Egypt: Chronicle of a revolution

A running account of the days of the movement that brought down Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, by two eyewitnesses.



Millions against Mubarak

Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo

MASSIVE DEMONSTRATIONS across Egypt Tuesday were followed by a televised speech by President Hosni Mubarak, but his declaration that he wouldn’t run for re-election later this year after 30 years in power—apparently at the urging of U.S. government officials—won’t satisfy anyone.

Essentially, Mubarak has agreed not to run in an election where no one would have voted for him anyway. The only effect this can have on the uprising will be to sharpen people’s sense of determination still further.

The demonstrations today, on the eighth day of Egypt’s popular uprising, were a confirmation of the unanimity that Mubarak must go. As one sign in Tahrir Square in Cairo said, “Game over, next player.” That sentiment was dominant in all the crowds. But Mubarak continues to hang on, ignoring the volcano that’s now erupted beneath him.

According to the media, the sizes of the protests were bigger than any of the previous days. The estimate is that some 2 million Egyptians took to the streets in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas in Cairo. The square was just a sea of people. In the port city of Alexandria, an estimated 1.5 million marched. In another port city, Port Said, 100,000 to 120,000 people marched. In the city of Suez, by the Suez Canal, an estimated 40,000 marched—and that list doesn’t include dozens and dozens of other protests all over the country.

As this article was being written, around 9 p.m. in Egypt, some 1 million people are still in Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square—several hours after the curfew, which no one is really abiding by anyway.

This is an outpouring of the pent-up frustration that millions of Egyptians feel at the rule of Hosni Mubarak. But the demonstrations have a festive feeling—an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with whole families of several generations showing up at the square during the day today.

It was a gathering of people from all walks of life—as broad a cross-section of Egyptian society as you could imagine, in terms of class, in terms of race, in terms of gender. One of the most important features was the fact that Muslims and Copts—who are Egyptian Christians—were raising the need for unity across religious lines. That’s especially important after a series of anti-Coptic attacks, including a deadly attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria on January 1.

Another thing I thought was interesting at the demonstration was the association people made between Mubarak and the U.S. government. That was more muted in the first days of the protests, from reports I saw, but not today—people, for example, chanted the slogan: “Mubarak, you coward, you’re a slave of the U.S.”

There was also a real sense of people having taken charge of things for themselves. For example, everyone who came to Tahrir Square today was searched going in—by agreement between the organizers of the demonstration and the army, to make sure that no provocateurs with weapons were let in. So people were asked to show their national identity card, and were frisked and searched if they had any bags.

If you can imagine this taking place with so many hundreds of thousands of people who got to the square, you get an idea of the atmosphere of calm order prevailing in spite of the incredible numbers of people.

The longer the uprising goes on, the more people begin to feel a sense of their own power—of their capacity to change and control their destiny. That, of course, is an intoxicating feeling, and you see it everywhere in the streets.

A lot hangs in the balance now. Egypt will never be the same—nor will the rest of the Middle East, nor the rest of the world.

YESTERDAY, MUBARAK swore in a new cabinet after firing the whole government last week. It was the absurd act of a ruler whose time is done.

Everybody agrees that there’s no future for the regime. All the players—those at the top of Egyptian society, the United States, and its European allies—are now concerned with how to get Mubarak out. But of course, each of the different forces has different solutions and different interests in mind.

Sections of the Egyptian ruling class, as well as the army, indicated more clearly today that they think Mubarak should step down. For example, a well-known and extremely wealthy Egyptian capitalist named Naguib Sawiris, the owner of the mobile phone company Mobinil, today hinted that Mubarak should go.

Yesterday, the army chiefs came on television and announced that the army wouldn’t fire on protesters, or block the demonstrators today from exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

And today, state-controlled television showed scenes from Tahrir Square—to the cheers of people in the offices of left-wing activists who I was visiting at the time. It’s an unheard-of event that a protest in Egypt is actually reported about in Egypt. And there were reports tonight that at Tahrir Square, state television actually showed up to interview people on the street for the first time since the events began to unfold.

All of which shows that even the country’s elite understand what everyone on the street already knows—that the Mubarak regime is finished.

But what comes between being finished and Mubarak actually leaving office is the big question, and that’s where the speech tonight comes in.

Mubarak promised that he wouldn’t run for re-election in the vote scheduled for September—still more than half a year away. The people in Tahrir Square booed and jeered Mubarak’s words as they were broadcast. They listened to him say, in effect, “I know how you feel, but you’ve been infiltrated, and you’re being manipulated.” That will satisfy no one.

So the question is: Why was this proposed? Before the speech, word leaked out that Barack Obama had called on Mubarak not to run for re-election, but nothing more. Why did the U.S. go along with something that so clearly wouldn’t be accepted by the demonstrators? To save face for Mubarak? Is he really worth it to them?

Of course, one thing that’s gained is that Mubarak and the U.S. show they won’t give in to popular demand—they won’t allow the example of the U.S. and its allies being dictated to by mass protest.

Another possibility is that this is an attempt to separate moderates—to create a cleavage among opponents of Mubarak. If they were able to get an agreement from a moderate leader like Mohamed ElBaradai to say that Mubarak’s speech wasn’t everything we wanted, but now it’s time for orderly constitutional change, and we should wait until September, that might begin the process of isolating more radical elements.

That’s a possibility. But so far, all the commentators responding to the speech have said it’s not enough. If Mubarak offered this five days ago, it might have worked. But now the situation has gone beyond that.

FROM THE point of view of those who supported Mubarak for 30 years and who now understand this support can no longer be maintained—most obviously, the U.S. government—the chief concern is how to ensure a “stable transition.”

They need a transition that satisfies the mass demonstrations and demobilizes them, but that ensures a status quo without Mubarak, where the broader questions of democratization and inequality—of how Egypt is run, and who by—are avoided, while somebody is brought in as a transitional figure. Even a couple days ago, that was obviously Hillary Clinton’s view already, and the push to get Mubarak out of the way has continued to grow.

So why hasn’t Mubarak stepped down?

There are many possible explanations. One is his basic mental sanity. Another is that he’s been the ruler of Egypt for 30 years, and like Louis XIV in France, he thinks “L’état, c’est moi”—that Egypt is him, and without him, the country itself wouldn’t hold together.

But there are other questions. He may also be worrying about what happened to his cohort from Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled last month after 23 years in power, went to Saudi Arabia, and discovered he was going to be pursued for the crimes he committed while ruling Tunisia—which is why Ben Ali has reportedly left Saudi Arabia and taken up a new home in Libya.

The situation is contradictory. Everybody knows that Mubarak and his immediate allies are finished. Yet they continue to exert some influence, and even seem to be digging in. For example, one of the few places where the Internet was still functioning in Egypt was a luxury hotel downtown called the Semiramis—but that was turned off today. The offices of Al Jazeera were shut down. These are all signs of Mubarak’s attempt to maintain a foothold.

There are also rumors that members of the hated police are reappearing and attempting to act as provocateurs in certain areas, after being driven off the streets in the opening days of the demonstrations. The strategy is to let the country descend into chaos. That’s helped along by a number of gangs that have marauded around neighborhoods—it’s meant to create a sense of crisis, to which the government and presumably the army can step in and justify both a crackdown and a cleanup.

The problem for the regime is that the attempts at creating chaos appear, in the main, to have been thwarted so far by popularly mobilized neighborhood committees—which, in the absence of any police at all, began to take up the defense of people’s homes, small businesses, and so on.

There are now checkpoints all over Egypt, but unlike previous checkpoints run by police, these checkpoints are run by local popular committees. Driving anywhere in the city after curfew, you’re bound to meet one or another checkpoint. But you’re let through, if there’s a reason for you to be in that neighborhood.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening in every neighborhood. But the reports that I’ve managed to get are that in a great number of working-class areas, it’s much more of a festive atmosphere. People have essentially set up popular militia committees, which are armed with whatever people can get, from pipes to baseball bats to knives, so they can defend themselves from the police and any threat by gangs of looters and the like.

OVERALL, THE transformation is amazing. Two weeks ago, I was in Cairo for family reasons. The regime in Tunisia had just been overthrown, and I overheard an American tourist talking on her cell phone and saying, “No, don’t worry, I think this one is more stable.”

