The embryonic proletariat of the towns is in a comparatively privileged position. In capitalist countries, the working class has nothing to lose…. In the colonial countries the working class has everything to lose.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Such are the workers of the Middle East. Considering their lot, one can hardly expect them to act as a unified political force. Their most direct and immediate competition is with each other.
—Manfred Halpern, The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa

Most observers of the contemporary Middle East have regarded the working class in that region as a weak and fragmented social force, undeserving of serious attention or systematic analysis. Traditional Orientalism still reigns as a dominant perspective and approach to the region, more than incidentally encouraged by official and corporate sponsorship for studies of elites, tribes, ethnic groups and, especially, Islam.

Even students on the left, still influenced by the injunctions of Fanon and others, tend to view the Middle East working class as incapable of revolutionary action, and therefore uninteresting as an object of political analysis. The left has preferred to focus on national liberation movements, “radical” regimes, and peasant movements as agents of change. Such has been the heritage of the era marked by the struggles of China, Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam.

Actual developments have exposed the shortsightedness of these judgements. In recent years the working class has grown considerably in size and organization, and has emerged as a key factor in society throughout the region. A general strike in Tunisia in February 1978 virtually shut down that country. Only the bloody intervention of the Tunisian army enabled the regime of Habib Bourguiba to survive accompanying street protests by tens of thousands of Tunisians. A year later the suppressive apparatus of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi could not counter the capacity of Iranian workers to paralyze the economy and even the state itself. Oilfield and refinery workers struck to support popular demands for the end of the regime. When the strikes spread to nearly every sector of the Iranian economy, the Shah’s rule was smashed. In Turkey an explicitly revolutionary trade union emerged in 1967 and came to dominate key modern industries. The organized strength of the Turkish working class was one factor in prompting military intervention in March 1971, and worker resistance to government austerity measures was an ingredient again in the September 1980 army takeover. Massive strikes in Addis Ababa in February 1974 brought the regime of Haile Selassie to its knees. A wave of strikes rocked Morocco in March 1979. In Egypt, workers from the Helwan steel complex led the first major demonstrations against Sadat’s economic policies in January 1975, and workers were active in the street demonstrations two years later that shook the regime severely.

Worker militancy is most often expressed in spontaneous outbursts, since few regimes tolerate independent trade unions, much less working-class parties. This in itself indicates how much those in state power fear the challenge of an organized working class. The Saudis and other Gulf rulers rely on foreign workers isolated in remote work sites and impose draconian discipline backed by harsh penalties, including deportation. But even such extreme measures have not kept workers silenced. Indian and Pakistani workers have struck in Kuwait in defiance of local authorities, and Bahrain is experiencing renewed labor unrest. Even in Saudi Arabia itself, in 1977, South Korean workers staged a massive riot in Jubayl.

Working-class parties — for example, the Workers’ Party of Turkey — have made their mark in the politics of the region. Communist parties, with working class bases, exist in nearly every country, though they usually operate clandestinely and frequently suffer extremely heavy repression. Such parties have been especially important in the recent history of Iraq, Sudan, South Yemen and Afghanistan, while in Iran the Tudeh Party has emerged again after the fall of the Shah.

Neglect of the working class on the left has been a reaction to discredited formulas for proletarian revolution in the third world. The Middle East working class actually emerged more slowly than many expected. It was primarily the absence of an indigenous proletariat which doomed the early industrialization schemes of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, the tanzimat reformers in Turkey, Amir-i-Kabir in Persia, and others. European capital itself lost considerable sums on ambitious factory schemes in the region. Although the forced (corvee) labor of peasants could not function in factories, it could take on rough, unskilled work, and contributed to the development of capital in the region (and the emergence of wage labor) by building roads, railroads, canals and ports. Along the new transport routes came European armies, manufactured goods, merchants and bankers. The flood of European wares — cheaper than local products — and European control of financial and transport facilities led to the ruinous decline of local crafts, forcing many artisans to seek factory work.

The peasantry was thereby further caught up in the mesh of capital. New land laws promoted private over communal property. Cash crops displaced subsistence agriculture, in some cases dramatically. Grains gave way to cotton in Egypt in the early 1860s. Tobacco cultivation spread rapidly in Anatolia and Syria. Silk took over the region of Beirut. In Persia, silk, rice and tobacco invaded Gilan, and opium sprang up on the outskirts of Isfahan and Shiraz. Foodstuffs, too, entered the market. Syrian grain fed European troops in the Crimean War, while displaced peasants starved. War and expropriation sped up the dislocation of the peasantry. Heavy taxation forced them to sell more of their crops and further exposed them to the marketplace.

This transformation of agriculture was extremely uneven. Traditional bonds were more easily broken in one place than in another, as the potential for profitable crops and cheap transport varied widely. Everywhere, though, the movement of people away from subsistence agriculture was sooner or later inescapable. Only the lucky ones survived to become proletarians. Where skilled labor was required, employers usually imported European workers. Brutally hard unskilled jobs — field work, ditch digging, dock work, road and railroad construction — continued to be the province of local workers.

