Who Strikes? Understanding Workers Protests in Sisi's Egypt

By Agnieszka Paczynska
Submitted to Session P4970 (Civil Society and Social Activism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Political Economy;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the late 1990s, as the Mubarak regime accelerated the implementation of market reforms the number of labor protests grew significantly. The wave of protests continued in the 2000s, reaching 3.9 a day in 2008, 4.4 in 2009, and 5.8 in 2010. Following the 2011 uprising the number of labor protest rose significantly averaging 38.6 protest per day during Morsi’s tenure. This high rate of strikes has persisted since Sisi’s coming to power despite growing repression. Although the number of labor protests has declined compared to Morsi’s time in office, they remain significantly higher, at more than 29 per day between mid-2014 and the end of 2015, than during the last years of the Mubarak regime. Even as repression intensified in 2016, 493 labor protests were recorded between January and April of that year.
This paper will rely on Global Database, Language and Tone (GDELT) and Land Center for Human Rights in Cairo among others to document the patterns of labor protest since the late 1990s. It will focus on two questions: 1) Why do high levels of labor protests continue in Egypt despite the increasing repression? 2) Are blue-collar workers in all sectors equally likely to engage in protest actions, and relatedly do they utilize the same protest tactics across sectors?
In answering the first question, the paper will draw on prospect theory to explain the continued willingness of workers to mount protests despite growing repression. This theory argues that people respond to and act differently depending on whether they perceive themselves to be in the domain of losses or the domain of gains. When in the domain of gains, people tend to act to protect what they have and thus are more risk averse. Because workers in Egypt have found themselves in the domain of loss, their assessment of risks associated with staging protests have shifted and they have become more willing to engage in high risk activities. Paradoxically, the heightened repression under Sisi may well be pushing more workers into the domain of loss and thus is making them more not less willing to engage in protests. In answering the second question, the paper will map out the patterns of protest across different sectors of the economy and argue that prospect theory can help us better understand why particular groups of workers are more willing to engage in high cost protest actions.