Skip to main content Accessibility help

Irrational Workers: The Moral Economy of Labor Protest in Egypt

  • Marsha Pripstein Posusney (a1)


After comparing the predictions of Marxist, moral economy, and rational-choice theories concerning collective actions by workers in Egypt in the period since the 1952 Free Officers coup, this article concludes that a moral economy perspective is best able to explain the nature and frequency of these protests. The supporting evidence is the correlation between labor protest and violations of workers' feelings of entitlement, as manifest in declining real wages or disruptions to established patterns of wage differentials. The targeting of state institutions, combined with the fact that workers have eschewed actual production stoppages in favor of symbolic protests, indicates a view of reciprocal rights and obligations between themselves and the state. The latter reinforces the moral economy by combining significant concessions with its repressive response to labor protests. Marxism proves unable to explain the largely defensive and reactive nature of labor protest, while rational-choice theory is reduced to efforts to quantify workers' reactions to this repression.



Hide All

1 See the discussions in Przeworski, Adam, “Marxism and Rational Choice,” Politics and Society 14, no. 4 (1985); and Popkin, Samuel, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), esp. chaps. 1, 2.

2 Goldberg, Ellis, “The Foundation of State-Labor Relations in Today's Egypt,” Comparative Politics 24 (January 1992).

3 On the importance of solidarity to the Marxist notion of class consciousness, see Booth, Douglas E., “Collective Action, Marx's Class Theory, and the Union Movement,” Journal of Economic Issues 12 (March 1978), esp. 168–69; and Elster, Jon, Mailing Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 347.

4 Beinin, Joel and Lockman, Zachary, Workers on the Nile (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), esp. 428–43; Beinin, Joel, “The Communist Movement and Nationalist Political Discourse in Nasirist Egypt,” Middle East Journal 41 (August 1987); and idem, “Labor, Capital, and the State in Nasirist Egypt, 1952–61,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 21 (February 1989).

5 Buroway, , “The Contours of Production Politics,” in Bergquist, Charles, ed., Labor in the Capitalist World Economy (New York: Sage, 1984), 4142. See also the application of Buroway's arguments to Egypt in Henley, John S. and Ereisha, Mohamed M., “State Control and the Labor Productivity Crisis: The Egyptian Textile Industry at Work,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 35 (April 1987).

6 See Scott, James, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); and the discussion in Popkin (fn. 1).

7 Thompson, , “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present, no. 50 (February 1971); Sabel, , WorK and Politics: The Division of Labor in Industry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 128–36; Swenson, , Fair Shares (Ith aca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), 11108.

8 On the use of the stability-disruption-protest model by pluralist theorists, see Greenstone, David, “Group Theory,” in Greenstein, Fred I. and Polsby, Nelson, eds., Micropolitical Theory (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975).

9 See, inter alia, Elster, Jon, Sour Grapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), esp. 142; and Hindess, Barry, “Rational Choice Theory and the Analysis of Political Action,” Economy and Society 13, no. 3 (1984); Riker, William H., “Political Science and Rational Choice,” in Alt, James E. and Shepsle, Kenneth A., eds., Perspectives on Positive Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Simon, Herbert, “Human Nature in Politics: The Dialogue of Psychology with Political Science,” American Political Science Review 75, no. 2 (1985).

10 The critique of rationality in this article is aimed primarily at this presumption, and interpretation, of selfishness. For the debate about selfishness within the rationality school, see, e.g., Sen, Amartya K., “Rational Fools,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6, no. 4 (1977).

11 For a review of empirical studies that support this argument in the Western context, see Weintraub, Andrew R., “Prosperity vs. Strikes: An Empirical Approach,” Industrial and La bor Relations Review 19 (October 1965); Kaufman, Bruce E., “Bargaining Theory, Inflation, and Cyclical Strike Activity in Manufacturing,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 34 (April 1981); and Shalev, Michael, “Trade Unionism and Economic Analysis: The Case of Industrial Conflict,” Journal of Labor Research 1 (Spring 1980).

12 Olson, , The Logic of Collective Action (New York: Basic Books, 1971); Hardin, Russell, Collective Action (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

13 Edward N. Muller and Karl-Dieter Opp pose a ”collective rationality” that values group rather than individual benefits in opposition to individual rationality, whereas the “analytic Marxists” hold that game theory shows how individually selfish rational workers learn the benefits of collective action; Muller and Opp, “Rational Choice and Rebellious Collective Action,” American Political Science Review 14 (June 1986). See especially Elster, Jon, “Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory,” Theory and Society 11 (July 1982).