I actually tended to agree with that opinion. I left a few days before the protests began on January 25, and following events from the U.S., I couldn’t believe the rapidity of the change.

It’s even more obvious now that I’m back in Cairo—the enthusiasm and sense of spirits lifted is obvious, just in the way people comport themselves. After I returned from Tahrir Square today, I saw one of the television commentators remark on how there was hardly a fight or an act of violence at the demonstration, despite the massive numbers and the very, very tightly packed crowds. That was definitely true—it was another sign of the carnival atmosphere.

It’s difficult to predict where this will end. There could still be a deal cooked up by the U.S.—which sent a diplomat, Frank Wisner, to meet with Mubarak today—to have him step aside, in spite of the speech tonight. But I still don’t rule out the possibility of an attempt by the Mubarak regime to reestablish itself by force.

If it attempts to do so using the army, however, there are big questions. The army presence is very strong in Cairo, but its forces have been on the streets for five or six days, and it’s not acting as a hostile force—at least in terms of rank-and-file soldiers. That’s not to say that the army isn’t a hostile force—just that there’s been considerable fraternization going on.

I think movement toward an arrangement that pushes Mubarak aside is more likely, if only because as the protests continue, they have a spillover effect. Also today, Jordan’s King Abdullah fired his government and appointed a new prime minister after weeks of protests—which is exactly what Mubarak did in the early days of the demonstrations here, to no effect whatsoever. And already, according to reports, there are demonstrations in Jordan demanding further change.

These are momentous events, and we’ve only seen the start. We’re just at the beginning of what are likely to be even bigger transformations. Imagine, for example, the impact of Mubarak finally stepping aside—and yet there are still the underlying questions of unemployment that affects 40 percent of youth in Egypt, of Palestinian self-determination, of the domination of the Middle East by the U.S. and the West, of the control of Middle East oil.

All that hangs in the balance, and it’s forcing everyone involved to think through new strategies. For those of us who have wanted to see the end of the Mubarak regime for many years, our first step is to celebrate the uprising and continue to push as hard as we can—in Egypt and everywhere else—for the downfall of the dictatorship. But we also know that we’re just beginning this new struggle of the 21st century.


The regime lashes back

Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo

FORCES LOYAL to Hosni Mubarak counterattacked on Wednesday in a highly coordinated attempt to intimidate the mass movement that has taken over the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in a struggle against the dictatorship.

At least 600 people were injured and several killed by mobs of Mubarak supporters who converged on Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the struggle in the center of Cairo, and attacked protesters. People fought back with determination and tenacity throughout the day—as this article was being written at 9 p.m. in Egypt, the clashes were continuing.

The counterattack followed Tuesday’s massive demonstrations against Mubarak, numbering somewhere between 6 million and 8 million around the country, according to estimates. Those demonstrations had an almost festive atmosphere, giving people confidence that the end of the dictatorship was near.

The picture is very different 24 hours later. To understand what happened in a single day, it’s important to go back to the speech that Mubarak gave on Wednesday night, in which he announced that he would not run for re-election this coming September, but that he intended to serve out his term and preside over the “transition” to a new regime. This was exactly what Barack Obama apparently signaled to Mubarak in both direct conversation and through visits to the presidential palace by U.S. diplomats yesterday.

Today, we found out what kind of transition Mubarak has in mind.

Mubarak’s regime is finished—I’m still convinced of that. But Mubarak and the U.S. want to maintain the regime with as little change to the fundamentals as possible. Mubarak is playing the one card left to him in order to survive, and it was one that shocked people with its viciousness. But what has happened in the previous eight days hasn’t been lost for the majority of Egyptians—their sense of their ability to mobilize, the first taste of freedom.

Mubarak talked in his speech about how he’s sacrificed for 30 years. My response was that he ought to make the ultimate sacrifice and take himself out. That’s obviously not what he’s doing now. But I also think there will be a massive counter-reaction tomorrow and in the days to come. People will be furious about the violence unleashed by the regime, and there are calls for big demonstrations again on Friday, the first day of the weekend in Egypt.

People were jubilant at the character of the demonstrations on Tuesday—their peacefulness, their sense of purpose, their unified demands. Today, they were taken aback by the crackdown. This will make people have to think about their own resolve and their organization—how it is that they confront the challenge from the regime from now on.

IN HIS speech, Mubarak insisted that he recognized the legitimate concerns of the Egyptians who were protesting, but he also suggested that the protesters at Tahrir Square were manipulated tools of unknown enemies of the Egyptian state. He repeated the line from a speech the week before that he wouldn’t allow chaos.

Exactly what he meant was made clear today. Beginning in the morning, large numbers of state security and police forces were mobilized around Cairo, as were people who are employed in state-owned companies, along with others who accepted the message of Mubarak that there would be a six-month transition before he left.

The counterattack was highly organized. It had an ideological component, and there was also the use of physical force on the streets. Both aspects were part of an intense attempt to try to weaken the resolve of the occupiers and protesters at Tahrir Square.

There are three main bridges that lead into the central part of Cairo around Tahrir Square. In the morning today, I noticed one of these bridges was filled with people—they were supporters of Mubarak, who carried signs with messages like “Yes sir, Mubarak,” “Get out of town,” “Go back where you came from,” and the like.

In addition, there were demonstrations in several different neighborhoods. In Mohandiseen, a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo where there had actually been a pro-Mubarak demonstration of 1,000 or 2,000 on Tuesday, these numbers were joined by several thousand more today.

In other parts of the city, a number of taxi drivers who participated in a government-sponsored program to trade in their old taxis for new ones and who have benefited from state subsidies as part of an attempt to build up the tourist industry were mobilized in force. They honked their horns and posted preprinted signs in support of Mubarak in their windows.

In other parts of the town, there were caravans of cars honking their horns, and as the day developed, it became clear that many of these people were state functionaries who had been given the day off, and were instructed to participate in rallies in support of the president.

All this was picked up by the media as proof that there was support for the president after all. That’s part of the ideological component of the counterattack, which tries to blame protesters for the problems of the country—that is, to turn the situation on its head. The goal is to say that it’s time now to unite as a country, it’s time to go back to work, it’s time for calm to prevail.

Of course, this could have been accomplished by Mubarak’s departure. Instead, the regime is trying to use the demonstrations against Mubarak as the explanation for continued disorder.

MOST FRIGHTENING were the mobilizations of organized groups of thugs in and around central Cairo, demonstrating up and down the side streets leading toward Tahrir Square. There are about a dozen access points to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square. The thugs marched through the side streets to these access points to try to create an imposing presence that would intimidate the demonstrators—and to then penetrate into the square.

Early in the day, state security people were allowed into the square by the army—there was a report on television of a car filled with weapons stopped as it was attempting to get into Tahrir Square. As the day went on, the demonstrators were able to expel the thugs.

But as evening fell, there was a concerted attack started from several access points into Tahrir Square—in particular, coming off the Sixth of October Bridge over the Nile, where there’s a construction site. The Mubarak supporters started throwing large projectiles and rocks into the crowd. I saw Molotov cocktails thrown directly into the crowd—later, there were press reports saying the pro-Mubarak thugs seemed to have an endless supply that they were throwing through the night.

A number of people were badly beaten, including journalists—Anderson Cooper of CNN was one of them. The attacks caused hundreds of injuries, but according to the report of a doctor outside Tahrir Square, the thugs were especially targeting medical staff who attempted to go into the square to help people who were injured.

There was also a bizarre scene where several thugs on horses crashed into the crowd, and a couple of the riders were tackled. They were carrying their police IDs, and those were held up to the crowd. That’s now been reported on the BBC and Al Jazeera—so it’s obvious to everyone who was behind this mobilization. This was an attempt to use violence against what had been an extremely peaceful and effective mass demonstration.

The intentions of the regime are now clearer than before. For one thing, in appointing Omar Suleiman, the former head of internal security, as his vice president, Mubarak was attempting to bolster the resolve of the sections of the state that rely on him.

He also intended with the violence today to send the message that Egypt is not Tunisia. There’s the obvious difference in terms of Egypt’s importance to the U.S. and Israel as a pillar of regional stability. But there’s also a difference in the regime—in terms of the number of people whose position within the security forces, the bureaucracy, the state-employed sector, and so forth that depend on the current set-up. Those forces are being mobilized very consciously to come out in support of the regime.

