This eyewitness account from a CWI reporter was despatched just before the big increase in the numbers of militant protesters swelling Tahrir Square, following Friday prayers.
This morning (4 February), before the mosques have emptied, the situation in Tahrir Square is relatively quiet. There are no big clashes between anti- and pro-Mubarak forces, like the ones we saw in previous days.
I am in Tahrir Square and the mood is becoming more confident. There is not much army presence, just a few soldiers. Pro-Mubarak thugs have set up road checkpoints in the streets outside the square. They are armed with knifes and sticks and are harassing and attacking anti-Mubarak protesters and anyone they decide is “foreign” or a journalist. Many of these thugs appear to be drunk or high on drugs. They are amongst the poorest and are no doubt paid by the regime. Some could be won over to the side of the revolt by a bold revolutionary appeal against the elite.
Many people in the square now think the tide is turning in their favour. They expect big protests today after Friday prayers.
Yesterday morning (3 February), Cairo seemed to start off quietly. Barricades had been built in the centre of the city, defended by anti-Mubarak volunteers, so it was relatively safe in the Tahrir Square. On one of the side streets, a group of pro-Mubarak supporters were standing, faced off by a group of opponents. Small clashes take place now and again, but nowhere near the intensity of the previous night. Even so, all the demonstrators turned out again and by mid-morning all the square and surrounding territory was under their control. Mubarak’s gangs were nowhere to be seen. On the approaches to the square, there were tanks and some soldiers. During the previous night’s clashes they maintained “neutrality”.
Following the last days’ bloody clashes, protesters were even more determined to make their protests heard than before. The demonstration today (4 February) promises to be huge. There is still a good-natured approach from the protesters to those who come to support them, especially towards foreigners. People are in high spirits – after all they managed to keep the square under their control and strengthen their position. There were also clashes overnight in Alexandria, but not as serious. It seems that the supporters of the regime had counted on breaking up the centre of opposition by taking the square – the symbol of the protest – Liberation Square. So those that managed to defend the heart of the struggle feel emboldened.
All throughout the city you can hear discussions about the regime and its resignation. The opposition press is full of headlines against Mubarak. The official press say the opposite, but who bothers to read them now?
People keep turning up to the square and they intend to keep on protesting ‘until the end’. After yesterday’s clashes, the mood became radicalised. Even those who yesterday wanted things to end quickly, so that they could go home, are now enraged at the provocations by the regime and are in a new fighting spirit. If yesterday, people just wanted Mubarak to go, now they want his arrest so he and his cohorts can be tried. “They should be made to answer for all the chaos and the victims!” is the general view.
It became clear that amongst the “supporters” of Mubarak, there were ordinary people, but they were not the ones who organised the attacks. Some participated because they wanted to return to “normal life”, to ‘stability’ and ‘order’. Some of these people did not want such violent attacks against the anti-Mubarak protesters. Responsibility for the attacks lies with those in the regime, with the thugs set loose by the regime.
I came across activists from the ‘Revolutionary Left’’ group and another group ‘Socialist Renewal’. The latter was part of a front of youth organisations that set up a stall in the square with loud speakers. As far as I could tell from the discussion I had with them, this group was just waiting for Mubarak to go and his regime collapse before presenting their programme for the country’s development. It seems that, just as in Tunis, demands such as “Return the money stolen from the people!” and the linking of wages to inflation has arisen spontaneously from the masses rather than through a conscious intervention by any left forces.
Understandably, the emphasis on ‘unity’ is highly valued. But, if Mubarak goes, further political differences amongst the masses of protesters cannot be avoided. I think many understand this, but are putting off raising any differences until the main battle is won.
For some of the pro-bourgeois participants, the ‘differences’ centre on what possible positions of power and influence and potential parliamentary seats will be occupied by whom after the battle. But for socialists it is a struggle for the minds of workers and youth. And to delay this debate is dangerous. Already the “brothers” (Muslim Brotherhood) are speaking out. They are good orators; they have been taught how to speak. Although it seems they are not talking about politics but about what is “good” and “bad”, if youth do not see an alternative, they can easily end up following the preachers offering a better life “in another world”. By taking part, side by side with the protesters in the night-time battles, they have won themselves a reputation as courageous, and, as a result, have already increased their influence.
