Revolt in Egypt


hazem kandil

After a reign of thirty years, Mubarak was overthrown by a popular movement in less than three weeks. How did the uprising originate?

Over the last few years, a rebellion had been brewing under the surface. There was a general sense that the status quo could not be sustained. Movies, novels, songs were permeated by the theme of revolt: it was everywhere in people’s imagination. Two developments were responsible for making ordinary, apolitical Egyptians feel they could no longer carry on with their normal lives. The first was the dissolution of the social contract governing state–society relations since Nasser’s coup in the fifties. The contract involved a div0it exchange: the regime offered free education, employment in an expanding public sector, affordable healthcare, cheap housing and other forms of social protection, in return for obedience. You could have—or at any rate hope for—these benefits, so long as domestic or foreign policies were not questioned and political power was not contested. In other words, people understood that they were trading their political rights for social welfare. From the eighties onwards, this contract was eroded, but it was not until the new millennium that it was fully abrogated. By this time the regime felt that it had eliminated organized resistance so thoroughly that it no longer needed to pay the traditional social bribes to guarantee political acquiescence. Viewing a population that appeared utterly passive, fragmented and demoralized, the regime believed it was time for plunder, on a grand scale. In the ruling National Democratic Party (ndp), a faction clustered around the President’s son Gamal Mubarak increasingly took charge through a new body called the Policy Committee. It had two components. One consisted of corrupt, state-nurtured capitalists with monopoly control over profitable sectors of the economy. The other was composed of neo-liberal intellectuals, typically economists with links to international financial institutions.

In 2004, the businessmen’s cabinet of Ahmed Nazif marked the first time this group actually took over government. Monopoly capitalists assumed cabinet positions relevant to their fields of activity. For example, Mohamed Mansour, one of the biggest car dealers in Egypt, became Minister of Transport. A tycoon in the tourist industry, Zoheir Garraneh, became Minister of Tourism. Neo-liberal intellectuals were no less prominent. The Minister of Investment, Mahmoud Mohieddin, went on to become Managing Director of the World Bank in 2010. The Minister of Finance, Youssef Boutros-Ghaly, was a senior imf executive, and remained linked to the Fund, for example, by chairing the International Monetary and Financial Committee, the main policy-planning body advising its Board of Governors. The result was a combination of outrageous looting by these insider capitalists, and blatant neo-liberal exactions on the population. The budgetary process was reorganized, services were privatized and a new fiscal regime introduced. In 2005, corporate tax rates were cut in half, from 40 to 20 per cent of earnings, though even this was rarely paid, while taxes falling on the mass of the population were sharply raised—most notoriously on housing. In 2010, many Egyptians with no property other than the roof over their heads, living on pensions of less than $50 a month, were suddenly faced with steep tax bills for their homes. The result was such a level of protest, with pleas and appeals to the President to intervene, that Mubarak suspended implementation of the new tax two months before it was due to come into force. By 2010, however, the belief was widespread that Mubarak was not going to run for the Presidency again in September of this year, but pass it on to his son. The prospect of Gamal, no longer heir apparent, but exercising absolute power with his cronies, scared many people. Life was already extremely difficult economically for most Egyptians. What would it be like if there was no appeal against him, and everything he had come to represent?

Parallel with this social change, and related to it, was an alteration in the forms of political repression by the regime. Back in the fifties and sixties, it was understood that you would suffer arrest or torture only if you were politically organized. The military took care of domestic repression, which was brutal but highly targeted. In the seventies and early eighties, this function was transferred from the army to the police. Repression now became more indiscriminate, but it was still carried out within a discernible structure and certain limits. Calling the shots were colonels or captains, people with names and ranks and faces, who bore some kind of responsibility for the decisions they took, and you still had to have some kind of political involvement—not necessarily organized, now, but saying something that crossed a red line or upset some official—to fall into their hands. By the nineties, however, the regime had become so confident it faced no challenges that it treated criticism in the press, or on satellite television or later the internet, as harmless banalities. This was also the attitude taken by the police: day-to-day repression of citizens was too mundane to be carried out by uniformed officers. Why would police officers waste their time and energy on intimidating a few students, cracking down on the occasional hot-headed labour organizer or molesting some female human-rights activists to keep them off the streets?