I think that the way to understand these events is that the transition Mubarak has proposed isn’t really about transition at all. It’s about maintaining the essence of the regime. And in this regard, we need to see that the U.S. government is complicit in what’s taken place today.

I think the decision has been made that the stakes are too high to have the dictator Ben Ali go in Tunisia, and then have Mubarak go within a week or two. That would change the face and shape of everything in the Middle East, and it threatens American power in a way that’s unacceptable, whatever the public wording of Obama’s speeches about “democracy” and “supporting freedom.”

So the fate of the movement is at stake. Today’s events show us that if anybody expected a revolution against a 30-year dictator to go as easily as we’ve seen up until now, we now see what those in power are willing to resort to in order to protect their order.

THE PLAN for the regime going forward isn’t hard to decipher. They’ll want to make it difficult for people to make it back to Tahrir Square, where the demonstrations have been centered. And if they can keep the crowds thinned out, they could attempt an all-out assault, as the Chinese government did against the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

One big question now is about the army. It’s clear that the army was introduced last week because the police force could no longer maintain order, and throughout the last week, there were some examples of fraternization between demonstrators and the soldiers.

But now, the police have reappeared. Officially, they’ve returned not in Tahrir Square, but mainly in middle-class neighborhoods like Mohandiseen, where they joined the community cordons that patrol the areas. And there’s no doubt whatsoever from any media source that many of the people who were assaulting demonstrators were agents of the state—police in plain clothes.

And in this context, the army determined that it would stay “above the fray.” At one stage today, I saw soldiers shoot in the air to push back some of the pro-Mubarak supporters from the square, because there was an outcry beginning to build against the attack on what was such a united and peaceful demonstration. But there’s also no doubt that the army allowed the violence to take place against the demonstrators.

Spokespeople for the army have been saying for several days now that the time for demonstrating is over, and that message was accentuated on Wednesday. The same phrase gets repeated over and over—that the army is “above the fray” and “above politics.” But that’s obviously not the case. In the history of Egypt, the army plays a very important role.

People are in shock at the degree of violence that’s been unleashed, and so there’s a kind of context where the army can be brought in to save the day. But it will be a complicated question, because everyone knows that the call for demonstrations on Friday will probably produce a bigger turnout than ever.

The situation is harder to read outside of Cairo. For example, from the reports I heard, Alexandria—where the anti-government demonstration on Tuesday also numbered in the millions, like Cairo—was virtually free of any pro-Mubarak support on Wednesday. Alexandria is more political place in some ways, in part because there was a yearlong movement against police repression that saw very large mobilizations. The anti-Mubarak sentiment has a harder edge in Alexandria.

There were also reports of big mobilizations against the regime on Tuesday in many towns across the country, as well as several strikes and occupations—though that’s been subsumed to some extent by the fact that nobody’s going to work.

I think it’s important to point out as well that the regime may have overstepped itself in this latest bid to stay in power. As powerful as the images of Tuesday’s massive demonstration were in projecting the movement for change in Egypt, the images of the attacks on that peaceful demonstration will not be forgotten by anyone—certainly not by anyone who was in Tahrir Square today.

I think the key question is going to be the ability of the movement to continue to mobilize—to defend Tahrir Square, which has now become an important symbol, and also to understand that the regime has made a move, and the movement will have respond in kind.

The demonstrations are going to continue, but people are beginning to think through other questions, like how you get rid of a dictator who doesn’t want to go and who has an armed force at his disposal. These were the things that activists and socialists I spoke to today were preparing for—to expose the truth of the situation, to maintain the pressure on the regime by mobilizing to defend Tahrir Square, and to organize for a huge turnout on Friday for a showdown with the forces being used against them.


The struggle surges ahead

Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo

ANTI-MUBARAK demonstrators gathered in the hundreds of thousands on Friday, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in Alexandria, and in cities and towns across the country for a new day of mass protest against the regime.

In my estimation, the Tahrir Square demonstration was even bigger today than it was last Tuesday, when across Egypt, between 6 million and 8 million people protested, according to estimates. As the hour for curfew came and went tonight, thousands of people were still arriving to demonstrate. In Alexandria, an estimated 1 million people also turned out.

Everywhere, people were united around the slogan that Mubarak must go now. In Tahrir Square, there was an echo of the old civil rights slogan in the U.S. “We shall not be moved”—hundreds of thousands of people were chanting, “He should go! We will not move.” Then there was my favorite slogan of the day: “Ya Mubarak, sahi el noum, inaharda akher youm!” It sounds better in Arabic because it rhymes, but it translates roughly into English as: “Wakey, wakey, Mubarak, today is the last day!”

To understand the importance of today’s massive turnout, you only have to remember what happened on Wednesday and Thursday, which can only be described as the unleashing of the hounds of hell—thugs of the regime sent out in a coordinated assault on the demonstrators at Tahrir Square and the whole of the pro-democracy movement.

The scale of violence was seen by millions of people around the world. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and they wielded knives and all kinds of other weapons in an attempt to intimidate, injure, and drive out the demonstrators from Tahrir Square.

They also made a particular point to beat up journalists and drive them out of the square, and they raided hotels where news organizations like Al Jazeera and CNN were headquartered, trashing their operations. They also attempted to incite fear against foreigners—anything that would drive a wedge among the demonstrators and that would intimidate people from coming out on Friday.

The violence was so bad that Omar Suleiman—the newly appointed vice president, whose previous position was head of the army intelligence services, someone who must have overseen the arrest and torture of thousands in that post—came on television last night to deny any involvement on the part of the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s ruling party.

Suleiman claimed that no one had any idea who organized the onslaught—despite the fact that several of the thugs were captured, and their police or government employment IDs were shown in the media. So the hollowness of his claims weren’t lost on the Egyptian people.

There was even a moment of bizarre other-worldliness when Suleiman—this organizer of repression and torture—appealed for prisoners, who according to many reports had been released from jail by the regime’s thugs to help in the violence, to show up at the prisons again and turn themselves in.

That’s the context of today’s demonstrations—after two days of systematic violence against the anti-Mubarak protestors, people turned out in the hundreds of thousands today, and it turned the balance back again in the favor of the demonstrators.

AS IN every revolutionary situation, there has been a dramatic ebb and flow to the events in Egypt.

The demonstrations began on January 25—ironically, on “Police Day,” which was previously a celebration of the regime’s strength. On that first day, the movement broke through a kind of psychological barrier by moving into the streets in huge numbers, something that didn’t happen under the Egyptian police state.

The demonstrations continued through last Friday, when there were huge battles with the police that pushed the security forces off the streets. The government’s response was to deploy the army, which is seen as “above politics”—but to allow Cairo to descend into a kind of chaos, with gangs of thugs roaming through neighborhoods, many of them organized by the regime. The mass of Egyptians responded to this by organizing neighborhood defense committees to protect the people.

Last Tuesday, the demonstrations were the biggest up to that point. Mubarak spoke on television that night, declaring that he wouldn’t run for re-election, but had no intention of stepping down. The thugs were unleashed the next day to show what Mubarak had in mind as a transition.

But Friday represents a new stage following the two days of violence that came before it. In the preceding two days, not only was the anti-Mubarak demonstration in Tahrir maintained—that is, the heart of the uprising and its best-known expression was defended from forces determined to drive the protesters out—but the manner of its defense produced a response in support of it that could be seen throughout the day today.

Early on Friday morning, there were literally thousands of people lined up to go into the square. The army had taken up positions after the two days of sustained violence, not wanting to appear helpless, but what was phenomenal was that it wasn’t the army guarding the entrances, but lines and lines of stewards from the demonstration. They searched people as they came in; making sure no one had the kind of weapons that the pro-government gangs had used against them. I’ve never been frisked so often, and with as many apologies for being frisked.

The army is continuing to maintain its role as a force supposedly above politics. Unlike the last two days of uncontrolled violence against the protesters, which the army didn’t intervene decisively to stop, today, it helped create a buffer zone around Tahrir Square. So once the attack on Tahrir Square failed, there was barbed wire and tanks in all the pivotal positions around Cairo.

