In order to get an overarching grasp on what is taking place in terms of political and economic shifts in the Arab world, it is necessary to take into account the changes that have often taken place behind the scenes. These changes represent a milestone on the road to a new balance in the Arab world. Some countries - like Egypt and Tunisia - have been shaken by a change in the presidency, while others are witnessing a transitional phase - Jordan, Morocco and some Gulf states.

The shifts we speak of have their roots in the imbalances that existed prior to the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution, at a time when the governing regimes were praised for their achievements. Back then, life in these countries took place behind a facade that hid a number of imbalances, including income inequality between the rich and the poor and the relationship between employers and employees. In fact, a look at income distribution indicators over several decades reveals no sign of progress, despite consistent reform efforts on the part of state institutions. In fact, the market power in many Arab countries is concentrated in the hands of a few dominant producers, who control prices and make huge profits. Meanwhile, workers - in the absence of anyone  defending their rights, including the unions who supposedly represent them - are paid minimal wages.

Ibrahim Saif
Saif is an economist specializing in the political economy of the Middle East. His research focuses on international trade and structural adjustment programs in developing countries, with emphasis on Jordan and the Middle East.
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The micro revolutions reflect a social movement and collective action whose approach can be described  as “bottom-up,” contrary to the other movements which emerged during the years of authoritarianism. Free elections within workers unions and professional associations have allowed long-marginalized workers to perform sit-ins and strikes to voice their demands.

Prior to the changes that swept the Arab region as well as the emergence of political openness, these kinds of activities were considered taboo. The security authorities saw them as a threat, while governments avoided the subject entirely given that these types of events threatened their image as effective governing bodies worthy of praise. Moreover, the private sector feared the financial and social consequences of such protest movements - an improvement of working conditions, the imposition of a minimum wage and other benefits would cut into profits. The bottom line was that the main forces of production and the security apparatus were allied against the workers, who were left dispersed as they suffered from perpetual injustice.

Nowadays, with the various changes being witnessed by many Arab states, we can perceive a significant decline in the state’s role as an enforcer of internal security, which is built around supressing social and political forces. In fact, certain states witnessed a complete collapse of the security apparatuses, whose members were, in the end, only concerned with preserving their own interests and gains. This consequently opened the way for activists and unionists to organize their ranks and take new initiatives to achieve collective gains. The “lower-cost” of assembling collectively facilitated a greater action on the part of these groups, while a decline in real income, brought on by a rise in commodity prices over recent years helped set the stage for this type of mobilization.

A more nuanced view into the events in Egypt shows that from May 2011 to April 2012, Egypt bore witness to 1398 protest - including 373 sit-ins and 407 strikes - the highest number in recent years. These protests mobilized employees from both the public and private sectors, and participation rates have sometimes reached over 80 percent of workers in some institutions. In many cases, these protests achieved the minimum demands of the protesters, which centered on better wages, working conditions, employee-employer interaction and the legislation governing the relationship between various actors in the production process.

In Tunisia, the situation has not been much different. Primary school teachers went on strike when the finance ministry refused to improve their financial situation in May 2012. Some cities in the Kabili Governorate were paralyzed by protests against — in the words of the residents there — “marginalization.” Repeated incidents of this sort in Tunisia forced the government to acquiesce to the protesters’ demands with an increase in public spending. Last month, approximately an additional $1 billion were allocated to projects meant to create employment opportunities in remote areas.

In Morocco, official statistics demonstrate that the country experiences one strike per day on average - the highest rate in 10 years. Some employers are now pushing for legislation to regulate general strikes, unlike the past when the workers used to ask for such legislation.

The Jordanian Labor Observatory - which is tasked with documenting labor violations against workers - reported that the total number of labor protests during the first half of last year is 607 protests. This number is unprecedented in a country where new workers’ unions are replacing old ones. According to the new unionists, the old institutions failed to accomplish their objectives.

In the same context, Jordan has  witnessed  the formation of a teachers’ union, which will be the largest in the public sector. Only two years ago, the formation of such a body would have been considered unconstitutional. An 80 percent participation rate in teachers’ strikes contributed to their success.

Across many Arab countries, these kinds of activities have led to a new balance between social forces, as well as a new-found awareness of the importance of working together. It has highlighted how difficult it is to go back and impose custodianship over state institutions.

Now, a reliance on the state should no longer be seen as the key to progress. Civil society organizations are discovering that they are capable of improving their own conditions as they move out from under the cloak of political parties and existing union structures. The shift away from traditional organizational structures may spread to a wide range of sectors, which until recently  have had little hope of achieving any gains for their members. In many countries, workers’ union affiliation rates have not  exceeded  5 percent in past years, but it is very likely to expand  in the future. Unions  are building collective negotiation skills within the new political frameworks. This step toward greater awareness of labor activism constitutes an important shift that is being overlooked when talking about the major transformations in the Arab countries.

This article was originally published in Al-Monitor.