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Among the countries whose masses participated in what became known as the Arab Spring, the Egyptian Revolution is perhaps the richest in lessons, as well as prospects for the immediate future. This article provides a balance sheet of the revolution and its aftermath, 10 years later, and explains the revolutionary perspectives for Egypt today.
“If the people one day decides to live then destiny must obey.” – Abul Qasem Al-Shabi
“And definitely there will be a generation Unlike the others One that understands when it sees And does not fear when it understands…” – Abdul Rahman El-Abnudi
On 25 January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in an unprecedented protest against the tyrannical regime of Hosni Mubarak. The date of the protest had been chosen to coincide with a national day of celebration honouring the Egyptian police force – as a signal of defiance against Mubarak’s hated police state.
But it had actually been inspired by the remarkable events just along the North African coastline in Tunisia over the previous month. There, a mass revolutionary movement had toppled the dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali after just three weeks of huge protests, with the country’s ruler of 23 years fleeing into exile in Saudi Arabia.
What followed in Egypt was revolution on an even-greater scale. 18 days of mass struggle led to the overthrow of the 29-year Mubarak dictatorship that many had begun to feel might never end. This was a seismic blow struck against the Egyptian ruling class, which brought the entire state apparatus to its knees, and tens of millions of workers and young people into political activity for the first time.
The wave of revolution spread from Tunisia and Egypt across the Middle East – from Libya to Syria, from Yemen to Bahrain, from Palestine to Lebanon, to an Iraq still ravaged by imperialist war. However, among the countries whose masses participated in what became known as the Arab Spring, Egypt’s example is perhaps the richest in lessons, as well as prospects for the immediate future. The movements in Libya and Syria failed to mobilise a groundswell of working-class support before imperialist meddling took events in a wholly reactionary direction. The Yemeni masses are now in a dire situation, with Saudi Arabia waging war in the country, supported by various imperialist powers – and the direct involvement of the Egyptian Army, among others. Workers and youth in Bahrain have certainly developed new revolutionary traditions, which haven’t gone away. Tunisian workers and youth have taken their proud traditions of struggle to a higher level through the experience of 2011, and the latest economic crisis has brought them to the streets once more. Iraq and Palestine are both countries with complex problems created by imperialism, and yet both have seen mass protest movements return in the years since the Arab Spring. Lebanon, meanwhile, has experienced revolutionary movements in the past several years.
Egypt, though, is a country whose three-year process of revolution and counter-revolution (between 2011 and 2014) carries particular significance. The country has always been of strategic importance to the Arab world. It has the largest Arabic-speaking population in the world, and the largest working class in the Middle East. It was Egypt that led the project of Pan-Arabism through President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-20th century. Nasser was a left nationalist whose revolutionary and socialist rhetoric made him the most-popular man in most Arab and Middle Eastern countries. His enormous popularity demonstrated the potential for internationalist policies across over 20 countries united by a common language. A successful socialist revolution in Egypt would transform the situation in the entire region.
But the Egyptian Revolution is yet to be carried through until the end. Although the masses have fought time and again to do away the old order of repression and class exploitation, a new dictatorship has entrenched itself in power for the time being, resting on the same old military-bureaucratic regime. Nevertheless, the conditions that created the explosive events of 2011 haven’t gone away. If anything, the economic, social and political crises faced by the Egyptian ruling class today are far greater than they were a decade ago.
So, how did we get here? How was it that, less than two years after overthrowing Mubarak – during which time Egypt saw strikes and street protests on a scale previously unheard of – the Egyptian masses were stuck with a new president exercising the same dictatorial powers as his predecessor? In fact, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood even went as far as removing the last formal remnants of Nasser’s pro-worker policies from the Egyptian Constitution and electoral law. And how, after a new wave of revolution (maybe the most popular mass movement in human history relative to the size of the country) that overthrew Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was virtually wiped off the political map, are the masses now seemingly back where they started?
Much has been written about the surface appearance of the Egyptian Revolution. What is essential is that we draw the key lessons from processes and events within the revolution, which can be applied to the situation in Egypt today – and, more vitally, to the return of the revolutionary movement over the coming years.
Revolution knows no borders
It is no accident that the wave of revolution spread so quickly from Tunisia to Egypt. Apart from the aspects of culture shared by the two countries, the same fundamental socio-economic and political conditions that created their respective revolutions. Once the Tunisian masses showed Egyptians what was possible, there was no turning back. As one street protester said in Cairo on 25 January, “The Tunisians never used to protest. They were even more tightly controlled than we are. Now look at them.” Tunisian activists passed techniques to treat tear gas burns inflicted by the police onto Egyptian youth and workers; more significantly, they also passed on the slogan that would ring out across the Middle East over coming months: “The people want the fall of the regime”.
It’s been claimed that the anti-austerity movement in Greece, which centred on Syntagma Square in Athens, helped to inspire the taking of Tahrir Square (the central square in Cairo adjacent to the Interior Ministry) by the revolution. The tactics adopted by Egyptian youth and workers then led to movements around the world, from Nigeria to Latin America, making their own ‘Tahrirs’. As recently as October 2020, Baghdad saw a protest occupying its own Tahrir Square to put forward social demands, with various tents hosting political meetings, providing supplies and treating the wounded from street battles with police, just like in Cairo during the revolution.
The struggle in Egypt was both informed by and inspired revolutionary movements throughout the world / Image: Kodak Agfa
But the political awakening of the advanced layers of youth involved in the early days of the Egyptian Revolution actually came from the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, which generated sizeable solidarity protests in Egypt. This was the first time many young people and workers had been able to test their strength against the repressive measures of the regime. It was also a solidarity protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and Mubarak’s refusal to condemn it) that led to the taking of Tahrir Square by political activists for the first time since 1972. These events, while small and relatively unimportant in themselves, marked the political reawakening of the Egyptian youth.
Moreover, the impetus from a successful revolution in Egypt could catalyse a fundamental sea-change for neighbouring Israel/Palestine and Libya, whose own working classes are currently under the domination of social and political reaction. A new phase of the Egyptian Revolution could also revive the recent movements in Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan on a higher level. It’s also no coincidence that the Gezi Park movement in Turkey developed around the time of an upsurge in class struggle in Egypt culminating in the movement to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of June 2013.
Just as the Russian Revolution ignited a wave of revolutions across Europe at the end of World War I, the revolution in Egypt illustrates the internationalist instincts of the world’s working classes. The Arab Spring (including its ‘new wave’ in the last two years) showed how easily social revolution can spread from country to country. Moreover, the Bolsheviks in Russia were counting on the success of the German Revolution to feed back its gains to the young Soviet Union, in order to raise Russian workers and peasants out of conditions of frightful backwardness. Likewise, the victory of the Egyptian Revolution would ultimately rely on revolutions succeeding in advanced capitalist countries. But in a scenario where the Egyptian working class was able to take power, the spreading of revolution across the world would be very much on the cards. As it was, the Egyptian Revolution sent shockwaves around the world and is avidly studied by workers and young people everywhere. If it had achieved the ultimate aims of oppressed and exploited Egyptians, imagine the beacon of inspiration it would provide for the world.
The role of the working class
The Egyptian Revolution, as with the Arab Spring in general, is often presented as primarily a movement led by the youth, that drew together all sections of Egyptian society across the class divide. As with most of the other Arab revolutions, this is a distortion of events in order to downplay the underlying class content of the struggle. It is absolutely true that the movement, as with others in the Arab Spring and around the world over the last decade, had a very youthful composition. Over 60 percent of Egyptians are under 30. It is also important to point out that, given the huge proportion of Egyptians ultimately involved in the revolution, and the class composition of Egyptian society, the majority of this youth would have come from working-class backgrounds, been workers themselves, or were unemployed and looking for work.
While 25 January 2011 is rightly celebrated as the historic day when the Egyptian masses took control of their own destinies, the event that set the process of the Egyptian Revolution in motion actually took place some years before. On 6 April 2008, there was a mass strike in the industrial city of Mahalla – initiated by an ongoing industrial dispute at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company (one of the largest factories of Africa, with over 25,000 workers) – which took on an insurrectionary character. Despite heavy police repression, strikers in a number of factories effectively took over the town for several days, with large solidarity protests taking place around the country.
It was from this strike that one of the main groups organising the street protests of January 2011 (6 April Movement) took their name. They also adopted a key demand of that strike movement – for a 1,200 EGP ($200 approx.) national minimum wage – as one of the initial demands of the protests. Prior to 25 January, the demands were:
- Disbanding parliament and holding new, legitimate elections;
- A two-term limit for the presidency;
- Cancelling the Emergency Laws (that give legal cover for state repression) and dismissing Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly;
- For a 1,200 EGP monthly minimum wage and unemployment benefit.
Of course, the force of the movement overtook these demands before 25 January even arrived, moving beyond reforms to outright revolution.
The inclusion of a workers’ demand alongside the basic democratic demands of the first protests points to the role of workers within the revolutionary movement. Organised workers were involved in the square and nationwide street protests from the very beginning. At the same time, these protests involved various layers of society – it was a popular revolution, after all. Nevertheless, it was the entrance onto the scene of the working class as a whole, asserting its role as a class, which carried the 18-day movement through to its revolutionary conclusion.
The mass strike in Mahalla was actually the culmination of a growth in the workers’ movement in Egypt that began at the end of 2006. The movement grew to include, at least in part, all major sectors of the economy, and most industrial areas in the country – across the Nile Delta, the canal region, Alexandria and Cairo. It began organically with wildcat sit-ins and strikes against the impact of mass privatisations from the early 2000s onwards on workers’ wages and conditions. Between 2007 and 2010, there were over 2,100 separate incidents of workers’ strikes and protests – more than double the number in the entire ten years previous to that.
These actions took place outside the structures of the regime-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). The actions by workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company prior to 6 April 2008 included a campaign of mass resignations from the ETUF, who had been involved in trying to repress the strikes. In most workplaces where strikes and protests developed, workers organised their own independent strike committees – elected by strikers with right of recall – and many of these joined together to form district committees. A few of the strike committees, such as the committees for property tax collectors and teachers, developed into fully-fledged trade unions, independent of the state prior to the revolution. For most groups of workers, though, it was not possible to set up formal union structures beyond the strike itself until after the revolution.
