[Since 2011, Arab labor organizations and left parties have been
central to movements for democracy and social justice in the Middle
East. Frequently overlooked in Western media coverage...they’ve
carried on this fight against tremendous odds.]
ARAB WORKERS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY
_ Since 2011, Arab labor organizations and left parties have been
central to movements for democracy and social justice in the Middle
East. Frequently overlooked in Western media coverage...they’ve
carried on this fight against tremendous odds. _
Protesters chant songs and demands outside the Tunisian prime
minister's office on January 24, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. Protesters
from the countryside and the hamlet of Sidi Bouzid, the town where the
"Jasmine Revolution" started., hristopher Furlong/Getty Images
In January 14, 2020, thousands marched down the main boulevard of
Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis, festively celebrating the ninth
anniversary of the revolt that ousted corrupt autocrat Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali, the country’s former president. Surrounded by a phalanx of
security forces, the crowd didn’t raise political slogans. The order
of the day was expressing pride in the accomplishments of the
2010–11 “Jasmine Revolution” and hopes for the future.
A short distance away, several hundred gathered in the square in front
of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labour Union, the national
trade union federation (known by its French acronym, UGTT). They
chanted, “Work! Freedom! Dignity!”: a revolutionary slogan
suggesting that these goals have yet to be achieved.
UGTT secretary-general Noureddine Taboubi
addressed the crowd, decrying the lack of economic progress since Ben
Ali’s departure: “The revolution will go on until the real
republic has been established.” Mongi Merzgui, secretary-general of
the national union of sanitation workers, continued
the same theme: “I’m really disappointed . . . we have freedom
of expression, but that can’t create jobs or feed us.”
The OECD’s 2018 Economic Survey of Tunisia
confirms the assertions of the UGTT leaders: economic conditions have
not improved since Ben Ali’s demise, especially in the western and
southern regions and for youth and women. Capital investment has
declined. The national unemployment rate is over 15 percent but stands
at 30 percent for youth and 20–30 percent in the west and south
(about the same as it was before 2011).
Real wages in most sectors have declined, while annual GDP growth has
averaged only 1.7 percent since 2011. In return for granting a $2.9
billion loan in 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed for
a wage freeze and devaluation of the Tunisian dinar. Devaluation drove
inflation up to an annual rate of 7.6 percent
by March 2018.
The two January 14 demonstrations exemplify the struggle over the
political import of the Arab popular uprisings of 2010–11. Were they
simply demands for democracy and dignity? Or were they also movements
for jobs and social justice, and implicitly rebellions against
neoliberal austerity and crony capitalism? What was the role of the
region’s working classes in the uprisings?
The Political Economy of Revolt
Collective actions by workers and the unemployed formed an important
part of the movements that ousted Ben Ali in Tunisia and Egypt’s
Hosni Mubarak and challenged the monarchies of Bahrain and Morocco.
Workers rarely raised demands for democracy or regime change, except
in Bahrain, where the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions
(GFBTU) has had a left orientation since its founding in 2004. But
increasingly frequent and sometimes protracted strikes, sit-ins, and
demonstrations contributed to a culture of protest that undermined the
legitimacy of autocracy.
The 2018–20 popular uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq
— and more briefly Tunisia and Egypt — are sequels to the
2010–11 cycle of protest, driven by the continuity of the main
features of political economy and governance before and after
2010–11 in the Middle East and North Africa. Petro-capitalism
centered in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Saudi
Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman —
remains the dominant regime of capital accumulation in the region,
even as it is developing beyond the stage of primitive accumulation
based on oil and gas rents.
The hydrocarbon-poor countries are integrated into petro-capitalism
via the remittances of their migrant workers and aid and investment
from the hydrocarbon-rich GCC countries. This regime of capital
accumulation is regulated by what Gilbert Achcar characterizes
[[link removed]] as “a
mix of patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of
public property, swollen bureaucracies, and generalized corruption,
against a background of great sociopolitical instability and impotence
or even nonexistence of the rule of law.” I would add to that list:
low human development indices, a repressive public culture, and the
prevalence of Islamist movements as the main forms of political
The hydrocarbon-poor regional states are subject to both the
hydrocarbon-rich states and the international financial institutions
— the IMF, World Bank, etc. — which are backed by the United
States and the European Union. When they need financial bailouts to
cover foreign exchange shortages (because of spikes in the price of
imported oil, for example) or budget shortfalls, the IMF typically
lends them money on condition that they adopt its neoliberal
Washington Consensus economic policies, often dubbed Economic Reform
and Structural Adjustment Programs (ERSAPs).
ERSAPs entail cutting public expenditures, privatizing public-sector
enterprises, limiting the rights of workers, reducing or eliminating
government subsidies on basic consumer goods, making local currencies
fully convertible, and enhancing incentives for foreign investment.
They are essentially austerity programs that disable public investment
in jobs and services, motivated by a dogmatic belief that private
investment will perform these tasks more efficiently.
