Introduction: Labor and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Introduction: Labor and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Dina Bishara, Cornell University

Ian Hartshorn, University of Nevada, Reno

Marc Lynch, The George Washington University


Economic grievances were at the heart of the Arab uprisings which erupted a decade ago. In many countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, organized labor actions as well as localized workplace mobilization had been rising for years before 2011.  Rising inequality, inflation, poor working conditions, and shortages of quality jobs fueled frustration with regimes which seemed uninterested in responding effectively.

The centrality of those grievances and the workers articulating them has led to a growing research community focused on organized labor in the Middle East and North Africa. In April 2021, Dina Bishara and Ian Hartshorn convened a virtual workshop through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations bringing together a wide range of scholars writing in the area. POMEPS then invited those participants, as well as others who had not presented papers, to participate in a follow-on workshop to continue the discussion.  The papers in this collection are one of the fruits of this increasingly robust scholarly network.

Several key themes run through the papers.

Institutional variation in organized labor:

One of the key issues raised by the papers in this collection is the origins and the implications of national variation in the systems for the representation of labor. Many MENA countries have adopted some form of corporatism, with formal or informal institutional ties between the political regime and the organizations representing workers. Such corporatist systems are double edged: while official unions may be able to bargain with the government on behalf of workers, they are also expected to police their membership and prevent more radical demands.  Why some unions developed organizational independence and others did not is a core research question in MENA, and more broadly.

Al-Sholi, in this collection, traces the strength of the UGTT to a series of compromises and concessions made over decades.  A regime near-crisis in the early 1970s led to the UGTT embracing elite cleavages and a system of export-led growth. The strategy has served the union well and may shed light on its decision-making in the Saied era. Berman tells a related story of the evolution of the UGTT, shifting the focus from the political skirmishes at the center of the regime to the peripheral areas of phosphate production along the Algerian border. Berman’s analysis highlights the complex relationship between unions and labor market outsiders, especially the unemployed.

Even outside of traditional union structures, labor can face challenges with state relations. Eralp highlights the struggle of workers seeking redress in the Turkish labor mediation system and the ways Turkish Labor Mediation Law erodes workers’ rights. Zintl also addresses issues of another arm of state control-regulation—exploring how Jordan addresses the gig economy.

Shifting labor market segmentation:

A second set of issues highlighted by the papers is the emergence of forms of labor market segmentation which have generated new winners and losers. In the Gulf, Hertog points out how the collapse of public sector hiring has led to a new class of citizen labor market outsiders, unable to compete with cheap non-citizen labor but also unable to secure government jobs.

Binobaid, Draege, and Leber analyze how much the Saudi state has struggled to even reach its own unemployed citizens through a national survey revealing low utilization and awareness of unemployment insurance programs. Zintl’s analysis highlights how the regulation of the gig economy in Jordan has deepened labor market segmentation and created a class of “privileged outsiders.”

Even as workers are displaced from existing labor markets, new entrants have a challenge establishing a foothold. Abdelmageed shows that the young face persistent problems in the workforce, exacerbated by the economic uncertainty following the 2011 uprising, and disproportionately impacting women and college graduates. Berrada looks at Morocco and explores how the discourse of ‘waithood’ and the individualizing expectations of neoliberalism help to elide structural and systemic weaknesses in the market. Mowafy and Nagy underscore the effects of economic inequality on opportunities for decent work, noting the need for greater investment and attention to distribution of need-based scholarships that can mitigate those inequalities.

Workers in, with, and against other movements:

The world of work is far from the only movement shaping the lives of residents of the Middle East and North Africa. Collaboration and confrontation between labor organizations and those representing other interests have been a hallmark of contentious politics not only since the 2011 uprisings, but throughout much of the last 40 years. Several of the contributions to this collection highlight how workers interact with other movements. Anderson explores the relationship of independent unionists and pro-democracy activists in Algeria’s hirak movement, and the unique responses they have made to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Lacouture addresses those workers excluded from formal structures such as teachers in Jordan, and how they may form ‘communities of fate’ with others on the margins of state-labor relations.


Workers face daunting challenges in the Middle East and North Africa; from entering and exiting the workforce, to building structures representative of their needs, to managing the relationship to other social movements. These essays shed light on some of the most salient dynamics of the present moment and point to future research avenues.  These include greater   attention to the effects of labor market segmentation and the political implications of critical divisions between labor market insiders and outsiders. As Al-Sholi and Berman highlight, further research is needed to unpack the relationship between unions and labor market outsiders, as well as the role that unions play in the face of increasing economic liberalization.

Rising informality and the rise of the gig economy on employment conditions has implications for the level and efficacy of trade union representation. Youth face daunting structural barriers to meaningful formal labor market participation across much of the region which have proven resistant to reforms. The contributions (especially Berrada, Mowafy and Nagy, and Abdelmageed) raise important questions about the relationship between socioeconomic status and education on the one hand, and the likelihood of transitioning into or out of the labor force on the other hand.

Other contributions to the collection invite further research on the determinants of labor activism and the various modalities that it might take, especially in repressive political environments. As Lacouture shows, public sector workers may be particularly well positioned to engage in effective mobilization. Anderson argues that crises can induce innovation in mobilization strategies even under politically constrained situations. Post-2011 experiments with independent trade unions have, in other contexts, been reversed by resurgent autocratic regimes.

The contributions to this collection offer rich food for thought about the shifting research questions and political vistas of labor across the Middle East and North Africa.  These essays, and those by other participants in the workshop which are not included in this collection, show the promise of a rich and vibrant interdisciplinary research community.