green light Mubarak then gave to the securitisation of public life, in order to contain the consequences of neoliberal transformation, continues to impact the country today. Its most noted outcome is having encouraged many Egyptians to see the military apparatus as the saviour from the alliance of capital and the police (Kandil 2012).
We remain, however, unclear about the meaning that neoliberal securitisation took in people’s lives, and particularly workers’ lives in the day to day. In this vein, this article contends that neoliberal securitisation is not just a catalyst for class struggle between workers and a group of crony capitalists. Instead I shall show how it also shaped workers’ competing claims over resources and their quests for a life worth living. Put differently, neoliberal securitisation flared up the class struggle within workers’ communities, and, in crude terms, facilitated the access of some to the means of production and social reproduction at the expense of the exclusion of the large majority. Studies of labour in Egypt tended to focus on workers as belonging to a somewhat homogenous class that shares similar dispossessions and raises similar demands in the face of capital and the state. Ethnography, however, offers an excellent opportunity to explore how the growing securitisation of public life with the advent of neoliberalism drew out the class struggle among different groups of workers. In Helwan, for instance, steelworkers, whose living and working conditions made them more of an aristocracy of labour with middle-class potentials, had some leverage in the face of securitisation tactics. Unhappy alliances over the quest for stability made steelworkers’ interests increasingly set against those of a larger group of precarious workers, who were highly susceptible to security transgressions (Makram-Ebeid 2018). In other words, the leverage against day-to-day securitisation became a clear marker of distinction between, on the one hand, a small group of “middle-class workers”, and, on the other, the rest of the surplus populations and people conditioned by their proletariat status.
Writings on the recent popular uprising in Egypt have mostly shunned class. Apart from very few exceptions (Ayeb and Bush 2012; Hanieh 2013; Alexander and Bassiouny 2014; Beinin 2015; Shenker 2017; Adly and Ramadan 2017), class remained marginal to studies of revolt. When discourses of local and western media mentioned class, they hailed the revolution as the child of middle-class westernised youth. But accounts of workers and the revolution documented workers’ crucial contribution to the popular mobilisation. The movement of the newly formed independent trade unions, for instance, inspired the research of many scholars interested in labour politics over the last decade (Alexander and Bassiouny 2014; Abdalla 2014; Beinin 2015; Adly and Ramadan 2017).3 They shed light on the industrial actions of relatively organised workers in the public sector and in large private corporations, or of members of professional unions such as doctors and teachers, but not the daily-waged workers in different unorganised trades and industries, who are the subject of this article. The quest of more precarious workers for a decent life was mostly left out of the historiography of the revolution.
My aim in this article is thus to explore how the intensive securitisation of everyday life reinforced the class situation of different workers and, in turn, shaped the repertoires of resistance they have imagined, invoked and rallied others around. I show how the “spectacular” actions of more traditional blue- and white-collar workers overshadowed the resistance that precarious workers experimented with. I argue that the dismissal of precarious workers’ political actions stirred the trajectory of popular politics to detrimental effects. Steelworkers in Helwan, for example, have organised two large factory occupations in 2013 and 2014 that have gathered a lot of media attention and which I have previously documented (Makram-Ebeid 2015). In these instances, and despite the pressuring of different labour organisers, steelworkers had relative security to rally in big protests. At the time when all eyes were on the steel factory, however, more precarious workers, who worked outside the plant in less organised industries, staged resistance that was mostly radical but ephemeral and at times bordering on what would be legally considered “criminal”. They attacked police stations, shut factory gates, squatted houses and took back land that was historically their own. The manoeuvres they resorted to would reap them quick gains in a short period of time while avoiding that their movements be aborted.
Bayat (2017) argues that the lack of attention scholars and revolutionary actors accorded to different marginalised interest groups has been partly behind the revolution’s failure. The demands these groups made strengthened the social justice side the revolution but were unheard in the midst of the focus on elections and political reforms. The uprisings thus became more about political reforms than actual redistributive revolutions, Bayat suggests, and hence the term “refolutions” he prefers to use to describe the Arab uprisings. The dismissal of precarious workers’ engagements with the revolution, I thus argue, forfeited an opportunity to make complex class dynamics at the forefront of distributive revolutionary politics. For those interested in the Egyptian revolution as a lost historical moment that was burgeoning with possibilities in global politics, the class politics of precarious workers highlights the global possibilities and limits imposed upon workers’ movements under neoliberal securitisation and their effects on wider popular mobilisations. The ephemeral, silent and forgotten engagements of precarious workers with the revolution are thus a testimony to how differential securitisation is co-constitutive of class struggle.