On 6 February 2011, with Mubarak still clinging to power, a wave of strikes began across Egypt, paralysing strategic sectors of the economy. Workers from the telecoms companies, petroleum plants, hospitals, military-run factories, universities, print works and even the Suez canal answered the call of the revolution en masse. At that point, the revolutionary epicentre in Cairo had reached something of an impasse, having already defeated state security on the streets but without further leverage to strangle the ruling class into submission. Not only did the mass strikes allow the working class to take control of the situation and break the regime’s grip on society in practical terms; it also helped to generalise the revolution, spreading support for it throughout the suburbs and industrial heartlands of the country. When the public transport workers struck on 9 February, it signalled the end for Mubarak’s regime. He was gone within three days. An average of 60 new strikes a day followed his removal.
The workers continued to hold the key to the progress of the revolution from that point on. When a section of the revolutionary youth returned to Tahrir Square in July 2011 for a month-long sit-in, they ended up being outnumbered by the Islamists, with no real base of support to fall back on, no real demands and no direction to head in. Their initial aim of removing Mubarak had been achieved yet his cronies were still managing the transition of power, and now the question of their demand for ‘democracy’ was put to them directly, they didn’t have an answer. They ended up slinking away exhausted, having achieved nothing concrete during that month. In the suburbs and provinces, by contrast, another wave of strikes arrived in September, in which 500,000 workers participated. In most cases they easily won acceptance of their demands, not only for higher wages but also for the purging of their workplace management. In fact, often it wasn’t a case of demands being accepted as much as taking what was rightfully theirs.
Similarly, while anti-Morsi protests massively outnumbered pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in late 2012, it was again the workers who broke the deadlocked struggle with an unprecedented wave of strike actions and social protests in the first half of 2013. This was the highest level of participation in class struggle Egypt has ever seen. This surge in the workers’ movement was the real secret to the removal of Morsi and the Brotherhood from power. It is a tragedy that those who could have led this movement on an independent class basis instead handed their revolutionary authority to the military tops at the head of the ruling class, represented in the person of Defence Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Following this episode of the revolution, the potential for mass independent trade unions, which had begun to crystallise in 2011, vanished. Strike movements and workers’ protests, while still taking place, began to decline in number and size. Most independent workers’ organisations that had already formed remained small without a real movement to grow into. Some isolated unions were repressed even before they were effectively outlawed in 2017.
Still, several examples over the last few years have shown the position of strength the working class has conquered for itself. The balance of power created by the revolution means the regime is unable to confront it head on. Strikes of health workers have taken place at fairly regular intervals; the regime’s disastrous handling of the pandemic will only add fuel to this fire. Meanwhile, 2019’s protests following the revelations about Sisi by property tycoon Mohamed Ali revived both methods of self-organisation in industrial centres and workers’ readiness to call out the regime directly. Strikes over workers’ safety during the pandemic at construction sites in Egypt’s new administrative capital earlier this year show the way forward for other workers.
The masses can run society themselves – better than the capitalists!
The experience of the revolution showed the working class are far more adept at running society than the ruling class / Image: Muhammad Ghafari
The kind of class snobbery that comes across in many petit-bourgeois analyses of the Egyptian Revolution is typified by this quotation from the Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi: “[o]ne thing that’s obvious is that the kind of forces that organised the revolution do not have the skills to run in elections. …” Far from it! The experience of the Egyptian Revolution shows the Egyptian masses are far more adept at holding democratic elections and running in them than the stooges of the bourgeois regime. In so many ways, the revolution exemplified the kind of democratic organisation and management Egyptian workers and youth would need to run society without the ruling class, and much better than the ruling class!
Tahrir Square was a microcosmic glimpse into a society run by workers. Whereas in general, Egyptian city streets are covered with dust and rubbish, the occupied square was invariably spotless, despite hosting up to two million protesters at a time. Unlike the streets in normal times, because the masses felt ownership and control over the space, they were invested in keeping it in the best condition possible. Mobile clinics and triage units were manned by doctors and nurses who had joined the revolution, while food and other supplies were distributed with expert efficiency. Sanitation units were run with the utmost hygiene, while areas were set up for film screenings, political discussion, and stages held rallies and impromptu concerts.
After the state security forces were defeated on the 28 January ‘Day of Rage’ and left the streets, the revolutionaries installed their own security checkpoints around the square with shift rotations. Everyone who was able was involved in guarding the fortress of the revolution. Neighbourhood committees sprang up around Egypt to guard apartment buildings at night, mostly to ensure that neighbourhoods weren’t infiltrated by plainclothes security forces or regime-hired thugs. Street harassment was non-existent within the revolutionary movement on the streets – a marked contrast from everyday life for most Egyptian women, who find that police typically come to the aid of harassers when they’re reported.
In the workers’ movement, strike committees were controlled by striking workers themselves typically without any involvement from the ETUF – whose bureaucracy was powerless to act as a brake on the enormous waves of strikes and protests propelling the revolution forward. The mass firing of oppressive managers and bosses across Egypt was achieved solely by organisation from below, and the bosses were replaced in some workplaces by embryonic versions of workers’ control.
