- Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt by Joel Beinin
Stanford, CA: Stanford Briefs, 2016
164 pp., $12.99 (paper)
There was something exhilarating about the Arab Spring uprisings, mainly because for a moment they seemed stunningly successful: in quick succession, longstanding autocrats were pushed from power, and many more regimes faced growing protest movements, some of which seemed to be moving in the direction pioneered by Tunisia and Egypt. For a while it was possible to convince yourself that everything had changed and that authoritarian rule was about to be cleared from the regional map through people power.
Two turns of events checked such expectations. One was the rise of military force, foreign involvement, and proxy warfare in Libya, then in Syria, and eventually in Yemen. The other was the failure of procedural democracy in Egypt, embodied most vividly in the military coup of 2013 and the steady return to autocratic rule. In coldly analytic terms, this sharp turn let commentators off the hook, in that in some respects it returned the region to familiar territory. It also suggested just how shallow the initial mainstream accounts of the uprisings had been. The story of mainly secular, mainly middle-class young people suddenly militating for and attaining a democratic order via Twitter and Facebook was never very satisfying, and the denouement of the uprisings only seemed to confirm this lack.
Workers and Thieves provides a welcome antidote to the superficiality and vagueness of such accounts by examining the place of labor movements in the twin centers of the Arab Spring uprisings. For Joel Beinin, it is a misnomer to say that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt came from nowhere. Rather, they emerged from longstanding movements of political dissent that well preceded 2011 and in which militant labor activists and organizations played a crucial part, particularly in the decade preceding the Arab Spring events.
Beinin does not seek to recast the uprisings as workers' movements per se, but he does convincingly demonstrate the ways in which labor activists prepared the ground for the uprisings and participated in important ways at the level of the rank and file. He also points to the complexity of class politics as an explanation for the relative invisibility of labor activists and institutions to outside observers of the uprisings. Beinin shows the way in which workers' longstanding demands were both absorbed into and marginalized by the political discourse of what he calls "the oppositional intelligentsia" (95), whose tech-savvy members received the lion's share of media attention. There is an important spatial dimension to this argument as well. Unlike those narratives that emphasize the actions [End Page 92] of opposition activists in Tunis and Cairo, Beinin draws attention to the importance of national peripheries to labor struggles, both historically and in the immediate lead-up to the uprisings.
An even more pernicious factor in covering over the importance of labor activists to the uprisings is the tendency of many observers and participants to dismiss labor demands—as well as many other forms of public mobilization (98)—as somehow non-political. Beinin firmly situates workers and the unemployed within the larger trends of economic restructuring and austerity affecting Egyptians and Tunisians at large, and he narrates a nearly seamless transition from activism by workers and the unemployed to the full-fledged collective demand to change the nature of the regime in Egypt and Tunisia. Beinin does not cover over the darker side of this story in the Egyptian case, where old enmities between labor activists and Islamists, combined with coup leaders' skillful manipulation of nostalgia for Nasserism, led to organized labor's support for a return to authoritarian governance.
Even in an abbreviated format such as this, Beinin is a fine-grained observer of labor struggles, and the commitment to placing labor activists and institutions within their national framework is a key contribution of Workers and Thieves to the literature on the Arab Spring uprisings. While Beinin does not neglect the regional networks that tied the uprisings to one another, and while...