Precarity, neoliberal governmentality and securitisation
Globally, neoliberal governmentality is increasingly about the government of insecurity (Butler 2009; Lorey 2015). Studies on precarity are attempting to make sense of insecurity as a generalised way of life and neoliberalism as a process that democratises precarisation. In thinking of precarity as a global condition and precarisation as democratised, however, sociologists of the global factory should not blur the actual winners and losers in the ongoing class struggle. In Egypt, for instance, despite the increased insecurity that has become a core fabric of life, some continue to fend off the socio-political insecurity better than others. Rather, I suggest thinking of the democratisation of precarisation as a process or a tendency that reveals new fragilities, insecurities and subtle movements within relations, which, in turn, signal nuanced but meaningful changes influencing relations of production. Precarisation as a process, in other words, allows us to re-engage relations and social forces at the core of Marxist analysis of class, rather than imagine class struggle as drawn between different fixed “identities”.
“if domination in post-Fordist societies is no longer legitimated through (social) security … [then] precarisation in neoliberalism is currently in a process of normalisation, which enables governing through insecurity. In neoliberalism precarisation becomes ‘democratised’” (2015: 11).
Although I see virtue in engaging precarisation as a process, my ethnography offers a critique to the way the literature on work and labour tended to conceive of precarity. The literature, emerging particularly to speak of certain labour developments in the West, has focused more on the unstable market conditions and retrenchment of welfare benefits (Lazzarato 1996; Berardi 2009; Standing 2011; Breman 2013). As Jan Breman (2013) has pointed out, however, writing on precarity, particularly instigated by Guy Standing’s work on the precariat (2011), has a bias to Western/OECD countries and a definition of work that highlights post-1945 developments, without attending to labour relations in the Global South. Yet, both Breman (2013) and Federici (2008) argue that precarity has always been the norm in the Global South and hence, the challenge is to understand how the lives of those who work in the “new” organised sectors, or those who produce immaterial labour, relate to those of the “old” informal economies.
Furthermore, accounts of labour precarity underplay securitisation as an important mechanism of precarisation. In other words, the focus on workers’ precarity as an effect of unstable market conditions conceives of neoliberal governmentality as disciplinary and biopolitical (Foucault 1995, 2010). But it renders invisible other overt forms power that come with securitisation in the form of the necropolitics of deciding who has the right to live/die altogether (Mbembe 2003). In this article, I thus stress how neoliberal securitisation makes precarity and draws winners and losers in the class struggle.
Remembering the revolution: erasure, nostalgia and the unspoken
Life in al-Tibbin has radically changed since the revolution. The “company town” was historically built in the south of Cairo around the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISCO), one of the largest and oldest public sector steel factories. In the 1950s, Nasser imagined the steel plant to embody the ideals of modernisation and national self-determination of the time. Over the years, EISCO became the symbol of a strong state and a prosperous country. In addition, the company town in al-Tibbin became home to EISCO workers and their families, providing residence to the hereos that would build the nation. But the collapse of the police on the Friday of rage in 2011 led to spatial mobilities and landscape changes that completely altered how the place looked and felt like. The reconfigured space turned previously subtle class politics that developed over the last few decades between workers, who lived in different parts of the town, more sharp and overt.
The disappearance of the police forces following the Friday of rage encouraged steelworkers, for example, to enlarge their prototypical grey buildings. New red brick constructions were now annexed to older buildings to make room for workers’ growing family needs. The houses turned into an amalgam of grey and red brick constructions of different shapes, colours and sizes that resembled those in informal urban dwellings than state-built housing. People and resources moved further in the town when empty and contested spaces were taken over by new residents. These were mostly rich and powerful families from al-tabābna, the autochthons, who are the original owners of the land on which the plant and town were built. The families built majestic three- and four-story houses in the middle of the town. The houses were bright coloured with golden finishings, a sign of having reclaimed the land the state had previously dispossessed them of more than half a century ago. In the initial land grab by the state in the 1950s, al-tabābna were driven off their land to the margins of the company town, where they occupied informal housing generically referred to as bīyūt ʾahālī (family-built houses). Only a small group was compensated for their removal from the land. Now, the very few who had made wealth either by keeping some agriculture land titles or resorting to dealing in scrap, drug or arms, made their way back to the town by building spectacular family houses and establishing territoriality (Makram-Ebeid 2018).