All this shows the urgent need to build a mass party of the working class and poor, armed with socialist policies, to give a clear alternative and to meet the masses’ demands for real democratic rights and fundamental social change.
As far as the army is concerned, some activists are saying that the soldiers are more likely to side with the protesters and they do not want to shoot at peaceful demonstrators. Mubarak, a former army officer, understands how fragile his position is. But the illusion of army neutrality and the absence of a direct appeal to the rank and file soldiers, makes it easier for the top commanders to pretend to be independent arbiters and, after Mubarak goes, remain at the centre of the power behind the throne.
The self-organisation of the protesters is impressive. Not only are there medical centres set up, but also defence. Opposition radio stations are being broadcast across the square. Someone hung a huge TV screen out of a nearby window. Now the ‘Free Republic’ on the square has its own newspaper, called ‘Liberation Square’. I heard an appeal made from a loud-speaker asking for a plumber to go and deal with a problem in one of the mobile lavatories!
Of course, conditions are hard. People have to sleep on pavements and under bridges, covering themselves with cardboard or old blankets. Some have even managed to put tents up on the grass. But no-one complains.
In the morning, I went around neighboring streets trying to find something for breakfast, all I found was a bun and some yoghurt. On the square, there is food although it is pretty basic. Although I did not ask anyone for anything, one of the protesters pushed a bread wrap with cheese into my hand. There is other food available – yogurt, liver sandwiches – and water.
There is nothing surprising here. A pro-government newspaper claimed that representatives of Hamas were in the square, that a prison had been stormed by Hezbollah and that the entire revolt against Mubarak’s rule is financed by the US! In the square, people read these papers to lift their spirits (to make their ‘blood pump with anger’ – in Egyptian slang). Of course, these ideas get a hearing amongst those who cannot believe that the masses are capable of such protests.
(This is a picture of Egyptian Christians (kopts) protecting muslims while they pray)
In general, the role of the media and communications in the movement is huge. The official media is always on the attack, accusing the uprising of causing inflation, of creating food shortages and so on. Some people succumb to this propaganda, demanding that the protesters call off the protest. But the people on the square are not taken in. They know from their own experience. They do not buy the promises that are being made by the regime and they are prepared to overcome any difficulties.
Today, Friday, the uprising is steeling itself for the ‘Day of Departure’. People are confident that after the big street clashes this week, when they succeeded in defending “Liberation Square”, today the whole country will rise up to strike a decisive blow for the liberation of the country.
However, if these sentiments are to be realized, the mass demonstrations need to go onto the offensive. A firm and decisive appeal needs to be made to the rank and file soldiers to join the uprising. The soldiers’ grievances about low pay, bad conditions and treatment by their senior officers can be taken up and resolved under a new regime.
Advocating the right of soldiers to organise a free independent trade union, the formation of soldiers’ committees and the election of officers can help win the rank and file of the army and sections of the police to the side of the masses. This combined with a determined offensive through the seizure of the Presidential Palace and other key government buildings can drive Mubarak from power and prepare the way for the formation of a government of the workers’ and all those exploited by capitalism and the current regime.
The CWI calls for:
•The formation of democratically elected committees of mass struggle and defence against Mubark’s thugs and state repression and to organise the distribution and supply of food and essential needs
•Mass workers’ action, including a general strike, to overthrow Mubarak and the whole rotten, brutal regime
•For rank and file committees of police and soldiers. Side with the masses and purge the officers and hierarchy
•No to sectarianism! For the unity of all workers across religious lines.
•Full democratic rights immediately, including the rights to assemble, to strike and to organise democratic independent trade unions
•No trust in any new ’national unity’ regime based on the interests of the ruling class and imperialism
•Immediate and free elections to a revolutionary democratic constituent assembly. For a government of workers, small farmers and rural poor.
•A living minimum wage, guaranteed jobs, a massive programme of house building, education and health care
•Nationalisation of Egypt’s big corporations, the banks and large estates and their democratic planning to meet the needs of the masses not of an elite
•For the formation of a party of workers and those exploited by capitalism with a socialist programme
•Full support for mass opposition movements to overthrow dictators across the region
•A socialist Egypt and a socialist confederation of the region, on an equal and voluntary basis