‘A regime may be privately hated while it seems to enjoy public support—an expression of reluctance by most citizens to publicize their opposition. It may seem unshakeable until even minor shocks reveal its vulnerability, encouraging a “bandwagon” process in which a panoply of social conflicts, until then largely hidden, become apparent.”
So wrote Duke University professor Timur Kuran in 1989 to address a recurring historical pattern of seemingly stable regimes whose near-sudden downfall takes everyone, including their opposition, by surprise.
Though Egypt: The Moment of Change was published more than a year in advance of the revolution in Egypt, it provides indispensible analysis for understanding the roots of the revolution. Edited by Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet, this concise book compiles eight essays, which, taken in combination, piece together the economic, social, and political contradictions inherent in Mubarak’s Egypt—along with accounts of the small yet important advances made by left-wing and workers’ movements in the decade preceding the revolution.
Egypt plays a central role in North Africa and the Middle East—an area of much import to world capitalism. It has the largest population and biggest industrial economy in the region. From its heyday at the center of a radical pan-Arabist movement in the 1950s and 1960s to its seemingly polar opposite role as the U.S. and Israel’s key ally in the region and poster child for IMF-backed neoliberal policies, developments in Egypt have profound implications for regional and global politics.
In 1952, a military officers’ coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt’s British-backed monarchy. Nasser and the Free Officers Movement were part of a rising wave of anticolonial movements in the Middle East and Africa. Many of these movements came to be known as movements for Arab or African “socialism.” Though Nasser was not interested in workers’ power or democratic control—and in fact ruthlessly suppressed workers’ self-activity and political organization—he nevertheless delivered a series of limited but significant land and social welfare reforms and nationalized key companies and industries, including the Suez Canal Company.
Nasser set about developing Egypt’s economic and industrial structures along a “state capitalist” model. The public sector, notes author Ahmad El-Sayed El-Naggar, became “the dominant economic force, with state ownership contributing 70 percent of production, employing 50 percent of the labor force and accounting for 90 percent of new investment in the industrial sector.” The state, he continues, “[took] the place of capitalists too weak to accomplish a substantial economic transformation. The outcome was a bureaucratic capitalism in which those in power used public assets for their own interests.”
With the pan-Arabist movement waning by the late 1960s, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat—and after him Hosni Mubarak—reversed course and embraced Western-style free-market policies following Nasser’s death in 1970. In 1974, Sadat launched the infitah (opening), a program of radical economic change and political realignment to open up the Egyptian economy to private, and particularly Western, investment. Throughout the 1990s, and then in accelerated form after 2004, the Mubarak regime pushed through structural adjustment reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—privatizing industry at a record pace, gutting social services, and reversing land reforms granted under Nasser. Mahdi and Marfleet point out:
In 2007 the World Bank described Egypt as “the world’s top reformer.” It praised government policies said to encourage business, reduce bureaucracy, improve access to credit and facilitate trade. President Mubarak has been lauded as a far-sighted strategist able to overcome internal problems and make his country fit for the global era.
These neoliberal reforms have created massive polarization and immiseration. According to El-Naggar, the share of GDP acquired by wage earners decreased from 48.5 percent in the late 1980s to 28.6 percent in 1995—and less than 20 percent in 2007. “Today,” he notes, “more than 95 percent of Egypt’s 5.8 million state employees and their families are considered to be poor even by World Bank standards (living under $2 a day per person) or to be extremely poor (living under $1 a day per person).”
Several contributors point out that while Sadat and Mubarak broke with the state capitalist approach of the 1950s and 1960s, there is continuity between these systems as well. Nasser himself began the process of economic liberalization in the late 1960s, following Egypt’s crushing defeat by Israel in the 1967 war. More importantly, the nature of the reforms themselves—carried out from above with the heavy hand of the state, and always keeping intact private property and capital—made them easier to undo, using the very same state apparatus set up by Nasser to push through economic liberalization.
Despite massive state repression—tightened considerably since Mubarak took power in 1981 and instituted perpetual, and much-hated, “emergency laws”—opposition movements have developed. Chapters on workers’ struggles, the democracy movement, and Islamism paint a picture of the character and complexity of these movements, and make it clear that the revolution of 2011 did not appear out of nowhere.
A strike wave that began in 2004 in response to a wave of privatizations and measures to encourage foreign direct investment has involved over a million workers and their families. This is, as contributing author Joel Beinin points out, “the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in over half a century.”
The most significant of these strikes took place at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, where workers occupied their plant and won their demands, first in December 2006, and then again in September 2007. Women played the leading role, calling on their male counterparts to join them.
Economic demands quickly spilled over into political ones, as the entire economic policy of the regime came into question. Among the workers’ chants: “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!” Speaking to a rally, Mohamed al-‘Attar, one of the strike’s leaders said:
I want the whole government to resign.… I want the Mubarak regime to come to an end. Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable.… What we are witnessing right now, this is as democratic as it gets.
Indeed, a hatred for the Mubarak regime was a unifying feature of every rising opposition movement of the past decade. In 2000, a movement in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada, and in 2003 a movement against the war in Iraq, both “started out with slogans of solidarity, and ended with slogans against the Mubarak regime, the police, and the system as a whole,” wrote a leading member of Egypt’s Kifaya (or change) movement.
These earlier movements were small, facing a repressive state, and often drew only a few thousand people to their protests. But their aspirations, and in some cases their tactics, prefigured those of 2011. In March 2003, an antiwar protest brought out an unexpected 40,000 people to Tahrir Square. Demonstrators occupied the square for more than 24 hours before they were dispersed.
Most importantly, the protests developed networks of activists and political collaborations that had not existed before. These could be set in motion when the time was ripe.
Also of particular note, a chapter on “Islamism(s) old and new” lays out an important history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite decades of illegality, the Brotherhood has remained the largest and most influential opposition force in Egypt, leading to some high-pitched warnings by both right-wing and some left-wing commentators regarding the Egyptian revolution’s future. But as the chapter points out, it’s important to understand the specific politics and history of the Brotherhood rather than dumping all Islamists into one box.
If anything, the Muslim Brotherhood has been quite conservative politically. In contrast to groups such as the Gama’at Islamiyya, a militant, jihadi tendency that emerged in the 1970s, the Brotherhood took a decidedly non-confrontational approach to the regime. And while culturally opposed to Western encroachment, it has, at different times, emphasized a pro–free market politics. Nor is the Brotherhood consistently anti-imperialist. As Sameh Naguib notes, “Leading Brotherhood figures have reassured the ‘international community’ that on coming to power they would abide by treaties signed by the current regime, including the Camp David accords.”
The movements and organizations that exist are important to understand, write the editors of The Moment of Change, but so too is the more volatile potential for change, as new situations arise and new formations rise up in response. “Movements from below,” they write, “often decline and are reshaped by new pressures and social contexts, re-emerging in the form of campaigns for rights, lobbies for reform, and most importantly, from class-based initiatives which have the potential to bring sweeping change.”
The outcome of the Egyptian revolution has yet to be written. This will be done by those workers, students, and activists activated at this very moment. Reading this book will help you better navigate the context within which they are doing so.