Dina Makram-Ebeid: “Old people are not revolutionaries”: Labor struggles and the politics of value and stability (ʾistiqrār) in a factory occupation in Egypt

On 11 February 2011 I stood in Tahrir Square surrounded by millions celebrating the toppling of Mubarak following eighteen solid days of battle. Around me were people from all walks of life: Saʿidis (“Southerners”) who came all the way from villages in the south, street children turned rebels, family members of martyrs who were killed during the eighteen days, leftist feminist women, members from the Muslim Brotherhood—you name it. In between the shoving of the crowd and the incipient boredom with the monotony of the celebrations and the exuberating vibes, the chants were pretty standard: “down down with Mubarak,” “the people have toppled the regime,” and, from the more religious, “God has toppled the regime.”

I then suddenly noticed to my right a circle of young men, perhaps twenty of them. They held each other by the arms and screamed their hearts out, “I’ll get married, I’ll get married, I’ll get married,” as they turned in circles. Their chant took me by surprise. If one had spent hours writing papers to explain how Mubarak’s ouster brought the intimate and the political together, that chant had basically nailed it in no time.

The chant also highlighted how young people interpreted the uprising in their own way. Local and Western media overplayed young people’s persona as “the revolutionaries of Tahrir,” at times to infantilize the movement. But it is not incorrect that they often led the mobilization in this and other events to follow. Not only that, but their repertoire of resistance strategies and tactics was different from that of older generations.

The Egyptian and Arab uprisings in general were often viewed from a demographic and generational dimension, leading commentators to argue that the uprisings were largely against patriarchy and the patriarchal family. While this is partially true in that the struggles were largely against father figures in different institutions, including Mubarak himself who addressed the people as “his children,” we still know very little about how these generational struggles relate to class politics of the movements and most importantly to the creation and transformation of values that give meaning to people’s lives and to community viability.

Inspired by the monthlong factory occupation that took place in December 2013 at Egypt’s oldest and largest state-owned fully integrated steel plant, the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISCO), I map out how generational discourses about politics are intertwined with contestations of class between older, organized, stable workers who enjoy middle-class privileges and younger workers who experience greater precarity in their lives.

The first day I went to the occupation in early December 2013, young workers were welding the gates of the plant to “prevent old workers from escaping the occupation.” As they welded some of my friends said they were doing so because “old people are not revolutionaries.” I wanted to then understand why old people are not revolutionaries, especially since the following day people like ʿamm Farrag, a crane operator in the mill I conducted most of my first fieldwork in, timidly confessed to me that he was among those who jumped the fence because he was too old to stay and had different obligations.1

I place the politics of the occupation within the long-term fieldwork I did in Egypt since the eve of the revolution between 2008 and 2010 and again following its start from August 2013 to June 2014. Added to this is material from my participation in a personal capacity in the revolution since 2011.2

The tendency in the writing about the revolution has also been to focus on the centers, on Tahrir, to cover the major social movements that emerged among middle-class youth or from the so-called “downtown scene.” What I attempt to do here is write a story of resistance from the fringes, from a place far away from Tahrir and one that only caught up with the collective actions three years into the revolution—an attempt that others began to do in writing about the quieter voices, the voices of the underclass, and in the very praise of the margin. My contention is that the periphery as a place of theorization offers a nuanced read of the possibilities of revolutionary politics and its limits. From the factory in Helwan, an industrial area in the very south of Cairo, I examine how at times of change, the crux of class politics and what I call politics of value become intelligible to a broader audience and force us to understand the struggle in different terms.

The contestations over values at work show the persistent attempts by the young precariat workers to use this revolutionary moment to “free their soul” (Berardi 2009). This, according to Bifo, includes freeing their “cognition, affects, emotions, aesthetic textures and experiences at work” from the alienation of work (Berardi 2009) and creating alternative values. Putting contestation of values at the heart of analysis of class politics makes the latter less static, materialist, and at times teleological.