At a local level, the masses were taking the reins of society into their own hands, but they never had the opportunity to realise this power on a higher level during the course of the Egyptian Revolution. However, they are now traditions belonging to the Egyptian working class that won’t just disappear – they will return along with the next mass movement.
The women’s question transformed by a revolutionary situation
One especially notable feature of the Egyptian Revolution was the prominent role played by women. Women in Egypt are extremely oppressed. Many are scarcely allowed to leave home except to go to work, while others can expect harassment or abuse on the streets and/or at home on a regular basis. Very few women have full control over their own bodies, as they’re subject to a high degree of sexual repression.
It was in many ways remarkable, then, that almost 50 percent of those on the streets during the revolution were women. Almost the same percentage was reflected specifically in the workers’ movement. In the very first strike action taken by the textile workers in Mahalla in December 2006 – which arguably started the chain of events leading to the revolution – the women workers famously left their work stations first and began to chant: “Here are the women! Where are the men?” Similarly, out of all the social media coverage of the revolution, the post that captured the imagination of the masses the most was a YouTube video by a young veiled woman named Asmaa Mahfouz on the eve of the 25 January uprising. In it, she urged other Egyptians – particularly men – out onto the streets with her in an explosion of heartfelt rhetoric. She suggested the Egyptian masses could “have freedom, justice, honour and human dignity, not live like animals.”
The reason there was no harassment within the revolutionary movement was not because men, conditioned by a society in which the horrendous oppression of women is actively encouraged, had suddenly become militant feminists. It was because the objective needs of the movement dictated there could be zero tolerance of such behaviour. Sexual harassment and assault were weapons of organised counter-revolution, carried out by small bands of lumpen thugs who appeared in the streets from February 2011 onwards. This made it a revolutionary act for the masses to defend the spaces they occupied from harassment.
Women were integral to the success of the revolution. Without them feeling empowered as an equal part of the street demonstrations and strike movements, there would have been no revolution. Men also learned through the experience of fighting alongside women in the revolution to treat them as equals, while thousands of women gained revolutionary political consciousness. It was within the atmosphere of the revolution that many women overcame a longstanding societal taboo by deciding to remove the hijab they had been wearing in public since childhood.
Of course, we shouldn’t mythologise the Egyptian Revolution as a utopia of women’s rights. Even during the revolution, the role of women in society was still limited by appalling backwardness. In a 2013 report on sexual violence against women, Egypt was rated the worst out of 22 Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, by number of acts of sexual violence reported.
It is noticeable, though, that, as the revolutionary movement has receded, the role of women has been thrown back further. There has been a crackdown on ‘obscenity’ since 2016, with various belly dancers, actresses and pop stars arrested after being accused of wearing sexually suggestive outfits or making sexual gestures in performances. In many cases, the women have ended up in jail.
The same goes for the LGBT community. Mass arrests were carried out at a 2017 ‘Rainbow Concert’ where a Lebanese band known for its LGBT audience was performing. Many of those arrested were tortured by police, including by anal probing.
None of these repressive acts are particularly new phenomena in Egypt, although the frequency with which they’re occurring in the public eye has increased in the last four years of Sisi’s presidency.
There’s been a counter-offensive on the part of women – a (largely online) #MeToo-type movement exposing individual rapists and harassers, especially among the rich and powerful. This movement has won a dubious concession from the regime: an additional women-led police taskforce has been created to patrol the streets targeting harassers. Without a class basis, though, it will have no impact on poor and working-class women, who are far more likely to be sexually abused both in and out of the home, without the means to speak up about it. For these women, it was the revolution that showed the way out of systemic oppression. Their liberation hinges on its future victory.
What is the Egyptian state?
Many discussions about the Egyptian Revolution focus on the military-bureaucratic nature of the Egyptian state. While this is an important question, it is often conflated with discussions about the fundamental class content of the state. The Egyptian ruling class – and the state that defends it – is largely military-bureaucratic in character. But it is fundamentally bourgeois in content.
To explain the nature of the Egyptian regime, it is necessary to explain how it arose in the first place. In 1952, a group of petty officers in the Egyptian Army overthrew the old state, whose monarch and government were the puppets of British and French imperialism. Until that point the Egyptian economy had been festering in feudal backwardness, without a capitalist class of its own aside from those leeching off the imperialist plunder of the country’s resources. To carry through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, leader of the 1952 Revolution Gamal Abdel Nasser had to lean on the budding Egyptian working class and poor peasantry. Industry was revolutionised on the basis of nationalisation and planning, and sweeping land reforms were carried out against the big landlords. Nasser also relied on external help from the Stalinist Soviet Union following victory in a war with imperialist powers over control of the Suez Canal.
