Egypt: The road to the 2011 revolution

Tahrir Square, 25 January 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years ago a mighty uprising of Egyptian workers and youth ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s brutally dictatorial regime, an event that resonated around the world. Starting on 25 January 2011, increasing numbers turned out in city squares and then struck in factories, defying tear gas, birdshot and bullets. After 31 years, power slipped from Mubarak’s grip during eighteen days as the masses grew in strength and confidence.

CWI member, David Johnson, who was an eyewitness to the momentous events in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, writes on the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, a movement that reverberated across the world.

Yet today, Egyptian workers and youth face even worse conditions than under Mubarak. Living standards, unemployment, housing, education and health have not improved. Rights to organise and fight for better lives, to protest and even to speak or write about these are severely repressed. Mubarak’s methods of imprisonment and torture are now even more widespread.

Inevitably, disappointment and demoralisation followed early euphoria as the old regime toppled. However, a key lesson remains – no amount of media control, police, prisons and military forces will stop new struggles developing in the future. To ensure victory next time, the lessons of 2011 – the years that preceded it and the years that followed – need discussion. How can Egypt be built that meets the needs of all, instead of profits and power for a few? How can genuine democracy with real control over every aspect of life be achieved?

Nasserism’s legacy

Former Air Force commander Hosni Mubarak became president after Anwar el-Sadat’s assassination by Muslim Brotherhood gunmen in 1981. Sadat had followed Gamal Abd el-Nasser as president in 1970. Both had been founding members of the Free Officers, a group of middle-ranking army officers that took power through a military coup against British-backed corrupt King Faruq in 1952.

Nasser balanced between the former Stalinist Soviet Union and Western imperialism. After the 1956 Suez war – where British, French and Israeli troops attempted unsuccessfully to reverse Nasser’s nationalisation of the British-French owned canal – about a third of the economy including foreign-owned companies, banks and heavy industry was nationalised.

State control of foreign trade, progressive taxation and the seizure of property from 600 of the wealthiest families took place. State investment increased industry from 10% of GNP in 1952 to 20% by 1962. The Aswan dam was completed in 1968, tripling electricity output. Between 1952-1967 real wages rose by 44%, not counting food subsidies, shorter hours, insurance and social security. School education became free in 1956. Higher education followed in 1962 when all graduates were guaranteed a job in public service.  Student numbers grew by 8% a year from 1952-70. State officials grew from 350,000 in 1952 to 1.2 million by 1970 and 1.9 million by 1978. These measures reflected the balance of forces on the world stage, at that time, as well as in Egypt. Imperialism was unable to intervene in Egypt after the Suez debacle. The Stalinist Soviet Union supported a regime that mirrored some of these features (see Nasser’s Egypt and Arab Nationalism in Socialism Today No.147, April 2011).

When Nasser died in 1970, such was his popularity an estimated ten million people poured onto the streets for his funeral. His legacy lived on as nostalgic memory of anti-imperialism, rising living standards and improving education among many of today’s older generation.

Although Nasser called his movement the Arab Socialist Union and the constitution described Egypt as a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’, the independent working-class organisation was suppressed. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation, set up in 1957, had state-appointed leaders. Their role was to prevent strikes or measures of workers’ control.

In 1952 the Communist Party was small and mostly based among European minorities living in Egypt. Its Stalinist outlook meant postponing a struggle for socialism until after a strong, independent and democratic capitalism had developed. Consequently, it supported the Free Officers as a step in that direction away from the feudal king and his cronies, and from roughly 70 years of de facto British control.

However, as Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution had predicted 50 years earlier, modern democratic capitalist regimes could not develop in countries dominated and exploited by powerful imperialist economies. Instead of democratic progress as the Communist Party leadership hoped for, Nasser imprisoned them and some were executed. Independent workers’ movements were put down and leading activists sacked.

These developments help explain why, in 2011, ‘socialism’ was associated in the minds of many older people with real advances in their standard of living but not with working-class organisation and struggle. On the contrary, it was associated with one ‘strong’ leader.

The Mubarak regime

But in 2010 three out of four people were under 40. They grew up in very different international and national conditions. Sadat began to shift away from the Stalinist bloc towards western imperialism, changing the constitution in 1971 and in 1980. Privatisation began slowly, encouraging private investment and joint private-public enterprises. It accelerated under Hosni Mubarak during the 1980s and especially the 1990s after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe and their transition to capitalism, which unleashed an international onslaught against the idea of socialism. Capitalism, it was endlessly pronounced, had won its twentieth-century struggle with ‘communism’.

