Egypt is one of the most important countries in the world, geopolitically speaking. With a history spanning some 7,000 years, it is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, sitting at the point at which Africa meets the Middle East, across the Mediterranean from Europe. Once home to its own empire, it became a prized possession in the imperial designs of other civilizations, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantine to the Islamic and Ottoman Empires, and subsequently the French, British and Americans. For any and every empire that has sought to exert control over the Middle East, Asia or Africa, control over Egypt has been a pre-requisite. Its strategic location has only become more important with each subsequent empire.
For the British to control India – their prized imperial possession – dominance over Egypt was a necessity. With the construction of the Suez Canal, Europe became increasingly dependent upon Egypt as a transport route for trade, energy and warfare, making Europe’s domination of the world increasingly dependent upon their domination of Egypt, particularly for the French and British. For the modern American Empire, which designates all of planet Earth as being under its hegemony, Egypt remains one of the most important countries over which to exert influence: with its strategic location to some of the world’s most prized energy resources, to the maintenance of the Canal route for the benefit of transport and trade – not least of all for America’s European allies – and due to Egypt’s ability to exert influence across Africa, the Middle East, the Arab/Muslim world as a whole, and indeed, across the so-called ‘Third World’ as a whole.
In the past two and half years, Egypt has been experiencing an unprecedented revolutionary struggle. Egypt’s Revolution represents a popular uprising against a domestic dictatorship, the denial of liberties and freedoms, the repression of workers and dissidents, against a global socio-political and economic system (which we commonly refer to as ‘neoliberalism’), and against the American Empire and its many institutional manifestations. Any revolution within Egypt is inevitably a revolution against the American Empire. An uprising – not only against a long-time dictator and his authoritarian imitators who followed – but against the most powerful empire the world has ever known is a powerful symbol to the rest of the world, most of which has known the terror of living under domestic tyranny, and the reality of living under America’s global hegemony.
A good example can go a long way.
This series examines some of Egypt’s recent history as it relates to Empire, and as it has built up to Egypt’s unfinished Revolution.
Egypt and the State-Capitalist Imperial Order
The development of the Egyptian working class, labour activism and nationalism was intimately tied to the expansion of Western imperial expansion and domination over Egypt and much of the rest of the world. In the early 19th century, Egypt was increasingly an autonomous state under the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Muhammad Ali who initiated a process of state-sponsored industrialization. In 1819, his regime constructed European-style factories for military production, agricultural processing and textiles. By the early 1830s, there were 30 cotton mills on operation, employing roughly 30,000 labourers, who were largely recruited from among the landless peasants.
Egypt’s attempt to industrialize followed the examples set by Britain and other European powers – as well as the United States – by imposing protective measures, tariffs on foreign goods and other subsidies for domestic industry in order to allow the country to compete against the heavily protected industries of the European and American economies. Egypt was not the only major country to pursue such a strategy, as India and Paraguay also attempted major state-led industrialization programs. In 1800, Egypt’s GNP was around that of France, higher than both Eastern Europe and Japan, and Paraguay also had comparable economic weight. They were attempting to industrialize, wrote Jean Batou, “in order to avoid dependency and underdevelopment.”
Resistance to these industrialization projects was strong on the part of Britain and other industrial Western powers, which wanted these countries to be in subservient positions to their own. The Europeans – and especially Britain – pressured these countries to “open up” their economies to “free trade” competition with the heavily-protected industrial goods of the West. The result, of course, was that they could not compete on an even basis, and European industrial goods gained the major advantage, forcing these countries to focus on raw goods for export to the rich nations.
In Egypt, a great deal of resistance was also expressed by the new working class, and in the 1830s, the state-led industrialization programs began to decline. Following the death of Muhammad Ali in 1849, few of his industrial programs remained, “and Egypt was well on its way to full integration into a European-dominated world market as supplier of a single raw material, cotton.” If Egypt had succeeded in its industrialization programs, some have suggested, “it might have shared with Japan [or the United States] the distinction of achieving autonomous capitalist development and preserving its independence.”
