Hegemonic Breakdown and Worker Protest in Egypt and the Gulf
Department of Government London School of Economics and Political Science London, United Kingdom
In Egypt, as elsewhere, worker protest has not stemmed simply from the objective contradictions of capitalism as some have argued (Abbas 1967; Beinin and Lockman 1987; Beinin 1989). Egypt's labour movements have owed much to nationalism, the state, modes of leadership, non-proletarian groups, moral economy, and gender (Alexander 2007; Chalcraft 2001, 2004; Goldberg 1986, 1992, 1996; Lockman 1994; Posusney 1993; Vatter 1994). But whereas historians continue to argue over the relative importance of class vis-à-vis other factors, and social movements theorists debate the relative importance of political opportunity, resource mobilization, and cultural framing, one useful approach aims to deploy concepts that transcend these competing categories. Antonio Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and alternate hegemony seem ideally suited to this approach as they point towards political and cultural processes without ignoring economic structures. The idea of hegemony refers to how consent is won for either dominant or oppositional political projects via the articulation of diverse material interests and cultural materials in the construction of a collective subject capable of making history. This paper, based on fieldwork (in the UAE, Kuwait, and Egypt), interviews with key officials, members of relevant NGOs, migrant and non-migrant workers, and secondary and primary research in Arabic and English, argues that studying the moments when hegemonic consent breaks down can shed useful light on the unprecedented mass labour protests in these countries since 2004. The argument is that key hegemonic components of labour regimes in the Gulf and Egypt have been significantly eroded in the last few years. In Egypt, the Nasserist notion of social protection and national development in return for productive labour is in ruins amid extensive privatization of formerly public sector firms and the accompanying stripping away of social protections and ideas about inward-oriented national development. In the Gulf, rising costs and falling wages have struck a major blow against workers, ability to provide for families back home. In both cases, elements of a pre-existing hegemony have broken down and this attrition has played a major role in propelling protest.