However, most Egyptians saw few if any benefits from this victory. Strongly encouraged by Washington, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, over a hundred factories were privatised between 1993 and 1999. For a few years, Egypt claimed to be an emerging ‘tiger on the Nile’, like the rapidly growing East Asian tigers. Annual growth rates exceeded 6%, although 600,000 new jobs were needed each year for the growing population.

A 2014 World Bank study into inequality in Egypt found “a clear decline in self-reported incomes and social status… In 2008, households felt poorer than in 2000 and they felt that they belonged to a lower social stratum. Between 2000 and 2008, the mismatch between actual welfare and welfare expectations increased… While GDP growth may have filled the pages of newspapers, back home household welfare was not improving … Instead, most of the GDP growth accrued to private enterprises and nongovernmental organisations … This lack of direct gains from growth must have frustrated households and contributed to shape household opinions on income inequality… Egyptians were poorer at the end of the decade as compared to the beginning of the decade but felt even poorer as compared to the actual situation”. (Inside Inequality in the Arab Republic of Egypt)

Protest begins

The first signs of protest against Mubarak took place in 2000, not directly on domestic issues but in support of the Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation. Students, members of left parties, young Muslim Brotherhood members and others demonstrated, chanting slogans such as ‘We haven’t forgotten you, Palestine; we are also occupied!’

Egypt was the second-biggest recipient of US arms in the Middle East after Israel. When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 Mubarak dutifully supported his backers in Washington. Over 40,000 demonstrated and occupied Tahrir Square for ten hours. Battles with police continued the following day, with up to 1,500 arrests. Chants against Mubarak were heard on the streets for the first time.

Yet a week later the authorities allowed further protests to take place. Despite its illegality, the Muslim Brotherhood stewarded demonstrations, preventing anti-Mubarak slogans being shouted or displayed. When it suited the regime, it used the Muslim Brotherhood as a safety valve to prevent protest reaching explosive pressure – a tactic the Brotherhood leadership was generally happy to comply with.

One year later, a demonstration of 2000 commemorated these events. Slogans quickly became more strongly anti-government. Protest leaders called out, “Atef [the prime minister], a kilo of beans costs six pounds. Atef, the people of Egypt [are forced to] eat bricks! They wear the latest fashions!” The crowd responded, “And we live ten to a room!”

A new wave of privatisations began, directed by Hosni’s son, Gamal Mubarak – a former Bank of America investment banker – who pushed the neo-liberal agenda practised by governments around the world. Privatisation led to job losses and insecurity, pay cuts, attacks on working conditions and benefits. Meanwhile, new owners frequently stashed away their profits abroad.

Hosni groomed Gamal as his successor. However, opposition to this grew from three directions. Workers in companies threatened with privatisation saw fellow workers suffering where this had already taken place. Strikes of hundreds of workers opposing privatisation or wage cuts broke out from around 2004. Not only were they up against their employer-backed by state security forces, courts and prisons – but also their trade union leaders.

Some students, political activists and intellectuals began campaigning for democratic rights with growing courage and confidence. Up to 3,000 took to the streets under the banner of ‘Kifaya’ (‘Enough’).

Opposition to Gamal and his clique also grew among senior military officers. They had long enjoyed well-paid directorships in state-owned industries after retiring from the forces, which were threatened when foreign-backed capital took over.

In 2003, the government partially floated the currency aiming to boost exports. The Egyptian pound (£E) fell from 3.85 against the US dollar to 6.86. Although exports rose by half, higher import costs increased inflation from 2.9% in January 2003 to 17.3% by December 2004.

Egypt is the world’s third-biggest importer of wheat. A 2007 World Bank study found an average 7.4% fall in consumption by Egyptian families, increasing the number of poor families from 16.7% to 21.8% between 2000 and 2005. The proportion of malnourished children with stunted growth rose from one in five to one in three.

Strikes break out

Tens of thousands took action including strikes and factory occupations in textiles, cement, poultry, railway, shipyard, municipalities and hospitals. Anger erupted over low pay, poor health and safety, privatisation and management corruption – and over government-run trade unions siding with the employers. Two million workers took part in 3,000 strikes and industrial actions between 2004 and 2010, the largest Middle East working-class movement for decades.

In 2006 27,000 textile workers at Egypt’s (and the Middle East’s) largest factory, Ghazl El-Mahalla, demanded the same bonus (two months’ salary) as other public-sector workers. Three thousand women workers were first to leave their machines, marching around the huge site demanding the men join them. After five days on strike, the workers settled for a bonus of 45 days salary. Thirteen thousand signed a petition calling for the local trade union (syndicate) officials to be impeached for not representing them.  “Not one single member of our syndicate stood with us during the strike,” said a workers’ spokesman. “You [union leaders] stood on the side of management. As our representatives, you had an agreement with us, and you broke it…Our strike was home-grown. We call it ‘the revolution of the hungry’ because we all had a part in it. There are no leaders among us, it is just workers. We are all leaders.”