I shift the emphasis here from the alienation of the soul at work to document the opening of what Bifo calls “happy singularisations” and a refusal and negation of Politics, namely state politics, which is mostly based on totalitarianism (Berardi 2009: 9). By looking at the nuanced and the everyday, I want to bring forward a story of workers’ resistance to the commodification of their labor and their reinterpretation of the value of their immaterial labor to shape their struggle.

Into the factory
EISCO was built under Nasser in the 1950s and has since been considered a symbol of a strong postcolonial state. Various regimes that followed Nasser built on this “social capital,” which is partially why the 13,000-strong enterprise was left to operate despite accumulating debt and was neither privatized nor liquidated like many other public enterprises in Egypt.

In fact only a few months prior to the occupation, then–President Mohamed Morsi gave his May Day speech from EISCO while standing behind a freshly painted green rolling mill. With the change of regime, the new Prime Minister Mihlib under General Sisi also visited the plant, promising to protect the public sector. The political value of EISCO remained equal to or more important than its financial status.


Front page of Al-Ahram: “The state will not let go of the public sector:
Mihlib approves a plan to revive the iron and steel industry and repay workers their dues”
with a photo of Mihlibat EISCO. (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)

EISCO was also home to the largest and most militant collective actions in Egypt’s postcolonial history when workers went on strike twice in 1989. The militancy of workers and the violence with which state security forces intervened, killing one worker and detaining hundreds, made managers dread a repeat of 1989. The often overlooked steel workers’ resistance had thus forced the state to maintain its support of EISCO.


EISCO’s company town, which houses about 3,000 households
of workers and engineers (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)

An “apolitical occupation”
When, in late November 2013, some of my friends at EISCO called to say they started a sit-in, I didn’t realize that it would turn out to be the largest collective action in the plant’s history since 1989. Their factory occupation lasted around a month and was prompted by management withholding the workers’ annual bonus, the largest sum of money they receive per year. EISCO workers plan their major life events on the assumption of using the bonus to repay everything at the end of the year. So, the indebted workers then stormed the head of industrial relations department in protest.

Within a few days of protesting, workers’ demands became more elaborate. Their first was “they wanted to work.” The plant had experienced a coal shortage for over a year, and workers feared this was leading to a gradual closure of the plant. They wanted coal and they wanted to work. More demands were added to the list as the protest developed and eventually included ousting the corrupt union and the CEO. Friends at the Mosireen film collective documented in a short film about the occupation how workers developed their demands and resistance strategies.

The occupation was led by young workers who joined the plant since 2007 on fixed-term and daily-waged basis and whose contracts were made permanent in 2010 in a last attempt by Mubarak to buy support for his ruling party in parliamentary elections. They were mostly sons and relatives of older permanent workers, since the plant gave priority in employment to workers’ children. The young workers also made up about 2,300 of the 13,000 labor force of EISCO. A large group of them had been regular Tahrir-goers and saw themselves bringing Tahrir home.

Most importantly, their recruitment came after a sixteen-year hiring freeze between 1991 and 2006 in the entire public sector of Egypt—an attempt to slim down the sector, which in turn sharpened the generational gap between younger and older workers. So while older workers were between 50 and 60 years old, the young ones were at most 30. This institutionalized generational divide in the public sector has been largely overlooked in the analysis of the revolution.

Young workers organized most of the occupation horizontally, without a clear leadership. I wouldn’t say they were leaderless, but I would maybe use the accurate term my friend Alia Mossallam uses about Egyptian protests since the revolution, which is “leaderful” (see Mossallam quoted in Chalcraft 2012). The suspicion of representation was also widespread. The plant’s union was considered corrupt, and members were generally seen as spokespeople for the management, with the exception of a couple of union members who joined workers in their personal capacity.

Workers insisted on negotiating directly with the government when they protested by the cabinet office downtown. When one of the two union leaders rallied some young workers around him and met with government representative behind closed doors, he was considered a traitor by the rest and was given a due welcome by the occupiers. The overt appreciation of equality was a newfound practice.