Movement around town also continued when the more dispossessed families of al-tabābna made use of the absence of the police to squat empty apartments that steelworkers had not bought from the plant or had left behind. The movement of squatters, however, was soon aborted, as I relay in the second part of this article. But the most obvious change post-2011 came from the vicinity of the plant. The plant was previously erected in the midst of agriculture lands. With the collapse of the police in 2011, legal enforcement barriers against turning agricultural land into urban dwellings were challenged on the ground and agriculture land was sold and turned into multi-story family houses. The plant now stood among piles of brick buildings and informal dwellings. Most of this agricultural land was sold to steelworkers, who bought it from a small group of rich members of al-tabābna that held titles to the land or could still prove claim to it. As some of the well-to-do steelworker households moved out of the company town towards its vicinity in search for larger houses and more comfortable living environments, many families from al-tabābna, who could afford it, moved back into the centre of the town, rectifying some of the damages they incurred more than half a century earlier. People thus moved around town making spatial claims over land, resources and possibilities for better lives.
The remnants of the revolution were thus felt and seen all over town. They were subtle testimonies to alternative histories that have been purposefully erased since 2013. The tension between erasure of the revolution and nostalgia for it has haunted most of Cairo, producing a state of “inner exile” (Abaza 2018) which was no exception in al-Tibbin. A juice shop called “January 25th” opened on a main street but later changed its name to “Fruits Helwan” when the revolution was coming to an end. Revolutionary slogans about justice and freedom graffitied by football ultras fans were now washed out on the fences of the town’s sporting club. A few dust-covered and rusty billboards of pictures of young working class martyrs from al-Tibbin became remnants that commemorate the town’s participation in the initial 18-day uprising of 2011. Most importantly, “inner exile” produced an overbearing silence in the town that was frantically concealed by how loud and lit the city’s streets and markets were increasingly becoming. But the silence around what really happened during the failed revolution and who really led and participated in these uprisings could not be unheard.
The silence was partly prompted by the return of the national security apparatus to power, which on the streets of al-Tibbin has translated to the uses of the stop, arrest and investigation practices that existed prior to the revolution. These practices fell under the category of operations and system known as ʾishtibāh wa taḥarī (suspicion and investigation). They included istiqāf (stop), ḍabṭ (arrest), and taḥarī (investigation) powers conducted against people who are considered as “suspicious persons” (Ismail 2006). But as Ismail (2006: 146) argues “the definition of suspicious is loose and seems to apply to young men on the streets in popular areas, particularly at night”, especially, as the High Court of Appeal has considered walking late at night (after midnight) as a cause of suspicion. In addition, rumours in al-Tibbin now abound that since the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which were declared a terrorist organisation in 2013, people were targeted for participation in dissent activities on the grounds of being members of the Brotherhood. In August 2013, the state reinstated the Emergency Law on the ground of fighting terrorism. Under the state of emergency, the government is empowered to imprison individuals for any period of time and without legal charges. In practice, this translated to ʾishtibāh wa taḥarī (suspicion and investigation) at times turning into extended pre-trial detentions for periods that exceed two years, despite recent law reforms prohibiting this practice (Mada Masr 2016). Residents of al-Tibbin were thus not short of reasons to remain silent. Eventually they just became disinterested in discussing the revolution and its traumas.4
Differential securitisation and the politics of possibilities
In 2015, I helped two friends, who are filmmakers in Cairo, in making a film called “Out on the Streets” about workers and the revolution in Egypt. The actors were mostly from Helwan. Two workers from al-Tibbin also acted in the film. The film was rather experimental and asked the workers participating on set to come up with the plot, scenario and narrative themselves. Watching the film in its first screening, I realised how the actors, mostly precarious workers employed by the daily, turned a significant part of the film about the relation of capital to the securitisation of life. Their scenes portrayed managers of private companies call on the security forces to come quench protests in their factories. Other scenes showed workers’ harassment in microbuses at night as part of the ʾishtibāh wa taḥarī (suspicion and investigation) policies. Their film was a powerful account of the vulnerabilities to securitisation that come with being proletariat.
Although workers were treated by management and security poorly in the film, there were subtle distinctions in the security’s treatment of public sector workers. The latter were not pestered like the rest when their microbus rides were stopped and searched at night, for example. The film inspired me to conduct further research on neoliberal securitisation. My research revealed that similarly to workers’ account in the film, steelworkers in al-Tibbin had relative leverage in negotiations with state agents responsible for security. In 2016, Egypt signed an IMF loan deal whose conditionalities made inflation officially reach 30% in July 2017. Steelworkers, like most Egyptians, felt a sharp deterioration in their living and working conditions.5 Nonetheless, despite the aggravated economic conditions and the general anxieties since 2013, steelworkers’ jobs kept the security forces relatively at bay. Daily waged workers, however, like the ones who constituted most of al-tabābna for instance, continued to be vulnerable to security targeting.6 As I shall argue, relative protection in the face of increasing securitisation seemed to preserve the new mutations in property relations in the town. In other words, it enabled some steelworkers to turn their tenured contracts into a potential property.
