A leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt analyses the Egyptian revolution that brought down Mubarak and the future steps necessary to carry it forward.
Dedicated to the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution.
EVENTS OF global historical significance are taking place in the Arab world. A series of revolutions that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria are without doubt one of the most serious challenges to U.S. imperialism and world capitalism in the last four decades. If we place these events in the context of the world capitalist crisis that broke out in 2008 and continues to reverberate around the world, and the growing mass resistance to austerity measures throughout Europe, then we are clearly entering a period of extraordinary opportunities and challenges for revolutionary socialists internationally.
The Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011, and overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in eighteen days, is by far the most significant of the Arab revolutions. Egypt is not only the most populous of the Arab countries, it also has the largest, most militant and experienced working class in the region. The fate of the ongoing Egyptian revolution will play a major role in determining the future not only of the wider Arab revolution but also the ability or inability of U.S. imperialism and world capitalism to contain this unprecedented challenge.
At the time of writing (early June 2011), the battles of the Egyptian revolution are far from over. We are experiencing a protracted revolutionary process of advances and retreats, with periods of reactionary attacks followed by periods of mass strikes and demonstrations. Reactionary forces both internationally (the United States, European Union, Saudi Arabia, and Israel) and locally (the Egyptian ruling class, the army generals, and the remnants of the security apparatus) are all uniting to reverse or at least contain the revolution.
It is the duty of revolutionaries worldwide not only to build the largest and most militant solidarity movement with the Egyptian and Arab revolutions, but just as importantly, to build revolutionary movements and organizations in their own countries to fight their own ruling classes.
What follows is a rough guide to the causes, developments, and prospects of the Egyptian revolution in its first few months.
Mubarak’s turbulent last decade
The Egyptian revolution did not come out of thin air. Although no one could have predicted the event itself, during the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule the social, economic, and political tensions in Egypt were reaching levels hard to sustain in the long run.
Mubarak’s rule relied on three interrelated policies. The first was a neoliberal economic policy that integrated the Egyptian economy in an uneven way into the world capitalist economy and internally impoverished the vast majority of the population. The aim of this policy was to pump more profit into the coffers of the multinationals and into the hands of a small group of Egyptian capitalists.
The second policy was to entrench the regime and its army as a strategic ally, or rather satellite state, in the service of U.S. imperialism and Israel. The third policy was to maintain and deepen a ruthless police state capable of crushing any political or social challenge to the regime’s monopoly of power and to the capitalists’ monopoly of wealth.
A central plank of U.S. policy in the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, was to open up economies for investment and exploitation by multinational corporations. Military and strategic control of this vital oil-producing region would go hand in hand with the liberalization of its economies. This did not need to be forced on the regimes of the region, since it coincided with the interests of the local ruling classes. These ruling classes used a combination of neoliberalism, an alliance with the United States, and the regional backing for Israel to gain access to world markets and to become partners with major multinationals. They also secured the support of the United States for their brutal and anti-democratic regimes, such as Mubarak’s.
Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian revolutionary, argued that to remain in power any ruling class requires a combination of coercion and consent. The regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which came to power after the overthrow of the monarchy by junior army officers in 1952, did use coercion. But it also made economic and social concessions to significant sectors of the working class and peasantry. Nasser also played a role as a champion of anti-imperialism, and his support for the Palestinian cause allowed him to maintain his monopoly of political power and minimized the effect of opposition both from the left and from political Islamism until the 1967 war.
The policies of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, and those of Mubarak, who came to power following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, gradually eroded the relative consent created by the Nasserist social contract. Particularly during Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, the regime more and more relied on brutal repression alone to maintain its grip on power.
Neoliberal attack on the peasantry and the working class
Although Sadat began to implement policies, known as Infitah, to liberalize and deregulate the Egyptian economy in the mid 1970s, the measures themselves were limited to trade liberalization and facilitating a greater role for foreign and local private capital. But the economy continued to be dominated by the state and public sector well into the 1980s. It was in the 1990s that the frontal attack on the working class and urban poor and on the poorer sectors of the peasantry began. In the following two decades, a new class of billionaires organically linked to the state came to dominate the Egyptian economy and polity.
In cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the regime began implementation of a structural adjustment program in 1991. The program involved rolling back all the Nasserist laws that gave the poorer sections of the peasantry some protection from the ravages of the free market. The pricing of agricultural products was liberalized, and subsidies on seeds, fertilizers, and agricultural machinery removed. In 1992, a law allowed agricultural rents to soar and permitted the eviction of tenants after a five-year transitional period. Thus, in the period after 1997, tens of thousands of tenant farmers and their families were evicted from lands they had tilled for generations. The lands returned to the original, mostly absentee landlords.
A massive program of privatization began in 1996. By 2005, more than 200 out of the 314 major public sector industrial and service companies had been either totally or partially privatized. The number of workers in the public sector was reduced by nearly 50 percent from the mid-1990s to 2005. Some 20 percent of the banking sector was transferred from public control to the private sector. The net result of these policies was an unprecedented worsening of working conditions, a rapid rise in unemployment, and the further impoverishment of wide sectors of the Egyptian population. This was coupled with the accumulation of massive wealth among top generals, bureaucrats, and businessmen who bought and sold and speculated throughout the process.
Since the Mubarak regime started implementing its neoliberal policies, the percentage of Egyptians living at or under the poverty line ($2 a day) has risen from 20 percent to 44 percent. And in Mubarak’s last decade, when GDP grew at its highest rate, those in absolute poverty (living on less than $1 a day) increased from about 16 percent to nearly 20 percent.
Neoliberal doctrine calls in theory for the shrinking of the public sector. In fact, “real existing” neoliberalism was about reallocating public resources for the benefit of a tiny minority. Those well connected (and billionaires are as a rule well-connected) could buy state-owned assets for a tiny fraction of their market value. Companies supplying basic construction materials like steel and cement through government contracts made huge profits. According to Ahmed El-Naggar, director of the economic studies unit at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, government officials sold state-owned land to politically connected families for low prices. They also allowed foreign conglomerates to buy state-owned companies for small amounts, receiving kickbacks in exchange.
In 2004, Mubarak appointed a new government made up of top businessmen and so-called “PhD technocrats” who were actually highly ideological neoliberals, mainly British-educated Thatcherites and American-educated Reaganites. The new government opted for an acceleration of the neoliberal program. Everything would be put up for sale, including factories, desert land, agricultural land, airports, and public transport. The new government reduced the top rate of tax from 42 percent to 20 percent, leaving billionaires and multinational companies paying exactly the same proportion of their income in tax as small shop owners.
During the period 2005–08, the Egyptian government was highly praised by international financial institutions, particularly the IMF and the World Bank, for achieving GDP growth rates averaging 7 percent. But one of the main features of neoliberal growth rates is that they hide the unequal distribution of that growth. It is generally assumed that these high growth rates produce trickle-down effects that eventually improve the lives of the poor. But this does not materialize. In Egypt, high growth rates produced unprecedented wealth for a tiny minority, but rapidly growing poverty and unemployment for the majority.
After Mubarak’s fall, investigators discovered the astronomical size of the fortunes made by the Mubarak family, ministers, and other top state and party officials. Sections of the Egyptian and Western bourgeois press concluded that this was a result not of neoliberal policies or free market capitalism, but rather of “crony capitalism.” Accordingly, they argued, it is the corruption of those running the state and their integration of political and economic power that prevented the liberalization policies from improving the lives of the poor.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that the intimate relationship between political power and economic power is as old as capitalism itself. The second is that the policies of neoliberalism were never about dismantling or even reducing the role of the state in the economy, but rather about increasing the role of the state as a facilitator of capitalist profit-making at the expense of the working class. This created an even more intimate relation between state and capital. It is precisely in this intimate relationship that corruption and cronyism flourish. To paraphrase a cliché, one could say that capitalism corrupts and neoliberal capitalism corrupts absolutely.
U.S. imperialism and the Mubarak regime
Ever since Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the U.S.-Egyptian alliance has been one of the main pillars of U.S. strategic hegemony in the region.
In every American and Israeli war and act of aggression in the region, the Egyptian regime played the role of loyal servant to its strategic allies. From the Israeli war on Lebanon in 1982 and its murderous siege of Beirut and massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps to the barbaric war on Gaza in 2008–09, the Mubarak regime continued its role as a major facilitator and broker in the region.
As Noam Chomsky puts it, alliance with the United States meant that “crucially, Egyptian military forces were excluded from the Arab-Israeli conflict, so that Israel could concentrate its attention (and its military forces) on the occupied territories and the northern border.”
In the first Gulf War in 1991, Egyptian forces took part, under U.S. command, in the massive military attack on Iraq, euphemistically called “the liberation of Kuwait.” The general in command of Egyptian forces during that war was none other than General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister ever since, and current de facto ruler of Egypt after his master’s fall from power.