In the latter half of the 19th century, Egypt made an attempt at increasing its industrial potential, though this time relying primarily upon foreign capital from European powers. The most important example of this was with the foreign financing that led to the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, which “resulted in the development of the export sector of the economy and its necessary infrastructure,” and in turn, the development of a permanent working class.
Great Britain was the first major power to undergo an industrial revolution, with other European empires and the United States soon to follow. Countries that underwent industrialization did so with heavy state involvement in the form of subsidies and protective tariffs and trade measures, allowing domestic industries and goods to gain a competitive advantage over those of other nations around the world. The global trading system – as an outgrowth of the development of the modern state-capitalist system – became a central facet in the construction and expansion of empire.
The imperial powers – predominantly in the North Atlantic region, the United States and Western Europe, with the later addition of Japan – had to maintain their own influence over the world by ensuring that the rest of the world did not follow their examples of industrialization, and thus, be able to compete with them for regional and global influence. Thus, industrialization – or ‘development’ – in the ‘core’ countries necessarily required de -industrialization – or underdevelopment – in the rest of the world, the global imperial ‘periphery.’
The period between 1770 and 1870 marked “the first phase of the underdevelopment process” for many countries and regions in the world. In 1770, “the present Third World probably had a real income and an industrial product per capita comparable to those of the rest of the world.” Multiple countries attempted state-led and protected industrialization processes in the early nineteenth century – notably Egypt and Paraguay, though lesser efforts at state-led industrialization were made in what are modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Brazil, with more isolated and less state-involved efforts in Mexico and Colombia. By 1870, however, the gap had widened significantly between the industrial powers (Western Europe, North America and Japan), which exported manufactured goods, and the rest of the world, which largely focused on exporting commodities needed for industry.
The “specialization” of economies in the Global South – the ‘Third World’ – made them dependent upon the export of raw materials to the rich, powerful countries, and thus, kept them in a subservient position within the global order. This has been referred to as the “Great Divergence” between the powerful countries and the rest of the world, where the powerful countries industrialized themselves and de-industrialized others. In short, the powerful countries became – and remained – powerful by virtue of their ability to undermine and disempower the rest of the world, pushing them away from independence and autonomy into a position of dependence on the ‘core’ economies.
In 1870, roughly 70% of Egypt’s exports were cotton, and by 1910-14, this had risen to 93%. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, at which point the country was essentially ruled over by Lord Cromer, “a devout believer” in the ‘free market’ (for every country except Britain). Cromer’s rule of Egypt (1883-1907) coincided with many of the “formative” years for the Egyptian working class, as labour became increasingly exploited in sectors dominated by European capital. Out of a total population of 11 million, Egypt had approximately 350,000 male workers in the 1907 census, with 100,000 in transport and 150,000 in commerce. Thus, by the early 20th century, “Egypt had a modern working class concentrated in its two largest cities and ready to make itself heard.”
Anarchism and a Radical Working Class in Egypt
Added to the increased domestic formation of a working class, a large presence of foreign workers was brought into Egypt to provide the necessary skills for building the country’s infrastructure. Waves of immigrant workers came from Europe, notably Italy and Greece. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many of these migrant workers brought with them to Egypt the emerging ideologies and philosophies of resistance and revolution which were spreading among the European working classes, notably socialism and anarchism. Italian workers began forming anarchist groups within Egypt, and others soon followed. Egypt’s anarchists quickly established close connections with anarchists in Greece and Turkey, and were developing connections with groups in Tunis, Palestine and Lebanon.
From the 1880s onward, anarchist groups within Egypt – still primarily European in membership – were forming educational groups and starting publications around the country. As the domestic Egyptian labour movement grew, so too did the influence of anarchists, notably anarcho-syndicalists. While still largely Italian in makeup, the anarchist community in Egypt became increasingly multi-ethnic, with the increased presence of Greeks, Jews, Germans, and several Eastern European nationalities. Arab Egyptians became increasingly involved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically within the working class, and notably among the cigarette workers, printers and service employees.