14 Goldberg, (fn. 2), 152–54.

15 Ibid., 154–58.

16 I use the terms “new” or “aggressive” demands to refer to those that seek increments to real wages or improvements in working conditions and that do not grow out of comparisons with the past.

17 Thompson, (fn. 7), 79.

18 It should be pointed out, however, that the actions of the Nasser regime that initiated the moral economy are here taken to be exogenously given; those aspects of Goldberg's article that attempt to explain state behavior as well through rational-choice logic are not addressed in this article.

19 I use real-wage indices to indicate changes in workers' earning power. There are a number of different sources of nominal wage data in Egypt, each with a different scope and methodology. On the limitations of this data, see al-'Issawi, Ibrahim, “Labour Force, Employment and Unemployment,” Technical Papers no. 4, Employment Opportunities and Equity in Egypt (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1983), 23, and the explanatory notes to the tables. Real-wage calculations also hinge on the accuracy of the deflator employed. The sources cited here used either the general or the urban consumer price index (CPI), based on a market basket heavily weighted with domestically produced and price-controlled items to calculate the deflator. Since the 1970s, as consumer preferences have turned toward imports and as controlled items have become more difficult to find, the CPI has increasingly understated inflation. No reliable time series on strike frequency was available. The statistics published in the annual Yearbook of Labor Statistics (Geneva: International Labour Office, various years) are supplied by the government and appear to reflect the fact that strikes are illegal and officially frowned upon; no incidents at all are reported between 1960 and 1968, for example, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, as will be shown below, most of the protests have not involved actual work stoppages and hence would not be reflected even in accurate data on strikes. In light of these deficiencies in the official statistics, I relied instead on press accounts and on interviews with leftists active in the labor movement for my information about labor protests. While I believe this was the best available alternative, several limitations to the data thus obtained should be mentioned. Since it is mainly the leftist press that covers labor protest, the data reflect both the capacities of the Left to obtain information and any biases of its individual and group constituents. The problem with capacity is that protests may go undocumented either because they occur without the knowledge of the Left or at times when the leftist press has been shut down, though certain tendencies, particularly Sawt al-'Amal, are determined to recover and publicize the history of such periods. To minimize the risks of bias, I endeavored to gain access to as many different leftist tendencies as possible and to form my own judgments in cases of conflicting information or interpretation.

20 Goldberg (fn. 2); Beinin, and Lockman, (fn. 4), 428–43; Beinin, (fn. 4, 1989), 7881.

21 Mabro, Robert and Radwan, Samir, The Industrialization of Egypt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 135–37; ‘al-Mughni Sa'id, Abd, “Nidal al-'Ummal wa Thawrat 23 Yulyaw,” Al Silsila al-'Ummaliyya no. 30 (Cairo: Institute for Workers’ Education, 1968); Khalid, Muhammad, ‘Abd al-Nasir wal-Haritka al-Niqabiyyah (Nasser and the union movement) (Cairo: Cooperative Institute for Printing and Publishing, 1971), 4454.

22 Cited in Dekmejian, Hrair, Egypt under Nasir: A Study in Political Dynamics (Albany: SUNY Press, 1971), 140.

23 For details on this and the subsequent statements about union leaders presented in this section, see Posusney, Marsha Pripstein, “Workers against the State: Actors, Issues and Outcomes in Egyptian Labor/State Relations” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1991), esp. chaps. 2, 4.

24 Waterbury, John, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 9397, 409; Abdei-Fadil, Mahmoud, The Political Economy of Nasserism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 3334.

25 al-'Ummal, August 1967, pp. 4–5, 18–19; al-Ahali, October 24, 1984. Compensation, usually for meals, uniforms, shift work, or particularly dangerous or demanding jobs, is paid in addition to workers] basic pay and granted at the discretion of management.

26 Hussein, Mahmoud, Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945–70 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 234–37; Posusney (fn. 23), chap. 4; al-'Ummal, March 23, 1968, p. 5.

27 Interview with Sayyid Fa'id, Cairo, July 1988.

28 The rise in real wages shown in 1972 followed an increase in the minimum wage ordered by the government in March of that year. See Starr, Gerald, “Wages in the Egyptian Formal Sector,” Technical Paper no. 5, Employment Opportunities and Equity in Egypt (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1983), 1314.