I got to Tahrir in the morning, before the end of prayers, when even larger numbers came to the demonstration. But already, the crowd numbered half a million, if not more, by my estimate.
Once inside Tahrir, you could see a level of organization and solidarity unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The first thing that struck me was the makeshift clinics set up all over the place, with dozens and dozens of nurses and doctors—many of whom said they were unemployed—stitching up people’s legs or arms or faces. These injuries were the result of the pro-government thugs—there were dozens of people walking around who had been patched up.
In addition to that, people had brought medical supplies with them. Others were circulating through the square with bags of bread, with water, with candy.

One of the aims of the pro-Mubarak forces had been to drive out all journalists—they focused in particular on foreign journalists to try to raise anger at a supposed foreign plot against Egypt. So it was good to see that journalists were operating freely and quite welcome in the crowd.

Probably the most significant sign of the health of the protest was the continued political discussion and debate within the square. I also saw dozens and dozens of people who were calling friends and relatives, and encouraging them to come to the square—trying to convince them of the fallacy of the government’s claims about chaos and violence.

ACCORDING TO press reports, the U.S. government is lobbying hard to get officials around Mubarak to pressure him to step down.

The U.S. maneuvers around this question must, as always, be taken with a grain of salt. No one will say it in the mainstream media, but Obama could have held a press conference in which he simply declared that aid to Egypt is cut off, that this kind of violence will not be tolerated, and that the U.S. now stands squarely with the protesters.

But of course, he won’t say that because that’s not how diplomacy works. And the reason it doesn’t work that way is you can’t send that signal about a dictator the U.S. has been supporting for 30 years. Not because Mubarak isn’t finished, but because of how his downfall on those terms would affect other relationships and the whole Middle East.

So the U.S. is scrambling to find an alternative, and there are plenty of options. Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, showed up to the demonstration today to be among the protesters. He’s clearly thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president. There’s also Mohamed ElBaradai. There’s the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the current defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, made the rounds through Tahrir Square today, under protection of soldiers, without much opposition to him.

But there are still plenty of difficulties and contradictions for the U.S. and for the rulers in Egypt, because there are significant problems from trying to gently step back from a military dictatorship.

Egypt is still that, in many respects. I should add that a couple offices of human rights and labor organizations were raided yesterday and closed down. It’s still very gingerly that people produce any public literature that’s against the regime. So it was quite an exercise, for example, to get leaflets into Tahrir Square today.

One problem for the U.S. is that Omar Suleiman figures prominently in their plans for a post-Mubarak transition. Many of the demonstrators were dismayed by Suleiman’s speech last night. But of course, most know the history of the man—that he was involved integrally in the repression that took place under Mubarak’s regime.

In general, most demonstrators still agree that their central demand is for the removal of Mubarak. That’s not to say that the rest of the regime should get off scot-free. But Mubarak’s downfall is what the movement has focused on so far, and when that’s accomplished, that significant victory will then open the process.

My own view is that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the departure of Mubarak without the cabinet and the government he’s put into place then becoming the central question for the movement. That’s the underlying dynamic.

Mubarak is the lightning rod that has brought all the forces together. Those forces don’t necessarily agree on the same outcome, but they’re at least agreed on the central necessity of seeing him go, and that will become the practical measure of what’s been accomplished.

ONE OF the most interesting conversations I heard was one man trying to explain on the phone to someone the profoundly democratic thrust of the protests.

He said to the person he was talking to that people see demonstrators chanting “Allah Akbar,” and they conclude these protests must be organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Then they see many famous actors and musicians showing up to Tahrir Square today, and they think it’s just a middle-class protest of the intelligentsia.

But it’s not the Muslim Brotherhood behind all this. It’s not the middle class. It’s not, as this man went on to say, only socialists and Marxists talking about workers’ rights, and it’s not people talking about just women’s rights. This is really a protest of all Egypt united in a profound movement for democracy.

I think that’s the first thing that has to be grasped about the uprising—that this is a movement that seeks fundamental democratic rights. As a friend of mine put it a few days ago, it’s the 1789 of Egypt—similar to the opening of the French Revolution in that way.

I think the second aspect that became certain today is that this is no longer the Egypt that existed prior to January 25—and there’s no turning back, however much violence the regime tries to organize. A tipping point has been reached in terms of the willingness of masses of people to put themselves on the line and defy the existing order, and that’s a genie that will be very difficult to put back in the bottle.

The third aspect apparent today was, as I described earlier, the enormous self-organization of the movement in the face of horrendous violence and repression—most especially, the attacks that took place over the past few days.

The fourth point is broader—about what happens next. You now have a movement that has emerged in a most explosive fashion and is present in every Egyptian town and city, which is the product of many, many years of injustice, including around economic questions of unemployment and dispossession. But it’s also an expression of the rise of a number of social struggles in Egypt, including the strikes of the last few years and the riots over rising food prices.

Right now, the movement is united around the political aim of getting rid of Hosni Mubarak. But hopefully, once Mubarak is unseated, the political questions will then mesh with social questions that still remain unresolved.

If that happens, there will be a really explosive mix of political and social issues that represents the possibility of political and social revolution.

I think that’s the key to understanding why Mubarak hasn’t left yet. It’s not just a question of his own stubbornness, but how the regime can continue and the status quo can be maintained, not just for the Egyptian elite, but for Israel, the U.S., its European allies, and so on.

Their interest is in preventing this process from triggering an even greater change. That’s what these demonstrations are heralding, and we hope it’s a process that will continue.

One last story from today: When Mubarak spoke on television on Tuesday night and said that he wouldn’t run for re-election, he vowed that he was going to die on Egypt’s soil. One Socialist Worker reporter quipped at the time, “We should tell him that the soil is ready for him.” I translated that today at Tahrir Square, and I can report that it was greeted with wild applause and cheers—it’s another part of the ongoing Egyptian revolution.


A bid to derail the revolution

Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo 

EGYPT’S NEW Vice President Omar Suleiman presided over talks with opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, over the weekend. But Suleiman insisted that the man who appointed him in January, dictator Hosni Mubarak, would remain in power until elections in September—in defiance of the mass uprising that has put millions in the streets and reached into every corner of the country.

Officials from the U.S. government and its European allies likewise defied the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, signaling that they supported Suleiman’s attempt to meet with opposition figures while defending Mubarak’s ongoing reign—further proof, if any was needed, that “stability” means far more to the U.S. government than democracy.

Meanwhile, as the meetings with Suleiman were taking place, crowds continued to pour into Tahrir Square on both Saturday and Sunday. Indeed, as this article was being written on Sunday night in Egypt, larger and larger numbers of people appeared to be showing up.

Earlier in the day, despite rain falling in downtown Cairo—quite an unusual event—there were lines of thousands upon thousands of people waiting to get into the square. This has become a familiar scene of the last few days—to be funneled into the square through an army checkpoint, and then to be searched by organizers of the demonstrations in Tahrir.

But all the waiting and hassles of going through these searches dissipate when you get through—as you’re greeted by hundreds of people chanting and clapping for you, welcoming you into the square.

Priority at the checkpoints was given to people bringing food, water, blankets, medical supplies, and other forms of support to those who are occupying Tahrir Square. In the square itself, the organization and distribution of these supplies took place seamlessly. The square has been reorganized, with a kind of tent city emerging—semi-permanent structures that dot the square for people who plan to stay for the duration.

These are the expressions in substance of the continuing sentiment of the demonstrators—that they will stay until Hosni Mubarak goes.

Among the most interesting things at the square now are the impromptu demonstrations that take place each day, and that continued today. These are demonstrations by groups of people representing particular forces or political views. They hold their marches and speakouts to the applause of others in the square.

But what was most striking today is the enormous and vibrant political debate taking place among activists themselves—how to respond to a situation where Mubarak has been shaken, but still refuses to leave office. What underlies that debate is a bigger question: what to do next.

CLEARLY, THE regime has a new strategy—an attempt to try to overcome and bypass the protests.

The regime tried the hard hand of repression on two occasions. One occasion was in the first week, with an attempt to stop the demonstrators with the police—the method used successfully against previous unrest. But the police were driven back, to the point where the government had to withdraw them from the streets.

