As part of the Arab Reform and Democracy Program's speaker series, Stanford Historian Joel Beinin discussed the role of workers in advancing revolutionary struggles in Egypt and Tunisia. Arab workers participated prominently in the popular uprisings of 2011. They shared the outrage of many of their compatriots over daily abuse by internal security forces, widespread corruption, and foreign policies subservient to U.S. interests. Their participation in those uprisings was also informed by struggles against the neoliberal economic restructuring of the region since the 1970s, which resulted in an indecent chasm between rich and poor, deteriorating working conditions and public social services, and high youth unemployment.
Egypt experienced a strike wave of unprecedented magnitude in the 2000s. Tunisia, with one exception, experienced less intense contestation by workers and others. Egyptian workers’ have had very limited influence on national politics in the post-Mubarak era. Democratic development seems unlikely in the near future. The Tunisian national trade union federation and its affiliates were the central force in installing procedural democracy. The nature of workers’ social movements in the 2000s partially explains these divergent outcomes.