29 Posusney, (fn. 23), 181.

30 Formally, this implies a critical point at which the slope of the utility function changes.

31 Goldberg's argument should also imply different patterns of protest among public and private sector workers, although how they would differ is unclear. Since private sector workers did not gain the same protections as those in the public sector, job security should have remained their dominant concern and continued to be an incentive for collective action. Yet Goldberg could also argue that collective activity in the private sector would be weaker, precisely because the risks were higher. Which then is the dominant effect? Minimally, his logic should lead him to expect, as in the 1940s, variations in the frequency of private sector protest according to macroeconomic conditions, with interindustry differentials according to specific labor market conditions. Although my data are too imprecise to test the interindustry hypothesis, they do contradict this overall macroeconomic prediction, as I have already shown.

32 Brown, Nathan, Peasant Politics in Modern Egypt: The Struggle vs. the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

33 Beinin, and Lockman, (fn. 4), 96. I am grateful to Nathan Brown for pointing this out to me.

34 Beinin, (fn. 4, 1989), 78.

35 Interview with ‘Abd al-Rahman Khayr, Cairo, October 1987.

36 Hinnebusch, Raymond, Egyptian Politics under Sadat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 71; and Baker, Raymond, Egypt's Uncertain Revolution under Nasser and Sadat (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 165; 'Abd Al-Raziq, Husayn, Misrfi 18 wa 19 Yanayir (Egypt on the 18th and 19th of January) (Cairo: Shuhdi Publishing House, 1985), 8084; MERIP no. 56 (April 1977), 6; see also Shoukri, Ghali, Egypt: Portrait of a President, 1971–81 (London: Zed Books, 1981), 323.

37 Khayr (fn. 35); interview with Barakat, Cairo, October 1987.

38 The trend shown in this table is confirmed by interviews of numerous workers from both the public and the private sectors.

39 Al-Ahali, April 12, 1978. It is possible that more job actions did occur but went unrecorded because of a clampdown on the leftist press after the riots. One leftist told me there were as many wildcats during these years as in the 1974–76 period. He was in prison most of this time, however, and could not provide details, and I was unable to unearth any corroborating evidence.

40 MEED, 1982 and 1983 volumes.

41 The leftist weekly al-Ahali was my primary source of information on the frequency, causes, and nature of labor protest in the 1980s. Hereafter only supplemental references are cited.

42 MEED, volumes for 1984–87.

43 Goldberg, (fn. 2), 157; emphasis added.

44 Al-Tali'a, August 1976, pp. 55, 58. Subsequent references to incidents at this plant dating from the 1960s are from the same source.

45 For details, see Posusney (fn. 23), chap. 4.

46 Barakat (fn. 37). The incident described occurred in the Delta Ironworks Plant; all subsequent information concerning actions at this plant is from the same interview.

47 Fa'id (fn. 27); al-'Ummal, February 3, 1975, p. 1; al-Ahali, October 24, 1984.

48 al-Tali'a, September 1976, p. 55; al-'Amal, no. 141 (February 1975), 10–11; al-Ahram, September 21–22, 1976; al-'Ummal, September 27, 1976, p. 1, October 18, 1976, p. 1; Rose al Yuscf, no. 2520 (September 27, 1976), 4–5; Khayr (fn. 35).

49 For more details, see Posusney, Marsha Pripstein, “Labor as an Obstacle to Privatization: The Case of Egypt, 1974–87,” in Harik, Iliya and Sullivan, Denis, eds., Liberalization and Privatization in the Middle East (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1992).

50 Al-Sha'b, April 27, 1984.

51 MEED, October 19, 1984.

52 Awraq 'Ummaliyya, no. 5 (January 1986), 6–7.

53 Al-Akhbar, February 10, 1986.

54 A compromise agreement was finally negotiated between the Ministry of Labor, company officials, and workers' representatives in October 1987. Al-Ahram al-lqtisadi, October 26, 1987.

55 It follows logically that industries which are experiencing more takeaways than others should see a higher level of protest. This would therefore be an important test of moral economy. However, it would require documenting all instances of both takeaways and protests against them on an industry-by-industry basis; such detailed and accurate data were unavailable to me.

56 Like the 1962 legislation, this was limited to the largest industrial establishments. More over, the minimum wage was set lower for workers below age eighteen.

57 Al-'Ummal, October 16, 1972, and November 6, 1972. Subsequent references to the 1972 incidents are from the same sources.