The Mahalla victory inspired many others. In the first six months of 2007, there were 386 strikes. Occupations took place at some large factories with barricades erected. With new confidence, a mass meeting of 10,000 Mahalla workers voted to strike again in September 2007 as the promised bonus was still unpaid. Twenty thousand occupied the site organising security patrols, food deliveries and outnumbering police and soldiers sent to intimidate them. Once again, the official union leaders’ attempt to call off the strike with small management concessions was angrily rejected. All important decisions were made by mass meetings.

Ten thousand workers at Kafr al-Dawwar textile mill near Alexandria went on solidarity strike with Mahalla. Collections were held in other factories across the country. The regime’s traditional methods of repression were increasingly ineffective. Workers were losing fear and gaining confidence in their collective power and militant action. Demands became more political, rather than confined to workplaces. Anti-Mubarak slogans were openly expressed against Hosni and his sons.

The single largest collective action of the entire strike movement was the 2007 strike of 55,000 real estate (property) tax collectors employed by local authorities. After three months of strikes and a 13-day sit-down protest in front of the Finance Ministry involving 5,000 workers a day, they won a tremendous 325% pay rise. While low-paid tax workers were fighting for decent pay, income tax rates for high earners had been cut from 42% to 20%.

The strike committee continued meeting together and a year later formed Egypt’s first independent trade union since the 1920s. The rank-and-file leaders, elected from offices around the country, played a magnificent role during and after the strike. But several key leaders came from a Nasserist background and did not raise the need for a new workers’ party as well as an independent union.

In January 2008 Mahalla workers drew up a new list of demands, including a 1,200 Egyptian pounds (US$212) national minimum wage. At just £E35 a month it had been unchanged since 1984. A new strike was called for April 6 if their demands were not met. Various campaigners from small Nasserist, left and Islamist opposition parties, Kifaya and others called for a general strike on that day. Real estate tax collectors and grain mill workers supported the call.

This quickly spread through text messages, the internet and social media, with 65,000 joining a Facebook site. (In 2007 there were 38 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people, compared to 99 in 2011. Social media users were mainly middle class youth and students.) However, there were few preparations within workplaces such as mass meetings, strike committees and co-ordination between workplaces. Without national union leaders willing to organise these, although thousands did strike and demonstrate at different workplaces, it was not millions as a general strike could have mobilised.

Lurid warnings of violence were broadcast on radio and TV, telling people to stay off the streets. Hundreds of security forces moved into the Mahalla factory at 3 am, threatening to arrest any night workers who walked off the job and escorting workers out of the factory at the end of their shift. Massive security forces were out on the streets in an intimidating show of force, attacking demonstrators in a number of places.

The fiercest street battle occurred in Mahalla during the night of April 6-7 after police attacked demonstrators. Two were killed by police gunfire, including a 15-year old. Posters of Mubarak were ripped down and destroyed. An estimated 40,000 (from a 500,000 population) fought an unprecedented pitched battle with security forces.

The prime minister went to the factory the next day and addressed a mass meeting, announcing a bonus of 30 days wages. The regime zigzagged between repression and concessions, trying to extinguish flames threatening its continuing existence. These strikes and workers’ struggles were to culminate three years later in Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s downfall. Many of the young people playing leading roles in January and February 2011 organised together in the intervening years in the April 6 Youth movement, drawing direct inspiration from these 2008 events.

Political parties

The struggle spread from workplaces, drawing middle-class professionals, youth and students into action. Evicted residents protested over housing and property development. Poor farmers, people with disabilities, democracy protestors, opponents of police brutality and others all took action out on the streets. At least four different protests outside parliament took place each day in spring 2010, with some camping out for weeks. But inside parliament, there was nobody to speak out for the working class.

Strikes and protests alarmed the US government, whose invasion of Iraq had increased tensions throughout the Middle East. For three decades they had backed Mubarak as a stabilising factor in the region but this was turning into its opposite. The US now leant on Mubarak to make minor democratic concessions.

Global recession sparked by the 2007-08 banking crisis hit the economy hard, with big falls in tourism and remittances from Egyptians working abroad. Real unemployment was estimated at 20%, of whom 90% were estimated to be aged 15-24.