Most of my fieldwork was with steelworkers in al-Tibbin. In later years, however, my work expanded to include research with daily waged non-steelworkers, who are divided into two groups in this article. The first are workers who took part in the events of the Friday of rage. They live in the company town, but do not work in the steel plant. The second are the autochthons al-tabābna who live around the plant and take on a variety of jobs, including scrap trading with the steel plant. In the following, I document the two groups’ resistance during the revolution. I also engage with their subjectivation and the technologies of the self they resorted to ethically and politically make themselves “people who are disinterested in revolutions”.
Although a young steelworker who has been employed at EISCO for five years earns approximately the same monthly salary as a construction worker employed by the daily (i.e. 3000 LE/166 USD), their living and working conditions are really different. This is reflected in the everyday language Egyptians use to contrast the muwaẓẓaf (plural: muwaẓẓafīn) with the ‘amil. The first “owns” a wazīfa, which means white collar employment or blue collar employment in the public sector; whereas,‘amil simply means a worker. Most importantly, they also have different concepts of work: wazīfa (“office” or “job”) for steel employees and shughl (“work”) for everyone else. The lifecycles, household structures and aspirations of the two groups are also very different and as I have suggested elsewhere, they have the potential to be of different classes (Makram-Ebeid 2018). The muwaẓẓafīn, here the steelworkers, often start working at a later age and marry older than other members of the working class. Their households are generally smaller in size. Unlike precarious construction workers for instance, they have high expectations about the good life they should live. They expect their household members to acquire high educational qualifications, they buy expensive and trendy consumer goods and they are very picky about the spouses they choose to marry. The difference between workers who have a waẓīfa and those who have shughl thus cannot be ignored.
Crucially, the newly tenured workers at EISCO are in the same age range of people security agents are wary of. Their jobs, however, give them shielding from the intimidation central to experiences of other young males in Egypt documented in other studies (Ismail 2006; Ghannam 2013). Steelworkers’ job titles, for instance, are registered in their national identity cards, which they carry around along with their company cards. These cards safeguard them during random security checks when using public transportation at night or while being close to patrols, which might often result in capricious arrests. A permanent EISCO job signals that the person is well off and probably backed by union membership, managers and the media who would pursue the matter. Hani, one of my closest informants, who had worked as a daily worker before becoming tenured at EISCO, reminded me that before getting a tenured contract “for a young man like us, life was a second”. By “life was second”, he meant that if one was approached by security, one’s life was wasted in a second through charges and a sentence ranging from a few months to years in prison. Prior to becoming a steel employee, Hani was asked to strip down in the midst of his community following a quarrel with a relative of a policeman.7 Humiliated and imprisoned for a few months under allegations of drug possession, he stressed that I should remember that “before it was a revolution, the uprising on January 25th [Police Day] was an uprising against the police forces”.
This is not to deny steelworkers’ subjugation to surveillance and transgressions by state agents. In fact, the security apparatus is well represented in public factories. At EISCO, the office of the security representative is located right next to the office of the CEO. General Adel’s role includes maintaining order by curbing actions that already erupted and pre-empting possible ones. When conflict emerges between a militant worker and management, General Adel is involved in the negotiations. Despite his recognised presence, General Adel’s interference is rather subtle and somewhat predictable and organised; in contrast to the tactics of suspicion and investigation practiced with precarious workers.
For example, following steelworkers’ month-long factory occupation in 2013, some workers were later reprimanded and sent off to work in the company’s branches in distant governorates across Egypt. Only one worker was arrested a few weeks later for continuing to protest alone by the CEO’s office and was released the following week and forced to resign from his job. The security’s organised presence at EISCO also reflects the state’s exceptional commitment to the plant as a symbol of post-colonial pride that should not be tarnished by accounts of security interventions and arrests. Almost thirty years ago, in 1989, EISCO was home to two of the largest strikes in post-colonial Egypt, strikes that, at the time of my research, continued to fuel management’s imagination and anxieties about workers’ capacity for militant resistance. Following the protests of 1989, the plant was encouraged to adopt strategies to appease workers and indirectly limit their actions. The weight of history was, exceptionally this time, on steelworkers’ side.