At night when some returned home, they organized over a closed Facebook group with about 480 workers and deliberated until 2 a.m. on what strategies to adopt in different days. Twice, they hired buses that took them to downtown Cairo to protest by the metallurgical holding company and the cabinet. Some older workers had participated in all these events, but they remained a minority compared to the majority of young ones.


In the bus on the way to the cabinet, a young worker holds a sign:
“16 months or nothing. We won’t accept anything less.” (Photo: Dina Makram-Ebeid)

Finally, in direct response to the prevalent counterrevolutionary state and capital discourse that suggested that all protests are disruptive and emanate from selfish interests that are fiʾawiyya (factionalist) or the accusations that the protesters were “politically motivated” by being mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the workers chanted “walāsiyāsiya, walā fiʾawiyya, maṭālibnā ʿummāliyya” (“neither political nor factional, our demands are those of labor”). And this was the first so-called apolitical occupation I had taken part in.

Precarity: A temporal experience
Throughout the occupation, young people complained that the older ones would not take risks, did not participate enough in the daily activities of the occupation, and often put their individual interests over the mutual good. They shared anecdotes about older workers jumping the fences and fleeing the occupation when the younger workers locked the plant gates to keep as many in. They also reminded their interlocutors that the older ones sold out and settled to a final offer by the government that was way less than what they wanted. When, a few months later, older workers organized a protest against the pension cuts, young workers refused to participate. Their argument was crudely “they didn’t support us in our demands, we don’t support them in theirs.”

Young workers explained older ones’ attitudes by the fact that they had at most ten to fifteen more years to go in the plant, whereas the plant held the future of young workers, who had at least thirty more years to go. Although holders of permanent contracts, their precarity was ingrained in time and space. Younger workers’ lives were in the future; older ones’ were behind them.

Young workers’ memories of precariousness, toiling with no contracts or security for years before finally securing a permanent job at EISCO, were still vivid. Their violent labor history was shaped by constantly moving around the different governorates of Egypt, and sometimes abroad, persistently chasing the next job. This history was now overwhelmingly shaped by uncertainties about a future that looks increasingly like the past. For many, it felt like they were at an impasse clinging to desires for a future that is far-fetched, producing what Berlant (2011) calls a “cruel optimism.”

This longer-term experience is strikingly different from that of older permanent workers, many of whom got their jobs upon graduation from industrial schools, sometimes being forced by law take to up jobs in the public sector. Many had worked in the same workplace, or the same shop floor, for twenty or thirty years. With the stability of their contracts, they often acquired housing and land property that gave them long-term security. In my work on the period prior to the revolution (Makram-Ebeid 2012), I argued that stable work contracts at EISCO act as a potential property that gives workers the opportunity to become middle class, a potential that some build upon successfully while others don’t. The local distinction between Wazīfa and Shughūl—the first denoting white-collar employment and blue-collar work in the public sector, the second implying just work—confirms that those who are in the former category are often seen as very different from the latter.

With the plant making persistent losses over the past years and the shadow of closure looming, younger workers had little control over their lives. After all, being precariat, as Butler puts it, is recognizable in “the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other” (2009: 14-15). The insecure life chances and the ability to sense precarity as an affective condition (Allison 2013) one that engenders conflicting loyalties in “moral affects” (Narotzky 2004), here primarily about their relation to older workers, became increasingly dominant. While the young workers I cover here do not fall into the category of informal sector workers or daily workers who experience violently insecure life conditions, and whom I write about elsewhere (Makram-Ebeid, forthcoming), the workers here experienced great precarity and violence as they found themselves at the risk of falling out of that middle class they fought hard for, for so long.