After the 2010–11 uprisings, the IMF acknowledged that it had
ignored the highly unequal distribution of benefits from the model of
economic growth it has been promoting since the late 1970s. Former IMF
managing director Christine Lagarde wrote
[[link removed]] in the
IMF blog: “Let me be frank: We were not paying enough attention to
how the fruits of economic growth were being shared.” But in
practice, the IMF has simply rebranded the same basic portfolio of
policies it touted before 2011 as “inclusive growth.”
Axis of Counterrevolution
One major change since 2011 is the higher profile of Saudi Arabia and
the United Arab Emirates in enforcing a regional counterrevolutionary
order. Their strategy has been to construct a sectarian “Sunni
axis” including Bahrain, Egypt, and, incongruously, Israel, in
opposition to Iran and its regional allies — Syria, Iraq, the Yemeni
Houthis, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas.
In 2011 they intervened militarily to quash Bahrain’s February 14
pro-democracy movement. In 2015, they sent troops to Yemen to fight
the Houthi rebels, seeking to restore their chosen candidate to power
as president, although Saudi and Emirati policies in Yemen have since
diverged. The Saudis backed the Egyptian military and President Abdel
Fattah el-Sisi against the Muslim Brothers, who gained power briefly
after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
In 2017, the Saudis and Emiratis imposed a boycott on Sunni Qatar,
claiming that it supports terrorism. The underlying issue is that
Qatar has refused to adopt an antagonistic stance toward Iran because
the two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field, the
South Pars/North Dome field in the Persian Gulf.
Qatar has deployed its vast resources to support Islamist forces
across the region, including the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the
Ennahda party in Tunisia, which espouse more liberal forms of Islam
than Saudi Wahhabism. The Saudi-Emirati boycott of Qatar has not
succeeded. But Qatar’s political allies have been decisively
defeated in Egypt and Syria and are embattled in Libya.
Ennahda has been more successful in Tunisia, where it has won a
plurality of votes in the three national elections since 2011. Despite
its record of backing neoliberal and anti-worker policies, Ennahda
maintains a base in Tunisia’s impoverished and marginalized western
and southern regions that is comparable to support for Trump in the
Rust Belt and rural America.
The Tunisian Revolt
The 2010–11 uprising in Tunisia began in the bleak center-west town
of Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment and poverty rates were — and
remain — far higher than in the rest of the country. Mohamed
Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller, immolated himself in
front of the government offices on December 17, 2010, after a
policewoman humiliated him while confiscating his merchandise,
alleging that he had no permit to engage in street vending.
The first solidarity demonstrations were confined to other center-west
governorates. On January 4, 2011, Bouazizi succumbed to third-degree
burns. The previously regional protests coalesced as a national social
movement reached Tunis on January 6.
During these weeks, the thoroughly co-opted UGTT national executive
bureau did nothing more than urge the security forces to refrain from
using excessive force. However, several second-level or regional UGTT
leaders and militant rank-and-file members made common cause with the
popular struggle. They lent their political experience, logistical
support, and organizational structure to the movement and supported
broadening its demands to regime change. After Ben Ali was deposed,
the UGTT’s December 2011 congress replaced its incumbent national
executive bureau with a left-leaning leadership.
With over half a million members in a country of 11.5 million, the
UGTT is the largest civil organization in Tunisia. Its favorability
rating in public opinion polls far exceeds that of any political
party. In the post–Ben Ali era, the UGTT leadership has delicately
balanced political support for secularist political forces (including
those friendly to neoliberalism) against Ennahda, pressuring the
regime to resist the austerity measures urged by the IMF, and
containing periodic outbursts of popular outrage.
It has built its status and credibility by representing popular
demands to the regime and by convincing the regime that if it does not
meet at least some of those demands, the UGTT will be unable to
guarantee political stability.
To pursue this strategy, the UGTT leadership prefers controlled
actions, like the one-day national general strike
of January 17, 2019, which challenged the government’s refusal to
raise the salaries of 670,000 public servants, under pressure from the
IMF’s demand for cuts in government expenditures. The strike allowed
the UGTT to demonstrate that it is “on the workers’ side,” while
remaining within the boundaries of the political game established
However, wildcat actions unsanctioned by the UGTT national leadership
were a major force undermining the legitimacy of the Ben Ali regime.
Outbursts of popular rebellion demanding jobs and economic development
have erupted periodically since Ben Ali’s demise. They typically
begin in the center-west or other impoverished regions of the country.
On January 16, 2016, twenty-eight-year-old Ridha Yahyaoui, an
unemployed college graduate in the capital city of the center-west
governorate of Kasserine, learned that his name had suddenly been
removed from a list of seventy-five candidates about to be appointed
to government jobs. In despair, Yahyaoui climbed atop a utility pole,
where he was electrocuted
Mass protests against unemployment and lack of economic opportunity
immediately erupted, following a well-established repertoire: marches
and a sit-in at the governorate headquarters, while two unemployed
university graduates threatened to jump to their deaths from its
rooftop. Youth defied a curfew and torched the Kasserine offices of
the ruling Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”) party.
Within days, the movement spread to the more prosperous and
politically influential coastal cities of Tunis and Sousse.
Eventually, it extended to sixteen of twenty-four governorates, before
subsiding on January 22.
The protests prompted by Ridha Yahyaoui’s death followed the same
trajectory as the demonstrations in solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi
that led to Ben Ali’s overthrow five years earlier. Both movements
began in neighboring economically neglected governorates before
arriving in Tunis.
One difference, reflecting the gains of the 2010–11 uprising, is
that as the January 2016 demonstrations began to spread, the UGTT, the
Tunisian League of Human Rights, the Union of Unemployed Graduates,
and the General Union of Tunisian Students moved quickly, both to
support the demands of the movement and to contain its violent
These organizations share the view that despite its many flaws,
maintaining the current regime is preferable to promoting instability
that might boost the status of Islamists (either Ennahda or armed
jihadis). In contrast, many unemployed youth in the marginalized
regions feel they have no stake in the regime.
“What Are We Waiting For?”
On January 1, 2018, under renewed pressure from IMF demands for
austerity, the government announced a budget that would raise taxes on
gasoline, phone cards, housing, internet usage, and hotel rooms, and
reduce subsidies on fruits and vegetables. In response, on January 8,
an anti-austerity demonstration broke out in Tebourba, a rural town
west of the capital.
It morphed into a violent riot after a fifty-five-year-old man died,
probably from tear-gas asphyxiation, after the demonstration. Riotous
protests spread from Tebourba to at least twenty other locales
via social media with the hashtag #Fech_Nestannew
(“What are we waiting for?”) and persisted until January 12.
In addition to the price increases, the lack of jobs, especially for
university graduates, was a major underlying grievance. In Tebourba,
Oussema Ellafi, an unemployed thirty-two-year-old musician, explained
“We talked with people peacefully, we said give us jobs; we
presented applications, and we said we have certificates, and nothing
happened. That peaceful stuff doesn’t do anything.”
Imen Mhamdi, a twenty-seven-year-old university graduate currently
employed as a factory worker, said that she joined the demonstrations
in Sousse because
“this government, like every government after Ben Ali, only gives
promises and has done nothing.”
Unity or Masquerade?
The UGTT had no organized presence in the January 2018 anti-austerity
demonstrations. After the 2016 protests that began in Kasserine, it
signed on to the Carthage Document, which enabled the formation of a
national unity government including Ennahda and secularist parties.
The signatories promised to consider the needs of workers and the poor
when implementing further austerity measures.
After the Tebourba uprising, the UGTT urged the government to blunt
the impact of the price increases on the most vulnerable. The
typical of the UGTT’s standard operating procedure, was a government
promise to increase assistance to 250,000 poor families by $70.3
million and provide better health care to all.
The Popular Front is an alliance of leftist parties that constituted
the largest parliamentary opposition bloc, with fifteen out of 217
seats, before the October 2019 elections. It openly supported the
Tebourba uprising and sought to spread it and coordinate with other
supporters. The Popular Front denounced the UGTT-approved compromise
as a “masquerade
[[link removed]] But it was
unable to mobilize further actions against it.
The Popular Front splintered before the 2019 parliamentary elections.
One of its principal components, the People’s Movement, returned
with fifteen seats, while the original Popular Front fell to one —
still an overall gain of one for the radical left. However, in
February 2020, the People’s Movement became part of a coalition
That coalition includes Ennahda and other parties inclined to bow to
the demands of the IMF, which is proposing to lend Tunisia another $3
billion to meet government expenses for 2020. This will probably
become a field of contestation.
Struggles in Morocco
Nationwide demonstrations of some two hundred thousand people launched
Morocco’s February 20 Movement for Democracy in 2011. Political
differences and intrigues by the regime have long divided the Moroccan
labor movement and weakened the February 20 Movement as well.
The Democratic Confederation of Labour (CDT) has a strong base among
white-collar public administration and banking employees and is
politically affiliated with the Federation of the Democratic Left, an
alliance of three small socialist parties. It joined the February 20
Movement, along with several unions affiliated with the largest
federation, the Moroccan Union of Labor (UMT).
In contrast, the National Labor Union of Morocco (UNMT), which is
aligned with the Islamist Justice and Development Party, did not
endorse the movement. Nor did the pro-monarchist General Union of
Moroccan Workers (UGTM), whose primary base is among agricultural
King Mohammed VI parried the demands for greater democracy by
increasing the salaries of public-sector workers, raising the minimum
wage, and proposing largely cosmetic constitutional amendments, which
left the main levers of executive power in the hands of the monarchy.
The CDT and its political partners, the February 20 Movement, and the
Islamist Justice and Charity movement all called for a boycott of the
July 1, 2011 constitutional referendum. Nonetheless, the new
In 2012, in return for a $4.1 billion loan
to Morocco, the IMF demanded new austerity measures, with cuts in
public investment, social spending, and pensions. Like the UGTT, the
Moroccan unions prefer to engage in European-style “social
dialogue” with the regime and employers. When their demands are not
met, they typically resort to limited strike action.
On October 29, 2014, the UMT, the CDT, and a splinter from the CDT,
the Democratic Federation of Labour (FDT), jointly called
a twenty-four-hour general strike, because the government had refused
to engage in dialogue over the austerity measures embodied in the 2015
The unions called for lower taxes on wages and consumption, the repeal
of legislation criminalizing union activity, and a halt to the firing
of workers for exercising their right to free association. They wanted
improved public services, guarantees of secure and stable employment
with an end to precarious labor, and measures to address the needs of
retirees living on pensions.
The Moroccan government did not meet these demands. Consequently, the
UGTM joined the UMT, CDT, and FDT in calling for another
twenty-four-hour general strike over similar issues on February 24
The CDT called for a third general strike on its own three years later
The Rif Movement
Strikes like this do not build the unity and power of workers: rather,
they contain them within boundaries tightly policed by the monarchy.
However, were the contentious actions of workers to breach those
boundaries, they would be subjected to harsh state repression, as was
the case for the movement of popular protest that erupted in the
northern Rif region in October 2016 and persisted for ten months.
The death of Mouhcine Fikri triggered the Rif Popular Movement, or
“Hirak Rif.” Fikri was a fishmonger who had been crushed behind a
dumpster bin where he had sat, trying to prevent police from
confiscating his swordfish, which they claimed he had caught in a
prohibited period. The circumstances exactly parallel the confiscation
of Mohamed Bouazizi’s merchandise, which sparked the Tunisian
popular uprising. The movement was organized around Amazigh (Berber)
The Rif is historically an economically and culturally marginalized
region, similar to Tunisia’s western and southern regions. The
movement’s demands centered on respect for and preservation of
Amazigh identity and language. But it also called for the construction
of a regional cancer hospital, university, library, theater, roads,
and fish-processing facilities.
Harsh repression overpowered the Hirak Rif by August 2017. In July
2019, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his accession to the
throne, King Mohammed VI pardoned 4,764 prisoners, including most of
those jailed for participation in the Rif Popular Movement who were
still in prison.
Egyptian workers were the most visible component of the burgeoning
protest movement that undermined the government of former president
Hosni Mubarak during the decade before his ouster on February 11,
2011. From 2004 to 2010, there were 2,716 strikes and other collective
actions [[link removed]], involving over
2.2 million workers, a substantial escalation over the already high
level of labor protests since 1998.
Many of these actions stemmed from opposition to the consequences of
privatization, or fear that the government would carry out further
sell-offs of public enterprises. This workers’ movement organized
itself entirely from below and against the will of the Egyptian Trade
Union Federation (ETUF), which is an arm of the state. Its agenda
emerged as one of the popular slogans of the 2011 uprising: “Bread,
Freedom, and Social Justice!
Mubarak’s departure satisfied the majority of demonstrators: they
did not understand that his removal did not satisfy the popular demand
for “the fall of the regime.” Since calls for democracy or regime
change were not the primary motivations of the workers’ movement,
that movement persisted and escalated in the more permissive
atmosphere of the next few years. Strikes and labor protests
skyrocketed to 1,377 in 2011 and 1,969 in 2012: more than double and
triple the previous annual highs of 614 in 2007 and 609 in 2008.
Leftist and populist labor organizers established the Egyptian
Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) in the course of the
movement demanding Mubarak’s ouster. They announced its existence on
January 30, 2011 at a press conference in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the
epicenter of the popular uprising.
EFITU’s founders were the Center for Trade Union and Workers
Services, a pro-labor NGO; the Independent (in other words, not
affiliated with ETUF) General Union of Real Estate Tax Assessors,
established in 2009 after a phenomenally successful wildcat strike in
2007; the much smaller independent unions of health care technicians
and teachers; the 8.5-million-member association of retirees; and
representatives of workers from several industrial-production sectors.
The Right to Vote, the Right to Bread
After Mubarak’s overthrow, forty EFITU leaders and socialist
activists met in Cairo on February 19 and adopted a declaration of
“Demands of the Workers in the Revolution,” including the right to
form independent trade unions, the right to strike, and the
dissolution of the ETUF. They resolved:
If this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth it
is not worth anything. Freedoms are not complete without social
freedoms. The right to vote is naturally dependent on the right to a
loaf of bread.
Soon after this small gathering, there was a larger public event in
Cairo on March 12. The Trotskyist labor journalist, Mostafa Bassiouni,
moderated a panel that included the newly installed labor minister,
Ahmad Hasan al-Bura’i, a professor of labor law and a longtime
advocate of independent trade unions, EFITU president Kamal Abu Eita,
and Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union
and Workers Services.
Abu Eita had made his reputation by leading the 2007 tax assessors’
strike. Abbas had established the center with the veteran communist
labor lawyer, Youssef Darwish, after he was fired for leading two
strikes at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company in 1989. Minister
Bura’i promised that workers would soon have the right to establish
and join any union of their choice. He also pledged that the
government would stop interfering in union affairs.