58 Fa'id (fn. 27). Public sector workers usually receive an annual raise provided that their performance is satisfactory, whereas an exceptional raise (‘ilawa islithnaiyya) is generally granted by government only in response to labor discontent. Unlike incentive pay, bonuses, and compensations, an exceptional raise is considered part of the workers’ basic pay for purposes of calculating future percentage increases. The key demand of the steelworkers was for a nature-of-work compensation (see fn. 25).

59 Al-'Amal, no. 144 (May 1975), 10–14; al-Ahram, March 22–23, 1975.

60 Shoukri (fn. 36); Barakat (fn. 37). Incentive pay is a monthly addition to workers' basic wages. It is based on production but decided by management within a range set by law. In addition to compensations, workers' basic wages can also be supplemented by an annual production reward and periodic special grants, usually given at the start of the school year, on May Day, and on major religious holidays.

61 Al-Ahram, September 21–22, 1976; al-'Ummal, September 27, 1976, p. 1, October 18, 1976, p. 1; Rose al-Yusef, no. 2520 (September 27, 1976), 4–5; Khayr (fn. 35).

62 Khalid, Muhammad, al-Harika al-Niqabiyya bayn al-madi wal-mustaqbal (The union movement between past and present) (Cairo: Institute of the Cooperative House for Printing and Publishing, 1975), 130–31; interviews with Khayr (fn. 35) and Abd al-'Aziz Higazi, Cairo, March 1988.

63 Al-'Amal, no. 144 (May 1975), 10–14; al-Ahram, March 22–23, 1975; Shoukri (fn. 36), 240–41.

64 Interviews with M. Mutawalli al-Sha'rawi, March 1988, Kafr al-Dawwai and M. Gamal Imam, Cairo, October 1987; Tomiche, Fernand J., Syndicalisme et certains aspects du travail en Republique Arabe Unie (Egypte), 1900–1967 (Trade unionism and certain aspects of work in the United Arab Republic) (Paris: G-P Maisonneuve et Larose, 1974), 80. All subsequent references to this incident are based on the same sources.

65 Sawt al-'Amai 5 (August 1986), 27–34.

66 al-Din, Ahmad Sharaf, Barakat, Sabir, and al-Mirghani, Ilhami, “Kifah ‘ummal al-sikka al-hadid fi thamanin ‘am, 1906–1986,” Sawt al-'Amil Notebooks no. 1 (1986). The leagues are informal rivais to the official trade union movement, which originated in the 1950s, when civil service workers were not permitted to unionize.

67 MEED, October 19, 1984.

68 Al-Ahram al-lqtisadi, October 26, 1987.

69 Barakat (fn. 37).

70 al-Din, Sharaf, Barakat, , and al-Mirghani, (fn. 66), 2830; emphasis added.

71 Sawt al-'Amal 3 (October 1985), 5; for an explanation of nature-of-work compensation, see fn. 25.

72 Al-'Ummal, March 23, 1968.

73 Fa'id (fn. 27).

74 Roseal-Yusrf (March 17, 1986), 5.

75 Shoukri, (fn. 36), 240–41; Khayr (fn. 35).

76 Barakat (fn. 37).

77 Al-'Ummal, June 23, 1975.

78 Al-Ahram, September 21–22, 1976; al-'Ummal, September 27 and October 18, 1976; Rose al-Yusef, no. 2520 (September 27, 1976), 4–5.

79 For details, see Posusney (fn. 23), chap. 5.

80 Sawt al-'Amal 3 (October 1985), 5.

81 MEED, October 19, 1984.

82 Al-Akhbar, February 10, 1984.

83 Sawt al-'Amal 5 (August 1986), 27–34.

84 See also al-Akhbar and Reuters from July 9, 1986.

85 In 1982 workers at the Nasr Fertilizer Plant in Suez occupied one of the plant's administration buildings in support of the Talkha workers.

86 Scott (fn. 6) suggested much the same for peasants in his discussion of agrarian rebellions (p. 4). See also idem, Weapons of the Weak Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 242–47, 320–26.

* Funding for this research was provided by the Social Science Research Council, Ful bright-Hays, and the American Research Center in Egypt. I am grateful to Joel Beinin, Ellis Goldberg, Zachary Lockman, and especially Peter Swenson for extremely helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. I would also like to acknowledge valuable discussions of rationality with Ragui Assaad and Nancy Brooks.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed