Taimour Lay reflects on the origins and future of the Egyptian movement that toppled Mubarak
‘Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable. Work is politics by itself.’ – A striking worker at Mahalla, 2008
‘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.’ – Demand of Egyptian Iron and Steel Workers, February 2011
‘Immensely courageous and a force for good’ – Tony Blair defends Hosni Mubarak
Three thousand women garment workers left their stations and marched through the vast mill complex of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, only to find their male colleagues had failed to heed the call to walk out. ‘Where are the men? Here are the women!’ went the chant before 10,000 workers gathered in the main square of the Nile Delta town of Mahalla al-Kubra, the centre of Egypt’s militant labour movement for the last 8 years.
The four-day occupation that began on 7 December 2006 was no isolated uprising. Struggles at textile and flour mills in Alexandria and across the Delta had led to over 220 major strikes that year alone. The news of victories over pay created a resurgent politics of protest not seen the bread riots of 1977. Under extreme economic pressure, the balance of power between workers and government was changing but no one could predict what could come next.
From 2005 there had been attempts by activists in the ‘Kifaya’ (‘Enough’) movement to create popular pressure against the government but repression was severe, and a disconnect remained between mainly middle-class organisers in Cairo, liberal human rights activists, a few hundred Revolutionary socialists and often isolated labour struggles. There were other powerful currents of emerging opposition that had begun with Palestine solidarity protests during the second intifada (including a riot at Cairo University in 2002), disgust at Mubarak’s support for the Iraq War in 2003 and fraudulent elections in 2005 against which the judges and middle-class professionals marched.
So the extraordinary movement for change in Egypt did not begin on 25 January 2011, when a coalition of youth activists, liberal oppositionists and bloggers organised a ‘Day of Rage’ against President Mubarak. It didn’t begin in Cairo, and it certainly didn’t begin on the internet. A recent history of class struggle created a space for dissent that emboldened a young population and united – temporarily – a cross-section of society.
On the web, in the streets
The fusion of labour struggle and online activism (comprising a mix of middle class college students and working class youths) was a conscious organising tool pursued by, amongst others, Ahmed Maher, who set up the Facebook group and committee of organisers under the name of the ‘April 6 Youth Movement’, in solidarity with Mahalla strikers in 2008.
The group adopted the clenched fist image of the Serbian youth movement Otpor, and has spoken of the influence of Gene Sharp’s ‘The politics of Nonviolent Action’, a pragmatist approach that tends to underplay the need – or indeed desirability – of ‘deep’ political agreement among large groups seeking change. It is a toolkit for the fight to bring down a regime, but not for building a new one, which is its weakness and its strength. (Sharp is himself a roving proselytiser for the model, pitching up to conduct trainings across the world, usually with US funding. I met him in the Maldives in 2006 when he persuaded young opposition members to form ‘Havaru’ as a radical wing of the Maldivian Democratic Party, though this radicalism extended only to tactics, not to substantive demands).
It was a wave of strikes from 9 February – right across the country and in almost every sector – that eventually forced the ruling elite to discard Mubarak and embark upon a strategy of ‘constitutional change’ and containment. Hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square posed a huge challenge that Mubarak may nonetheless have had hope of containing. It was a stalemate. But millions of people forging the connection between political freedoms and economic justice, closing down the country in general strike, was not. Momentum was regained.
Social media accelerated developments but the story of the protests – the preparations and process one momentum had been gained – is surprisingly one of old methods: leafletting in working class districts, pamphlets spreading propaganda, newspapers posted onto walls for daily updates, face-to-face organisation and debate in the democratic forum of Tahrir Square, workplace and sectoral struggle, neighbourhood defence committees filling the vacuum left by the disappeared police, battles fought with riot cops and thugs, strategic attacks on the infrastructure of the security services, barricades and bravery. If this was organised online, it was won on the streets. On the Kasr al-Nile Bridge. In the square for 18 days. Over 300 people gave their lives.