These events marked the high point in the unity and morale of the
independent trade union movement. But they also exposed its
weaknesses. Only three independent unions had emerged through local
actions over the previous decade. None of the wildcat strikes of the
late Mubarak era were coordinated beyond the level of a single
enterprise. Few representatives from the provinces attended these
meetings in Cairo.
With the exception of Kamal Abu Eita, who had been president of the
tax assessors’ union, EFITU leaders had no experience leading a
nationwide organization and few resources. Kamal Abbas’s small NGO
had fewer than half a dozen staff. They did not imagine the center as
an alternative national leadership to the ETUF. Moreover, after a
year, the EFITU split over personal and political differences. Abu
Eita remained president of the EFITU, while Abbas and his supporters
formed the rival Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress.
The split did not affect the workers’ movement directly: it peaked
at 2,239 collective actions in 2013, 82 percent of which took place in
the first half of the year. But the movement was ultimately dispersed
by the reactionary military coup of July 3, 2013 against President
Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brother who had narrowly won Egypt’s first
free presidential election the previous year.
In May 2014 the coup leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, won a stage-managed
presidential election with 97 percent of the vote. The “workers’
candidate,” Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former executive director
of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, pulled out of
the race, protesting against the unfair electoral law. All but one of
the other potential candidates were pressured to withdraw.
El-Sisi gradually crushed all forms of social and political
opposition, consolidating a praetorian dictatorship much harsher than
that of Mubarak-era Egypt. First his government violently suppressed
the Muslim Brotherhood, then it attacked the independent workers’
movement. Finally, it intimidated every conceivable form of opposition
and independent thought.
The number of strikes and other forms of collective action by workers
after the coup. Nonetheless, a strike wave from the summer of 2015 to
January 2016 involved over twenty thousand textile workers in the Nile
Delta, six thousand workers at the Egyptian Aluminum Co., and tens of
thousands in oil services, iron and steel, coke, cement, the
subsidiary firms of the Suez Canal Company, and conductors of the
Egyptian National Railways.
In a move typical of the massive repression imposed by el-Sisi, the
web pages of the publication Mada Masr which reported on these strikes
have been taken down. Since then, the Egyptian media has reported very
few collective actions by workers, for fear of being shut down.
A brief spate of protests in September 2019
ignited hopes for a revival of oppositional politics in Egypt. But few
employed workers took part. The prompt for these demonstrations came
from Mohamed Ali, a construction contractor turned actor, who had
worked with the military before going into self-exile in Spain. He
posted Facebook videos plausibly alleging that el-Sisi and his inner
circle had squandered public funds and enriched themselves: the same
accusations previously made against Mubarak and the circle of
businessmen around his son Gamal.
Thousands of protesters, many of them teenagers and youth from
working-class and poor neighborhoods, gathered spontaneously and
without leadership in Cairo, Alexandria and six other cities on
September 20 and 21. The state security forces responded with
violence, but were not entirely effective in dispersing the crowds,
which encouraged further (albeit smaller) protests on September 27.
On that day and over the course of the following weeks, somewhere
between two and four thousand people were arrested, the largest
since el-Sisi became president. The movement was crushed. Nonetheless,
the government recognized the underlying economic grievances by
restoring subsidies for rice and pasta to 1.8 million people who had
been disqualified after the government raised the income level for
Three trends emerged among Arab opposition movements during the
mid-2010s that were more fully developed in the Sudanese and Algerian
uprisings of 2018–20. First, white-collar workers and university
graduates became more prominent participants in strikes and protest
movements. During Egypt’s 2015–16 strike wave, unemployed holders
of MA and PhD degrees, K-12 teachers, and white-collar civil-service
workers were especially visible.
Tertiary degree holders — such as doctors and health care workers,
teachers, civil servants, and media workers — accounted for just
over half of all Egyptian labor protests in the third quarter of 2015.
(Tellingly, the website of the Mahrousa Center for Socioeconomic
Development, which reported these figures, has since been taken down,
and no figures for subsequent years are available.) This resembles the
long-established militancy among primary and secondary teachers,
health care, postal, telegraph, and bank workers in the UGTT, and the
strong presence of left-wing activists in these sectors.
Secondly, gender issues and the participation of women have become
more salient than they were in the 2010–11 uprisings. In Bahrain,
the monarchy has harassed the GFBTU because of its active
participation in the 2011 pro-democracy movement. Nonetheless, the
GFBTU convened a national congress in 2016, at which four of the
fifteen members elected to its national secretariat were women.
The GFBTU has long advocated the unionization of Bahrain’s one
hundred thousand migrant domestic workers, most of whom are women. In
June 2019, to mark International Domestic Workers’ Day, it signed a
memorandum of understanding
with the International Domestic Workers Federation to promote their
rights and welfare.
About 50 percent of all UGTT members are women. But no woman had ever
sat on its national executive bureau until Naïma Hammami
won a position at the UGTT’s 2017 congress. She is a member of the
Secondary Education Union, whose members have gone on strike
repeatedly since 2011.