After September 11, 2001, the Mubarak regime played a central role in aiding and facilitating Washington’s program of outsourcing torture through the use of so-called extraordinary renditions. In 2005, the BBC reported that both the United States and Britain sent “terrorist suspects” to Egypt for detention. In that report, Egypt’s prime minister acknowledged that since 2001, the United States had transferred more than sixty detainees to Egypt as part of the “war on terror.” During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Egypt kept the Suez Canal open to the U.S. warships that were to devastate Iraq. Mubarak also played a major role in helping to try to legitimize the successive puppet regimes enforced on the Iraqi people by the U.S. occupation.
During Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, the Egyptian regime was a staunch supporter of Israel’s plan to destroy Hezbollah, and it orchestrated an intensive media campaign demonizing Shiites and fuelling Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension. The Israeli war against Gaza in 2008–09 was fully endorsed by Mubarak, who met top Israeli officials hours before the bombing started. Egypt played a major role in the suffocating siege of Gaza, helping deprive 1.5 million Palestinians of their basic livelihood by blockading the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Of course, Mubarak’s services were well compensated by consecutive U.S. administrations. The United States provided Mubarak’s regime with almost $2 billion annually, making Egypt the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. According to the Congressional Research Report submitted to Congress in September 2009, the United States had subsidized the Egyptian regime with over $64 billion, including $40 billion in military hardware and security gear, since it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. It also rewarded the regime with $7 billion in debt relief in April 1991 for its support of the Gulf War earlier that year. Furthermore, it intervened with the Paris Club to forgive half of Egypt’s $20 billion debt to Western governments.
The United States continued to support the Mubarak regime until the very end. When the BBC asked President Barack Obama during his celebrated visit to Egypt in June 2009 whether he regarded President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, Obama answered with an emphatic “No.”
Even during the revolution itself, when the regime was beating, arresting, and killing the Egyptian people by the thousands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked whether the United States believed the Egyptian government was stable, he replied “yes” without hesitation.
The fight back: the second Palestinian Intifada and the Iraq invasion
The outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 had two major effects in Egypt. The first was the collapse of the U.S.-led peace process in which the Egyptian regime had played such a central role. That process, which had begun with the Oslo Accords between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 1993, reached a dead end with the pro-U.S. leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization giving in to nearly all of Israel’s demands. Meanwhile the Israelis continued their encroachment and occupation of more Palestinian land, while refusing to give any concessions on the central questions of the return of the Palestinian refugees forced from their homes in 1948 and after, the final status of Jerusalem, and the sovereignty of any future Palestinian state. Throughout this process, the Egyptian regime maintained extreme pressure on the Palestinian side to make more and more concessions, prompting great praise from U.S. and Israeli leaders for Mubarak’s “wise leadership.”
The outbreak of the second Intifada not only exposed the peace process as a façade for further Israeli aggression and occupation but also revealed the complete complicity of the Egyptian regime as an ally of Israel and an enemy of the Palestinian people and their aspirations.
The Intifada had an electrifying effect in Egypt. The shameful role of the regime on the one hand and the bravery and resilience of the Palestinian resistance on the other, had a radicalizing effect on hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians. Mass demonstrations took place throughout the country. Both university and school students organized demonstrations that were their very first participation in politics. Nasserists, Islamists, and socialists collaborated in organizing protests and collecting donations, food, and medicine for convoys to the besieged Palestinians.
This political awakening became wider and deeper with the U.S. war on Iraq. On March 20, 2003, activists organized an antiwar demonstration in Tahrir Square that drew 40,000 people. Protesters burned posters of Mubarak and occupied the square for twenty-four hours in what turned out to be a rehearsal for January 2011.
The democracy movement
The violence and repression used by the regime to crush these waves of protest forced the question of democracy to the fore. The suffocating authoritarianism of the regime—with its police brutality, torture, mass arrests, and military trials of civilians—together with the growing signs that Mubarak was preparing his son Gamal to succeed him as president, formed the background to the rise of a democratic movement calling for an end to emergency rule, democratic elections, and an end to the Mubarak presidency (father or son).
On December 12, 2004, a coalition of political opposition forces including Nasserists, socialists, Islamists, and liberal democrats organized the first of a series of demonstrations under the title Kifaya (Enough). The demonstrations were small, attracting a few thousand at their peak. But their political effects were much larger than their numbers would suggest. Taboos were broken with the call for the end of Mubarak’s rule and the explicit demand for putting police generals on trial for torture and illegal arrests. The exposure of the corruption of the ruling family and top state officials resonated strongly with a much wider audience.
However, the movement was unable to mobilize wider sections of the masses or connect its political demands with the economic and social demands that were boiling beneath the surface and were about to explode. When, in 2005, the regime was able to renew Mubarak’s presidency for a fifth term and his regime’s repressive emergency laws for another two-year period, there was a lull in the movement.
The workers’ movement
By far the largest and most dangerous challenge to the regime came in the form of the unprecedented strike wave that began in 2006 and continues to widen and deepen even after the fall of Mubarak.
There had been a slow rise in strikes and protests starting in 2004 and accelerating after the installation of the government of Ahmed Nazif in July of that year. In 2005, there were 202 collective actions by workers, 222 in 2006, and an unprecedented 614 in 2007.
In December 2006, workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, where more than a quarter of Egypt’s public-sector textile workers are employed, began a strike that would become a major turning point in the workers’ movement. The government had promised a significant increase in the annual bonus for public-sector workers. When the Mahalla workers discovered in December that the promise had been broken, anger rapidly developed into preparations for a strike. Leading workers started distributing leaflets and making speeches calling for a strike.
On December 7, thousands of workers gathered at one of the main entrances to the factory. A demonstration of 3,000 female garment workers marching through the spinning and weaving sections called on workers to join the strike. Production was halted in all sectors of the giant textile mill. Some 24,000 workers struck and occupied the mill with a sit-in that continued for three days. Strikers called for the full bonuses promised in March and a set of other demands on transport, medical care, nurseries, working conditions, and mismanagement. By the fourth day, the government conceded to most of the demands, and the strike was halted with threats of resumption if the rest of the demands were not met.
The strike movement that began at Mahalla in December 2006 spread in an unprecedented manner. It went from the public sector to the private to the civil service, from the old industrial areas to the new towns, in all provinces. It went from the textile sector to engineering, to chemicals, to building and construction, to transport and to services. The strikes reached sectors that do not have a culture of protest, such as teachers, doctors, civil servants, and even to slum dwellers. The strike wave succeeded in generalizing a culture of protest.
Even in sectors where strikes were banned by special laws, workers were able to organize mass strikes challenging those laws and challenging the authorities to take action against them. This happened in the railways, the Cairo Metro, hospitals, ambulances, the postal system, public transport, and, very significantly, in industries owned by the armed forces.
In September 2007, the Mahalla textile workers organized their second mass strike and again occupied the factory. The government had not fulfilled its promises. This time the strike was even more militant than the first. After a six-day strike and occupation, the workers won a bonus and the much-hated chief executive officer was forced to resign. The workers regarded this not only as an economic victory but a political victory. Despite the laws, despite the repression, and despite the threats and intimidation, the workers had won through collective action against a ruthless regime. This was a victory for democracy, specifically for workers’ democracy. The workers had shown the democracy movement of the previous years that only they had the real collective power to challenge the dictatorship.
At the end of 2007, some 55,000 property tax collectors went on strike, with mass sit-ins at the gates of the Finance Ministry. Their demand was for wage parity with their counterparts employed directly by the ministry of finance. The strike lasted for three months during which property tax collection dropped by 90 percent in Egypt. Victory was achieved with an eleven-day sit-in in downtown Cairo in front of the Finance Ministry. The tax collectors won a 325 percent increase in pay, and, more significantly, transformed their democratically elected strike committee into the executive of the first independent trade union in Egypt since 1957.
Mass strikes and social protests continued to spread throughout the country, slowing down in some months only to resume more powerfully in others. The working class had entered the battle against the regime. The revolt against neoliberalism and dictatorship had begun in earnest.
The world economic crisis
The great recession that shook the globe in 2008 accelerated the crisis in Egypt and continues to create conditions of instability. There are three main factors involved.
First, Egypt is highly dependent upon exports to Europe and these fell rapidly due to the drop in demand that followed economic contraction. World Bank figures show that Egypt’s year-on-year growth rates of merchandise exports to the European Union dropped from 33 percent in 2008 to negative 15 percent by July 2009.
Second, the situation was worsened by the advent of the draconian austerity policies in Europe. Remittances from emigrants fell by 17 percent compared to 2008, tourism revenues also went from a rise of 24 percent in 2008 to a fall of 1.1 percent in 2009, and the Suez Canal revenues fell by 7.2 percent compared to 2008.