To disappear behind the sun
In contrast to steelworkers, the lives of workers employed by the daily were heavily in the hands of state security representatives, which became evident during the revolution. Mohamed, Abdel Hamid, Walid, Sadat and Hani were five young neighbours who lived in adjacent buildings in the company town in al-Tibbin. Although I knew some of the men from repeated visits to the area and from yearly Ramadan iftar at Hani’s mother, this was the first time they opened up about their participation in the revolution. When we met in a properly cold January evening in 2017 at Hani’s mother, everyone was a little apprehensive. We hushed as we spoke at the beginning and made sure to lower our voices further whenever Hani’s mother sent his younger sibling asking if we wanted more tea.
Three of the five men I talked to that night were sons of steelworkers, but only one, Hani, had secured a steel job at EISCO. Apart from Hani, my four other interlocutors worked by the daily in different jobs with no work contract, social or health insurance. Mohamed and Abdel Hamid looked so young and were very outspoken. They worked as rickshaw drivers—a job many young unemployed men are taking up in Cairo, as rickshaws began making their way to the country 10 years ago. Mahmoud, who sat shyly next to them with his hair made up in a funky style, worked in construction, taking up the trade of his father who is both a steelworker and a construction worker. Sadat at 34, was the eldest. His face had visibly more wrinkles and he seemed the most detached. He made very few interventions while continuing to smoke one cigarette after the other. Sadat worked as a metal cutter. He was released from prison on charges of drug acquisition a few months before the revolution erupted and took up metal cutting since and stuck to it.
All five were involved in the events during the Friday of rage. But it was Mahmoud’s recent loss of his friend that prompted him to encourage the others to open up about their earlier involvement. Mahmoud remembered how his neighbour and friend Salah, who was said to have been recently killed for allegedly killing a policeman and participating in anti-regime protests, had, in 2011, been the first to encourage him to protest by the police station. Together they jumped the fence of their former technical school, which is adjacent to the police station, and started throwing rocks, when they saw others coming from all over town with fuel and bottles, making Molotov cocktails, and throwing glass.
Mahmoud and his colleagues were relatively young then—he was 19, Mohamed 17 and Abdel Hamid 16, while Hani and Sadat, a bit older, were 27 and 26. Despite their young age, Mahmoud recounts how he felt relieved that day, having witnessed years of state agents stopping, arresting and investigating people randomly in the town. Others like Sadat had been imprisoned for about a decade for possessing drugs when he was released in late 2010, before joining those who were congregating by the police stations. Sadat had been bitter about the years he spent in prison and found himself joining others quite spontaneously as soon as he heard people were congregating there.
Quite unexpectedly though, none of the five men, except for Hani, ever joined any other form of collective action related to improving working conditions or generally in revolutionary organisations and protests. Abdel Hamid and Mahmoud were conscripted right at the start of the revolution and never voted or took part in protests after serving in the army. Mohamed and Sadat also never voted or engaged in rallies as workers on rickshaws and metal cutters. Only Hani, who worked at EISCO, took part in the factory occupations in the plant in 2013 and 2014. Their engagement with the revolution was rather sporadic and short lived. Anything more sustained seemed rather risky and not worth becoming known as a revolutionary while having so little protection. Abdel Hamid, for instance, recalls his boss at a textile factory he had worked in towards the beginning of the revolution. The boss had protested low wages but was fired instantly. Although there was a union in Abdel Hamid’s company, it was rather bureaucratic, he said, and not really supportive of workers’ demands. Only Mahmoud giggled as he recounted with an ironic air how he had only gone to Tahrir once to check out the protests and see for himself what’s going on, but returned home with his wallet stolen and and a vow to never go there again.
Their radical engagement was hence ephemeral and unorganised.8 The workers’ protest trajectory bespoke to a disillusionment with the entire narrative of the revolution as an emancipatory alternative to the usual degradation of life and precariousness of work: a degradation they felt every day when comparing their opportunities to the ideal of a decent steel job looming around. Their refusal to consider the potentials of the revolution was perhaps a silent retaliation against the alienating discourse of revolutionary organisations around work. The latter focused on the strikes and protests of organised blue- and white-collar workers but failed to consider precarious workers “workers too”. This disillusionment however, also spoke to vulnerable workers’ fears of retribution by the local security agents and the possibility that they too would lose their life in a second. “No one wants to disappear behind the sun, ya doctora”, Hani, as eloquent as always, observed helping me make sense why none of them felt compelled to take on further roles during the revolution.9
Refusing the revolution
My attempts to find out more about Ragab Atteya, a tycoon from al-Tibbin, who made his fortune from illegally trading in scrap with EISCO, somehow turned into conversations with people about the revolution. Ismail Matar was visiting Hani, when I was spending the day with his wife Nora in early 2016 after the birth of their second daughter. Ismail worked by the daily in the business of scrap dealing for Ragab. He was also a Tibbini, an autochthon, and belonged to the Matar family, a large local family related to Ragab’s. Ragab’s fame was mostly attributed to his successful business with the steel plant. He collected slag and scrap with a tractor from the plant, and many shared in his profits, from management and security personnel to the steelworkers who hid prised materials for him. The tractor was then unloaded in the nearby hills and workers like Ismail, who are from poor al-tabābna families, extracted the valuable items and gave them to Ragab. The outcome of the work was hard to predict. On some days, Ismail could secure a whole month’s salary and in other weeks he barely made ends meet.
