Although Jordan may appear little affected by the Arab uprisings, as early as January 2011 Jordanians were in the streets for the same reasons Tunisians and Egyptians were: protesting against economic conditions and privatization of state resources, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and calling for political reform and an end to elite corruption. The protests persist, with marches nearly every week, and include traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brothers and leftists, as well as self-proclaimed “popular reform movements” that are forming throughout the country. At least two umbrella organizations have emerged to bring these movements together.
On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution in Egypt, it is right and meet to shine light upon a figure who is shadowy and obscure in mainstream retrospectives: the striking worker.
The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 drew upon the participation of nearly every social stratum. Organized labor threw its weight into the struggle early on, in an important sign of the breadth and depth of opposition to the rule of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In mid-March, the Sacramento Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) hosted a delegation of leaders of Tunisia’s powerful labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), on a visit to the United States. The Council co-hosted the Tunisians with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Abdellatif Hamrouni is secretary-general of the country’s federation of public works employees and a member of the UGTT general assembly.
On August 3, the AFL-CIO presented its Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award to the workers of Egypt. It was the first time in the award’s 20-year history that the recipient was from an Arab country. In its award resolution, the American labor federation cited the remarkable burst of Egyptian worker activism that began in late 2004, with wildcat strikes in the textile sector. The ensuing strike wave crested in 2006 with militant actions in the Delta town of Mahalla al-Kubra, and culminated in the April 2009 formation of the first independent trade union in Egypt in more than 50 years, the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers.
It is the custom of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to devise a name for each Persian new year when it arrives. On Nowruz of the Persian year 1388, which fell in March 2009 Gregorian time, he proclaimed “the year of rectifying consumption patterns.” But Iranians would not be content to mark 1388 simply with thrift. That year of the Persian calendar turned out to be the most politically tumultuous since the revolution that toppled the Shah, as the loosely constituted Green Movement mounted massive street protests against election fraud.
“Angela” came to Jordan to work as a housekeeper because she is a single mother and needs to save for her children’s schooling. She paid a recruiter in the Philippines 11,000 pesos, about $234, “for the processing of my papers.” An hour before she went to the airport, she says, she signed a contract written in Arabic, a language she does not read. She did not see an English-language copy. Her recruiter told her she would receive $150 per month.
Article VI, Item 2 of the 1993 Oslo accords concluded between Israel and the Palestinians states, “After the entry into force of this Declaration of Principles and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area, with the view to promoting economic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, authority will be transferred to the Palestinians in the following spheres: education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism.”
On the streets of Turkish cities, the cigarette packs being traded and tucked into shirt pockets are adorned with the familiar brand names of Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. The ubiquity of foreign brands is remarkable, for Turkey is the world’s leading producer of Oriental tobacco—the sun-cured, small-leaf variety that once filled nearly every cigarette on the planet.
Dubai, according to the conventional wisdom, is a bust. The International Monetary Fund predicts that economic growth in the United Arab Emirates as a whole will be lower in 2009 than in the last five years; the Dubai government has borrowed billions of dollars from Abu Dhabi to bail out its banks; the government of the Indian state of Kerala reports over 500,000 return migrants from Dubai due to the crisis; property prices have dropped faster than anywhere else in the world; and hotel rates have been slashed in order to lure tourists.
The Middle East and North Africa have been hit hard by the global recession. Several of the oil-rich Gulf states are in the midst of an economic contraction, with their famed sovereign wealth funds having lost 27 percent of their value in 2008. The Gulf states, along with the European Union, buy most of the non-oil exports of the Middle East and North Africa, so recessions in the importing countries mean depressed trade throughout the region. According to the World Bank, the average growth rate for the middle-income states of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, which have little or no oil, is projected to fall to 3.9 percent in 2009, far below the levels of the 2001-2008 boom.
For the second time in less than a year, in the final week of September the 24,000 workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra went on strike—and won. As they did the first time, in December 2006, the workers occupied the Nile Delta town’s mammoth textile mill and rebuffed the initial mediation efforts of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Yet this strike was even more militant than December’s. Workers established a security force to protect the factory premises, and threatened to occupy the company’s administrative headquarters as well. Their stand belies the wishful claims of the Egyptian government and many media outlets that the strike wave of 2004-2007 has run its course.
On February 26, 2007, the Iraqi cabinet passed and recommended for parliamentary approval a new law governing the country’s immense and largely untapped supplies of oil and natural gas. Grasping at straws for any sign of success in Iraq, the law’s international sponsors hailed a major accomplishment for Iraq’s fledgling government. White House spokesman Tony Snow celebrated the oil law’s passage toward Parliament, one of four “benchmarks” the Bush administration has set for the Iraqi government, as a “key linchpin” in Iraq’s recovery. Three months later the oil law is still awaiting parliamentary debate, its ultimate fate in doubt.
In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unexpectedly won the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, after an intense campaign in which he exerted great effort to present himself as the defender of the poor and the working class. These classes, badly hurt by neo-liberal economic policies in the period following the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war, had staged a number of organized and noisy protests in the years preceding Ahmadinejad’s campaign, and they responded in significant numbers to his appeal for votes. The first year and a half of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, however, has seen an erosion of the social contract between working Iranians and the state of a magnitude that may be decisive for the future of democracy in Iran.
"’Black locusts’ are taking over Morocco!" So ran the September 12, 2005 headline of al-Shamal, an Arabic-language Tangier newspaper, describing the forays of masses of in-transit sub-Saharan Africans trying to scale the security fences separating Morocco from the Spanish-ruled enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Moroccan authorities immediately banned al-Shamal for employing this racist language, but the press on both sides of the Mediterranean continued to use terms like “massive invasion” and “plague” to denote the sub-Saharan migrants’ repeated attempts in September and early October to escape from Africa into the territory of the European Union.
Labor practices in Iraq are under scrutiny, as contractors hire poor non-Iraqis to work low-wage jobs in a deadly environment. Migrant workers are employed through complex layers of companies working in Iraq. At the top of the pyramid is the US government, which assigned over $24 billion in contracts over 2004–2005. Laborers are often deceived with false promises of lucrative, safe jobs in nations such as Jordan and Kuwait, only to find themselves working in unsafe jobs across the border. Some source countries have banned workers from going to Iraq, but, with little regulation, labor brokers are finding loopholes.
Twenty-two year old Leela made a promise to her family in Sri Lanka: she would earn enough money working abroad as a maid or a nanny to build a new house back home. Living thousands of miles from her husband and young son would be difficult, but Leela thought she would be able to send them money while she was gone. Her absence from Sri Lanka, in any case, would be short. She could not have been more wrong.
“Lebanon was built with Syrian muscles,” declared an elderly Lebanese in the early 1990s. He was referring to the hundreds of thousands of semi- and unskilled Syrians who have worked in Lebanon on a temporary basis in construction, agriculture, manufacturing and services since the mid-twentieth century.