A People’s History of the Egyptian Revolution
No matter how it unfolds, the Egyptian revolution will go down in the history books as a defining moment in the 21st century. Millions of Egyptians brought down one of the world’s most repressive regimes, that of the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak, in just 18 days. Their bravery, perseverance, and tactfulness in the face of the regime’s brutal crackdown not only triggered uprisings across the Arab world but inspired and influenced protests against government austerity in the U.S., Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Despite the fact that it is only a few months old, it’s important to begin piecing together a people’s history of the revolution to convey what happened and how it happened so that the lessons from this critical struggle can be disseminated.
The starting point for understanding the revolution is the special role that Egypt played in supporting U.S. domination and control of the region, vis-à-vis its relationship with Israel. Egypt began establishing ties with Israel under Anwar Sadat in the mid 1970s, and in 1979 the two countries signed the Camp David Accords with Jimmy Carter’s support. As a result, Egypt was rewarded with billions in U.S. military aid, making it the largest recipient after Israel. It’s no coincidence that this is when Sadat began eliminating many of the ‘socialist’ policies implemented under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, thus paving the way for the introduction of neoliberal policies under Hosni Mubarak.
These measures increased the level of poverty in Egypt, leading to massive disparities in wealth. Moreover, it led to the emergence of a new group of super-wealthy businessmen who benefited from their close ties to the Egyptian state. Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal and steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz were prominent figures of this wealthy class. Both are now in prison, awaiting trials on corruption charges.
Gamal’s rise to power is emblematic of how detached and corrupt the regime had become. “The line between businessmen and government was completely erased” by Gamal during this period, according to student activist Hanah Elsisi. Not only did he appoint many of these new rich businessmen to powerful government positions, but together they pushed through more of the neoliberal policies that had enriched them and impoverished most Egyptians. They were seen as being responsible for the regime’s almost total shutout of the opposition during the 2010 elections, giving the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Most of the movements that have emerged over the past decade have been a response to this transformation of Egypt from epicenter of struggles against colonialism and Zionism to defender of U.S. imperialism and Israel, from a state based on the nationalization of industry and benefits for workers and the poor to privatization and the dismantling of the welfare state. It was not just a fight for liberal democracy and against corruption but for real self-determination, including freedom from U.S. domination.
The first signs of widespread opposition to this new Egyptian power paradigm emerged at the end of 2000, around a campaign of support for the second Palestinian intifada. In Cairo, tens of thousands took to the streets. University students had daily protests and sit-ins for more than a week, and high school students almost shut down the road to the airport. Like most uprisings in the Arab world, the protests centered around issues of democracy, poverty, corruption, and, ultimately, opposition to the regime.
The second wave of mass demonstrations took place in 2003-04 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Egyptian regime’s support for the war. At one point more than 30,000 protesters fought the police, briefly took over Tahrir square, and burned down a billboard of Mubarak.
When the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize in Iraq, and George W. Bush shifted his justification for the occupation to one of building democracy, he went after Egypt to show that he was serious. Although there was never any real pressure put on the Mubarak regime to implement any democratic reforms, the confrontation did, as Mohamed Elagati, Executive Director of Arab Forum for Alternatives, says, “force the Egyptian government to give some space in terms of freedom of speech… more independence by the judiciary as well as more fair elections in 2005.”
Many of those involved in Palestine solidarity work and opposing the Iraq war took advantage of this opening and formed a coalition called the Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kefaya, in 2004. They never gained a mass following but were very daring in terms of protesting even in small numbers. Most importantly, they knew how to publicize their actions and use the media to their advantage.
As Dina Shehata, a researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, pointed out, many of the youth who played an important role in the revolution came out of the Youth for Change movement which was essentially the youth wing of Kefaya. Leaders like Ahmed Maher of the April 6th movement, the main youth group behind the January 25 Police Day demonstration which sparked the revolution, got their start in Kefaya.
The April 6 movement formed out of efforts, in 2008, to support the protests and strikes against surging food prices in the city of Mahalla, the site of the largest textile mill in the Middle East and one with some of the country’s most militant workers. Textile workers there have a long history of struggle, but the repression that accompanied the imposition of neoliberal policies in Egypt had kept a lid on any fightbacks for almost 20 years. This peace was shattered in 2006, just two years before the food price riots, when the workers went out on strike over pay and other issues and won. Their victory led to a wave of strikes in the massive textile industry and spread to other sectors.
The name of the youth group comes from the date, April 6, on which they called for a general strike. While the general strike never happened, there were militant mass actions by workers and residents in Mahalla. Known as the Mahalla intifada, it took the government two days to shut it down. Three people were killed and hundreds were detained and tortured. Nevertheless, strikes, sit ins and protests continued for months in other places and eventually led to the formation of the first independent trade unions by the tax collectors, a teacher’s union, and a number of other small unions in 2009.