While Ismail detailed the assignments with Ragab, he referred to the revolution having rendered the business more difficult to sustain. Ismail then moved to tell me the standard account I had often heard from people in the community about their participation in the revolution. He said rallies and revolutions were the business of steelworkers, with their strikes and their Tahrir going, not them, al-tabābna. Revolutions were not their thing. Despite his distancing from regular protest actions, while talking about his family, Ismail recounted how his cousin, Emad, who also works for Ragab, had been among those who squatted some of the empty houses in the company town during the early days the revolution. But Emad got soon kicked out of the house when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) governed the country following Mubarak’s ousting. The military forces deployed in the town responded to the calls of steel households to force the squatters out of their buildings. Squatting had been possible only because a few buildings in the company town had unoccupied apartments. They belonged to the plant, who took them back when the steelworkers who were meant to live in them had not been using them and preferred living in larger family houses in nearby villages. In the heydays of the revolution, Emad, with the help of other cousins, got in an empty apartment and turned it his own. For some time he enjoyed the possibility of living back on their land, Ismail explained. Although Ismail was animated when he talked about the details of getting into the house; he never suggested squatting, or making unused houses accessible to those who cannot find decent ones, was revolutionary. This was not the making of revolutions; this was just business as usual.
Ismail justified his general lack of interest in revolutionary politics to being paid by the daily, and hence not affording to take the day off, unlike people with regular monthly paid jobs who have access to holidays and sick leave. But he also made clear that this was tied to the nature of his job. Those who work with him were like him, poor relatives from the same extended families of their bosses. Their bosses, on the other hand, belonged to wealthy and powerful families in the area and had, over the years, established good connections with state agents. Some of their offsprings eventually became judges, policemen and members of parliament that were renowned in the area. They were, hence, an important asset for Ismail and his colleagues to preserve, both to keep jobs coming but also to support them if they are confronted by state agents. With work established under such tight patronage, upsetting the boss was a complicated matter that challenged much of one’s subjectivity.
But people like Ragab Atteya, who managed, with some capital and protection, to reclaim and maintain plots of land in the company town were few compared to the rest of the hard-pressed families in the area. Om Ahmed, for instance, a woman in her early fifties, who lived in informal one-bedroom housing in the vicinity of the plant which was occupied by al-tabābna, had a more grim outlook on the question of regaining their land. When I visited her and her daughter Selima in early 2014, she told me how, in 2011, people in her neighbourhood slowly turned a spot of unused land on the fringe of the company town into a cemetery. This, however, upset state agents, who destroyed it when they returned to power. Om Ahmed remembered with vivid details how the tractors came in one morning and removed the remains of their loved ones, despite their ceaseless screams to at least let them rebury them somewhere else. Om Ahmed had lost her son, Nader, in an accident while working at a private factory nearby and had only received $500 in compensation. She seemed numb and barely able to speak as she let me know that, now, both her son and his remains were lost forever. They had even managed to get the media to cover their calls to stop the clearing of the cemetery, Selima said, while showing me on her phone a video of the removal of the cemetery and an interview she had recorded with a TV channel. But no one responded to them. Being afraid of resisting further lest they get arrested, they eventually accepted having lost Nader twice. While Selima showed me the video of the segment that the TV channel called “The Scream of an Ant”, Om Ahmed repeated over and over that I had to understand that the precarity of people like her son pursues them in life and in death.
The (re-)making of class
What do we then make of people who attack police stations, squat houses and reclaim land from the state but do not feel part of the revolution? The official narrative posits them as opportunist thugs and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. One could also consider them reactionary lumpenproletariats, who act spontaneously and are one day with the revolution but the next with the counterrevolution. I suggest, instead, that the precarious workers I engaged with in this article are closer to proletariats, whose very precarity requires rethinking the property relations that govern their lives and shape their struggles.