A third factor has been the sharp rises in the costs of basic foods. Egypt’s dependence on imported food, particularly wheat, makes it difficult for the government to shield the economy from the effect of global food price rises. In Egypt, annual food price inflation accelerated to 18.9 percent in January 2011 from 17.2 percent in December 2010.
Neoliberalism had made the country much more vulnerable to the crisis itself—massively widening the levels of inequality and, simultaneously, undermining potential mechanisms of social support. Thus, the effects of the crisis were sharply concentrated on the most vulnerable layers of Egyptian society.
The world crisis could not have come at a worse time for the regime. The rising workers’ movement and the slow revival of the democracy movement as the 2010 parliamentary and presidential elections approached meant that the regime had to have a clear strategy to deal with the deepening challenges.
Splits and cracks began to appear among the ruling circles. Should they continue with their accelerated neoliberal program and crush workers’ resistance or should they slow down and try to contain the movement? Should they go ahead with the planned succession plan for Gamal Mubarak or should they choose a more acceptable figure, perhaps from the military, as Egypt’s next president, and thus appease the growing opposition to the ruling family?
Massive coercion or attempted containment? Containment would be seen as a concession to the growing movements from below and might embolden them even more against the regime. Coercion could risk an uncontrollable explosion. Neither side of the ruling circles had any real confidence that their strategy would save the regime.
The confusion at the top became apparent during the 2005 parliamentary elections, which were carried out in three stages. In the first stage it seemed that the containment faction had the upper hand. Ballot rigging was minimal, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force, was able to get eighty-eight seats (20 percent). This frightened the coercion faction, and the next two stages of the election were violently rigged, allowing the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to maintain a large majority.
By 2010, the coercion faction had gained the upper hand. In the face of the massive strike and protest movement and the growing confidence of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2007, the decision was taken to proceed with the succession plan and purge the parliament of all opposition in the 2010 elections. There were clear signs that this strategy had the approval of the United States. Yet the move was carried out with shaking hands and with serious disagreements among the ruling army generals, NDP leaders, and top businessmen.
Thus, Egypt had all the classical prerequisites of a revolution. The ruling classes were unable to rule in the old ways, and the working classes were unable to live under the old conditions.
Globally, an unprecedented crisis of capitalism was calling the whole system into question, again producing splits and confusion among and between the different states, banks, and multinationals. At the same time, and related to the crisis, there was the long-term decline of U.S. imperialist hegemony exposed by the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. These global and local conditions set the stage for the Egyptian revolution.
There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
For years, Egyptian bloggers, political activists, and more recently Facebook activists, would plan a day of protest, send thousands of text messages, get tens of thousands of virtual supporters and on the planned day a few hundred of the usual suspects would show up, sometimes reaching the magical number of one thousand. We would be surrounded by three to four thousand riot police, and after chanting and speeches and a few confrontations with the police, the planned day would end.
Activists were more optimistic about January 25, not only because of the unprecedented numbers that signed up for it, but because of the Tunisian spark—the several weeks of mass protest that led to the ousting of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier in January—that had electrified the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other major urban and working-class towns. The small groups of democratic youth coalitions, liberals, socialists, and Nasserists were optimistic. This time we might get several thousand people, at least in two or three of the main centers. Perhaps we could even reach ten thousand! But none of the activists in their wildest dreams could have imagined what actually took place that day.
The Muslim Brotherhood leadership had announced that they would not participate in the event, but still the idea of having a number of demonstrations starting from different working-class districts and attempting to converge on the main city centers—Tahrir Square in the case of Cairo—seemed to be worth the attempt. This was especially because the chosen date was National Police Day (which commemorates the massacre of police by the British that sparked off riots that burned down portions of Cairo in January 1952). The growing hatred and anger at decades of police brutality, torture, and humiliation coupled with the Tunisian miracle would at least resonate with people, even if only a few of them would actually join the protests.
The planned protests were to have several main demands: social justice and a minimum wage, an end to the state of emergency, upholding judicial independence, and the resignation of the interior minister General Habib Al-Adly, who was notorious for his record of torture and human rights violations. We were also calling for political reforms such as dissolving parliament and the holding of new elections after the scandalous November 2010 elections, which were marked by massive fraud and removed almost all opposition MPs from parliament.
On the morning of January 25, activists began gathering at the main starting points in the working-class districts. The day was a holiday in celebration of the police. But the police were definitely not on holiday! Tens of thousands of riot police were waiting for us everywhere. There was a sense of tension among the police and the hundreds of plainclothes officers with their guns and their usual sunglasses. It seems they were better at understanding and predicting the mood of the masses than the activists. The whole of the police force was fully mobilized across the country’s cities and towns.
The demonstrations started with the usual slogans against Al-Adly, Mubarak and the NDP, against price increases and unemployment, against corruption and the hated Gamal Mubarak, and against the steel tycoon and NDP strongman Ahmed Ezz. But as soon as the by-now-famous Tunisian chant was shouted—“The people want the downfall of the regime”—something seemed to have changed, both in the mood of the activists and in the rapidly increasing numbers of people joining the protest marches.
More and more people came down from their houses and started shouting the slogan with overwhelming passion. Men and women, young and old, Christians and Muslims took part—the vast majority were poor Egyptians. The louder they shouted that magical slogan, the more it echoed in the poor alleyways, the more people joined. What started with a few hundred activists turned into mass demonstrations of tens of thousands.
The fear and confusion of the police was palpable. In some cases they charged toward the demonstrators, only to retreat as the masses charged back with a power, confidence, and unity that clearly baffled the sunglass-wearing officers and the rank-and-file policemen, all poor peasant youngsters conscripted for three years to do the dirty work of protecting the Egyptian ruling class.
The police were ordered to retreat to the major junctions in an attempt to prevent the demonstrators from reaching the city centers. It is there that the major battles on that historic day took place. Water cannons, rubber bullets, and endless rounds of teargas canisters were used to beat back the protesters. By far, the most difficult obstacle was the choking teargas. But the more seasoned demonstrators started organizing the distribution of clinical masks, cola cans, and onions—provided freely by housewives, pharmacy workers, and coffee shops—to help the protesters survive the white clouds of teargas.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators were able to break through many of the police barriers and reach the city centers including, of course, Tahrir Square. But the battles continued. There were tens of martyrs and thousands of injured at the end of that day of liberation, the day that ignited the Egyptian revolution.
Demonstrations and battles continued during the following two days, but the main focus was on organizing the “Friday of Rage,” January 28. The organizers were no longer just the “usual suspects” of political activists, Facebookers, and bloggers, but thousands of new leaders, mostly working-class youth who were better educated by days of actual revolution than years of political education.
This time the Muslim Brotherhood decided to participate in the Friday of Rage. A curfew was announced from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the main battlefields of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and Mahalla, and hundreds of Brotherhood leaders and activists were arrested.
The regime was facing something it could not understand. The masses had gone mad. They demanded justice and freedom and were prepared to die for it in the hundreds of thousands. The fear of torture, prison, and even death had evaporated together with the fumes of teargas that had filled the streets of Egypt’s cities.
In fact, the masses had not gone mad; they were fighting the most rational battle possible—for freedom, social justice, and dignity. It was the regime that had gone mad, and that had panicked and seemed less and less attached to reality. The government decided to shut down the Internet and mobile networks completely on the assumption that this desperate move would prevent the supposed organizers from using these crucial tools of communication and thus weaken their ability to mobilize for the Friday demonstrations.
It was a terrible miscalculation. The regime seemed to believe its own propaganda about this being a middle-class “Facebook Revolution.” The action had no visible effect, as the vast majority of leaders and organizers at this stage had nothing to do with Facebook and could easily use more traditional forms of communication. In fact, it emboldened the demonstrators even more by proving the regime was desperate and weak.
After Friday prayers, hundreds of thousands started their marches from all the major mosques and squares toward the city centers. The police again concentrated their forces in major junctions in a last attempt to break the unstoppable wave and prevent millions reaching the main city squares.
In Cairo, major battles took place at all major roads and bridges leading to Tahrir. Similar battles were taking place on the main streets in Suez, Mahalla, Alexandria, and scores of other cities and towns.
The bravery and resolve of the mass of demonstrators has been recorded for posterity in thousands of YouTube videos and personal accounts that will be a treasure for future historians of the Egyptian revolution, and more importantly for future revolutionaries across the world.
The police used the usual teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons, and in desperation added live ammunition, snipers, and even armored vehicles to crush demonstrators. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured. But the police were defeated decisively across the country and retreated rapidly. Thousands of police cars, armored vehicles, and police stations were burned down, with police officers, once the main source of fear on Egyptian streets, fleeing for their lives. NDP buildings were torched and every sign, portrait, or picture of the hated dictator was burned down.