The politics of ʾIstiqrār (“stability”)
In Helwan, like most of Egypt, ʾistiqrār meant access to both tenured employment and the means to reproduce the conditions of “a good life” in the context of the family, including through marriage. Prior to the revolution, workers at EISCO described their work as a form of ʾistiqrār (“stability”). ʾIstiqrār was a social value that gave workers respect in their communities and social meaning to their work.

As the revolution unfolded, ʾistiqrār was evoked repeatedly, often in reference to Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak in turn adopted a discourse of ʾistiqrār as a governing technology. Over the years he reminded the Egyptian people that ʾistiqrār was his legacy both domestically and internationally, using it as a pretext for repressive policies and for limiting the democratic field. In February 2011, in a last-ditch effort to hold onto power, Mubarak threatened the Egyptian people with a choice between him or ʾistiqrāror (“chaos”).


Al Akhbar (13 October 1981): “Yes to ʾIstiqrār…Yes to democracy and prosperity:
The people announce their support for Mubarak as president to continue Sadat’s legacy”
(Photo courtesy of Cairodar.com)

ʾIstiqrār was then perpetuated as a counterrevolutionary discourse by those in power since Mubarak’s ousting. It became tied to a state and capital imperative about the importance of ʿawdat ʿagalit al-ʾintāg (“the return of the production wheel”) and by extension the end of protests. The revolution has been framed as posing a threat to ʾistiqrār.

Through what I termed a “politics of ʾIstiqrār,” my earlier research showed how, prior to the revolution, managers at this state-owned steel plant manipulated the meaning and value that workers ascribed to their work and life in a way that turned permanent work contracts into a potential form of property right that workers were to bequeath to their children and a new claim for class exclusions. The immaterial labor of expanding networks and relations was thus made into a resource that is part of calculations regulating labor regimes that turn this politics into norm. ʾIstiqrār was turned from a social value into a productivist and calculative one, one that enables some workers to access state resources and dispossesses many others who could not set foot in the plant.

During the recent occupation, workers have reinterpreted the multiple meanings of ʾistiqrār. In the monthlong collective action, there were no overt references to wanting ʾistiqrār in neither the chants nor everyday deliberations, perhaps because workers were aware of its connection to antilabor counterrevolutionary narratives. ʾIstiqrār, however, informed the decision of many to not participate in the occupation, especially engineers and older workers, who had joined the neoliberal trope that believed the only way to resist is to work.

Young workers’ most recent negotiation of ʾistiqrār moved away from the calculative nature of the politics instated by Mubarak and brought to the very open the essences of the social values they worked for. In other words, they sought to recreate “the value [they] regard as essential to community viability” (Munn 1986: 3), or as Graeber (2001: 145) building on Turner (1984) formulates it, they wanted to establish the value that reflects their own actions and is understood “as the importance of action.”

In a meeting of a workers’ organization I was privy to after the occupation, young workers discussed their inability to keep raising demands, such as the priority of employment being given only to children of workers. Mohamed, who was present in the meeting, said this was “a racist demand.” Although beneficiaries of ʾistiqrār politics themselves, wherein hiring workers’ children is core to the transformation of immaterial labor into labor calculation regimes, they were, at least partially, still challenging these politics that allows the state to control how value is created in community. The good life that stability brought now had to include elements of equality and not just individual well-being. This was new.

Workers did not refuse ʾistiqrār politics altogether. Throughout the occupation, they declined to go on a full strike out of fear of a heavy-handed state security intervention and also in attempt to keep work stoppage as a weapon of last resort. But many had also genuinely believed in the antilabor productivist rational that was instated with the ʾistiqrār of Mubarak and used in further propaganda by the counterrevolutionary regimes since.

Young workers did not challenge wholly the productivist regime that evaluates the value of one’s life by their ability to work. Yet the occupation was an important moment to question some of the politics of ʾistiqrār. This allowed new values like egalitarianism to emerge and critique ʾistiqrār in the discursive deployment of a generational discourse about militancy. Like the protestors of Occupy Wall Street, young, indebted, and having played by the rules of the game, they were failed by the system and attempted to question it (Graeber 2013). The differences in values informed the growing class divide between the stable workers and the precarious ones.