Last Tuesday, the demonstrations reached a new high point, with an estimated 6 million to 8 million people taking to the streets around the country. Mubarak went on television to vow that he would remain in office, though he wouldn’t run for re-election—and the next day, the security forces and supporters of the regime were unleashed in brutal attacks to try to move the demonstrators out of the square.

The violence was terrible, with the number of injured running into the thousands, but the anti-Mubarak demonstrators responded with a heroic defense of their protest in Tahrir.

After having been defeated with their attempts at repression, the regime has clearly moved on to a new tactic. Today, they tried to reopen Cairo under some form of normalcy. The banks reopened, people were encouraged to go to work, and the regime pushed back the curfew hours so people can be out from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

This is an attempt, I think, to try to normalize life again—and in a sense isolate the demonstrators in Tahrir by making their presence an everyday feature of life that doesn’t paralyze Cairo or the rest of the country.

The problem with the strategy, though, is that the demands of the protesters have not been met—and the impact of this huge uprising goes much deeper than what the government imagines, even now after nearly two weeks of demonstrations.

Tahrir Square continues to be the center and the symbol of the movement—and that’s why it’s been important to maintain a presence there and defend it from attack. But at the same time, the rest of the country has been turned upside down.

This is a mass upheaval of a population emerging from 30 years of military dictatorship—not to mention the years before that, which weren’t exactly free and open. So not just in Tahrir Square, but in every town and city across Egypt, the movement to bring down Mubarak is flourishing and flowering.

From the reports I’ve gathered, there have been very, very sharp battles in other places—in particular, in the port cities of Suez, Alexandria, and Port Said. These mobilizations haven’t had the same attention as the iconic ones in Tahrir Square, but they’re taking place in towns that are poorer, with higher levels of unemployment and with a history of police violence. So these demonstrations have been explosive, and they’ve contributed to the sense that this is a movement of the whole country against Mubarak.

That’s the problem with trying to isolate the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or the attempt go back to business as usual—the revolt has spread to every corner of the country, and no one thinks it’s over.

Beyond that, it’s not really clear to anyone here what negotiations would actually accomplish in terms of the basic demands of the protesters—certainly not so long as Mubarak remains in office, and also not if the person in charge of the “peaceful transition” is Omar Suleiman, who ran the regime’s national intelligence agency for almost 20 years, and who says he agreed to become vice president to support Mubarak in “these critical times.”

Over the weekend, you had two things happening simultaneously. First, the government announced it was freezing the bank accounts and opening investigations of more former and current ministers—in other words, an attempt to pin the blame on individual ministers for the corruption of the entire system, and the violent response of the whole regime to the demonstrations.

Second, Suleiman organized the negotiations with opposition organizations—including the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Mubarak regime has repressed for decades. The Brotherhood was very slow to participate in the demonstrations, even when they reached a critical mass—something that’s not lost on people here, wherever they stand on the left or the right. But now Suleiman is attempting to bring them into an arrangement that keeps the regime intact.

Many reports in the media treated the talks themselves as a concession on the part of the anti-Mubarak opposition. But if you read the stories all the way through, the Muslim Brotherhood spokespeople, for example, said they came to hear what the government had to say, but remained firm that Mubarak had to go immediately.

It would be difficult for any of the opposition figures, no matter how moderate, to go along with everything the regime wants right now. Anybody involved in these negotiations has to be looking over their shoulders. Now that the movement has reached such a size and level of commitment, they can’t just say any old thing to please the media. They have to be careful that what they say isn’t rejected by the masses of people who remain determined to get rid of Mubarak.

THE REGIME is obviously trying to buy some time in the hope that the numbers of demonstrators dwindle—so they can exhaust the movement and eventually try to deal with a more contained force.

From the point of view of the movement, I think there’s a sense of trepidation and uncertainty among many people, including at Tahrir Square. Everybody understands that the standoff can’t continue indefinitely.

So there’s a discussion taking place now about to how to step up the pressure on the regime and how the movement can continue to push for its demands. One discussion, for example, is the possibility of a march from Tahrir Square to the Information Ministry—or, as was proposed previously, a march toward the presidential palace.

One thing that definitely is not happening, however, is a weakening of resolve about getting rid of Mubarak.

As we enter this new stage, one thing should be remembered, and remembered very clearly—the mass movement has already won an enormously significant victory in becoming conscious of its own strength, and in having resisted the regime’s attempts at repression. That is a huge accomplishment under a military dictatorship. People understand that they are players in this battle.

The next step, which people are discussing and discussing widely, is how to deepen the roots of the mass movement, in different localities and communities, and in the workplaces around Egypt.

Tahrir Square is now the symbol of the struggle, but the future of the movement is in its ability to sink roots and in the neighborhoods and towns and cities where the hundreds of thousands of people who risked their lives in Tahrir Square came from.


A new step forward for Egypt’s struggle

Analysis from Mostafa Omar 

IN THE last few days before Tuesday, it seemed like Egypt’s democratic revolution might have reached a stalemate, at least in Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of people continued to occupy Tahrir Square, demanding the ouster of the regime. But the government had shifted to a strategy of waiting out the protesters.

On Monday, for example, Hosni Mubarak’s Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq went on Nile TV after a cabinet meeting and made sarcastic remarks about the protesters in Tahrir Square. He said that they could make speeches and chant slogans for as long as they wanted, and that Tahrir could become like Hyde Park in London, where demonstrators can speak, and no one pays them any mind.

These remarks angered protesters, who found them quite condescending and dismissive. But they also reflected the fact that the movement to get rid of Mubarak needed to answer the new strategy of the regime of stalling for time.

As Ahmed Shawki reported in his articles from Cairo, protesters have been discussing what can be done to increase the pressure on the regime. On Tuesday, we saw some of the answer.

First of all, the numbers of protesters in Tahrir Square exceeded the expectations of all the organizers who called for another day of millions against Mubarak. One of the speakers celebrated in the square was Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who was released from detention by the regime and has since spoken passionately for the uprising.

Far from the demonstrators being satisfied by the government’s offer of negotiations, this was one of the biggest mobilizations yet.

There were also reports of groups of workers participating in the demonstrations at Tahrir Square and organizing other actions.

For example, in the afternoon on Tuesday, tens of thousands of faculty members and workers from Cairo University marched from the Giza section of the city to the parliament and cabinet headquarters, which are located five minutes from Tahrir Square.

As they surrounded the parliament and cabinet headquarters, they blocked Prime Minister Ahmed Shariq’s car from reaching the cabinet building. Security forces pleaded with them repeatedly to allow the prime minister’s convoy through, but the protesters refused, and the prime minister had to turn around and leave.

At the same time, on the other side of Tahrir Square, in midtown Cairo, hundreds of angry members of the journalists’ syndicate chased the pro-government chairman out of the syndicate’s headquarters, drowning him out with chants of “Regime agent out the door!” And according to reports, a few minutes away from there, journalists and workers at the pro-government Rosa Al-Yousef prevented the newspaper’s pro-Mubarak CEO from entering its headquarters.

There were also reports later on Tuesday of preparations for a mass march on the Maspero Building—the headquarters of the state-run radio and TV stations that have been airing the regime’s lies, with the aim of surrounding it and eventually attempting to take it over.

As the day was ending, Ahram English Online, a semi-government paper, reported that 6,000 workers at five service companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority began an open-ended sit-in protest in all three of the major canal cities: Port Said, Ismaïlia, and Suez. The workers are protesting substandard wages and poor working conditions, according to Ahram.

According to press reports, the workers’ action hasn’t affected the operation of the Canal, but it’s certainly a sign of what’s possible in the future if workers begin strikes and occupations as part of the struggle.

The rest of the country also mobilized in massive numbers. In Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt, protesters have been occupying not just one big square, but several major squares, from one end of the city to another for the past week. Demonstrators have held huge mass marches that roam through the cities, and plans are being made for a march on the presidential palace in that city.

On Tuesday, demonstrations were bigger than ever in the industrial Delta region in the north of Egypt, including the cities of Damanhour, Tanta, and Mansoura. In the south, where things have been relatively calm in the last few days, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Sohag, Bani Suwaif, Asyut, and Aswan. In the Sinai, there are big rallies in Arish near the Gaza border. El-Kharga, the oasis in the middle of the vast Western desert, is also seeing demonstrations.