Elections to the Shura Council, the sham parliament’s upper chamber in 2010, posed the question – what alternative was there to Mubarak’s regime? He permitted some long-established parties to hold a few seats as a tame ‘opposition’, never seriously opposing his rule.

This included al-Tagammu (Rally), a former left party that had 150,000 members and three MPs in the late 1970s, standing for ‘Freedom, socialism and unity’. Like ex-workers’ parties the world over, it moved to the right after the collapse of Stalinism in 1990 and lost much of its working class support and membership. During the 1995 election, the party’s secretary-general Rifaat El-Said had said, “we have to be practical and realistic. We cannot call for socialism at this stage because we do not have a clear definition of the term or how it could be applied”. Another Central Committee member said, “There is definitely a trend towards a more practical approach. We can no longer call for nationalisation or oppose privatisation.”

After many bitter strikes against privatisation in the years before the 2011 uprising, it was no surprise that workers did not see al-Tagammu as a real alternative to Mubarak.

The Egyptian Communist Party never had a mass membership, unlike its Sudanese and Iraqi sister parties. However, despite Nasser’s suppression, its Stalinist influence continued, postponing the struggle for socialism until after democratic reforms and ‘progressive’ capitalism had taken root. But weak Egyptian capitalism could not survive with genuine democracy that enabled workers to organise industrially and politically to fight for decent pay, jobs, housing, education and all their other needs.

A workers’ party in the years running up to 2011 would inevitably have started small, working in illegal conditions. It may have had to overcome an anti-party mood among activists, but it could have built its reputation through supporting strikes and protests. It could have used Mubarak’s rigged elections to win more support for a socialist programme, even if barred from standing candidates. It would then have become a pole of attraction to new leaders emerging from each workplace and community struggle, beginning to draw them together in a movement that generalised their particular issues. It could have been a place to discuss what programme and tasks were needed to take the movement forward and build support for democratic socialism as an alternative to Mubarak’s rotten capitalist system.

Without a potential workers’ party, the vacuum was partly filled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s oldest and best-organised opposition to the regime had built support over many years by providing social services and filling some (very large) gaps in the welfare system. The Brotherhood leadership managed illegality and police crackdowns by avoiding economic issues or directly confronting the regime.

Nevertheless, in the 2005 elections, standing as independents, Muslim Brotherhood members won 20% of the vote and 88 seats, compared to the legal opposition parties’ fourteen. Turnout was only around 25% – most people saw no point participating in phoney elections.

The Brotherhood leadership was mostly made up of professionals and small or medium-sized businessmen (sometimes facing workers in their companies striking against them). From the 1980s onwards they gained significant support among students. While the older leaders wanted to avoid state repression and build their influence through charity work, a younger layer looked to President Erdogan in Turkey, whose Islamist party had been elected to government. Student members were also influenced by the growing boldness of other student activists opposing the regime. They came under pressure to support protests while also pressured by the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to avoid confrontation with the regime. This led to growing tensions within the Brotherhood before 2010.

Mubarak’s last days

Prices continued to rocket in 2010, especially food and drink up 21% in cities in a year from March 2009. Strikes, sit-down protests and demonstrations were daily occurrences, with solidarity donations from many passing workers. Women workers (now 40% of the workforce) often played a prominent role. There were a number of significant victories winning unpaid wages and pay rises. As always, official trade union leaders attempted to block these movements.

After the vicious murder of 28-year old Khaled Saeid, dragged from an internet cafe by police while posting about police corruption in June 2010, 5,000 workers and youth marched in Alexandria. State thuggery was enraging, rather than intimidating in the way it had for decades. The protest campaign continued as ‘We are all Khaled Saeid’.

The now 82-year old Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule was staggering towards an end. He could no longer guarantee the docile society profiteering capitalists needed. While Hosni wanted his son Gamal to take over, others feared this would provoke more widespread opposition. They wanted someone to calm the situation and some thought they found the ideal candidate in Mohammed El-Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He had stood up to President Bush over the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He also had the advantage of having been out of Egypt for thirty years and so was untainted by the smell of corruption surrounding the Mubarak’s and their clique.

However, El-Baradei turned out to be an underwhelming champion for capitalist reform, infuriating even his own supporters by spending more time in airport lounges flying off to meet leaders of other countries than building support at home. He failed to strike a chord with people on the street, at work or in universities.

A farcical parliamentary election on 28 November 2010, with a second round of voting a week later, resulted in Mubarak’s supporters winning 502 out of 518 seats. The Muslim Brotherhood lost all bar one of their 2005 seats. Rigged rules prevented any democratic election, understood by the masses with a turnout of around 10% (voting was compulsory!). The election underlined increasing widespread contempt for the regime.