Concluding remarks
Generational politics are very important to revolutionary politics in Egypt. Membership in different generations tends to engender different expectations about the struggles, as well as fears, that shape people’s choices. Various analyses have looked at the difference between “the youth” and older generations to highlight how the revolution was waged mostly by young people against patriarchy using new technologies privy to them. But there is remarkably little attention to what the institutionalization of generational divides by the state has meant to class politics and the politics of value creation in Egypt.

The very special moment of the factory occupation reveals how the lines of the generational struggle coincide with class lines between older workers with stable employment who consider their contracts a form of private property that is bequeathable and younger ones who face a precarious future, had participated in or were inspired by Tahrir, and wanted to bring Tahrir home. I have suggested that the metanarrative around ʾistiqrār continued conditioning workers to what Bifo calls a “politics of totalitarianism” attached to the state. Yet these moments of rebellion have also provided opportunities for workers to question the values that inform their lives, which were otherwise previously commodified in the process of surplus generation and securing hegemony. This contestation of value was particularly clear in the newfound appreciation of egalitarianism, which makes them different from the fence-jumping, middle-class workers. Anthropologists tend to ignore these “happy singularisations” (Berardi 2009: 7) or to present them with a lot of scepticism. I hope to have showed in this blog entry that a critical ethnography of resistance does not have to be an ethnography of cynicism.

Dina Makram-Ebeid is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. She writes on work, labor, and social movements with particular interest in Egypt, where she conducted long-term fieldwork. She is also active on issues related to social justice in Egypt.

1. A large number of workers I write about in this blog have been dismissed from work, face jail sentences, or have been sent to distant sites of the plant in various governorates because of their political participation in the occupation. Combining the temporality of academic writing and that of the struggle has been persistently difficult. I am grateful for Mao Mollona, Don Kalb, and the FocaalBlog for enabling a space to write something timely and accessible.

2. Let me forewarn the reader that I do not address whether we should consider the events since January 2011 an uprising, revolt, revolution, or even “refolution,” to quote Bayat (2013). These events are still unfolding, and it is best to adopt the language my informants use to refer to them. I will therefore use revolution to describe the events since 2011.

Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bayat, Asef. 2013. Revolution in bad times. New Left Review 80.

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2009. The soul at work: From alienation to autonomy. Trans. Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia. Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e).

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of war: When is life grievable? New York: Verso.

Chalcraft, John. 2012. Horizontalism in the Egyptian revolutionary process. Middle East Report  262.

Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Graeber, David. 2013. The democracy project: A history, a crisis, a movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Narotzky, Susana. 2004. The political economy of affects: Community, friendship and family in the organisation of the Spanish economic region. In Angela Procoli, ed., Workers and the narratives of survival in Europe: The management of precariousness at the end of twentieth century, pp. 57–82. New York: State University of New York Press.

Makram-Ebeid, Dina. 2012. Manufacturing stability: Everyday politics of work in an industrial steel town in Helwan, Egypt. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Makram-Ebeid, Dina. Forthcoming. Labor struggles and the quest for permanent employment in revolutionary Egypt. In Nicholas Hopkins, ed., The political economy of the new Egyptian republic. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Munn, Nancy D. 1986. The fame of Gawa: A symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim society. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Turner, Terence. 1984. Value, production and exploitation in non-capitalist societies. Unpublished essay based on a paper presented at the AAA 82nd Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado.

Cite as: Makram-Ebeid, Dina. 2014. “‘Old people are not revolutionaries’: Labor struggles and the politics of value and stability (ʾistiqrār) in a factory occupation in Egypt,” FocaalBlog, November 14, www.focaalblog.com/2014/11/14/dina-makram-ebeid-labor-struggles-and-the-politics-of-value-and-stability-in-a-factory-occupation-in-egypt.