SO THIS was the answer of demonstrators to the attempts by the regime to give minor concessions that they hoped would slow the momentum of the demonstrations.

Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman held a dialogue with so-called leaders of the protest movement and opposition parties. Also in the past few days, the regime fired several people in the ruling National Democratic Party, getting rid of a number of hated figures, including Mubarak’s own son, Gamal. The attorney general was instructed to begin investigations into long-known cases of government corruption, and various former ministers and businessmen were forbidden from leaving the country.

Of course, the biggest example of corruption is at the top. Recent reports on the net worth of the Mubarak family put the total at $70 billion—a mind-shattering amount. Everyone knew the family was enormously rich, but no one guessed that outrageous sum.

The protesters are livid and demanding that, one way or another, Mubarak and his family be put on trial and the money returned to Egypt. But believe it or not, Mubarak’s wealth is only a drop in the bucket compared to the untold billions stolen by hundreds of businessmen who benefited from his regime.

None of the moves to placate the protest movement have succeeded. In fact, the intransigence of the government and the too-little-too-late attempts at reform only further infuriated millions of people. There’s also anger about the opportunistic attempts by unrepresentative opposition figures to put themselves in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, you could see the renewed confidence of the protesters that the momentum is on their side. Protesters in Tahrir and those blockading the parliament building called for the prime minister’s resignation. They also reject Omar Suleiman and are calling for the head of the Constitutional Court, considered a relatively independent figure, to assume the presidency immediately and lead a transition.

All this represents a further political and organizational step forward for the revolution in Egypt. We can expect events to move even faster in the days ahead.


Workers take center stage

Analysis from Mostafa Omar 

THE REGIME of Hosni Mubarak is being squeezed harder than ever, by an explosion of workers struggles on one side, and a widening series of political protests on the other.

The strikes sweeping Egypt would have been unimaginable less than three weeks ago: postal workers in Cairo walking out and staging a mass protest to bring down the regime; a strike by state rail workers, who blocked the railroads; a massive walkout and protest by workers at the State Central Census Bureau; plus strikes by bus drivers and workers in the chemical, steel, cement, textile, tourism, petrochemical and telecommunications industries.

Workers also shut down an important service company on the Suez Canal, and even military production workers—who are under the discipline of the armed forces—walked off the job.

The Wall Street Journal grasped the importance of the strikes:

Egypt’s labor movement has been the sleeping giant of the past two weeks’ protests, and its involvement could amount to a real fillip for the antigovernment demonstrations. The workers bring experience at protests and organization to the youth-led protest movement, whose efforts to extract major concessions from Egypt’s government was beginning to stall as it entered its third week.

This wave of workers’ action has put new pressure on President Hosni Mubarak and his front man, Vice President Omar Suleiman, who has made a series of threatening statements about the possibility of a crackdown.

Suleiman, the country’s former spy chief and close collaborator of the CIA and Israel, said that continued protests would mean that “a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities.” He added: “I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether it’s the army or police or the intelligence agency or the [opposition Muslim] Brotherhood or the youth themselves could carry out ‘creative chaos’ to end the regime and take power.”

With the army deployed in force around the country and police violence continuing, the danger of state repression is real. But demonstrators in Tahrir Square weren’t intimidated. Instead, they launched a new strategy to respond to the government’s seeming attempt to simply wait out the occupation.

Starting on Tuesday, demonstrators decided to surround major government buildings in Cairo, beginning with the parliament building, the cabinet headquarters next door, and the Ministry of Interior as well, camping out for the night.

On Wednesday, the number of protesters in Tahrir Square was massive, close to a million people according to some estimates. So the campers outside of these three major government buildings asked for reinforcements, and thousands of people left the square to join them, because the numbers in Tahrir were more than sufficient.

The struggle also intensified in several provincial towns. An Associated Press report gives the flavor of those actions:

In one of the flashpoints of unrest Wednesday, some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut. They blocked the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones.

Hundreds of slum dwellers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor’s headquarters in anger over lack of housing.

Back in Tahrir Square, demonstrators were discussing proposals to organize marches to surround one of the main presidential palaces in the eastern part of the city, Orouba Palace, and to march and camp outside the state television building.

THE DEMONSTRATORS in Tahrir also called on workers who began returning to their jobs all across the country over the weekend to begin striking and occupying factories—both public and private companies—and to walk out in mass demonstrations.

But the workers were already in action. On the morning of February 9, workers at the important KOK Chemical Factory in Helwan, which is a historically militant industrial suburb of Cairo, began a strike, followed by petroleum workers at Petrol Trade.

By the afternoon, the strike began to spread to different factories around the region and beyond. Two of the most important places are industrial centers in the Nile Delta—Kafr Zayat and Kafr al-Tawar. These are also historically militant textile industry towns that have given the regime a hard time for many years. Kafr al-Tawar is only half an hour outside of Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city.

The interesting thing is that in these strikes, the demands were to raise wages, but also the removal of the government-appointed CEOs of the companies—in many cases, of course, these CEOs are members of the National Democratic Party, the ruling party of the Mubarak regime.

Some analysts suggested the strikes were organized around sectional demands. But it turns out that by the end of the day, many of the striking workers had issued statements supporting the political demands of the revolution coming from Tahrir Square and from Alexandria.

This statement of striking iron and steel workers, which is circulating widely, reflects the dynamic:

Demands of the Iron and Steel Workers

  1. Immediate resignation of the president and all men and symbols of the regime.
  2. Confiscation of funds and property of all symbols of previous regime and everyone proved corrupt.
  3. Iron and steel workers, who have given martyrs and militants, call upon all workers of Egypt to revolt from the regime’s and ruling party workers’ federation, to dismantle it and announce their independent union now, and to plan for their general assembly to freely establish their own independent union without prior permission or consent of the regime, which has fallen and lost all legitimacy.
  4. Confiscation of public-sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatized, as well as the public sector which belongs to the people and its nationalization in the name of the people and formation of a new management by workers and technicians.
  5. Formation of a workers’ monitoring committee in all workplaces, monitoring production, prices, distribution and wages.
  6. Call for a general assembly of all sectors and political trends of the people to develop a new constitution and elect real popular committees without waiting for the consent or negotiation with the regime.

A huge workers’ demonstration will join the Tahrir Square on Friday, the 11th of February 2011 to join the revolution and announce the demands of the workers of Egypt.

Long live the revolution!
Long live Egypt’s workers!
Long live the intifada of Egyptian youth—
People’s revolution for the people!

SO THE strikes are political as well as economic. Many of these workers who had returned to their jobs in the past days had participated in the demonstrations of the last two-and-a-half weeks, but as individuals. By the time they returned to the factories, they were radicalized enough to formulate their own economic demands. But they also support the political demands coming out of Tahrir Square.

The government anticipated the workers’ struggles and tried to head them off by promising to raise all wages and pensions by 15 percent starting April 1, which was actually a slap in the face. The vast majority of workers and protesters met that with a laugh—too little, too late.

So it’s no longer about wage increases. The workers’ movement is much more political now, and it senses that we can win more than just wage increases and pension increases. The feeling is that there is a possibility of changing the whole political system.

Many of the protesters pointed out that the strikes don’t actually represent the first entrance of the working class into the revolution. Rather, the working-class strike movement of the last few years has actually paved the ground for the revolution that broke out on January 25. Students and the young people were inspired by the wave of strikes of the last five years, and workers have participated in all the demonstrations and the occupations.

But now, they’re showing their power as an organized working class, not just as individuals who are part of the mass protests.

So we have mass street protests continuing, coupled with the beginning of the organized working class flexing its muscle to weaken the regime even further. That is taking the revolutionary movement to a new level.


The unfolding revolution

Analysis from Ahmed Shawki

THE RUSSIAN revolutionary Lenin wrote that for a revolution to occur, it’s necessary both that the lower classes refuse to endure their situation any longer, but also that the upper classes are unable to rule in the old way.

In Egypt, masses of people have shown that they will no longer endure the conditions they have put up with under Mubarak—the police-state repression, the stifling of dissent, the neoliberal economic measures that have consigned half the population to living on $2 a day.