The organizing around this struggle served as an important training ground for the future. The youth’s social media skills helped spread the word about what was going on not only across Egypt but to the world. Nothing exemplifies the tech and media savviness of this movement better than Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who became one of the ‘stars’ of the revolution. Even though it wasn’t about one particular individual, Ghonim played an important role both in the lead up to the January 25, 2011 protest and at a critical point in the final days of the revolution.
Ghonim was first moved to political activism after police beat to death a young man named Khaled Saeed in Alexandria in June 2010. Ghonim set up a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Saeed” to help publicize and organize around the case. It attracted approximately 220,000 members within just a few weeks. The case of Khaled Saeed became internationally known, in part because of this Facebook group, but also because, as Ahmed Shokr, a journalist with the English language daily Al Masry Al Youm who is active with the Association of Progressive Youth of the Revolution, explains, “[it] was a campaign that appealed to many of the elements of the Egyptian middle class… And the basic idea of the campaign was, well, if it could happen to Khaled Saeed it could happen to any one of us.”
Critics of the campaign cited the fact that most of the cases of police brutality involve poorer Egyptians and rarely receive publicity, let alone inspire protests. Nevertheless, Shokr says that “at its height in the summer of 2010 it was drawing literally thousands of people out to protests and silent vigils mostly in Alexandria. I remember some Fridays in Alexandria large segments of the Corniche, the Mediterranean waterfront, were lined up with thousands of people standing in silent vigils to support Khaled Saeed and to demand justice over his death.”
Despite the success of this campaign, the decision to put out the call for a protest against police brutality and corruption on Police Day, a national holiday held every year on January 25, was a bold and critical one. The corruption and daily humiliation ordinary Egyptians were experiencing under the regime were clearly at a breaking point.
Autumn of Fury
On 17 October 2010, Zeinobia, a prominent Egyptian blogger wrote an entry in her blog Egyptian Chronicles titled “The Autumn of Fury Mubarak Edition,” a reference to a book about Anwar Sadat’s last days. She said, “Strangely it is like history repeating in its own way and I wonder if the climax that we will witness Inshallah sooner or later is the end of a regime that shows all signs of weakness and fragility.”
A couple weeks later, well known socialist blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy wrote a similar entry in his blog Arabawy: “No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feel it’s inevitable.” He goes on to relay a very telling conversation he had with a cab driver:
“Journalists and people on TV talk about Nazif [the Prime Minister at the time] this and Nazif that. But they never mention Mubarak. They are cowards. They should say Mubarak is bad. Mubarak is responsible… There will be another bread intifada, like that of 1977. And this time we will burn the country down. We will not burn the cars, buses or shops. These are ours. No. We will burn them. We will burn this government. We will burn down the police stations.”
To tap into this anger and widen its appeal, the main organizers of the demonstration – We Are all Khaled Saeed, the April 6 Movement, activists from Egyptian politician Mohamed El Baradei’s campaign, the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Gabha party, and a few more organizations – added other demands like a higher minimum wage and an end to the state of emergency laws.
However, it was the unfolding Tunisian revolution which had the most significant impact on Egyptians and their view of the January 25 demonstration. In response to the death of one of four Egyptians who had set themselves on fire in a desperate protest against the regime (like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia), Asmaa Mahfouz, an activist from the April 6 movement, made a YouTube video appeal for the demonstration in which she says:
“These self-immolators were not afraid of death, but we’re afraid of security forces? Can you imagine that? Are you also like that? I will not set myself on fire. If the security forces want to set me on fire, let them come and do it. If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25. Whoever says that women shouldn’t go to protests because they could get beaten, let him have some honour and dignity and come with me on January 25.”
Early on in the day it became clear that the protest was going to be bigger than anything the organizers had expected. Elsisi explained that when organizers fanned out that morning to mobilize various neighborhoods in Cairo, instead of getting 30 or 40 people to march to Tahrir square with them, several hundred – and in some places 1,000 people or more – joined them. In total, more than 100,000 people participated in the protests that day.
Ahmed Maher, one of the April 6 leaders, best captured the significance of what was happening: “When I looked around and saw all these unfamiliar faces in the protests, and they were more brave than us, I knew that this was it for the regime,” he said.
Shehata reminds us that this “wasn’t about planning a series of events that would culminate in regime breakdown… What happened was that the response to the call for a protest on the 25th was overwhelming and it gave rise to a momentum that [the youth organizers] hadn’t anticipated. So yes they played an important role but also things took a course of their own and so they had to respond to events as they happened.”