Hundreds of thousands reached Tahrir Square and began their famous occupation of the square that only ended with Mubarak’s fall on February 11. People marched in from all walks of life, mostly from the poor working class, but also many young middle-class people joined in. Women in the niqab (face veil) marched alongside women in jeans, bearded Islamists alongside Christians—all with a fierce determination to overthrow the regime.
By nightfall the police had all but vanished with the exception of those still protecting the notorious Interior Ministry, for decades the central headquarters for the torture of civilians. Naturally, many of the demonstrators attempted to storm the building. Well-positioned snipers shot to kill. Over a dozen protesters died and hundreds were injured.
As they withdrew from the streets, the police officers had opened up the prisons and let out thousands of seasoned criminals in order to create a sense of fear and chaos among the population. Yet their plan to create chaos and mayhem failed. Popular committees sprang up all over the country to defend their neighborhoods, to organize traffic, and even to clean the streets. The president ordered the army into the cities to crush the uprising and to return to “order” after the police had been vanquished.
On the night of that Friday of Rage, Mubarak made his first speech blaming the government for being inept and promising to appoint a new cabinet. There were no apologies for the dead and injured, no mention of the people’s demands. There was a cold detachment in his tone, as if he were talking about another country and another people. As with many dictators before him, he obviously could not believe or understand what was happening. He despised the people and was already part of the past.
The masses reacted with anger to the speech, but also seemed to see through his posturing. He both looked and sounded like an ancient relic. By the following day, he appointed two generals, his chief of intelligence, General Omar Suleiman as his first ever vice president, and General Ahmad Shafiq as prime minister. These two men were both hated figures from Mubarak’s immediate entourage. Suleiman was known as Dr. Torture for his leading role in the U.S.-led extraordinary renditions program of exporting prisoners to Egypt and other Arab countries for torture. He was also known as a particularly close ally of Israel in its war on Gaza.
By Monday the new cabinet was sworn in, retaining most of the hated ministers of the previous government, including those running the strategic posts of defense, communications, justice, oil, and foreign affairs.
The hated Habib Al-Adly was removed, together with several of the group of business ministers that were part of his son Gamal’s group of extreme neoliberal crooks. The superficial concessions were seen as insulting and only added fuel to the anger and determination of the masses.
The entry of the army tanks onto the main streets and entrances of Tahrir Square and other city centers was met at first with anger, but very quickly and with remarkable spontaneity large numbers of people rushed toward the soldiers, embracing them, climbing on the tanks, waving the Egyptian flag, and chanting loudly “the army and the people are one hand.” Soon youngsters had painted anti-Mubarak slogans all over the tanks. This was not, as many people remarked, simply confusion among the masses about the real role of the army, although such confusion existed. It was rather a brilliant and rapid neutralization of the armed forces in the squares and streets, making it near impossible for the soldiers and young officers to shoot at the people even if they were ordered to. Previous revolutions had seen similar mass tactics aimed at fraternizing with the soldiers and young officers.
The protesters called for million-strong marches on Tuesday, February 1, in all major cities. The reaction of the army generals was one of the major turning points in the revolution. Military spokesman Major General Ismail Othman declared on national television that the army recognized the legitimate demands of the people and would not shoot at them. The army generals understood that ordering a crackdown by the troops would split the forces and turn thousands of soldiers and young officers against them. The army leaders were prepared to sacrifice Mubarak to save the regime that ultimately rested on their ability to maintain control over their troops.
On Monday, January 31, the new vice president Suleiman addressed the nation saying that he was asked by Mubarak to open a dialogue with all opposition groups and to ask the judiciary to overturn the disputed elections results of last November. It was a tactical retreat by the regime in order to gain time and exhaust the protesters.
Tuesday, February 1
The regime’s tactics were not working. Millions participated in the protests of that day, including two million in Tahrir Square in Cairo, one million in Martyrs’ Square in Alexandria, 750,000 in Mansoura, and a quarter of a million in Suez. It was an unprecedented show of strength. This time, protesters demanded not only the immediate removal of Mubarak, but also the ouster of the whole regime.
Tahrir Square was turning into a massive commune of resistance and a “festival of the oppressed.” People felt they were winning this historic battle. An explosion of individual and group creativity was taking place. Thousands of banners and placards with the people’s demands, expressed with poetry, jokes, and personal stories, filled the square. Graffiti, murals, and slogans covered every building wall.
The space in Tahrir was not simply occupied physically but spiritually. Harassment against women disappeared, tensions between Copts and Muslims evaporated. People shared food, water, and cigarettes. Songs, music, poetry, and chants filled the air. A new Egypt was being created.
However, the enemy would not give up that easily. The ruling class was carefully conspiring and strategizing to bury this new Egypt. By Tuesday evening, Mubarak gave his second speech in response to the massive demonstrations of the day. He pledged to complete his term, insisting that he would not leave under pressure. This time he seemed to have been better advised, as he recalled his service to his country for over six decades while pledging to oversee major reforms. In the speech, he promised not to seek reelection, to leave in September, and to die in Egypt.
The speech had a confusing effect on sections of the less politicized masses, some people started arguing for an end to the demonstrations. The man was old, he was leaving power in a few months, they said. However the regime was using a parallel tactic of an intense media campaign about conspiracies in order to create chaos—that there were food shortages, that the economy was collapsing, that banks were running out of money, that the demonstrators were being paid by foreign agencies, that Tahrir Square was turning into an orgy of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and so on. All the filth that has been thrown at revolutionaries throughout history by the ruling classes filled the television networks and the government papers, and was spread by thousands of agents. The splits and confusion among the masses were temporary however. The regime was planning a diabolical and violent counterrevolution for the next day.
The Battle of the Camel: Wednesday, February 2
A number of prominent billionaires, NDP leaders, and secret police officers, led by Gamal Mubarak, devised a plan for a full-blown attack on the demonstrators. Each businessman pledged to recruit as many people as possible from their businesses and industries, as well as hoodlums, lumpenproletarians known as the baltagiyya in Arabic, that were prepared to do anything for money. Meanwhile, the interior minister reconstituted some of the most notorious officers of his secret police to join the counterrevolutionary demonstrations planned for Wednesday, with a specific plan to attack the pro-democracy protesters.
About a dozen security officers, who were to supervise the plan in the field, also recruited former dangerous ex-prisoners who had escaped the previous Saturday, promising them money and presidential pardons for their convictions. This plan was to be executed in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Port Said, Damanhour, and Asyout, among other cities.
This kind of mobilization of the lumpenproletariat for counterrevolution is not new. Karl Marx famously described how Louis Bonaparte used the same tactic after the 1848 Revolution in France:
On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10.
The use of such elements was also not new in Egypt. The same tactic was used to rig elections, to intimidate voters, and to attack demonstrators and strikers, particularly during Mubarak’s last decade in power.
Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, February 2, the plan of attack was executed. Over 3,000 baltagiyya attacked from two entrances of Tahrir Square. They threw thousands of rocks and stones at the tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered in the square, while most attackers had shields to defend themselves against the returning rocks. While a few were armed with guns, all baltagiyya were armed with clubs, machetes, razors, knives, and other sharp objects.
After about an hour of throwing stones, the attackers moved on to the second stage of the plan, as dozens of horses and camels came charging at the demonstrators in a scene reminiscent of the battles of the Middle Ages. Confused and bewildered at first, the demonstrators fought back with their bare hands, throwing their bodies at the horse- and camel-riding thugs.
Battles took place at all the entrances to the square. The demonstrators quickly organized themselves into thick defense lines and stones and bricks were gathered from all over the square for the fightback. Blood flowed everywhere. Those injured at the frontlines would immediately be replaced and the injured carried to the makeshift field hospitals organized by volunteer doctors and nurses.
The thugs were pushed back, but everyone knew that this was only the beginning. At incredible speed, barricades were set up at all the entrances to the square in preparation for the coming battles. The more organized groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood youth, played a central role in preparing, organizing, and fighting the thugs.
The expected next attack came in the evening when thousands of thugs, plainclothes policemen and snipers started gathering, particularly at the entrance to Tahrir closest to the Egyptian Museum and at the tops of several buildings. A nearby bridge gave the thugs an elevated position and therefore a tactical advantage at that entrance. The barricades were reinforced with burned-out police cars and trucks and thousands of fighters prepared for battle.
The defenders of Tahrir devised an elaborate division of labor. The young and strong, particularly the working-class youth would take the front lines as stone throwers. Others would break pavements to provide a steady flow of stones to the frontlines. Yet other groups would carry the stones to the frontlines. Young women brought water to the fighters throughout that terrible but heroic night.