The Egyptian Revolution did shake the rotten state to the extent that individuals were toppled from its highest points. But it didn’t uproot the state from its very foundations / Image: Presidenza della Repubblica
Nasser’s state was modelled both on the officer caste of the Egyptian Army – whose lower ranks had led the revolution and the defeat of imperialism – and on the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nasser was a Bonaparte, who arose in the absence of either an Egyptian capitalist class that wasn’t entirely subservient to foreign capital, and of a working class strong enough to lead a revolutionary movement itself. Since his regime didn’t have an organic social base in either of the two main camps of society, he needed the masses to sustain his rule, but he also feared them. That’s why he mixed social reform with brutal political repression. Nasser’s repressive state machine would prove a more-than-useful weapon in the ruling class’ offensive against the workers and poor after he was gone.
The huge leaps in living standards for the majority of Egyptians as a result of economic reform and liberation from imperialism made Nasserism enormously popular. This explains why Egyptian flags and pictures of Nasser were commonplace in the Egyptian Revolution. The revolutionary traditions of Egypt are identified with a struggle for national liberation that brought social gains for the masses along with it.
But despite the reforms that were achieved on the basis of planning in the economy, Nasser never broke with capitalism. That meant that, when the economy stalled in the mid-to-late ‘60s, the gains of the masses began to go into reverse. This process was exacerbated by the humiliating military defeat Egypt suffered at the hands of Israel in 1967 and the death of Nasser, after which President Anwar Sadat’s pivot away from Soviet influence towards the United States led to the Egyptian economy being opened up for intervention by foreign capital. The opening up continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, not only entrenching the economic domination of imperialism but also enriching a new generation of Egyptian capitalists, who looted state resources and received big private contracts from the regime and foreign companies alike. This process was accelerated by Mubarak’s regime in the 2000s under the diktats of the IMF, which led to the first open conflict on a mass scale between the Egyptian capitalists and the working class.
The reaction of the Egyptian bourgeoisie to the revolution makes clear that the ultimate function of the present regime in Egypt is to defend the interests of capital. “Being rich is a crime now,” multi-billionaire Naguib Sawiris told the Wall Street Journal in March 2011. Marketing executive Nathalie Atalla spelled it out even more clearly:
“Give me the names of the top 100 companies in Egypt and show me the company that wasn’t somehow involved with [Mubarak’s regime]. The witch hunt that we’ve been seeing has taken a very nasty turn. Anyone who’s anyone is starting to get worried.”
The “witch hunt” in question was a wave of workplace insurrections from February 2011, in which oppressive and exploitative bosses and managers across Egypt were kicked out of their posts by workers. This wave penetrated deep into the heart of the Egyptian state itself, as civil service offices, state media companies and army-run factories were purged of Mubarak loyalists from below. Above any wage or contract demands, the number one call that united the entire strike movement across the country in September 2011 was for tathir – the cleansing of the state.
The problem was, while workers carried out thousands of successful individual insurrections – all for the same basic reasons – there was no political party on a national level capable of linking up these single struggles and raising them to the level of state power. Workers never penetrated the upper echelons of the state directly. The Egyptian Revolution did shake the state to the extent that it began to crack and crumble, and individuals were toppled from its very highest points. But the revolution hasn’t yet managed to uproot the state from its very foundations, and make for itself an organ of political power capable of replacing it.
The people and the army
One critical element of the state, predominant in discussions on the Egyptian Revolution, is the army. Left groups in Egypt often deride the ‘myth’ that “the people and the army are one hand” (a slogan regularly heard on the streets during the revolution). Many use it as an excuse to dismiss the revolutionary potential of ordinary Egyptian workers (!) Others – like the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) – agitate against it in the most superficial and ultra-left manner, without caring to explain what exactly ‘the army’ is.
In the minds of millions of Egypt, the army embodies their own revolutionary history, due to its role in binding together struggles for national liberation and social empowerment. Of course, the bourgeois military-bureaucratic regime plays on this idea to pacify the masses – it was emphasised by Sisi during his rise to power from July 2013. The point is not to dismiss or condescend to workers for their illusions in the ‘the army’, but to offer a class analysis of its role in the revolution.
In a sense, the ‘people’ and the ‘army’ are one and the same – and in Egyptian capitalism they are made to serve the same oppressive master. If privates of the Egyptian Armed Forces are not working-class youths forcibly conscripted by the state, they are constituents of the urban and rural poor with no other means of stable employment. These layers form the vast majority of the armed forces. On the other hand, at the top of the army lies the heart of the counter revolution, which is directly opposed to the interests of the masses, including ordinary soldiers.
From the beginning of the revolution, soldiers shared a mutual respect with workers and youth on the streets that threw battles with the state security forces into sharp relief. Fraternisation between troops stationed at demonstrations and protests occurred throughout the entire two-and-a-half year period between the end of Mubarak and the rise of Sisi. In January 2011, demonstrators in Tahrir Square asked a tank commander if he would shoot them on the order of his superior. He replied, “No, I will never do that. Not even if I am given the order.” During protests against Morsi’s presidency outside the Presidential Palace, protesters pleaded with low-ranking Presidential Guards to leave their posts and join them. One soldier pointed to the palace and shouted back, “Take this guy out and put whoever you want inside!”
In fact, in many cases soldiers did join the revolution, including at least one instance of a demonstration by junior officers in Tahrir Square in 2011. It was the imminent threat of his officer caste splitting along class lines (not the Muslim Brotherhood protests some left groups shamefully dissolved themselves into) that prevented General Mohamed Tantawi, at the time Chairman of the Security Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), from attempting a coup d’etat in June 2012.