The first major strike in Egypt took place in 1899 among the Cairo cigarette rollers. More strike activity took place in the following years, incorporating both foreign and domestic workers within the country. The primary issues for workers were the long hours, low wages, minimal benefits and oppressive management. Since almost all of Egypt’s large employers were foreign, and the country was under foreign (British) occupation since 1882 (to 1922), “the struggle of Egyptian workers for economic gains converged with the nationalist movement seeking to end British rule.” Thus, resistance to domestic tyranny within Egypt inevitably required resistance to imperial hegemony over Egypt by outside powers.
Anarchists in Egypt created the Free Popular University (UPL) in Alexandria in 1901, “with the aim of providing free evening education to the popular classes… and drew widespread support from across the full range of Alexandrian society.” Classes were given on subjects from the humanities to the sciences, to discussing workers’ associations and women in society, with discussions given in a number of different languages, including Italian, French, and Arabic. As anarcho-syndicalists began building ties with the indigenous Egyptian workers, international (or ‘mixed’) unions were formed between domestic and foreign migrant workers in Egypt, which helped contribute to the 1899 cigarette rollers strike, among other actions.
During World War I, Britain decided that Egypt was now a ‘protectorate,’ and over the course of the war (1914-18), the British “oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers.” In 1919, there was a popular uprising against the British – called the 1919 Revolution – in which nationalists called for the British to leave Egypt and for independence. Workers participated in the form of strikes, demonstrations and clashes with police. Anarcho-syndicalists also played a part in supporting the protests and strikes of the 1919 Revolution.
Ultimately, the British agreed to grant Egypt ‘formal’ independence by 1922, but in the decade and a half that followed World War I, the major political issues revolved around the negotiation of a treaty with Britain and the establishment of a parliamentary regime. The Wafd party, founded in 1918, would quickly become the “embodiment of the Egyptian national movement,” holding a great deal of popular support, winning all of the elections until 1952, but it was largely used as a party through which to co-opt the more radical labour and anti-imperialist elements within Egyptian society. The Wafd encouraged union organization, but only under its umbrella, not independently. When a treaty with Britain was reached in 1936, the Wafd began to lose some of its influence as new political organizations formed, such as the precursor to the Muslim Brotherhood. Labour struggled for more rights, seeking to pass legislation that would, among other things, allow for independent unions. World War II, however, came with the imposition of martial law, but also with increased industrial development within Egypt, and thus, a growing working class.
Between the end of the war and 1952, Egypt “saw the appearance of an active left inside and outside the workers’ movement, a new political scene characterized by new mass organizations and issues, and renewed nationalist struggle including guerrilla action against British forces.” In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser and the ‘Free Officers’ orchestrated a bloodless coup, abolished the monarchy and the parliament and installed a nationalist military government under the leadership of Nasser. The coup quickly resulted in the repression of the militant labour movement, bringing workers under the control of the government.
The development and evolution of Egypt’s working class has been intimately tied to the development and evolution of Egypt’s relations with the Western imperial powers and their imposition of a global state-capitalist order. The struggle of workers continued over the following decades, providing a major impetus behind the conditions that led to the start of Egypt’s unfinished Revolution in 2011, where the conditions of workers remain tied to the imperial imposition of a state-capitalist order.
In the next part of this series, I examine the relationship between Arab Nationalism – as propagated by Nasser – and the American Empire’s efforts to exert its influence over the Middle East and much of the rest of the world.
Joel Benin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class,” MERIP Reports (No. 94, February 1981), page 14.
 Jean Batou, “Nineteenth-Century Attempted Escapes from the Periphery: The Cases of Egypt and Paraguay,” Review – Fernand Braudel Center (Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer 1993), pages 279-280, 291-292, 294-295.
 Jeffrey G. Williamson, “Globalization and the Great Divergence: terms of trade booms, volatility and the poor periphery, 1782-1913,” European Review of Economic History (Vol. 12, 2008), pages 357, 379.
 Anthony Gorman, “Diverse in Race, Religion and Nationality… But United in Aspirations of Civil Progress: The Anarchist Movement in Egypt 1860-1940,” in Steve Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism and Social Revolution (Boston, Brill, 2010), pages 3-6.