Thirdly, the current wave of uprisings has rejected sectarianism and
ethnic strife. The uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon, which began in
October 2019, originated as a response to increased taxes, the high
cost of living, lack of economic opportunities, and the failure of
governments to provide basic services.
But they also explicitly challenged the sectarian apportionment of
political offices introduced in Iraq by the United States after the
2003 invasion and Lebanon’s more long-established sectarian
constitutional structure. This posed a challenge to the Saudi-Emirati
effort to build a Sunni-based, anti-Shia counterrevolutionary axis in
Revolution in Sudan
Sudan’s 2018–19 revolutionary uprising embodied these new trends:
white-collar workers and professionals provided militant leadership;
women played a prominent role, making up as much as 70 percent of the
participants in some demonstrations; and there was a sustained effort
to unify the country’s ethnic communities, several of which had
fought civil wars against the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who seized
power in an Islamist military coup in 1989.
Moreover, unlike the other uprisings in the current cycle of protest,
the Sudanese uprising is also linked to the historic leadership of the
working class by the country’s Left. The Communist Party of Sudan
was one of the strongest in the Middle East. It had a militant base in
the Sudanese Workers’ Trade Union Federation
(SWTUF) established in 1950.
In 1971, after a leftist coup the party had supported failed, it
suffered harsh repression, from which it has never recovered. After
coming to power, al-Bashir attacked the remaining base for left-wing,
working-class politics by dissolving the SWTUF, reforming it under
government supervision, and banning strikes. Nonetheless, the railway
hub of Atbara, 220 miles south of the capital of Khartoum and a former
stronghold of the Communist Party, is where the Sudanese revolution b
Sudan has been impoverished since its second civil war with the south
between 1983 and 2005 culminated in the independence of oil-rich South
Sudan in 2011. The annual inflation rate skyrocketed
from 18 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2018. Rising prices prompted
widespread demonstrations in 2013, 2014, and 2016.
In October 2017, the United States partially lifted twenty years of
trade sanctions, opening the door to normalized diplomatic relations
and financial assistance from the IMF. A November 2017 IMF report
offered the standard neoliberal policy recommendations, urging the
Khartoum government to eliminate subsidies on wheat and fuel, unify
currency exchange rates, and float the Sudanese pound, which would
mean a steep devaluation.
The government did devalue the pound, which raised domestic prices
sharply. The annual rate of inflation doubled
[[link removed]] in January 2018,
provoking weeks of demonstrations.
Freedom and Change
Anti-austerity demonstrations erupted
with renewed force in Atbara on December 19, 2018, in response to a
threefold increase in the price of bread since the beginning of the
year, and higher fuel prices (due to subsidy cuts recommended by the
IMF). From Atbara, protests spread to other provincial cities before
reaching Khartoum. The geographical distribution of the demonstrations
made it harder for the regime to contain them.
Professionals joined the movement on December 26, when doctors
affiliated with the Sudanese Professionals Association
[[link removed]] (SPA) proclaimed
a nationwide strike
Other professionals subsequently also went on strike.
The SPA represents seventeen associations of doctors, lawyers,
journalists, engineers, veterinarians, pharmacists, etc. It has
provided the leadership and coordination for the Forces of Freedom and
Change (FFC), a broad alliance of twenty-two organizations and
parties. On the first day of 2019, the FFC issued the “Declaration
of Freedom and Change
demanding the immediate removal of Omar al-Bashir as president.
The emblem of the Sudanese revolution is a viral video
of “the woman in white,” Alaa Salah, standing atop a car, dressed
in a traditional white gown, leading a crowd chanting “revolution”
and other slogans against al-Bashir. Salah is a university student in
engineering and architecture and a member of Women of Sudanese Civic
and Political Groups — MANSAM, one of the signatories of the
Declaration of Freedom and Change.
After four months of protests and civil disobedience culminating in
huge demonstrations on April 6–7, the army decided that al-Bashir
had become a liability. With approval from the United Arab Emirates,
Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the military arrested al-Bashir on April 11
and formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC), an exact replay of
the Egyptian army’s dismissal of Mubarak in 2011.
However, the Sudanese opposition had learned from Egypt’s
experience. Demonstrations continued, demanding that the TMC
relinquish power to a civilian-led transitional government. Following
a general strike on May 26–29, the chairman of the TMC, General
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo,
consulted with Emirati, Egyptian, and Saudi leaders.
Those talks appear to have resulted in a decision to smash the
civilian opposition movement. On June 3 the Rapid Support Forces —
which incorporate the Janjaweed militias responsible for genocide and
mass rapes during the civil war in Darfur in 2003–9 — and other
security units attacked demonstrators in Khartoum, killing 128 and
raping seventy women.
The SPA responded to the “Khartoum massacre” by calling for
“complete civil disobedience and open political strike
which compelled the TMC to resume negotiations with the Forces of
Freedom and Change. The strike ended on June 12 with the release of
A power-sharing arrangement between the civilian opposition and the
TMC was established, with a mixed civilian-military Sovereign Council
as Sudan’s executive power until elections are held in mid-2022.