But with his speech on Thursday, Hosni Mubarak made it clear that he didn’t want to not rule in the old way, no matter what the consequences.

It was one of the strangest days of the revolution so far, and we probably won’t know for a long time what was going on behind the scenes. The day started out with the military sending the message to protesters that “all your demands will be met” and, in Washington, CIA chief Leon Panetta testifying in Congress that Mubarak would be gone by the end of the day. And it ended with Mubarak saying he wasn’t going anywhere.

Whatever happened, it puts the question of power squarely at the center of things—Mubarak’s power as president, the power of the military and whether it will follow Mubarak’s orders, the power of the mass struggle.

But these are questions that have been in play already. The questions that have been raised as the struggle has spread and deepened in Egypt are the kind that emerge in every revolution.

THINKING BACK about the great revolutions of the past, one is reminded of the writings of Karl Marx in 1848, in which he describes the revolutionary wave that swept across Europe that year. He described those revolutions as having a mass popular content, both in terms of participation, but also their profoundly democratic aspect. They raised demands for the right of assembly and free association, the free expression of ideas, freedom of religion—all questions that are present in Egypt today.

This aspect of the 1848 revolutions led Marx to begin to think about the way that a future working-class revolution would be the essence of any true struggle for liberation. Marx spoke at the time about socialists being the most extreme democrats—extreme not only in the sense that we carry the battle through to the end, but that we stand for a program and a goal of the complete liberation of all humanity, based on the working-class struggle.

Clearly, we aren’t to that point in Egypt, but it’s important to understand how far we’ve come. This is a country that has been ruled by a dictatorship for 30 years, with arrests, detentions, and torture a constant occurrence. And now an uprising of two-and-a-half weeks thus far has spread to every part of the country and completely transformed Egyptian society.

Most of the attention has been devoted to the struggle around Tahrir Square—this is the symbol of revolution. But in the past few days, groups of workers have taken strike action. I noticed in newspaper reports that the Health Ministry workers I’d seen picketing two weeks ago are now formally part of the Tahrir demonstrations—since the demonstrators have now moved to the parliament building, which is right across from the Health Ministry.

So even with the mass mobilization at Tahrir being maintained, there has been an enormous spread of the revolution, with larger and larger waves of people becoming involved in the struggle in a way that’s astounding to behold.

The process hasn’t just moved in one direction. The last two weeks have been a seesaw back and forth—with the situation favoring the government on some days, and then the momentum swinging back in favor of the movement on others.

When I came home from Egypt on Tuesday, the headline of Britain’s Independent newspaper was “Will the revolution wane?”—the article was illustrated with a picture from the day before with Tahrir Square almost empty, and one from the previous week when it was packed. Little did the Independent know that the day they published that story, every major media outlet concluded that the mobilizations were bigger than anything that came before.

The swings back and forth have been extreme. For example, a week ago Wednesday and Thursday, on February 2 and 3, Mubarak’s regime unleashed its baltagi—an Arabic word for thug that deserves to be introduced into the English language. After the attacks on the square, nobody was certain whether the movement would reappear in strength.

But it did. In large part, this was because public opinion swung very sharply in favor of the demonstrators. On Friday, February 4, among the people who came to Tahrir Square in their thousands and thousands were many who weren’t previously committed to the democracy movement or the overthrow of Mubarak, but who came to show their support for the victims of the baltagi.

People came bringing medical help and supplies and food. This was another stage of the process—it became seen as the duty of any proud Egyptian to support the demonstrators.

That raises another subject that hasn’t been commented on much in the media, but that is present for anyone in Egypt. We’re talking about a society where the feeling of any kind of pride in being an Arab or an Egyptian is something that was lost a very long time ago. It was crushed out of people as a result of the peace with Israel on the one hand, neoliberalism on the other hand, the servile relationship of the Mubarak regime to the U.S. on a third.

So this is one of the most spectacular aspects of what’s happened in Egypt, as in Tunisia, and as in democratic revolutions historically—the return of a sense of pride. This also comes, remember, after September 11 and the war on terror, which brought with it the demonization of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

You can see just in the way people comport themselves that people have new expectations for their future. So that’s to underline, if not fully explain, some of the dynamic elements that aren’t so clearly evident from the outside, but continue to drive this struggle to new heights.

NOW THE revolution is faced with a new challenge following Mubarak’s speech, and people have been further transformed by the experience. Obviously, no one had any illusions about Mubarak staying on as president, but now Mubarak’s vice president Omar Suleiman has become more and more exposed for what he represents.

It was a factor that was already at work last weekend, when Suleiman organized talks with select figures in the opposition. So you have the government offering negotiations, but the chief negotiator is the chief assassin of the Mubarak regime. Everyone knows they’re negotiating with the head of military intelligence who must have ordered the torture or killing of thousands of people.

So there are consequences for those forces in the opposition that agree to talks under those circumstances. For example, I read a report on Wednesday that in the town of Suez, the negotiations with Suleiman produced mass resignations from three parties who were involved—the Tagammu, the Wafd, and the Nasserists.

According to the Daily News Egypt, those who resigned met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others to “set up a coalition named ‘The Council to Protect the Revolution’ in Al-Arish, which is mandated to support the demands of the protesters.”

That’s just one of the incidents in this unfolding situation, which is very exciting, but which has very real dangers. At the end of the day the problem of power remains—how the masses of people can exercise power, and how they can defend themselves against power, including the power of the security forces and the army. That’s the specter that Suleiman and Mubarak both raised in their speeches on Thursday, and it immediately raises the question of the defense of the revolution.


From day of challenge to day of victory reports on the fall of the Mubarak regime, with on-the-spot reports from Cairo

HOSNI MUBARAK is gone. Hours after a televised speech in which he defied the mass uprising against him and declared he would remain as Egypt’s dictator, Mubarak stepped down. His newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on state television on Friday to announce that authority had been transferred to a council of military leaders.

The streets of Cairo and every city in Egypt, filled with protesters furious about Mubarak’s speech last night, erupted in jubilation. News channels with their cameras trained on Tahrir Square gave up trying to make themselves heard over the joyous demonstration. Reporters described deafening chants of “Egypt is free!” and “You’re an Egyptian, lift your head.”

Many questions remain about the shape of the new regime under the military—and what role, if any, Suleiman, who infuriated Egyptians over the past several weeks with his defense of Mubarak’s continued reign, will play.

The military has been at the center of the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years and also bears responsibility for the regime’s crimes. In fact, military police have been involved in arresting key activists. Now the struggle will have to continue to make sure that the military establishment—which is also deeply involved in the country’s business affairs—doesn’t consolidate power in the hands of the armed forces.

But it’s already clear that the people of Egypt have changed the course of history in the Middle East—and the world beyond. They have overcome the violence of police and thugs, the regime’s attempts to co-opt parts of the opposition, and the double-dealing of Western leaders who put “stability” ahead of Egyptians’ demands for democracy.

The emergency laws that enabled Mubarak’s police state to rule for 30 years are still on the books. But the millions of people who engaged in this revolutionary struggle—with the sacrifice of at least 300 lives, with thousands more injured and arrested—weren’t intimidated. They will continue to press for genuine democracy. And workers—whose strikes pushed the regime to the breaking point—will continue to press for wages that can put food on the table, as well as the right to organize independent unions.

Egypt’s revolution has taken a giant leap ahead, opening the way for a struggle that can reshape all of Egyptian society. And the monarchs, dictators and U.S. stooges who hold power across the Middle East are terrified that they—following Mubarak and the ousted Tunisian autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—could be next.

AS FRIDAY began, it was clear that the demonstrations would be bigger than ever today—and so was the level of anger.

Already furious at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to announce his resignation on Thursday night, the mass of people were now upset at Communique #2 of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which backed Vice President Omar Suleiman’s line that constitutional changes would come—but only after the protests end.

The statement said that the armed forces “confirm the need to resume orderly work in the government installations and a return to normal life, preserve the interests and property of our great people.”

