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Following huge demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria yesterday, President Hosni Mubarak stated that he would step down in September. Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square vowed however to continue their demonstrations to force Mubarak to leave office. This afternoon saw dramatic clashes as supporters of the discredited dictator attacked protestors, including with firearms, mounted on horses and camels, in a last-ditch attempt to intimidate demonstrators off the streets. Armed forces have thus far remained “neutral”, issuing an order for the dispersal of the gatherings of both sides.
Below, we publish an interview conducted by socialistworld.net before this afternoon’s events, with a CWI reporter in Tahrir Square, central Cairo.
What is happening now in Cairo?
“In Tahrir square and the streets around it, there are thousands and thousands of demonstrators – I’ve never seen anything like it. The demonstration started early morning and its now late evening (1 February). Even though there is officially a curfew, there are still a huge number of people left in the square. The crowd is dense and it is difficult to move through. The whole city centre is controlled by the protesters and completely cleared of police. There are still soldiers around but they are not very visible. Order is maintained by cross-religious defense squads; they check the documents of passers-by, check that there are no banned items that could be used for provocations and hand out leaflets with instructions of how to behave on the square. The level of self organization and of discipline is impressive. Medical centres and a press centre have been set up. There are canteens operating.
“One of the volunteers told me that yesterday he was checking passports and discovered a policeman (in Egyptian passports, the holder’s occupation is stated). He passed him over to the army. Apparently, there is an agreement to do that, although it is not clear what the army do with those police handed over. The police, the “keepers of order”, even when they are out of uniform are not allowed on the demonstration, because people think that they are likely to cause provocations, which in the current situation could end in tragedy.
“The demonstration is made up of groups standing around orators with megaphones, who are shouting out slogans or reporting important information. There are meetings taking place around the stalls of the different political parties. Amongst the demonstrators, there is a huge number of very militant youth, prepared to go to the end. There are many women participating in the protests. Everyone is shouting we will not leave until Mubarak leaves. “Once someone turned up, probably a provocateur, shouting that Mubarak had resigned but he was immediately interrupted by the protestors who shouted, “Don’t believe the rumours, no-one should leave the square until the president officially resigns.” And it has to be said that the slogans are not directed at one person but against the whole regime.
“The internet in Cairo is not working and sms messages do not get through, so there is a real information famine. At the moment, mobiles are working. The authorities have banned the broadcasting of Al-Jazeera. I met with the Head of the Cairo Bureau of Al-Jazeera who is living in a tent and co-coordinating the work of his correspondents and camera crews.
While I was walking through the crowds, I had an unexpected meeting. Some-one I didn’t know called out my name! He explained that I didn’t know him, but “I know you, you are my friend on facebook!” Apparently we had exchanged some comments about the situation in Egypt. It seems we “devirtualised ourselves”. Many people asked me what I was doing in Cairo and when I said that I had come specially to support their struggle, they were surprised and pleased. Tourists were also taking part in the protests; I heard people shouting slogans in Italian, in Spanish, other languages. I met two English people who had a placard pinned on them in Arabic – “Mubarak, it’s time to go, we need to take a shower!” Apparently there is no water in some of the hotels. Sometimes it was the Egyptians themselves who had written placards and leaflets in English, so that people passing by and watching television reports could understand what was going on. Because of the information blockade, people know little of the international protests in solidarity with their struggle, but when such reports got through they were warmly met.”
What are the demands of the protesters? What are their slogans?
“The demands are mainly social and democratic: the President should resign, demands for democracy and freedom of speech, for a new constitution, new elections at every level. I saw one woman with a placard saying “The army should defend us – yes. The army should rule us – no”. In other words, although the protesters are treating the army warmly, they have no desire for it to take over.
“Sometimes you can see progressive, if not very clear demands, such as “return what has been stolen from the people”, although there is no clear understanding of what this means or how to achieve it. I’ve seen slogans such as, “Tie wage levels to prices” and “For a $200 minimum wage”. But, in general, you do not see a thought-out programme or analysis. Another important demand is for the abolition of the emergency law, which has been implemented in Egypt for over 30 years and is used to repress any protest movements.
