What social forces are behind the protest movement in Egypt? The old guard (represented, first, by the Mubaraks and the “crony globalizers,” and, then, by the torturer Omar Suleiman and the rich men in the “Council of the Wise”) seems to have lost control of the process. Who, then, is pushing the movement forward?
Paul Amar focuses attention on the national-development-oriented coalition of businessmen and military entrepreneurs and, especially, on the force of micro-enterprise and workers’ organizations consisting of women and youth.
It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brothers or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt especially during the last two years, and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilized every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women (of all ages) and youth (of both genders). There are structural reasons for this.
First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalization and poverty; rather, it stems from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt’s workers are mobilized because new factories are being built, in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up, and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf Emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate and into manufacturing, piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure, etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or newly built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Persian Gulf, developers use Bangladeshi, Philippine and other expatriate labor. But Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the 6 April movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organizing and mobilizing process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz’ circulating a passionate Youtube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on 24 January 2011. Ms. Mahfouz, a political organizer with an MBA from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.
The economic gender and class landscape of Egypt’s micro-businesses has been politicized and mobilized in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. Thus the economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khalid Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.
It is this coalition, it seems, that is not going to be content with the mere ouster of Mubarak and is going to continue to press for far-reaching changes in Egyptian political economy.