As Thoburn (2002, 441) argues, Marx’s depiction of the lumpenproletariat was based on his conception of the latter as an identity or “a tendency towards the maintenance of identity” . But Marx’s work is precisely powerful because his theory of capital “assembles not distinct entities – say, workers, machines and natural objects – but relations and forces across and within apparent entities” (Thoburn 2002, 450). The recurrent representation of the lumpenproletariats in Marx’s work as an “entity” and externality—in that they are separated from social productive activity, that they act spontaneously in politics, and that they are a comic repetition of previous identities—all, however, deprive Marx’s analysis of what is truly unique about his understanding of production relations and the proletariat condition (Thoburn 2002). What is powerful about proletariats in his conceptions of them is that they are “unnamed” compared to the identitarian thinking of the nineteenth century, which seemed to influence Marx’s thinking of the lumpenproletariat (Thoburn 2002). It is relations and forces, thus, that I want to highlight in the struggle of precarious workers in al-Tibbin. I locate their struggles within production relations, rather than outside them; particularly as many are indeed engaged in steady-waged work. In the following, I show how the evolution of property relations with neoliberal securitisation pitted steelworkers against precarious workers.
Tenured jobs at EISCO were largely passed on from fathers and mothers to their offspring. This was a custom that was long held in the plant. Two generations of workers had been handing down jobs to their children since the plant’s inception. However, with the advent of neoliberalism and the dwindling of welfare and employment resources, this custom turned into a right—in other words, tenured jobs became a potential property right.10 Those who had access to tenured employment (wazīfa) thus treated it as a potential property right, which distinguished them from the rest of the working class (cf Parry (2013) on permanent work contracts as a quasi-property right in industrial India). Management, in turn, openly endorsed workers’ demands to bequeath their jobs to their children, in order to mobilise their support for the neoliberal project. For instance, the head of industrial relations explained that, during job interviews, management gave an extra 10 points (out of 100) to applicants whose mother or father were employed at EISCO. Furthermore, on the shop-floor, tenured steel workers had de facto control over production. The machinery in the plant was quite old and outdated. But the structural adjustment program that was instated in the early 1990’s stipulated that no major public spending went on renovations. Management thus relied on workers’ long-held skills to man the outdated technology, which made the majority of them indispensable and challenged management’s control of production (Makram-Ebeid 2012).
Outside the plant, many steelworkers turned their jobs into a competitive private property with an outstanding market value. In 2006, the houses that steelworkers had rented from the plant were put up for sale. Most steelworkers bought their houses by instalments from the company at comparatively low market prices and later resold them at up to tenfolds, benefiting from the bubble in real estate prices and the demand on company town apartments. Access to permanent contracts thus gave this aristocracy of labour some middle-class “potential” in the sense of Marilyn Strathern’s conception of property “as a capacity for development as yet unrealised” (1996, 17). But workers’ capacity to realise this potential was largely tied to their ability to socially reproduce their position and the intergenerational transmission of social entitlements (Makram-Ebeid 2012). Some steelworkers were thus unable, for instance, to profit from a permanent job, by failing to pass it on to their sons and daughters, to buy their apartment in the privatised company town or to invest in agricultural land in the villages where they lived. They, hence, found themselves sliding down the labour hierarchy, or at best remaining an “aristocracy of labour”.
The relation of steelworkers to precarious ones is thus quite fragile and complex. Despite the increasing similarity in the degradation of their welfare, most steelworkers still had evidently more control over their work and lives. Their interests, moreover, were radically opposed. Put differently, many steelworkers indirectly cooperated in the exploitation of precarious workers, and al-tabābna particularly, first when the latter were removed from their land to allow steelworkers to resettle in the company town, and later when precarious workers were denied access to privileged jobs by steelworkers, who demanded that the very few jobs available be given to their offsprings. Class formation requires violence and property as theft (Proudhon 1940 ). Theft in al-Tibbin abounds. The state appropriates the land of al-tabābna, and they, in turn, take over its machinery and encroach on the land that they consider theirs. Other forms of theft require a consideration of property, stretching beyond Eurocentric traditions focused on things/objects, to investigate the social relations constitutive of property relations. Steelworkers’ aspirations have thus been aligned to those of capital and the state: all want stability. The complex politics under neoliberalism resulted in an unhappy alliance where the future of working tabābna and many other precarious workers around the plant was, in other words, also stolen.
Their middle-class potential, and at times solid middle-class privilege, protected steelworkers during everyday securitisation practices. The organised and predictable securitisation of the plant and the general respect a steel job engendered in day-to-day public life, helped most steelworkers keep their jobs, even when they protested their working conditions. This, in turn, offered them real possibilities to live decent lives and access some middle-class privileges. On the other hand, the continued arbitrary securitisation of everyone else in the community made people reluctant to engage in sustained or organised movements to improve their living and working conditions. Instead, they resorted to short and radical actions, which, without enough protection and support from wider communities, generally just perpetuated their proletariat losses. The possibility of fending off security transgressions was thus crucial to workers’ differential class potentials in al-Tibbin. Put differently, Neoliberal securitisation consolidated new property rights and became co-constitutive of precarity and class struggle.