“All around, you can feel the mood rising, there is an explosion of protest energy which is reflected in all sorts of creative forms: the protestors are drawing placards, slogans on the tarmac, on the walls, on cars, on faces, clothes. All sorts of theatrical acts staged. There are thousands of leaflets distributed, as well as appeals, declarations - sometimes without signatures - just from individuals.”
What forces are involved in the protest?
“All sorts of different forces, Left, Rights and Islamist are involved. The Left and semi-Left groups are restricting themselves to democratic demands, that is, they are simply reflecting the demands of the masses. They call for the resignation of President Mubarak, new elections and a new constitution. But they are not carrying out any agitation around a socialist programme.
“The Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood are, to all intents and purposes, were not participating in the protest. When it all started, they did not intervene. Now, under pressure from their rank and file, they have been forced to come out onto the streets. But they are having an almost insignificant influence on the slogans, demands and mood of the demonstrators. Once I witnessed a group of youth shouting democratic slogans and one of the “bearded ones” attempted to seize the initiative by shouting, “Allah Akbar”. But he got no response from the rest of the crowd - they just ignored him. Then he tried to get deeper into the crowd and continued to stubbornly shout until the crowd turned on him and told him to be quiet. “Allakh Akbar” is not a slogan, it does not call anybody to anything and it does not present any demands or programme. But when it came time for prayers, and the Islamists appealed to believers, a significant part of the demonstration participated. But straight afterwards the demonstration resumed by shouting democratic slogans. Nobody shouting for sharia law. There are also many women participating in the protests.
“I spoke with a number of Copts (Egyptian Christians), who are very numerous among the demonstrators. This is an important symptom. During New Year in Alexandria there was a terrorist bomb attack of a Christian church and this led to a very tense situation in the city and country. The Copts organized demonstrations, demanded security, and even shouted anti-Islamic slogans. But now the situation has been transformed. You can see how, literally over a few days, even hours, the united movement for democratic and social rights has united both Christians and Muslims. Unity in struggle is stripping away all superficial differences. I often see people wearing necklaces with a cross intertwined in a half moon – the symbol of unity between Copts and Muslims. When the church, in the form of the elderly patriarch, came out and publically supported Mubarak, even some of the Copts looked on this as a positive thing, arguing that now the Christians would have less faith in their holy figures and the church as a symbol of authority.
“The opposition has already formed a coalition of different parties, from the Left, Right and Islamist. They support the general demands of the masses but also demand that during the six months of transition, until the moment of Mubarak’s departure, that a government of ‘national salvation’ should be formed. During this period, they promise to organize elections at every level, and to produce a new draft constitution. “The Left, by participating in this coalition, is in effect, helping to hand power to that section of the bourgeois that is currently kept at a distance from power by the Mubarak regime. The slogans and demands of this coalition are being widely distributed and are not being opposed by the mass of protesters, even though the actual leading figures of the opposition are met with scepticism. This is especially the case with the former head of the International Atomic Authority, Mohammed Al-Baradei, who has only just returned to Egypt. But, so far, no-one else is raising any alternative programme, even on the Left.
“In the political vacuum that exists, which has already begun to be filled by the Right, the Left needs to be very active, distributing leaflets, proposing their alternative and building an organization – although there are practical problems getting ideas across in printed form, as all the shops are shut.”
The CWI calls for:
For mass workers’ action, including a general strike, for the immediate overthrow of Mubarak and the whole rotten, brutal regime
For full democratic rights immediately, including the right to assemble, to strike and to organise democratic independent trade unions
For the creation of democratically elected committees of mass struggle, and defence against state repression, in the workplaces, communities, schools and colleges, linked on local, regional and national scale, to spearhead the resistance
For rank and file committees of police and soldiers - Side with the masses & purge the officers and hierarchy
No to sectarianism – For the unity of all workers across religious lines
No trust in any new ‘national unity’ regime based on the interests of the ruling class and imperialism
For immediate and free elections to a revolutionary democratic constituent assembly - For a majority workers’ and rural workers’ government
For a living minimum wage, guaranteed jobs, a massive programme of house building, education and health
End the Egyptian blockade of Gaza – For self-determination for Palestine and for workers’ unity and mass action to overthrow dictators across the region
For the nationalisation of Egypt’s big corporations, the banks and large estates and their democratic planning to meet the needs of the masses not an elite
For a socialist Egypt and a socialist confederation of the region, on an equal and voluntary basis