The thugs began an intensive campaign of throwing stones, empty soda bottles, and Molotov cocktails. Part of the plan seemed to be to start fires in the Egyptian Museum, in an apparent attempt to burn it down and blame it on the demonstrators—another fine example of how barbaric the ruling bourgeoisie can become when under threat. Burn the old Pharaohs to save the modern Pharaohs! Groups were organized for the protection of the museum, putting out fires as they arose.
Hundreds of frontline fighters charged toward Mubarak’s thugs, crossing the barricades and becoming completely exposed but using all their strength to bombard them with stones. Dozens would be wounded, rapidly carried away, and another stone-throwing attack at the thugs would ensue. The idea of these raids beyond the barricades, despite the exposure and despite the tactical elevation of the thugs, turned to be a stroke of collective genius. It was part of a psychological offensive to disarm the thugs. The idea was to make clear that the revolutionaries were prepared to die for their cause. No mercenary force can face such a challenge in the long term.
Snipers started aiming their laser pointers at the demonstrators. Tens of young demonstrators would climb the barricades and let the pointers aim at their chests. These were fearless fighters, with a clear aim and a clear message: either death or victory!
Over a dozen young fighters were martyred during that night, their bodies carried with pride and determination by their comrades to the makeshift hospitals. Thousands were injured, and doctors and nurses worked all night to stitch up their wounds and comfort them. Hundreds of the injured would return immediately to the frontlines to continue the battle.
There was another battle taking place at the top of buildings, some occupied by the thugs and others by the revolutionaries, and fires were burning all over the place. A small but efficient Molotov cocktail factory was established on our side of the barricades to fight fire with fire. Some would bring the gasoline, others would bring the crates of empty bottles, and others would prepare them, filling crate after crate with bombs. Others would then carry them to the frontlines on the ground and to the liberated building tops.
By dawn, the battle had been won. The thugs and police were fleeing. They were running for their lives, as the revolutionaries had reached the bridge and intersections outside the square and were running after the thugs, arresting hundreds. The murderers were pulled into the square, beaten up, but protected from the many demonstrators that wanted them executed on the spot. A makeshift prison was used to hold them. The majority turned out to hold either police or NDP identity cards.
The battles and the victory gave a huge boost to the revolution. Those that were confused the night before became infuriated. The president’s speech was exposed as a ploy in preparation for the murderous attacks of the next day.
The role of the army was also exposed to many as hypocritical. The talk of protecting the revolution seemed particularly hollow now. One hour before the planned assault, the army announced to the demonstrators on national television that the government “got the message,” and then implored the protesters to end the demonstrations and “go home.” But when the protesters begged the army units to interfere during the sixteen hours of brutal attacks, the army declared that it was neutral and partially withdrew from some entrances, despite its promise to protect the peaceful and unarmed demonstrators.
By daybreak, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians joined their fellow demonstrators in order to show their support and solidarity. The leaders of the protests had already called for massive demonstrations on Friday across Egypt after congregational prayers, calling the event “Departure Day,” in a reference to their hopes to force Mubarak to resign or leave the country.
Omar Suleiman had earlier called for a national dialogue with the opposition. Amazingly, a dialogue actually took place on Sunday, February 6. It included not only the tame and loyal opposition of discredited figures from the supposedly left-wing Tagammu Party and the liberal Wafd Party, but also several key leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Naguib Sawiris, head of the richest family in Egypt, and some members of youth coalitions. Most of the latter no one had seen or heard from before, but there were a few legitimate youth activists who were lured into Suleiman’s trap.
The meetings took place in a major government hall with a huge portrait of Mubarak hanging on the wall. The official media of course made a huge deal of the dialogue. But the movement in the streets and squares of Egypt had far passed the point that it could be lulled by any new tricks by the regime. There was furious anger at those opposition figures that took part in the talks. The Muslim Brotherhood youth openly attacked their leadership on a decision they saw, rightly, as a betrayal of the revolution and its martyrs.
At the end of the meeting, the regime issued a communiqué that thanked Mubarak and reiterated the regime’s perspective and interpretation of events. It claimed, inaccurately, that all participants agreed on the road map toward finding a solution to the “crisis.” This was supposedly based on limited reforms to the constitution and elections, while maintaining all state institutions and the characters who ran them, including the fraudulent parliament. It did not promise the immediate lifting of the emergency law. Ironically, a day after the dialogue Suleiman declared on national television that, “Egypt is not ready for democracy.”
Under pressure from their youth, the Brotherhood leadership announced that the talks had failed and that Suleiman had not offered anything substantial. But their image was already tainted, and an increasing sense of mistrust toward their leadership now animated the Brotherhood youth.
Pressure was building among the demonstrators to use new tactics. On Tuesday, February 8, hundreds of thousands held huge demonstrations around the prime minister’s building, preventing him from reaching his office. They also blocked the parliament, preventing any member from going in or out. They vowed that soon the presidential palace would be surrounded. Similar mass sieges were held around government buildings in Alexandria.
Workers in the uprising
Throughout these momentous events, ordinary working-class people dominated the battlefields, increasingly so with every passing week. They participated not in an organized way, as unions or workplace representatives, but as individuals. Of course, the media versions of events would give an opposite view. The star “revolutionary” interviewees were all middle-class, university-educated youth of one coalition or the other, all beaming with pride at being considered heroes of the revolution.
In the last week of the uprising, a wave of mass strikes and demonstrations by workers in key sectors of the economy spread like wildfire, presenting both economic demands and the call for Mubarak’s ouster. Suez, scene of some of the fiercest battles against the police on the Friday of Rage, led the way. On February 8, 6,000 Suez Canal workers went on strike, joining textile workers and steel workers. Petroleum workers held protests the following day demanding better pay and job security. Strikes spread rapidly through all the big cities and many smaller towns, drawing in transport workers, textile workers, civil servants, and health workers. By Thursday, February 10, the wave had spread from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south. Even the generals’ own factories, where workers live under harsh military discipline, were alight with strikes.
In most of these workplaces, strikers had been emboldened by the uprising to raise again their long-standing economic demands. But in some key sectors, they went further by directly confronting the dictatorship and demanding the fall of the regime. On February 9, Cairo public transport workers issued a statement, which they distributed in Tahrir Square, in full solidarity with the aims of the uprising. The following day, strikers shut down bus garages across the city.
Even the New York Times had to admit the important role this intervention by the working class played in changing the shape of Egypt after Mubarak, writing a few days after the dictator’s fall:
The labor unrest this week at textile mills, pharmaceutical plants, chemical industries, the Cairo airport, the transportation sector and banks has emerged as one of the most powerful dynamics in a country navigating the military-led transition that followed an 18-day popular uprising and the end of Mr. Mubarak’s three decades of rule.
The end of Mubarak
It was obvious by now to the army generals, the U.S. administration, and Egypt’s ruling capitalists that they had to get rid of Mubarak. The media announced that Mubarak would be giving a third speech that night. People waited for hours as the speech was delayed. Announcements from army officers, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the U.S. administration all seemed to indicate that the game was over and that Mubarak would announce his resignation. But the masses were on full alert. Three decades of treachery and lies made them skeptical. And they were right. Mubarak made a short speech that night declaring that he would stay until the election time several months away, delegating his powers to Suleiman. The fury and anger that was unleashed by that arrogant speech was unprecedented. Hundreds of thousands hurried to raise their shoes in the air to signal that the struggle would continue.
The demonstrations on Friday, February 11, were the largest ever. Over fifteen million people were estimated to have taken part in demonstrations all over the country. Workers came out this time in organized demonstrations from their workplaces, signaling that they would paralyze the country if Mubarak did not back down.
That same evening, that demand was finally met in a twenty-second address by Suleiman. Appearing on state television, he declared that Mubarak had resigned from his thirty-year position, transferring his authority to a military council called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The first stage of the Egyptian revolution had triumphed. Nearly a thousand were martyred, tens of thousands injured, but Mubarak was history. The mass celebrations that continued through the night and the whole of the next day were the largest and most festive in Egypt’s modern history.
The generals in power and the transitional period
An army is always a copy of the society it serves—with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme.
—Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution
The generals and field marshals of any army are obviously an essential part of the ruling class, and Egypt is no exception. The army leaders are connected by thousands of golden threads to the billionaires and other state officials who have ruled the country for decades. The military rulers of post-Mubarak Egypt, the SCAF, are all hand-picked by the former dictator. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the council, had been Mubarak’s defense minister since 1991. His loyalty to Mubarak was unsurpassed, and he was a central figure in Mubarak’s close circle of advisers and allies.