World War I had an enormous impact on the development of a Middle East proletariat as hundreds of thousands of peasants were conscripted and ruinous new taxes imposed to finance the war effort. By the end of the war, virtually the entire region came under direct or indirect European control. Capital was much more firmly implanted by the war’s end than at the beginning, and the tempo of rural exodus increased. Taxes mounted to pay for expanding colonial bureaucracies. Authorities pushed land registration and the converting of more land to private property. Modern irrigation and farm machinery were introduced. With two or more generations of indigenous workers now in major cities, the need to import workers Europe was reduced. In Turkey the Kemalist state begin to construct an industrial base. Mining ventures sprung up throughout the region. Light industry sprouted throughout the area, and there was a large increase in transportation, urban services, and other forms of wage work.

The Middle East working class today is still in the process of formation out of the old society. Primary accumulation continues in the countryside and even in the cities, as more and more people are separated from the means of production. This process is usually slow and relatively invisible, but it still can assume an abrupt and violent form, as in south Lebanon, Western Sahara, Kurdistan or Eritrea. Population growth, usury, taxation and confiscatory land laws still function today in ways not altogether different from those in the past. The provision of very large amounts of monies to a handful of oil-producing states with small populations has fostered a tremendous movement of labor across national boundaries within the Middle East region and into the region from South Asia and East Asia.

In its formative years, an independent political role for the working class was generally subordinated to the class unity of nationalist struggles against colonialism. In this period there was a tendency to submerge class differences and blame the west for the host of problems facing non-industrial societies. Dependency theory grew in this environment, blaming a rapacious Western capitalism for “blocking” development in the region. This perspective ignored the real development of productive forces and the growth of new, antagonistic social classes. At the end of this era of anti-colonial nationalism, the old intermediate classes are much weaker, and “new classes,” including the proletariat, have grown enormously. The accelerated development of capitalist relations in the region over the last decade heightens the pace of this social transformation even further, with profound implications for political strategy in the period ahead.

In this context, MERIP plans to give special attention to the development and the struggles of the working class in the Middle East. This present issue looks mainly at the historical development of this class. The articles by Mahfoud Bennoune and Joel Beinin both discuss the origins of the working class in the destruction of pre-capitalist society. Bennoune focuses exclusively on this phase of “primary accumulation,’’ showing the mix of military pillage and more gradual, “legal” methods of dispossession involving land tenure, taxation, usury and market forces. He also grapples with the paradox whereby the slaughter of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples in the colonial conquest goes hand in hand with the creation of a “surplus” population — those who have been stripped of the means of subsistence but who are unable to find wage work. (Overseas migration was a last effort at survival for this population even in nineteenth-century Algeria, just as it is on a vastly expanded scale in the region today for a half million Moroccans, 650,000 Egyptians, a million Algerians and North Yemenis, and 2 million Turks.) The desperate condition of the working class in its early years of development, Bennoune suggests, is part of the reason why it is inclined towards populist rather than revolutionary action.

Joel Beinin begins with the “false start” industrialization of Muhammad Ali to trace the development of the working class in Egypt. Like Bennoune, Beinin shows the tremendous impact of primary accumulation on the lives of peasants and craftspeople, though the Egyptian process was slower, less overtly violent, and more typical of the region as a whole. In spite of very strong pressures, peasants, nomads and craftspeople adapted themselves in a way that allowed them to hang on to their old lives for as long as possible before being forced into exclusively proletarian status. It was this resistance, combined with the depression of the world market during the 1930s — not alleged colonial “blockages” — which held back the social transformation process. This first strike actions occurred in Algeria and Egypt at almost the same time, around the turn of the century. (In the region Ottoman Turkey experienced the first recorded strike, in 1872, when 600 workers at a naval arsenal walked out for back pay and eventually won their demands.) These early strikes were typically complicated by the national diversity of the proletariat. Beinin comments on the political effects of this, and shows how the political trajectory of the working class was to some extent deflected by the struggles of the nationalist movement against British domination.

This issue also provides a glimpse at the contemporary conditions of the working class in the most populous Arab country, Egypt. The interviews with an accountant and a plumber are translated and edited by MERIP from a series of interviews with Egyptian workers published in the Cairo journal al-Tali‘a in 1976, before it was taken over by the Sadat regime. The first of this series was published in MERIP Reports 82 (November 1979), and others will appear in the months ahead.

Finally, we are pleased to present in this issue a provocative essay by James Petras, who reminds us that the countries of the third world, including those of the Middle East, have not substantially altered the “division of labor” with the industrialized countries in the generation following political independence. This is no mere restatement of a classical dependency thesis, though. Petras notes that the failure to establish a “new international division of labor” even while capitalism transforms more and more Third World countries will likely produce a new round of labor-based revolutions.”

How to cite this article:

James Paul "Introduction," Middle East Report 94 (January/February 1981).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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