General al-Burhan will chair the council for the first twenty-one
months, followed by a civilian for eighteen months.
The FFC sought to delay elections, in contrast with the rapid move to
elections in post-Mubarak Egypt, in order to give the debilitated
political parties time to reorganize. The Sovereign Council appointed
a transitional cabinet including four female and fourteen male
civilian ministers and two male military ministers — an expression
of the partial success of the revolutionary movement to date.
General al-Burhan has close relations with Egypt and the United Arab
Emirates. In February 2020, with their support and the encouragement
of the United States and Saudi Arabia, he met with Israeli prime
minister Benjamin Netanyahu
in Uganda. This suggests that al-Burhan is inclined to join the
Saudi-led counterrevolutionary “Sunni axis,” in exchange for the
United States removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of
terrorism and more support from the IMF.
Taking on _Le Pouvoir_
In December 2018, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria since
1999, declared his intention to run for a fifth term in the
presidential elections due to be held the following April. Bouteflika
began having serious health problems in 2005 and suffered a
debilitating stroke in 2013 that rendered him wheelchair-bound and
unable to give a speech.
Rarely seen in public thereafter, Bouteflika was the figurehead for a
clique of military, internal security, governmental, political, and
business leaders, collectively known as _le pouvoir_ (the power). In
collaboration and competition, they ruled the country. _Le pouvoir_
decided that running a barely sentient Bouteflika for a fifth
presidential term was the best way to maintain power.
Many Algerian youths felt abused by the indignity of being nominally
led by an incapacitated octogenarian. After sporadic protests in
scattered locales, they used social media to call for nationwide
demonstrations on February 22, 2019. The turnout was massive and
initiated Algeria’s “Smile Revolution,” or, more seriously, the
Hirak Movement). From February to April, the Hirak spread
geographically and gained momentum with weekly demonstrations.
Universities and schools went on strike. The presidential elections
Two-thirds of Algeria’s forty-one million people are under thirty.
Overall unemployment is over 11 percent
[[link removed]]; but more
than one-quarter of working-age youths are unemployed. These young
people have been the core of the Hirak. But the underlying grievances
of the Hirak stem from _le pouvoir_’s inability, because of its
internal divisions, to set a clear economic course — either toward
neoliberalism, in accord with the 1994 Economic Reform and Structural
Adjustment Program (ERSAP) signed with the IMF, or toward a renewal of
its founding populist anti-imperialism.
The consequence of that failure has been decades of economic
stagnation, high unemployment, and multiplying corruption scandals. In
2010–12, the Algerian regime was able to stem protests by lowering
the prices of basic foodstuffs, increasing the supply of wheat, and
creating some jobs. However, the sharp decline in oil prices since
2014 rendered such remedies impossible in 2019.
The leadership of the officially recognized trade union federation,
the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), is part of _le pouvoir_.
Autonomous unions unaffiliated with the UGTA were legalized in 1990.
However, the government has repressed them
arrested their leaders, and refused to recognize them. Autonomous
unions generally supported the Hirak. In some sections of the country,
even the local UGTA leadership supported it.
The Trade Union Confederation of Productive Workers (COSYFOP) and the
Autonomous Union of Workers in the Public Gas and Electric Company
(SNATEG) called a general strike
for March 10–15. It was even supported by Cevital, the largest
non-energy private conglomerate. Raouf Mellal, president of both
COSYFOP and SNATEG, declared
that Algerian workers want “a transitional government that includes
key figures from the opposition and promotes national unity.” The
autonomous unions threatened another general strike on April 7 if a
transitional government was not formed.
In response to the mounting popular pressure, on April 2,
Bouteflika’s erstwhile ally, the army commander Ahmed Gaïd Salah,
forced him to resign. Many powerful political figures in
Bouteflika’s circle were arrested. The extensive list included his
younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika, two former prime ministers, two
former intelligence chiefs, a former chief of police, a dozen
ministers, the leaders of the four political parties that supported
Bouteflika, some of the richest people in the country, and several
The old regime was partially dismantled. This was an impressive
achievement for a movement with no national organization or organic
connection to opposition parties weakened by years of political
participation on the terms of _le pouvoir_. Nonetheless, the
fundamental structure of power remained in place. General Salah became
the strongman of the interim regime. Its other key figures were
fixtures of the Bouteflika era.
The interim government arrested many Hirak leaders. One of the
outstanding figures was Karim Tabbou, head of a small, unrecognized
democratic-socialist party, the Democratic and Social Union. He was
imprisoned on September 11, 2019 for “weakening army morale” after
publicly criticizing General Salah.
The interim government also targeted independent trade union leaders.
Raouf Mellal was arrested and tortured
after Bouteflika’s resignation in April and spent the next few
months on the run. In September, one COSYFOP member was jailed
[[link removed]] for
filming a march of union members; another was detained and tortured.