The Egyptian army is also an economic empire that accounts for nearly 20 percent of the Egyptian economy. The military establishment owns vast amounts of agricultural land and real estate, tourism companies, trading companies, and much more. It also operates an industrial complex producing everything from ammunition to washing machines. This economic empire is not immune to the corruption that has been the main feature of all major state institutions during the Mubarak era. Indeed, the secrecy that protects the army budget and finances makes it probably one of the most corrupt of these institutions.
The army is also intimately linked to the U.S. military. It receives a yearly aid package of $1.3 billion and participates in regular joint military exercises with the U.S. army and navy. All special training of officers takes place in the United States, and all high-tech weaponry purchased by the Egyptian army is U.S.-made.
The majority of soldiers and young officers are conscripts, mainly from the working class, peasantry, and lower-middle-class backgrounds. The generals control this army through severe and archaic discipline involving harsh punishments, humiliation, and complete segregation between the professional officer caste and the conscript soldiers in terms of eating arrangements, accommodation, and even toilets.
As was mentioned earlier, the army leadership’s decision not to order an attack on the demonstrators during the revolution was not a sign that the army actually supported the revolution in any way, but rather that they knew such orders would split the army. They sacrificed Mubarak to save the system.
When it was forced to remove Mubarak from the scene and take over power directly, the SCAF knew that it had to tread very carefully between concessions to the people and protecting the interests of the ruling class that was still intact at the core of the regime. This would not be an easy task.
Concessions, coercion, and pressure from below
On February 13, the SCAF dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, but it kept the hated Mubarak-appointed government in place. It promised to investigate the police crimes against the people and the conspiracies and corruption of the old regime. On February 17, Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly and his aides were arrested. Also arrested that day were the three billionaire ministers: Ahmed Maghraby, Zoheir Garana, and Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon and organizational head of the NDP.
But the SCAF continued to stall in regards to Mubarak and his family and the real “president’s men”; the circle of ministers and top officials that he relied on for most of his years in power.
Massive demonstrations were again to take place on Friday, February 18, both as a celebration of the great achievement of ousting Mubarak and to call for the change of government and trials for the president and his men.
The SCAF appointed a panel of judges to prepare a set of constitutional amendments to prepare organized parliamentary elections, a constitutional assembly, and presidential elections, all of which would be put to a referendum on March 19. The panel was headed by a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer and had another Brotherhood conservative member on its board.
The new government
“The policies of a revolutionary government ought never to offend anybody unnecessarily.” That was, at bottom, the guiding principle of the whole Provisional Government, which feared most of all to offend anybody from the circles of the possessing classes.
—Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution
As far as the most threatening problems of the people’s existence were concerned, the revolution had apparently been achieved only in order to make the announcement: everything remains as before.
A major demand of the continuing weekly Friday demonstrations was the dismissal of the Mubarak-appointed government of Ahmed Shafiq. On March 3, the SCAF conceded and appointed Essam Sharaf to form a new transitional government. But Sharaf not only held on to some of Mubarak’s appointees; he added others that were either big businessmen or connected in one way or another to the old regime.
Yet major revolutionary initiatives continued. On March 4 and 5, angry young protesters stormed the hated state security offices, for decades centers for torture, illegal detention, and murder. The movement started in Alexandria, and within hours dozens of these ugly, blood-stained buildings had been stormed all over the country. What the protesters found in these hastily abandoned buildings was astonishing: tons of documents, videos, and recordings of “interrogations,” and reports on the every move of tens of thousands of political activists. Although the officers had tried to destroy the evidence by shredding and burning, they did not have the time to complete the job.
Many of the protesters had previously entered these buildings as blindfolded prisoners, suffering torture, humiliation, electric shocks, and rape while listening to the terrifying sounds of the screams of others. Now they were entering as liberators. Their torturers had fled and left behind them a trail of their crimes against the Egyptian people and against humanity. On March 15, the SCAF was forced to concede to the mass demand of disbanding the criminal state security agency.
One of the first announcements by the new transitional government was that there would be no change in the free market economic policies of the ousted government. SCAF had already emphasized in a previous announcement that the government remained committed to its international treaties and would remain an ally and friend of the United States.
On March 23, the government put forward a law criminalizing strikes and protests that disrupt the normal function of institutions or services, whether private or public. The sentence for breaking this new law was to be one year in jail and a fine of 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($84,000).
But strikes continued to spread, obviously and intentionally “disrupting the normal function of institutions.” Yet the government and SCAF did not at first make any attempts to actually enforce the law.
However the SCAF, the government, bourgeois and state press and media, and liberal and Islamist writers and commentators joined in that seemed to be a coordinated propaganda campaign against strikes. They labeled strikes as selfish “sectional actions” that did not take into account the interests of the nation as a whole. They were damaging to the economy, it was argued, and therefore to the project of building the new Egypt. This was a revolution of all honest Egyptians, capitalists and workers, poor and rich, and even if the poor have rightful demands, they should be patient. They should wait until the transition.
An anti-working-class consensus was emerging between this new bourgeois alliance. The striking workers were causing chaos and threatening the orderly transition of power. In fact, many went so far as to call workers’ strikes counterrevolutionary actions that must be stopped immediately. In one of Essam Sharaf’s announcements, he compared them to attacks by thugs.
The propaganda campaign continues, with barrages of articles, television shows, army announcements, and interviews with ministers all talking about the new stage of the revolution relying on restarting the “wheel of production” that the workers seemed crazy enough to want to interfere with. “Thank you very much, you helped us get rid of Mubarak, but now go back to work and shut up,” seemed to be the message to the Egyptian working class from the bourgeoisie and its intellectuals.
Yet the working class and the poor in general did not seem to get the message. Strikes, sit-ins, the blocking of railway lines, and demonstrations in front of ministries continued unabated.
Of course, this message was not only meant as a threat to the workers, but also as a rallying cry for the middle classes. Constant talk of chaos and economic collapse at a time of real economic crisis truly frightened large numbers of small businessmen, the traditional petty bourgeoisie, artisans, and peasants owning medium-sized farms who could not sell their products. Shifting the blame for the capitalist crisis onto the working class, this propaganda campaign sought not only to deflect anger that could have been directed by these sectors toward the government and its neoliberal policies, but also to prepare the necessary alliances for a future confrontation with the working class.
April was a month of mounting pressure from below, significant concessions from the ruling SCAF, but also growing repression by the military police. The stalling by the SCAF on the arrest and trial of the president and his entourage was becoming both threatening and unacceptable to the revolutionary masses. The role of the SCAF and its relation to the revolution was being questioned after a short “honeymoon” during which large sections of the masses had trusted the army leaders as “protectors” of the revolution.
On Friday, April 1, new mass demonstrations took place in Tahrir Square, Alexandria, Suez, and other major cities in what was called the “Friday to Save the Revolution.” The protesters called for the banning of the NDP; speeding up the process of investigating corruption; and putting Mubarak, his sons, and other top officials on trial.
On April 8, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square for a “Friday of Cleansing and Trial.” This was to turn into the first major confrontation between demonstrators and the military police. Several army officers took part in the demonstrations in their uniforms. They chanted slogans against Field Marshal Tantawi and against corruption in the army. Several thousand demonstrators, including the officers, staged a sit-in at the center of the square, deciding to continue the demonstration through the night. This fraternization between protesters and uniformed officers, and the new tone of anger against the SCAF became intolerable for the army leadership. Military police were ordered to break up the sit-in. They shot into the crowds, killing at least one person and injuring dozens. All the protesting officers were arrested.
The army was using more and more coercion in attempting to contain the protest movements. At Cairo University, military police broke up a student occupation. Hundreds of activists throughout the country were arrested and tortured. The number of civilians in military jails reached 10,000 prisoners. But perhaps most bizarre, female activists arrested were forced to have their virginity tested. This was a gruesome reminder that the military police officers had the same brutal mindset of the state security police officers.
Yet the SCAF had to make serious concessions in order to keep control of the situation. Thus on April 7, Zakariya Azmi, Mubarak’s chief of staff and most trusted aide, was arrested. This was followed by the arrests of Ahmed Nazif, Mubarak’s last prime minister, on April 10; Safwat El-Sherif, the president of the Shura Council and NDP general secretary, on April 11; and Fathi Sorour, the parliamentary speaker, on April 13.
The arrest of Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, was also ordered on April 13. The two sons were transferred to Tora prison in Cairo, while Mubarak was transferred to a hospital in Sharm El Sheikh as he allegedly suffered a heart attack.