The Egyptian Revolution could easily have activated a break between the proletarian mass of soldiers and lower officers, and the bourgeois military tops. Regrettably, it lacked an organisation with the correct class position and orientation towards the army rank-and-file with demands such as the election of all officers with full right of recall. If the revolution had won ‘the army’ on a class basis, it would have armed itself and disarmed the regime. This would have facilitated the taking of power.
No collaboration with counter-revolution!
In the early stages of a revolution, it is normal that the movement takes the form of a heterogeneous mass containing various layers – and even competing class interests – that will come into conflict at a later stage. The course of the revolution sorts the wheat from the chaff. Take the example of Mohamed El-Baradei, a bourgeois liberal United Nations official who was the great hope for many Egyptian youth and middle-class layers prior to 2011. He spent the majority of the Revolution hiding in his luxury apartment, terrified at the sight of class struggle, before capitulating to the old regime in late 2012. Once his dirty work was done, he fled the country from his new position as Vice-President, with few sad to see him go. Or take Wael Ghonim, the Google executive that the international media falsely credited as one of the revolution’s principal leaders. By mid-2011, he was giving almost uncritical support to the SCAF as they tried to impose a new Mubarak.
By contrast, ordinary Egyptian workers and youth advanced to a higher level of class consciousness at each stage of the revolution, learning from the mistakes of their failed ‘leaders’. One particularly moving example of the revolution’s high level of class consciousness was the class solidarity between Christians and Muslims in the mass movement. The slogan “Muslims and Christians are one hand” cut across the sectarian divide fomented by Egyptian ruling classes for centuries. Religion itself was never an issue to fight over during the revolution, despite its pervasive impact as a conservative force in Egyptian society. Muslims defended Christians from the state security and Islamist militias, and vice versa – first and foremost, they were all revolutionaries and workers.
“Egypt will remain Islamic only”, graffiti by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution / Image: Elagamytarek
Of course, the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood – a force of religious bourgeois reaction with a petit-bourgeois activist base – into the revolutionary movement complicated this question. The Brotherhood was a counter-revolutionary force acting to suppress the role of the working class in the revolution. This is why the actions of some left groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists, in marching alongside the Brotherhood in defence of its constitutional rights and of giving critical support to Mohamed Morsi as the ‘lesser evil’ in the 2012 election, are so scandalous. These groups served to dilute the class differences in the revolution by sowing illusions in a counter-revolutionary force as a legitimate form of opposition to the military-bureaucratic regime.
The RS gained a lot of authority through their small role in the growth of the strike movement prior to the revolution. This authority was, however, completely squandered when they fell into line behind the Brotherhood in 2012. They stood on the wrong side of the barricades, spreading confusion amongst advanced layers of the working class.
If the RS had failed to understand the class nature of the Muslim Brotherhood beforehand – and their previous work with the Islamists in protest coalitions suggests they had – then during the revolution itself the warning signs were there. The Brotherhood refused to mobilise in any way for 25 January, and came out against the further development of the revolution at every step of the way. They collaborated with the SCAF in manipulating the format of the parliament elections in 2011 to secure a majority. They publicly denounced the call for a general strike on 11 February 2012, and played a major role in preventing it from going ahead by actively preventing workers from participating. One worker in the Public Transport independent union who mobilised the Morsi vote for the Presidential Election in June 2012, described his disgust with the Brotherhood just a few months later, after party officials arrested him for going on strike: “I won’t vote for the Muslim Brotherhood again; they want to make a new Pharaoh and we won’t let them do it.”
The revolutionary left should have been in a position to make massive gains as workers went through the school of the Brotherhood presidency. In Morsi’s twelve months in office, the economy spiralled deeper into crisis, unemployment continued to surge and privatisations increased. The same corrupt deals to sell off state assets and curry favour with the ruling class took place – only now a different wing of the bourgeois was at the front of the queue. The Brotherhood used both the state security and Islamist militias to carry out a regime of terror, including the brutal suppression of protests in November 2012 and the imposition of repressive curfews on Port Said, Alexandria and other cities in January 2013. But it wasn’t just that their prior opportunism weakened the political authority of the RS and others on the left; they continued to defend the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic rights even when the organisation’s thugs were terrorising workers and youth on the streets!
The class, the party and the leadership
The case of the National Salvation Front (NSF) was no better. Kamal Abu Aita emerged as an outstanding figure in the property tax collectors’ strikes of the late 2000s, to lead the first independent trade union in Egypt, not long before leading the first Egyptian independent trade union federation (EFITU). By January 2012, this federation claimed affiliated national unions in every key sector of the economy, 24 general unions and a membership of 1.4 million. Abu Aita commanded immense power and authority amongst the vanguard of the Egyptian Revolution.