Ibrahim Daouadji [[link removed]],
secretary-general of OSATA, another autonomous union confederation,
was arrested on October 12 for criticizing the military and civil
authorities together with his three-year-old son. Rym Kadri, president
of the COSYFOP-affiliated education workers’ union, was arrested
on November 24 for participating in a sit-in demanding the release of
The army insisted on early presidential elections to prove that order
was being reestablished and set the date for December 12, 2019. The
Hirak sought to delay the vote so that opposition political forces
would have time to organize and compete on an equal footing with
candidates of the regime.
On November 1, the thirty-seventh weekly Friday demonstration of the
Hirak, and the sixty-fifth anniversary of the start of Algeria’s War
of Independence, hundreds of thousands protested in Algiers, opposing
the December 12 presidential election date. Demonstrators carried
“The elections of a corrupt power are a stupid trap.” They boldly
chanted slogans against Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah and called for a
civilian-led constituent assembly.
The demonstrators also called for the release of forty-one people who
had been arrested
for displaying the Amazigh flag at a rally in July. There is no law
against displaying the Amazigh flag. Nonetheless, the forty-one had
been detained on charges of “undermining national unity.” Five
were arrested for the same “offense” on November 1.
The Forces of the Democratic Alternative (FDA), a coalition that
includes several socialist parties and the Amazigh-based Rally for
Culture and Democracy (RCD), as well as the Islamist Justice and
Development Front called for a boycott of the presidential election.
As part of the campaign to prevent the December 12 election, COSYFOP
for a general strike on November 6–7.
As Raouf Mellal said:
We categorically reject these rigged military elections, which aim to
abort any kind of democratic change. This is our opportunity to create
a law-abiding civil state, and we will go all the way to peacefully
restore the sovereignty of the people.
The Old Order Clings On
At one level, the boycott was a success: the official turnout was a
low 40 percent, while the RCD claimed
that the real figure was only 8 percent. However, the election went
ahead, with five candidates taking part, all of them figures of the
old regime. The winner, Algeria’s current president, Abdelmadjid
Tebboune, had been prime minister under Bouteflika. A new political
order has not emerged.
Two days before the presidential election, the authorities arrested
president of the independent union of higher education workers and
vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
After twenty-eight days in detention, he was acquitted of the charges
on March 3. Yet many other human rights defenders and Hirak leaders
remain in detention.
Continuing the policies of the Bouteflika regime and the transition
government, Tebboune retaliated against independent unions that
support the Hirak. On February 5, police sealed
the COSYFOP headquarters in Algiers. COSYFOP then held a Congress on
February 15–16, where it elected
Zakaria Benhaddad to replace Raouf Mellal as its president. Benhaddad
has sought to depoliticize the union: “In the new statutes, we have
specified that political activism is excluded, and that anyone who
wants to exercise politics has only to join a political party.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed political activity throughout
the Middle East and North Africa. In Iraq, the organizers of the
regular demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square announced
that the movement would be suspended until the pandemic was over.
In Lebanon, Assolta4 TV, Fourth Estate — Lebanese Revolution TV
began test broadcasts
in mid-February. Its initiators sought to create an independent media
outlet for the popular uprising. So, the Lebanese movement had already
gone partially online when demonstrations began to peter out in late
February. But the channel did not appear to be operating by the time
that security forces forcibly destroyed
the last few remaining tents in downtown Beirut on March 27, enforcing
a 7 PM to 5 AM curfew that the authorities had imposed to limit the
spread of the coronavirus.
In Tunisia, UGTT secretary-general Noureddine Taboubi announced
that all strikes, protests, conferences, and meetings would be
postponed for the duration of the pandemic.
In Sudan, the Forces for Freedom and Change began to lose confidence
in the Sovereign Council when it cashiered soldiers and officers who
had supported the revolution from the army. The SPA called a
demonstration for February 20 to demand that they be restored to the
ranks. Security forces responded
with tear gas and violence. Soon after, the council closed schools and
universities, suspended flights, and sealed the borders in response to
It simultaneously announced a delay of the investigation into the
Khartoum Massacre. Because of this context, many believed that the
Council was exaggerating the severity of the pandemic, in order to
avoid exposing the crimes of the army during the revolutionary
uprising. This prompted demonstrations
on March 16, which appear to have been the last open expression of
resistance to the military elements of the Sovereign Council.
In Algeria, the authorities sentenced
Karim Tabbou to an additional six months in prison on March 24
Earlier, he and several other prominent Hirak figures had called
on the movement to suspend its regular demonstrations from March 20
after fifty-six consecutive weeks of action. Several secular
opposition groups — the Socialist Forces Front, the Rally for
Culture and Democracy, and the Workers’ Party — joined them in
COVID-19 has rendered the political future uncertain in the Middle
East and North Africa, just as in other parts of the world.
Consequently, it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the
2018–20 uprisings. However, the 2010–11 uprisings, and their
sequels in 2018–20, are likely to be only the first stages in a
protracted struggle over the underlying political and economic
conditions that gave rise to those movements.
_Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan professor of history and
professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. His latest
book is Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in
Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2016). _