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Rackham Centennial Lecture: "Arab Workers and the Popular Uprisings of 2011"

Thursday, October 18, 2012
4:00 AM
1014 Tisch Hall

Workers in Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, and especially Egypt and Tunisia participated prominently in the Arab popular uprisings of 2011. They shared the outrage of many of their compatriots over daily humiliation, abuse, and torture by internal security forces; massive corruption in all spheres of public administration; the rising cost-of-living and the indecent chasm between the elites and the poor; deteriorating public social services; and foreign policies subservient to the interests of the United States.

Arab workers’ participation in those uprisings was also informed by decades of struggles against the neoliberal economic restructuring of the region which led to high rates of unemployment concentrated among youth, the early retirement of hundreds of thousands of blue- and white-collar public sector workers, casualization of those remaining at work, and the loss of job security, unemployment insurance, health care, pensions, or union membership. Women were disproportionately affected by the decline of public sectors and experienced higher rates of unemployment than men because public sector wage and employment policies are relatively woman-friendly. The concerns of working people, during the uprisings of 2011 were summarized by the slogan first raised in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and adopted across the Arab world – “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice.”

An understanding of the role of workers in the Arab uprisings using a modified version of Social Movement Theory and a historical political economy analysis of the neoliberal economic restructuring of the Middle East and North Africa since the 1970s provides more historical depth and complexity than the instant accounts that emphasized the role of the “Facebook Youth” and social media or the notion that “expansion of civil society” was the road to democracy. It also integrates what has often been treated as a zone of exception into the mainstream of global developments and historical and social analysis.

Egypt is the epicenter of this analysis because it the largest Arab country and its political life has broad pan-Arab resonance. Most importantly, from 1998 to 2010, well over two million, and probably closer to four million, Egyptian workers participated in some 3,400 to 4,000 strikes and other collective actions – the largest unarmed social movement in the Arab world in since the 1950s.