Unfortunately, like all other major leaders of the revolution, he was a reformist. Abu Aita believed that workers’ political and economic struggles should be kept separate, a mistake that reflected the low political consciousness of workers’ leaders following decades of regime repression. It is an often-repeated excuse from reports of Egyptian labour struggles that the workers have no interest in politics. Well, of course – they quite rightly have no interest in the politics of Mubarak, Morsi or Sisi! It is the role of a leadership to convince them they can have a political agency of their own. With little faith in the ability of workers to take a lead on the political plane, even during the revolution, Abu Aita made no effort to call for or organise a mass independent party of the working class, linking the thousands of particular workplace struggles to a general struggle for political power. When he was elected to parliament in November 2011, he was standing on a list led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Likewise, left-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi came into the revolution with enormous political authority. Yet he failed to turn mass popular support in the 2012 Presidential Election into a mass political organisation for the working class. Sabahi ran on a workers’ programme, calling for widespread nationalisations, the 1,200 EGP minimum wage and a maximum wage, and a wealth tax on the 1 percent. He won the vote in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Sinai and virtually every industrial centre in the Delta and canal regions. In actual fact, he should have faced off against Morsi (and won) in the second round of the election but the ruling class rigged the vote to make sure its preferred candidate Ahmed Shafik was kept in the running. Sabahi rightly called for a boycott of the election, but refused to use his platform to mobilise the masses, on the grounds that this would be undemocratic!
Instead, less than six months later, Abu Aita, Sabahi and others made an arrangement with figures from the old regime and liberals like El-Baradei to form a popular front of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no doubt that the immediate interests of the masses and the dominant wing of the ruling class converged once Morsi attempted to consolidate power in his hands in November 2012. But by failing to stand in independent opposition on a class basis, the workers’ leaders were putting the revolution in danger of being diverted away from taking power and down a safe road for the ruling class. That is exactly what happened.
At every critical juncture of the revolution prior to that point – for example, in the major uprisings of November 2011, November 2012 and January 2013 – Sabahi, along with Abu Aita and liberal oppositionists like El-Baradei, made every effort to hold the movement back, stopping it from overthrowing the regime. Had they put even half of the same energy and determination into actually building an organised revolutionary movement, matters would have been completely different.
Even despite those mistakes, if during or following 30 June 2013, Sabahi and other leaders had taken an independent class position, advanced layers of the working class at the very least would have gone with him. The gauntlet would have been thrown down to the ruling class, and the masses would have seen a clear differentiation between revolution and the potential counter-revolution. The army rank-and-file would have had a clear decision to make, and may well have been ready to go with the revolution.
On the contrary, Sabahi fully endorsed the dictatorship of Sisi after 30 June, and Abu Aita accepted a position in government as Minister for Labour. He remained silent as the state attempted to repress strikes, using the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as a pretext, and supported formal measures taken against independent workers’ organisation thereafter. As Trotsky once said, the possibility for betrayal is always contained within reformism. Once you accept the boundaries of the system, you will have to follow its diktats. Abu Aita was just one of many leaders of the revolution bought off by the new regime. Disoriented and demoralised by such betrayals after three years of fruitless struggle, the mass movement began to ebb.
Now these so-called workers’ leaders are nowhere to be found. Only the minor 2012 presidential candidate Khaled Ali – who, despite his reformist illusions, has maintained his position independent from the regime – stood out as a potential pole of attraction for the masses in the 2018 Presidential Election. Ali withdrew from the race following his arrest on a trumped-up charge of obscenity. The election contest was suppressed almost entirely without much public protest, with even potential rivals for Sisi from Mubarak’s old guard being barred from entering. For the time being, Egyptian workers are having to pay dearly for a crisis of revolutionary leadership. They have learned the hard way that the only unity worth standing for is the unity of their class.
The questions of bread and freedom are inseparable
For the liberal international media, the Egyptian Revolution begins and ends with the question of democracy. But what does democracy mean?
Certainly, the taking to the streets of millions of people in the face of a monstrous police state in order to carry through their collective demands is a profoundly democratic act, beyond the wildest imagination of any bourgeois liberal commentator. Democratic rights such as freedom of expression, political accountability and freedom of the press are key driving forces of the Egyptian revolution.
A central problem of the revolution was that the democratic and economic struggles were posed as two separate struggles. In reality, they are completely intertwined / Image: Jonathan Rashad
State repression and the absence of basic democratic rights were the issues that sparked the first wave of revolution, which then opened the floodgates for the grievances, hopes and aspirations of millions of people to appear in the open. Of course, there was also a workers’ movement with social demands developing before 2011, as already discussed.
The point is, the experience of the Egyptian Revolution has proven that even basic bourgeois-democratic tasks cannot be accomplished on the basis of Egyptian capitalism. All of the initial democratic demands of the January 2011 were conceded by the regime within a year, but none were consolidated in any meaningful way. Today, 10 years on, the masses still find themselves without the same basic democratic rights. Could any Egyptian honestly say that they live in a democracy? The first round of parliamentary elections in 2015 had a turnout of 2 percent, demonstrating the contempt Egyptian people have for the entire fraudulent process. Meanwhile, the current regime has spent the last four years doing everything it can to suppress dissident political voices as well as independent journals and publishers.
The best examples of democracy in practice that the Egyptian Revolution (temporarily) achieved were in the workplaces, in the form of independent strike committees. These committees were immediately and fully accountable to the body of workers taking collective action. This has nothing to do with the lofty abstractions of El-Baradei and others about ‘Western-style’ bourgeois democracy being applied in Egypt to the same standards as the United States.