As in any revolution, those who lose power are prepared to do anything to regain it. The remnants of the NDP, the security police, and billionaire businessmen connected to the old regime continued to make attempts at rolling back the revolution. The use of thugs to intimidate people and create a sense of fear and insecurity continued unabated. The police continued with what amounted to an informal strike, partly out of fear, but also to add to the absence of security on Egypt’s streets. Perhaps most dangerously was the rapid rise of the Salafi groups (ultra-religious conservative Muslims) who began targeting the Christian minority. As Mostafa Omar describes in one of his excellent articles about the revolution:
First, in early March, in the village of Atfih, south of Cairo, a mob of Salafists, along with disenfranchised urban poor, burned a Coptic church to the ground because of an alleged relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. In April, in the Southern governate of Qena—which has a large number of Christian residents—Salafists organized civil disobedience to oppose a new governor for the province on the basis of his Christian identity. In fact, many Christians and Muslims opposed the appointment of Emad Mikhael because he was a notoriously brutal general in the secret police under Mubarak. But the Salafists directed their wrath on the appointed governor’s religious faith. More recently, in early May, in the impoverished neighborhood of Imbaba in Cairo, another Muslim mob attacked and burned a Coptic church. Salafists had been agitating against Christians for some time, and claimed that priests were holding a Christian woman married to a Muslim man in the church against her will. As army and police officers stood by, gunfights between Muslims and Christians broke out. They lasted for hours and left at least 11 people dead. Fortunately, a public outcry by a sizeable majority of ordinary Muslims and Christians against church burning temporarily slowed down the Salafists.
Attempts at counterrevolution thus far have not been able to demobilize or demoralize the revolution. However, revolutionary vigilance is necessary. Those who want revenge on the revolution will keep trying. What they failed to do with camels and horses on February 3, they will try again with bombs, machine guns, and sectarian violence.
Islamists, liberals, and the struggle for power
The Muslim Brotherhood was not able to participate in the revolution without vacillations and splits. What moved the Brotherhood leadership was pressure from various trends within the organization rather than participation in the revolution on the basis of principle. In particular, it was the result of the intense pressure from the Brotherhood’s youth base, which had merged with the masses in the streets during the revolution.
This vacillation and contradiction are not new to the Brotherhood. The organization’s entire history is witness to this tendency, from the time of the Brotherhood’s founder, Imam Hassan al-Banna, until today. At the end of the 1940s, the monarchy was able to destroy the heart of the organization, despite its power and half a million members, by exploiting the sharp disagreements within the organization and the indecision of its leadership in confronting the regime. The group saw a similar crisis during the first years after the revolution of July 1952, when internal divisions and wavering leadership allowed the Nasserist regime to destroy it.
This permanent fluctuation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm, is a result of the nature of the Brotherhood as a popular religious group which comprises sections of the urban bourgeoisie side by side with sections of the traditional and modern petty bourgeoisie (drawn from students and university graduates), the unemployed, and large sections of the poor. This structure remains stable at times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation, when it becomes almost impossible to reconcile the various contradictory social interests under a broad and vague message.
Day and night the Brotherhood has parroted the same lines about the army’s patriotism and its leadership, about how there is a “red line” around the army, about its work “protecting” the revolution and that any movement against the army is a betrayal of the revolution. In a statement on the Brotherhood’s website we find the following section:
The army is trying to preserve a degree of discipline among its ranks, and it is right to do so, for if it cannot maintain its own discipline it cannot protect the people.
At present the army is the only organized force in Egypt, and it is not in our interests to weaken it, nor will we let anyone else weaken it. We know who is working in this way, and what their goals and intentions are. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to see the success of the revolution, and we are fully aware that the position of our great army in relation to the revolution is one of the principal factors in its success. For the army has said to the people since the first moment “you can express your views freely and demonstrate during the day, but not during the night-time curfews, which have been reduced more than once to only 3 hours.”
In relation to the social deepening of the revolution with the great wave of strikes, which were triggered by the uprising, the Brotherhood took the same position as the government and the Military Council, demanding:
A return to work to save the Egyptian economy. The Muslim Brotherhood calls on all sections of the Egyptian people to keep the wheels of production and development turning. Demonstrations for sectional demands, albeit a fundamental right, are detrimental to production and damage the economy, particularly as the revolution is linked to keeping the motor of the economy turning. Citizens must feel that their sacrifices in the search for a dignified life were not just empty talk, so that the Egyptian people can prove that they are capable of a further achievement beyond the revolution, in other words, to lift Egypt out of its economic crisis.
These positions are, of course, not restricted to the Brotherhood. Liberal forces are also participating with great enthusiasm in the same double campaign—absolute support for the military council and a hysterical campaign against workers’ strikes under the banner of keeping “the wheels of production turning.” Amr Hamzawy, one of the stars of liberalism, even called for the formation of groups of young people and public personalities in order to spread propaganda against strikes among the workers. A wide range of intellectuals and revolutionaries of yesterday are inciting for smashing strikes with the cooperation of the army, as part of these campaigns against the second phase of the revolution.
Both Islamists and liberals formed a number of political parties in expectation that elections would be held in September. Although superficially, debates between secular liberals and Islamists over the details of the constitution and over the place of Islamic Sharia law in a future democratic Egypt suggest that their differences are irreconcilable, when it comes to the class struggle and to the limits of the revolution they turn out to be close allies. Both forces fully support the SCAF and strongly condemn any criticism of the army. Both sides support free market capitalism, both are strongly opposed to the continuing strike movement, and both will probably end up in an alliance to help save capitalism and crush the workers.
The workers’ revolt
The strike wave that had begun on the third week of the revolution and which delivered the final blow to Mubarak’s rule did not of course end with the fall of the dictator. In fact the political victory, ousting the dictator, gave a huge boost to the workers’ movement, leading to thousands of both economic and political strikes throughout the country. During the two months after Mubarak’s fall, more strikes took place and more workers participated in them than throughout the whole 2006–09 strike wave, which had until that point been the largest in modern Egyptian history.
In fact, the new post-Mubarak strike wave was both a continuation and deepening of the previous one. Dozens of new independent unions have been formed in the heat of the struggle, democratically electing leaders from strike committees. The strike wave spread between industries, among white-collar workers, and throughout the private sector. The demands of the movement have included national demands for a minimum wage, as well as anticorruption demands. The levels of generalization and radicalization have been unprecedented.
Those who wished for an orderly, purely political democratic revolution, an engineered transition from dictatorship to democracy led by liberal bourgeois democrats and moderate Islamists, a transition that would be passively supported by the working class and the poor, had clearly not understood what they were getting themselves into.
During the early days of the revolution, when the common aim was mainly the ousting of Mubarak and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy, there seemed to be a sense of cross-class unity, perhaps most symbolized by the Egyptian flag. The poorest unemployed, the richest corporate executive, and everyone in between waved the flag proudly. Those who fought at the barricades and those who showed up later when conditions became safe enough, all felt this to be their united revolution: a revolution of the whole Egyptian people, with all its social classes, against a hated dictatorship. But this sense of unity was both superficial and temporary.
The seemingly vague democratic slogans of freedom, social justice, and dignity meant completely different things to the different classes participating. Freedom for the worker did not only mean freedom to vote or freedom of expression; it also meant freedom from hunger, insecurity, and the constant threat of unemployment. Social justice meant equality and redistribution of wealth, better wages, health care, housing, education, and public services. Dignity was a meaningless notion unless it meant an end to poverty and need.
The bourgeois democrat had, of course, a different understanding of these slogans. Freedom for him meant a Western-style parliamentary system. Social justice meant a slight improvement in the conditions of the poor, as long as this did not frighten off investors, and as long as the demands were realistic and did not threaten the survival of capitalism. Dignity meant an end to police abuses but had very little to do in his mind with any social questions.
Other sections of the population would translate these slogans into more and more varied notions. The ousting of Mubarak began to force these differences to the surface.
This brings us to the question of the relationship between politics and economics, and more specifically, between a democratic revolution and a social revolution. A democratic revolution in which the working class plays a major role is in itself already implicitly and potentially a social revolution. From the very first moments of the revolution, the future class struggles of the later phases of the revolution are already immanent. In the case of Egypt, where the revolution was carried out against not only a brutal dictatorship, but also a neoliberal capitalist one, and where the revolution was preceded by years of workers’ struggles against neoliberal policies, it could not be otherwise. There could not be an outcome similar to the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe.
The interaction between political and economic protests during a revolution was brilliantly described by Rosa Luxemburg in her analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1905:
But the movement on the whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, nor even the reverse. Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes.… Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval.
This interaction between political and economic demands is a central feature of the Egyptian revolution.
One of the factors that intensifies this interaction in the Egyptian case is the extent to which the institutions of the state, the NDP and big business were, and continue to be, deeply connected to each other at all levels of society.
One of the main slogans of the revolution, particularly after the removal of Mubarak was that of “cleansing the system.” What this meant was that the revolution would not succeed unless there was a thorough purge of all NDP and corrupt officials from all institutions. Thus, in nearly all the major strikes taking place since the revolution, a major demand has been to remove corrupt and NDP-linked managers and to put them on trial. This clearly political demand was integrated with the economic demands for a minimum wage, improved wages and benefits, permanent contracts for temporary workers, better working conditions, and so on.