“January 25 really unleashed something that was larger than any Facebook group or any individual or any political group. It unleashed something – there was sort of a buzz in the air – and suddenly you had this mass popular consensus around this single demand for the ouster of the regime. And you had millions of people on the streets… You know when you have millions of people on the streets I don’t think there is any single individual or group that can claim sole credit for that. There was a larger force at work there.”
But how did events snowball from this uprising against police brutality on January 25 to Mubarak being forced to step down on February 11? First and foremost was the success of the Tunisian revolution and the uprisings across the Arab world that it ignited; these gave Egyptians a sense that their actions could actually bring down the regime.
Another factor was the spread of the uprising to other parts of the country. Many used email and social networking sites to spread the word to their networks and others outside of Cairo and Alexandria – but the internet and cell phones were cut off by January 26. That’s where independent Egyptian newspapers like Al Shorouk and Al Masry Al Youm stepped in. As Elagati points out, the former went from a distribution of 30,000 to 180,000 copies, and the latter doubled to 200,000 during the revolution.
Of course, Al Jazeera played the biggest role, particularly since people were able to actually see broadcasts of the violence being perpetrated by the state forces. This was the case in Suez. Initially, the bloodiest and most intense confrontations between the people and the police actually took place in Suez, not Cairo or Alexandria. Protesters there eventually drove the police out, but, as Elagati explains, “It was a real war – like what we’re seeing in Libya or in other countries… There were a lot killed. A lot more than were killed in the first three days in Cairo and Alexandria.”
The scenes of the police beating and killing protesters in Suez and elsewhere galvanized even more people to come out for the “Day of Rage” protest called for January 28. Not only did more people come out, but they were better prepared. A pivotal battle took place that day on the Kasr el Nile bridge leading into Cairo. A few thousand protesters faced off against a thousand heavily-armed riot cops for five hours, and eventually beat them back.
Across Egypt, people began to shed their fear of the police. “When they started shooting, people started to move directly at them because after a certain limit of violence people are not afraid anymore,” Elagati says. “Okay, we’re going to die if we run. So we’re not going to run, we’re going to attack.”
“The speed with which people suddenly confronted the security forces and the violence that they used against them came not just as a shock but as an inspiration to all of us who were on the ground, and that fear barrier was within the span of three days taken down.”
He goes on to say that,
“Courage was never the absence of fear. It was the realization that there’s actually something more important worth fighting for.”
On February 2 Mubarak unleashed his thugs, who rode horses and camels into crowds of protesters. Even though they were slow to get involved in the demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood (not the youth wing which was involved from the beginning) threw themselves into the movement after this attack. They made a big difference not only because of their numbers, but because their military-like discipline was critical in these situations. Shehata said that “the Brotherhood was very much present in the square and part of the organizing committee of the square, but they… didn’t raise their banners, [or chant] religious slogans, and kept a lower profile. They were careful not to overshadow the youth groups.”
After what became the most violent day in the revolution, the coalition of youth groups steering the movement made a decisive move to call for mass demonstrations on February 4 in order to regain momentum. It worked. The reign of terror unleashed by Mubarak had backfired, inspiring even more Egyptians to join the uprising. A million people in Cairo alone protested that day. It was at this moment that the key demand for the downfall of the Mubarak regime was solidified.
The final blow to the regime was in some ways its own doing. The government said that they would let the protesters remain in Tahrir, but people had to return to work on February 9. “What happened is that the people moved the revolution from the square to their workplaces,” says Elagati. Shehata adds that “groups began to mobilize as journalists, lawyers, as factory workers, under their professional and class identity. They began to do work stoppages and strikes within their workplace. And during the final two days of the revolution, there were strikes in almost every work location.”
“The protests spreading around the country were threatening to become, I don’t want to say a real revolution, but something that could remove the regime completely and not just Mubarak,” says Shehata. It was at this point that the military stepped in to take power.
Some argue that this intervention by the military and its use of secret courts to detain and imprison hundreds and perhaps thousands of activists shows that the revolution has been derailed. They also argue that the economic issues that fueled the revolution, particularly the neoliberal policies, are still intact.
While this may be the case, the ousting and imprisonment of Hosni Mubarak, members of his family, and close associates – and the dissolution of the NDP – has ended authoritarian rule in Egypt and greatly weakened U.S. imperialism. Moreover, there are no signs that the military is planning on standing in the way of the first democratic elections for Parliament in September, nor the writing of a new constitution and election of a president. In short, the Egyptian revolution is still unfolding. •
This article first appeared at Left Turn magazine.