A live experiment
Which is not to deny how innovative organisers proved; adaptable, open and democratic in ways western ‘activists’ should have cause to envy. Accounts are emerging of how the ‘secret protest’ on 25 January made it to Tahrir Square, the act of defiance that encouraged thousands of others. The men and women were not bloggers or known activists; they were the urban poor from the slum of Bulaq al-Dakrour, on Cairo’s western edge, who massed in front of a local sweet shop, realised the security services had been distracted by 20 other protest sites that day, and began the rush to Tahrir.
The Square itself slowly became a model of grassroots organisation: sleeping areas, food preparation, medical clinics, waste-management, information-sharing and debate. An occupation became more than a symbol. It was a lived experience of emancipation from state structures, a shift, however transient, in social life and consciousness. This did not spring from nowhere. It tapped into existing networks: from Muslim Brotherhood youth groups to the fans of Cairo’s rival football teams..
Without ‘leaders’, in the absence of official unions and political parties of any real significance, time and again tens of thousands of people cooperated and coordinated themselves to create the potential for revolution.
Dictatorship of capital
The ‘potential’ only: since a military dictator has been replaced by rule through the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces, the best-case scenario for the international community and the domestic business elite.
Within the army command, and behind it, lies a ruling capitalist class with a huge stake in maintaining the status quo. 18 days on the streets brought Egypt to the brink of social revolution – much more than the mere removal of the President and a shift in the regime. The question of why it stopped and compromised in the way it did is connected to the events that gave it strength: a cross-class coalition could unite against Mubarak but not against the capitalist state. There was no need for leaders, but as it developed, certain ideas and perspectives took precedence. The army was never so attached to Mubarak as has been claimed. Reports suggest that discussions were in train in 2009 over how to avert the succession of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, and placing intelligence chief Omar Suleiman or prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in power instead. By refusing to save Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi saved something much bigger. It was a public relations coup – playing on fear and nationalism – as much as a military one.
The danger now is of consolidation by that ruling class, with the connivance of some activists whose ambitions always stopped at the removal of Mubarak, and not a new social order. The pressure of attack by the government created an intense solidarity and cohesion. But in a sign of the fragmenting of the coalition of resistance, Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who played an influential role online and became a figurehead in Tahrir, now argues that the ‘revolution’ is at an end.
“If you get paid 70 dollars, this is not the time to ask for 100 dollars,” Ghonim said on 14 February, calling on striking workers to stop their action. “If you really care about this country, it is not about you anymore. This is about restoring you know, that stability. This is about sending signals to everyone that Egypt is becoming stable and we are working on that.”
The struggle ahead
Similar statements from often self-appointed leaders, whom the military have deliberately sought to cultivate, has exposed the splits that may undo many of the gains made since 25 January. But the experience of struggle will not be unlearned. Egyptians have seen that mass, militant protest that challenges the conditions upon which the political-economy of the country rests, cannot be stopped by even the most repressive of regimes. A core will remain fighting for a permanent revolution long after the international media have left Tahrir.
The class-character of the army is complex – the top of the institution represents a continuation of the Mubarak system; it was, after all, their system, and has been since 1953. But the economic pressures and social conditions that created the conditions for revolutionary change will not be magicked away by the granting of narrow political rights dissociated from a restructuring of class relations and economic opportunity.
The ‘new Egypt’ being marketed to the masses can’t deliver on its promises. It remains a country ravaged by twenty years of IMF prescription and privatisation, jobless ‘7% growth’, rocketing food prices, overdependence on tourism and low-value manufacturing, and vast unemployment. One in four Egyptians lives in a shanty town. One-third of Cairo residents live without clean drinking water or a proper sewage system. None of this will change.
An army of 400,000 drains resources, with a top brass who operate a parallel economy of construction and real estate interests. Conglomerates with billion-dollar profits like Orascom, Osman and Bahgat constitute the starkest evidence of the concentration of capital in private, unaccountable hands above a poverty-stricken society. Meanwhile, $1.3bn in American military aid will continue as long as a cold peace with Israel is maintained. Egypt has a ”role to play in the global economy” and the ”political balance” in the Middle East. That will continue to stoke tensions and expose contradictions. When a new constitution and a civilian-military government fail to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of Egypt’s 80m people, a new wave of protest that uses, and learns from, the lessons of 2011 will surely begin.