The problem is that workplace democracy was never given a generalised, national, political expression due to the absence of a revolutionary party of the working class. On a local level it could only ever really exist to serve the purpose of this or that struggle over wages, employment contracts, to fire this or that boss, and other social demands. These social demands needed to be linked to political action on a nationwide level, as they could only ever be achieved in full by Egyptian workers gaining political power for themselves.
Just as questions of democracy posed by the revolution haven’t been answered, the piecemeal social reforms workers gained through struggle during the revolution have been rolled back. This is in large part because the relative cost of living in Egypt has spiralled out of control in the last five years due to the ongoing crisis of Egyptian capitalism. It also demonstrates the temporary nature of reforms within the framework of the capitalist system. Relative wages are now far lower than they were 10 years ago, temporary contracts and informal employment are still rife in all sectors of the economy, and regime stooges have weaselled their way back into management positions across the board.
Unfortunately, among some quarters of the revolutionary youth there was even some condescension towards the working class and outright ignorance of their social demands. This allowed the ruling class to pacify the movement with empty promises about formal democratic questions, while the question of bread – i.e. economic democracy – fell by the wayside. As activist Hisham Kassem puts it, “If in a couple of years, the person who was sweeping my street and was just as instrumental as I was in this whole thing finds that ‘Well… I’m still sweeping the street and living on $2 a day’, they will rise again.” And the working class has begun to rise again – from the bread riots in 2017, to the Mohamed Ali protests in 2019.
A central problem of the revolution was that the democratic and economic struggles were posed as two separate struggles. In reality, they are completely intertwined. Marxists are wholly in favour of fighting for the democratic rights for the masses. But Egyptian capitalism cannot afford to concede such rights, because they would open the path for the masses to put forward their economic demands, which the system cannot satisfy. Therefore, the struggle for democratic rights and higher living standards are one and the same: both entail the struggle against capitalism. Egyptian youth must study their revolution from a class perspective in order to draw this necessary conclusion, and aim their revolutionary enthusiasm in the direction of workers. This is the only way the true democratic power of the Egyptian Revolution can be realised.
You cannot stop a revolution halfway
The failure of the revolution to remove the bourgeois regime and uproot the state has had terrible social and political consequences. Egyptian capitalism continues to stumble from one crisis to the next: from the currency collapse in 2016 to the latest economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, which is hitting the economy hard. Aside from its economic effects, the virus is out of control in Egypt, spreading like wildfire through the prison system earlier this year. The regime has removed virtually all of the restrictions it had haphazardly imposed, letting the disease rip through the population as it conceals the real infection and death rates.
Even before the pandemic, poverty levels were rising and the cost of living was increasing as fuel subsidies were chipped away. Five years ago it was reported that over 50 percent of Egyptians were in an unsustainable housing situation. Since then, more decades-old rent freezes have been removed. At the same time, construction racketeers augment their billions from half-empty luxury resorts.
The Sisi presidency has been marked by a rise in Islamist terror attacks, while the Egyptian Army continues to meddle in the barbaric civil wars of Libya and Yemen.
And now, Sisi looks to have extended his dictatorship indefinitely, breaking his only remaining promise to the revolution. During his rule, the ruling class has enacted brutal revenge for the revolution on youth activists in particular. However, it hasn’t been able to use violent repression on the working class directly, as workers proved decisively during the revolution that the balance of power in society is in their favour.
The most disastrous consequence of the revolution being diverted halfway, however, is the effect it has had on class consciousness. The surge in class struggle prior to 2011 and the explosive revolutionary mass movements that followed ultimately left a power vacuum. The state apparatus duly filled this vacuum with a figurehead for the same old regime, appropriating for itself the credentials of the revolutionary movement to justify this act. Because of a lack of revolutionary leadership acting independently of the regime at the time, this process has confounded the masses. For many, it’s as though nothing has changed, or things have got even worse.
Yet, it is not true that nothing has changed. While in the short-term class consciousness may have been disorientated, the priceless experience gained from years of revolutionary struggle, as the masses were forced to go through the schools both of the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, have not been lost. Egyptian workers and youth have the chance to draw necessary conclusions from this wealth of experience, as well as from the school of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. We have already seen some of these conclusions put into practice in the last two years, when workers organised demonstrations against Sisi, despite intimidation and pressure from their bosses and state security.
But the absence of a revolutionary party of the working class still looms large in Egypt today. The Egyptian Revolution has never been defeated in open struggle; the responsibility of its failure rests solely on the shoulders of its leaders. The lesson here is: prepare a revolutionary party rooted in the working class in advance of the next revolutionary movement, on the correct theoretical footing. That starts now, with learning the lessons from 2011-14 in order to apply the correct conclusions in practice. This is the way to build a revolutionary organisation worthy of the name.
Certainly the strength, the creativity and the will of the Egyptian masses to transform society have never been in question. All that was lacking was the subjective factor. It is the task of revolutionaries today to prepare precisely this factor. Then the next revolutionary explosion can be channelled towards the conquering of power for the working class.