Since early 2011, revolutionaries, including revolutionary socialist organisations, appeared to be “waiting for the workers”. Many expected workers to organise country-wide strikes—similar to those that took place in the initial 18 days of the revolution—that would give the last blow to the counter-revolution. But the narratives many revolutionaries put forth risked being exclusionary. They produced “the workers” in the public imaginary as a homogeneous group of mostly male, blue-collar workers in large factories or public institutions. Workers whose life and work did not quite fit this description were rather alienated from revolutionary accounts. The majority of labourers in Egypt today are precarious workers, who toil under uncertain conditions and are quite vulnerable in their dealings with state agents. Their exclusion from the narratives and agendas of the revolution was thus detrimental to the trajectory of the popular mobilisation, particularly when their redistributive demands did not gear up much support. Their refusal of the revolution as an empancipatory alternative is crucial to the construction of the dominant narrative in Egyptian popular accounts about the very precarity of the revolution itself as a failed project. This article has thus emphasised how making sense of what really happened during the revolution, requires stressing not only workers’ resistance, but also their crucial politics around refusal (Simpson 2014; McGranahan 2016).
Furthermore, the article showed how neoliberal securitisation was imperative to class making and accumulation by dispossession in al-Tibbin (Harvey 2007). It argued that direct securitisation strategies are often overlooked in studies of labour precarity and highlighted how differential securitisation pressures workers to adopt radically different resistance tactics in the face of their dispossessions. Paying greater attention to the politics of security in the global factory thus entails a reorientation towards how neoliberal securitisation continues to draw new actors into the class struggle. Doing so requires mapping the strategies that dispossess workers, not just through the systematic division of the working class, but also through the differential securitisation of these divisions.
Police day is a public holiday that commemorates the role of the police in the resistance against the British occupation in Egypt. The organisers of the protests chose that day, however, to subvert this celebration and use it as an opportunity to indict the institution in charge of policing by highlighting its transgressions (Ismail 2012).
I adopt the language of my informants, who use “revolution” to describe the events between 2011 and 2013. This, in turn, is a reflection of the language widely used in popular accounts in Egypt. But, to destabilise its meaning as a revolution, I use revolt, uprising and revolution interchangeably in the article to describe these events.
Independent trade unions have emerged in 2008 and proliferated since 2011 as an alternative to the corporatist and statist union system instated under Nasser in the 1950s, thus highlighting the right to unionise independently from the state.
We could thus read precarious workers’ disassociation from the revolution as the outcome of the recent security conditions and failure of the revolution at the time of my recent research. While this is partly true, my longer term fieldwork indicates that their critique of the revolution emerged early on, including when they were making some modest gains. Since the revolution had not really deepened, many people, including workers, did not associate with it. Of course, the time of the interviews I relay here which were after 2013, meant that people played down their participation. But as the article is arguing my interlocutors throughout opted for doing revolutionary actions without necessarily wanting to be labelled revolutionaries and making very clear they were categorically not ones.
Steel workers have also experienced precarity with the cut of their annual bonus pay—which amounted to 16 months’ worth of fixed wages paid yearly–—the retrenchment of their general benefits, as well as the fear of company shut-down given the perpetual losses generated over the last years.
Some active civilian public sector workers in other industries have been tried under military tribunals following protests. However, the majority remain relatively able to fend off police interference in their everyday lives in comparison to daily workers in the more unorganised industries.
All names have been anonymised in this article to protect the privacy of my informants.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood also contributed to events of the Friday of rage. Given that the Muslim Brotherhood is now an illegal organisation in Egypt, whose members have are mostly imprisoned, access to research with them was rather risky and difficult to undertake.
“To disappear behind the sun” is an idiom that is popularly used in Egypt to talk about one’s life being totally jeopardised if one’s is arrested by state agents.
The understanding of wazīfa as a form of property resonates with historical debates in Islamic jurisprudence on property relations in the Arab world, wherein property was delineated as both milkiya (“ownership”) and wazīfa (“office”), respectively emphasising different claims to “things/objects” and “persons/individuals” as two ways of thinking of property relations (Mundy 2004)
I am grateful to Sharryn Kasmir’s comments on an earlier draft of this article presented at the Labour at the Age of Precarity workshop at Cambridge University organised by Sian Lazar. I am also grateful to the two blind reviewers of this article for their helpful feedback. The research for this article has been supported by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
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