A similar situation arose during the Portuguese revolution of 1974. As Tony Cliff explains in an important analysis of the revolution, Portugal at the Crossroads:
Saneamento (purging) meant much more than simply locking up the secret policemen. Effectively and thoroughly carried out, it means to virtually destroy the structure of the bourgeois state. Because the corporate state meant control over every level of social life, banks, churches, schools, universities, offices and factory managements, a complete saneamento would mean the destruction of the entire social hierarchy from board of directors right down to foremen.
Thus what started in Egypt on January 25—a seemingly purely democratic political revolution—can develop into a revolution challenging the very basis of capitalist society.
Between rising expectations and economic crisis
Another important factor pushing the Egyptian revolution beyond the limits of bourgeois democratic transition is the deepening contradiction between rising expectations among Egyptian workers and the poor and the severe economic crisis of Egyptian capitalism. People expect higher wages, a reduction of unemployment, better housing, education, and health care. But within the confines of the capitalist system, all these things are expected to get worse and are already deteriorating.
The Egyptian economy was already in crisis before the revolution. But things have become much worse since. Perhaps the most visible problem is inflation. Food prices, for example, were up by 20 percent in April 2011 compared to the same month the previous year. Unemployment has risen sharply, compounded by the return of hundreds of thousands of workers from Libya. There were 1.5 million Egyptian workers in Libya. The revolution and civil war there caused a sharp decline in workers’ remittances, an important source of foreign currency. Tourism revenues, which account for 11 percent of GDP, also fell sharply, adding hundreds of thousands to the millions of unemployed youth.
To try to stabilize the economy, the government has deployed foreign reserves, propping up the Egyptian pound. The reserves have fallen from $34 billion to $28 billion in the last three months. But the Egyptian pound still fell. The longer-term threat to the Egyptian economy is a rapid further decline in reserves, followed by speculation on the pound and a complete collapse in its value. The budget deficit in 2011 is estimated at over 9 percent, and GDP growth has shrunk by 4.2 percent in the first quarter.
What all this means is that either Egyptian capitalism is about to collapse or the working class and poor of Egypt will be made to pay the price of the crisis. But the working class and poor in Egypt revolted and are continuing to revolt precisely because they have been paying the price for neoliberalism and its failures for decades. What they expect is an end to poverty, unemployment, and the humiliation and indignity they have suffered.
The generals and capitalists and their transitional government cannot make any substantial concessions to the workers without breaking not only with neoliberalism, but with the very structure of the capitalist economy. For them, that would not only be irrational but suicidal. They will fight tooth and nail to save the system and make the poor pay the price. But the poor will also fight tooth and nail to save their revolution.
A new and fierce clash is brewing.
Enter world capitalism
Egyptian capitalism is an integral part of the world capitalist system. Its survival depends on the vital links that connect it to the United States, European Union, and Gulf State economies. Therefore, the transitional government has run to these governments for help.
And indeed, as would be expected, the fact that the SCAF and the transitional government have pledged to continue the same economic and foreign policies of the previous regime has made the United States, the EU, and their financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, all eager to help.
The G8 summit held on May 26 and 27 (attended by Essam Sharaf) announced that up to $20 billion would be offered to Egypt and Tunisia. When support from the Gulf Arab states is added to this figure, Egypt appears to be on the verge of receiving around $15 billion in loans, investment, and aid from governments and the key international financial institutions. However, this money comes with conditions. The packages are premised upon the continuation of neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation, and encouragement of foreign investment.
On May 24, this conditionality was set out following an announcement by the World Bank and IMF that they would provide $4.5 billion to Egypt over two years. Noting that “reforms were as important as money,” the IMF made clear during the G8 summit what was to be required for the money to start flowing into Egypt:
Overcoming high unemployment will require a substantial increase in the pace of economic growth.… Achieving such growth rates will entail both additional investment and improved productivity. While some increases in public investment may be required, for instance to improve the quality of infrastructure and services in less developed rural areas, the key role will have to be played by the private sector, including by attracting foreign direct investment. Thus, government policies should support an enabling environment in which the private sector flourishes.
Therefore the main thrust of the international financial intervention in post-Mubarak Egypt is an acceleration of the same neoliberal policies followed by the Mubarak regime—those same policies that led to the impoverishment of the majority of the population, the massive concentration of wealth among a tiny minority, and a facilitating state in bed with the billionaires.
That is exactly the Egypt we revolted against, and it is exactly the Egypt being offered us again, with only the slightest of change in the packaging.
Preparing for the second Egyptian revolution
As we saw above, the revolution involves a complex interaction between political and economic demands, between its democratic and its social phases. There are no clearly demarcated and separate stages in the revolution. The achievement of the main political democratic demands of the revolution, which has only just begun, can only be completed and maintained by the mass participation of the Egyptian working class. This necessarily transforms the revolution from its narrow bourgeois democratic demands and puts to the fore social demands that cannot be achieved within the confines of capitalism and its endless crises.
The threat to capitalism unites all kinds of disparate forces against the working class and the poor. Plans of containment on the one hand and conspiracies for counterrevolution on the other hand fill the air. For many liberals and Islamists, the threats posed by the political awakening of the working class and the poor become much more menacing than the slow and limited pace of political and democratic reform on offer from the generals.
Thus the true completion of the democratic revolution requires that the working class take the lead, pulling behind them the poor peasants, the urban poor, the oppressed sections of society, the poor Copts, Nubians, and Sinai Bedouins. This is needed to save the revolution from containment, reaction, and counterrevolution, and then to prepare for a new uprising that would complete the overthrow of the regime, and complete the “cleansing” process by destroying the old regime’s state structures. Then would begin the task of building the “social republic,” through the conquest of political power by the working class with the support of the poor peasantry and urban poor, and all sections of society oppressed, not only by the old regime, but also by the so-called transitional regime and its generals.
These tasks cannot be achieved solely by the organization of independent trade unions and popular committees, however vital those tasks will be in the future insurrection. There is a vital need for the building of a revolutionary workers’ party. A party whose task will be not only to unite the most advanced elements of the working class, but also to pull toward it the less-organized and isolated sectors of the class. This party must become a “tribune of the oppressed,” winning the argument among all the victims of exploitation and oppression that only under the leadership of the working class can their suffering truly end.
Clarity and honesty is of utmost importance regarding the coming insurrection. The enemy will fight us viciously. The army will play the major role in trying to smash, not only the insurrection itself but also every vestige of independent workers’ organizations. It is therefore of vital importance in the coming battles to win over soldiers and young conscript officers to the side of the revolution in order to expose, isolate, and eventually defeat the army leadership.
Our enemies are organized. They have the full backing of the bourgeois media. Only an organized revolutionary party that is strong enough in numbers, and that is capable of propagating its ideas and agitating for revolutionary action among the masses, can hope to win this battle.
The gap between the current size and forces of the revolutionary left in Egypt and the tasks mentioned above is huge. Yet we know that our arguments can make a real difference and shape the struggles to come. Those of us in Tahrir Square during the uprising who believed that workers could finish off Mubarak didn’t simply wait for strikes to happen. We went and argued with leading activists in the workplaces that workers could use their organized collective power against the regime.
The revolutionary crisis in Egypt and in the wider Arab world is of a scale and depth—magnified by the context of world economic crisis—that means our enemies will find it difficult to resolve in the near future. The crisis will probably be one of years rather than months. This gives revolutionary socialists a window of opportunity that is truly historical. If we get it right on the essential questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics, if we learn the right lessons from both the failures and successes of our international revolutionary tradition, then a historic victory for the working class in Egypt and internationally could be within our grasp.
Another crucial factor that can make the difference between victory and defeat is the question of revolutionary internationalism. The world capitalist class is uniting and organising to contain and suffocate the Egyptian revolution. Yet world capitalism is in a long and protracted crisis. All over the world, ruling classes are attempting to make the working classes pay the price for that crisis. Resistance to these attempts are growing and deepening all over the world. The mass strikes and demonstrations in Greece and Spain are both inspired by and inspiring to the Egyptian revolution. The revolutions in Yemen and Syria, although facing unimaginable repression, are still continuing. Every victory for the working classes and masses in one region or country will give a tremendous boost to all the rest. Yet we cannot just rely on the relatively spontaneous interactions between these revolutions and movements. We need to organize international solidarity and use this historical moment to build our organizations all over the globe.
For the first time in decades, we literally have a world to win.
For more information about workers’ struggles in Egypt and the Middle East and details of what you can do to build solidarity with the revolutions see the MENA Solidarity Network website: http://menasolidaritynetwork.com/.