For millions of people worldwide who watched the uprising against Mubarak unfold in Tahrir Square on television and through social media, it is probably the mass occupation of public squares which is the form of collective action most associated with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Yet the five years or so before the downfall of Mubarak also witnessed an equally important change in workers’ repertoire of collective action: namely, the rediscovery of the strike. This chapter argues the shift in workers’ tactics was a reflection of deeper changes in the relationship between the state, capital and labour since the mid–1970s, and had profound consequences both for the Mubarak regime and its opponents. The pivot of these changes was Anwar Sadat’s turn from the Soviet Union to the USA, which was in turn prompted by the crisis of the Nasserist experiment in import–substitution industrialization. Sadat’s policy of ‘opening’ (infitah) began a long–drawn–out process through which the Egyptian ruling class attempted to withdraw from its side of the Nasserist ‘social contract’ without triggering a major explosion of protest. By the late 1980s economic stagnation and the looming prospect of a default on loan repayments to the USA opened a period of much more aggressive liberalization and the extension of neo–liberal policies to large areas of the economy. In the Nasserist era, Egyptian workers were asked to forgo the right to strike in return for a commitment from the state to provide jobs, housing, education and healthcare through the public sector. In the period of neo–liberal reforms the state’s role in the redistribution of wealth downwards was dramatically reduced, but its repressive functions increased.
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