If the regime thought this would quiet people’s anger, they were wrong. By midday Friday, thousands had already surrounded the state television building and smaller numbers were outside the presidential palace. And Tahrir Square was packed as tightly as it had ever been in the course of the revolution

As contributor Mostafa Omar reported from the long line to enter Tahrir Square at midday:

The army’s statement says nothing concrete. They are trying to back up the vice president’s promise that will lift the emergency laws—but they said they would do so only at the end of the current crisis.

This is leading to the first serious rift between the demonstrators and the army. People are entering into heated debate with officers, accusing them of taking the side of the regime, and not the revolution. Already, three officers have quit the army and joined the protests—one of them has given a lengthy interview to Al Jazeera.

And while thousands are camping outside the state TV building, about 2,000 workers in state TV and radio are on strike—the people who produce the regime’s version of the news.
Already, there are an estimated 10,000 people camped outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis. People are coming to Tahrir with the expectation of marching there. But it’s a long march—miles and miles.

What effect the mass discontent on the streets had on the maneuvers behind the scenes will probably become known in the days to come, but the morning and afternoon mobilizations were a clear rejection of the attempt to maintain Mubarak in power, while emphasizing that his powers had been transferred to Suleiman.

Furious, the crowds continued to swell as the evening hours approached, and demonstrators reportedly overcame the military’s attempt to defend the state television building.

When Suleiman finally appeared on television to make his brief statement that Mubarak had stepped down, the streets erupted again, but this time with joyous celebrations.


Scenes from a revolution

Mostafa Omar reports from Cairo

WHEN THE announcement came that Hosni Mubarak was no longer president, I was in midtown Cairo. Suddenly, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands—probably, around Cairo as a whole, millions—of people poured into the streets to join those who were already demonstrating.

Around Tahrir Square, I estimate around 2 million people were celebrating the downfall of Mubarak. It was so crowded that it took an hour to walk about 50 or 75 feet.

The atmosphere was indescribable. There are fireworks everywhere in Tahrir Square. It looked like an Egyptian wedding—except multiplied by a million. It’s not just young people involved in this movement, as the media have claimed. It’s all of Egypt—people of all ages dancing and singing, coming up with chants.

My companions and I talked to a number of people. I asked many if they ever had thought such a thing could happen. Some said no—at least not in their lifetime. Others said they knew it would happen, such was the hatred for the Mubarak dictatorship.

While people are celebrating Mubarak’s ouster, they are also watching the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has taken power. One man, a lawyer, said that perhaps people will go home tonight from Tahrir Square feeling victorious. But they will closely monitor what kind of steps the army will take in terms of constitutional and legislative change, he said.

When we asked what will happen if the army doesn’t fulfill its promises, he said, “Tahrir Square is not going anywhere—we have already won once. It will be easier for us to regroup and remobilize. We can take it back at any minute.”

Many others we spoke with also made it clear that the struggle won’t end with Mubarak’s ouster. There was a group of two accountants, two teachers, and some university students from the Qalyubia governorate north of Cairo. They had been camping in Tahrir Square for a week. They all said this was the happiest day of their life. One of the accountants said, “We will not leave until the dictator goes on trial.”

There was also more fraternization with army officers and soldiers who came out of their tanks. At first, the officers didn’t want to let people on the tanks, but eventually they did.

One tank commander I saw, a first lieutenant, is a young man in his twenties. You could see in his eyes and on the face of the soldiers the tremendous amount of relief they felt that they did not have to fire on the protesters. For two weeks, they faced the possibility of having to fire on their brothers and sisters—something they did not want to do.

This commander picked up the Egyptian flag and kissed it. I think he was showing that he was glad that he was serving the whole nation, and not one person or the regime.

THE CHANTS in Tahrir Square following news of Mubarak’s ouster were amazing to hear. They reflected both a sense of accomplishment and also the anticipation of more struggle to come.

Instead of “The people want to bring down the regime,” the chant became “The people brought down the regime.” Instead of “The people want to bring down the president,” it became “The people want the president’s money.” There were a lot of chants for the martyrs: “Martyrs, rest in peace, your blood was not spilled in vain.” The big chant that many took up was “Freedom!”

There were also women’s contingents leading chants—reminding the ex-president’s wife how miserable and poor they were, and how much they struggled just to put food on the table.

They also chanted, “We want Egypt based on freedom and social justice.” So you can tell that people are not just concerned about free elections—there are wider and deeper questions on everyone’s mind that they see as linked to the democratic demands.

There is an internationalist feeling reflected in the chants as well. One of them went: “Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria.” In other words, people know the importance of the January revolution in Tunisia in inspiring further action in Egypt, and they are keeping a close eye on developments in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and other countries. On February 12, there is a national day of protest in Algiers in solidarity with the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia.

Many people spoke about the need to prosecute Mubarak and his family. One young woman, an administrative clerk, told us that the rest of the regime should be on trial.

Many believe that to obtain justice, a continued mass movement is necessary. That’s the perspective of pharmacist Mohamed Rashin, the father of five college-educated children. “I feel I have been in limbo between earth and sky,” he said of the eighteen days of struggle to oust the dictator. “I believe that we have the support of God, but I also believe in the power of the Egyptian people.”

We talked to a middle-aged man who said, “The Egyptian people are giants.” He added: “I love the American people, but I hate the American government. We are against any U.S. or foreign intervention. We will stay in Tahrir Square, because this is not about Mubarak. We have other demands—for political freedom, the end of the emergency laws. Demands that have to be met.”

From the victory chants, you can tell that in the back of their minds, people are still thinking about what happens next. They say, “We brought down the regime,” but what a lot of people really mean by that is: “We have broken part of the regime, so it’s possible to go after the rest.” The vast majority knows that it isn’t about bringing down one person—that Mubarak represented the whole social and economic system.

And while there’s a massive celebration, many people are concerned about reports that the U.S. Sixth Fleet is on its way to the Suez Canal. The sentiment is that we won’t stay silent if there is any foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs.

IF THERE is widespread agreement in the revolutionary movement that the struggle must continue, there are differences on how far to go.

On the left, for example, the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists play a key role in leading chants. The chants aren’t just propaganda—they are agitational, with obvious organizational consequences. Thousands of young people are rallying around the April 6 Youth Movement and the Youth Coalition for the Revolution of Anger.

Before the vice president’s speech, we met Mohammad Abdel Aziz, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement and a leader of the January 25 Youth Movement—the groups that helped to organize much of the activity in Tahrir Square, and one of the most radical. As he said:

It is very important that if we bring down Mubarak today, it will not be the end, but the beginning of the revolution. The regime is not just one person, but an entire ruling elite around Mubarak. Our revolution started as a youth revolution, but now it has developed into a people’s revolution.

One key focus of the next few days will be on working-class struggles. The strikes were one of the two decisive factors in forcing Mubarak out.

In the previous 48 hours before Mubarak’s resignation, a growing number of workers had gone on strike. By Friday, there was the expectation that the strikes would spread the next day, Saturday—a workday in Egypt. The country was becoming ungovernable—not just politically, but also economically.

The second crucial development was that on Friday, there were masses of people surrounding the presidential palace in Alexandria, and more and more people were pouring toward the presidential palace in Cairo, which was a no-go zone as far as the army was concerned.

When the army didn’t fire on people, protesters were further emboldened. By 4 or 5 p.m., with large numbers of protesters also outside the state television building, the army was in no position to fire on people. And at the presidential palace, the tanks turned their barrels away from the people.

At this point, people want a role for the armed forces in ensuring that the remnants of the old regime will be dismantled and figuring out a transition. But they don’t want a military dictatorship. And the army is issuing statements that it will protect the freedoms of the people and the wealth of the country, a hint that the army will pursue those who are trying to smuggle money out of the country and pursue those who are corrupt—that was an announcement on state TV.

There will be mass pressure on the army to live up to those promises. Before Mubarak stepped down, we talked to a young man in Tahrir Square and asked him who he wanted to replace Mubarak. He said, “I want someone who is as poor as I am, who has eaten beans all his life”—the staple of the poor in Egypt—”so he will be able to understand the anger of the people.”

You get the feeling from experiences like talking to him that this isn’t just a movement for democracy. It’s a movement for social justice and the redistribution of wealth.

Transcription provided by Karen Dominguez Burke, Matthew Beamesderfer, Christine Darosa, and Matt Korn.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


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    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John