Hesham Sallam writes at the Middle East Information and Research Project:
Mainstream narratives of the ongoing 2011 Egyptian revolution center around a “crisis of the state.” Among the elements of the crisis were the utter failure of top-down political reform, as shown in the shamelessly rigged 2010 legislative elections; mounting corruption and repression; emerging opportunities for collective action offered by networking sites like Facebook and Twitter; and the advent of neoliberal economic policies and the resulting constraints on the state’s capacity to deliver on its traditional obligations, such as social services, subsidies, price controls and guaranteed employment for college graduates. There is considerable consensus that the revolution is --- at least in part --- a backlash against the exclusionary economic order that the deposed president’s son Gamal Mubarak and his associates helped to erect over the last decade. Yet it remains unclear if the new, post-Mubarak Egypt can succeed in addressing the socio-economic grievances that helped to spark the January 25 uprising.
The prevailing discourse among Egyptian elites and opinion makers, however, already signals that the answer is no. The ambivalent, if not hostile, rhetoric directed toward demands for more humane standards of living points to the potential for continuity in the highly uneven economic order. While most believe that there will be no return to the pre-January 25 political system, even if post-Mubarak Egypt is not fully democratic, workers may continue to be marginalized by the economic liberalization begun under the previous regime.
Let the Wheel Turn
Shortly after the resignation of Husni Mubarak on February 11, Egypt witnessed the rise of what Egyptian authorities and media outlets began describing as ihtijajat fi’awiyya or small-group protests. The Arabic term fi’a simply means “group,” but has acquired negative connotations and might be compared with how the term “special interest” is used to disparage American labor. In post-Mubarak Egypt, officials have used its adjectival form fi’awi in reference to any demonstration, strike or sit-in advancing demands related to distribution of wealth, whether the protesters are blue- or white-collar employees, and whether they are calling for higher wages, greater benefits, improved working conditions or replacement of corrupt management personnel. The term’s recent usage seems to encompass the public and private sectors and to apply to collective action as limited as a protest in a single state-owned enterprise and as broad as a national strike by disgruntled members of a professional syndicate.
Over the past two months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, state officials and other elites have -- wittingly or not -- built a consensus around a narrative that condemns this class of political action and designates it a challenge to Egypt’s future security. Only three days after Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council released Communiqué 5, which outlines the negative impact of continuing protests on the economy and calls on labor and professional syndicates to help bring about a return to normalcy in everyday life.  A few days later, an army statement described “fi’awi demands” as illegitimate, pledging to deal with the agitators through legal means in the name of “protecting the security of the nation and its citizens.” On March 23, the government of Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf approved a law banning protests, assemblies and strikes that impede private and public business, and rendering such actions punishable with up to a year in prison and a fine that could reach a half-million Egyptian pounds.
Vocal figures outside of government have also taken a leading role in denouncing labor actions. Two days after the release of Communiqué 5, the Muslim Brothers’ spokesman Essam El-Erian accused fi’awi protests of undermining national consensus and expressed “understanding” for the army’s point of view.  Usama Haykal, editor-in-chief of the liberal Wafd Party’s daily, warned that the demonstrations could “destroy” the gains of the revolution. In March, a group of correspondents in al-Fayyoum announced that they would not cover fi’awi demonstrations because “while legal, they are poorly timed.”  In April, Egypt’s grand mufti, ‘Ali Gum‘a, went so far as to say that “instigators of fi’awi demonstrations violate the teachings of God.” 
The dangers of fi’awi demands are said to be three. First, the workers who make them are accused of seeking to exploit the revolution to serve their own financial interest. Wahid ‘Abd al-Magid of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies has articulated this perspective on a number of televised occasions, chiding labor protesters for slaving away in silence for 30 years and then choosing a moment of crisis to press their case. Mainstream portrayals usually draw a contrast with the Tahrir Square gatherings that preceded the downfall of Mubarak, juxtaposing the selfless motives of Tahrir to fi’awi protests that put particular agendas ahead of the greater good. According to the columnist Khalid Muntasir, “Tahrir demonstrations raised a political slogan, ‘The people want to bring down the regime.’ All the slogans revolved around the meaning of freedom, as demonstrators set aside their fi’awi demands and summoned forth the spring of liberty. They did not ask for a raise or a bonus. They looked at the wider context and at the nation as a whole. The contagion of narrow viewpoints did not spread among them, as it did among those who engaged in continuous, hysterical and vengeful fi‘awi demonstrations.” 
Second, bread-and-butter demands are presented as a major challenge to Egypt’s economic prosperity and, therefore, national security. Finance Minister Samir Radwan claims that fi’awi demonstrations have cost the treasury 7 billion Egyptian pounds and the tourism sector 13.5 billion -- making them largely responsible for Egypt’s budget deficit and decline in foreign direct investment. Critics of strikes regularly invoke the expression “the wheel of production must turn” as a means of telling protesters to go back to work. Supreme Council head Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi himself sounded this note in one of his few public appearances. Similarly, a week after Mubarak’s resignation, prominent salafipreacher Muhammad Hassan used the phrase in calling for an end to strikes and sit-ins. Even opinion makers who proclaim sympathy with the strikers’ demands often defer to elite consensus on this point. “Despite the legitimacy of these demands,” wrote journalist and talk show host Lamis al-Hadidi, “I believe that this is not the time for settling accounts or self-interest. Now Egypt must come first and this is not simply a slogan.... Now the wheel must turn.”  Interestingly, during the lead-up to the March 19 constitutional referendum those who advocated the “yes” vote also referred to “turning the wheel of production” to argue that approving the amendments would help bring normalcy to the country’s economic life.
Third, so-called fi’awi protests, the narrative goes, take their cues from affiliates of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) stirring up trouble to reverse the gains of the revolution. Eight days after Mubarak’s resignation, unidentified “informed sources” told al-Misri al-Yawmthat three former regime figures were behind the “fi’awi demonstrations” in the state sector.  The same week, the official news website of the Muslim Brothers reported that NDP members were inciting labor unrest, citing an unidentified source claiming that a dentist who held a leading position in the former ruling party had been calling on his colleagues to stage demonstrations. Government officials have corroborated claims of NDP involvement in inciting these activities, though they have yet to present any concrete evidence to back up the allegations. In March, Justice Minister Muhammad al-Gindi said that labor demonstrations are not spontaneous but a manifestation of an organized “counter-revolution” staged by remnants of the old regime. As the spring wore on, and sectarian tensions began to preoccupy the national political debate, it became standard practice for pundits and commentators to list fi‘awi protests together with sectarian strife as the two main channels through which forces of darkness are attempting to undermine the January 25 revolution.