A horrific New Year’s Eve 2010 bombing of Al-Qeddesine church in Alexandria killed 23 Coptic Christians. Copts, ten per cent of the population and often the poorest, erupted in anger. Over 4,000 refuse collectors in Cairo went on strike and demonstrated; 1,000 youth protested outside the state TV headquarters, 2,000 in Assiut. The protestors appeared fearless of the police. They also defied church leaders, who called for protests to end. Like Muslim Brotherhood leaders, they had long accommodated themselves with the regime, avoiding criticism in return for lack of state interference in church and religious matters.

Days later, on 14 January 2011, after weeks of mounting mass demonstrations in Tunisia, President Ben Ali resigned after 23 years in power. Tightly controlled Egyptian state TV, privately-owned satellite TV channels and newspapers all supporting Mubarak’s regime, painted a ‘life goes on as normal’ picture.

But news from Tunisia came through satellite TV and social media: 1.82 million (out of 80 million) Egyptians used Facebook. ‘April 6 Youth’ and ‘We are all Khaled Saeid’ campaigns called protests for National Police Day, January 25 through social media, leaflets and posters. Fifteen thousand demonstrated in Cairo, similar numbers in Kafr El-Sheikh, 2,000 in al-Mahalla al-Kubra with at least six other protests. These did not disperse after a few hours as usual but grew late into the night resisting police tear gas, water cannon, baton charges and rubber bullets.

More gathered each day, occupying city squares. Instead of a few hundred brave demonstrators running for shelter from police attacks, as in the past, thousands were heroically charging back against the police. Like a cornered rat, the regime became even more vicious. At least 846 were killed and many more wounded by police weapons during the 18 days that followed. Most armed forces were conscripts from poor backgrounds. It soon became clear senior army officers could not rely on them to fire on the masses. Appeals were made to soldiers to stand with demonstrators against the police, but not clear calls to break with senior army officers, organise a soldiers’ union to end low pay, elect officers and join with workers to build a new socialist society. Opposition figures like Mohammed El-Baradei the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency pushed the idea that the army was a neutral arbiter between Mubarak and the masses.

Within a week, over a million occupied Tahrir Square in central Cairo, with other city centres also filled by massive crowds – about six million across the country. The police retreated, unable to terrorise in the way they had done for years, but gangs of pro-Mubarak thugs continued bloody attacks, swinging iron bars and similar weapons. Barricades were erected with volunteers controlling entrances at check-points. Some neighbourhood defence committees were set up.

Muslim Brotherhood and church leaders appealed in vain for protests to end. Young members especially joined with other youth, students and the urban poor. Muslim and Christian demonstrators protected each other at prayer times. Workers joined the crowds in growing numbers but generally not as organised contingents from workplaces. After several days, strikes began to break out. By February 8 this swelled to a strike wave with demands for pay rises, payment of unpaid bonuses, clear-outs of corrupt managers and union leaders among many issues. New independent trade unions were rapidly forming.

The ruling class had split between Mubarak, his hangers-on, and those who feared their entire system would be swept aside if they didn’t ditch him. Middle layers in society had moved decisively against his regime, joining with workers who were beginning to put their class stamp on these mighty events. The fearsome state machine with police, security forces and the army could not suppress this revolutionary situation despite its tear gas and guns and the ranks were becoming unreliable tools in the hands of their commanders.

Neither the capitalist class nor the working class fully controlled the situation and could determine the society that would emerge. The masses occupied Tahrir Square. Hundreds of metres away from the state still controlled government offices, the Bank of Egypt, Stock Exchange, Maspero broadcasting headquarters and other key buildings.

What was missing was a revolutionary party arguing for these to be taken over with the urgent development of democratic workplace and neighbourhood committees as the foundation for a government of representatives of workers, small farmers and the poor. That could have guaranteed democratic rights and organised a real parliament, a revolutionary constituent assembly, to decide Egypt’s future. A workers’, small farmers’ and poor people’s majority could have implemented a democratic socialist programme. Nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management enabling a socialist plan to be drawn up, would have changed the situation, not just in the Arab world, but also worldwide.

When Mubarak was finally forced to resign on February 11, a massive feeling of relief and excitement swept the country. It was the power of the mass movement that ended his rule. But without moving forward to take power into its own hands, the ruling class, including the senior armed forces commanders, clung on. They eventually re-established their stranglehold over society, with president al-Sisi emerging at their head.

A second article on the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary events in Egypt in 2011 and afterwards will be posted soon on 

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January 2021