So, more and more, plain-clothes assistants were used for these tasks. Sadat had started to use low-level thugs of this kind in the seventies, but on a very small scale. In order not to implicate the police, raids were passed off as manifestations of popular support for the regime. Mubarak employed them in parliamentary elections in the eighties. From the nineties onwards, however, deployment of these seasonally hired thugs, on the pay-roll but not in the ranks of the police, became the norm, and with it repression became far more random. They would often harass or manhandle ordinary people for no political reason, simply for purposes of extortion. It was a dramatic case of this widespread phenomenon which eventually triggered the uprising. Khaled Said was an educated youth in his twenties, from a good family in Alexandria. In the summer of 2010, he exchanged words with a couple of these police assistants in an internet cafe, so they simply smashed his face on the pavement. Later they claimed he was suspected of carrying drugs, and that, before they could search him, he committed suicide. Pictures of him were soon everywhere on the internet. In Dubai, a Google executive named Wael Ghonim created a group on Facebook called ‘We are all Khaled Said’, and asked everyone who had faced this kind of barbarism to join it. In a couple of months, over a hundred thousand people had done so. This was the contingency that started the whole movement. Behind it was this double deterioration—in the scale of economic exploitation and plunder, and in the extent of arbitrary molestation and repression—that made the lives of ordinary Egyptians who had nothing to do with politics increasingly unbearable.

Khaled Said was killed in the summer of 2010. What explains the timing of the revolt six months later?

January 25 is a national holiday commemorating the heroic resistance of police officers in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal, against a British force that asked them to hand over their weapons on that day in 1952. Over forty officers were killed and dozens injured in what became known as Police Day. To underline the contrast between the police back then and the police now, the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ group decided to stage a demonstration near the State Security headquarters in downtown Cairo, in Tahrir Square. They hoped for a turnout of about 5–7,000, but even that seemed too far-fetched at the time. Under Mubarak, the largest demonstrations had never exceeded a few hundred people. But encouraged by the fall of the Tunisian dictatorship on January 14, and supported by other internet-based and opposition groups, the call brought out perhaps 20,000 people.

Over the next two days, not only did protests continue, but different oppositional groups came together for a bigger mobilization. Now the police began to hose and tear-gas them. Instead of making them back down, police brutality fuelled another major protest after Friday Prayers on January 28, the Day of Rage. Coming together from different assembly points, and gathering steam as they marched towards Tahrir Square, crowds snowballing to some 80,000-strong were now ready to take on the police. Caught off-balance by the size and persistence of the demonstrators, the police were finally overwhelmed. It was a rude awakening. Suddenly the police were confronted with the reality that, as a result of the transformations I have described, they were not equipped or trained to deal with massive unrest. What ensued was an epic battle on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which links Tahrir Square to the west of the city where most of the demonstrators were coming from. If you examine the videos of this battle, you can see how incompetent and disorganized the repression proved to be—the police clumsily manoeuvring a handful of armoured vehicles, zig-zagging about in the crowds and trying to hit people, bombarding them with assorted missiles, and then beating a retreat, hosing and shooting at people, which only made them angrier. After a couple of hours of this tug-of-war, personnel carriers were overturned by demonstrators, the police withdrew, abandoning not just the bridge but the whole centre of the city, while crowds torched the headquarters of the ndp and occupied the Square. At this point, the Minister of the Interior told Mubarak that the situation was out of control, and the army needed to come in. Troops were deployed around strategic sites and government buildings across the city, a curfew was declared, and by the next morning the military was out in force.

What were the forces behind the mobilization of January 28, and to what extent were they coordinating among themselves?

We can speak of some six groups propelling the movement. Two were based on Facebook networks. The first was the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ group of which I have spoken. The second was the April 6 Youth Movement, which came into being around support for a general strike called for that date in 2008. Only one of the small industrial towns of the Delta heeded the call, and there the workers were brutally repressed, with some shot and killed. The following year, the organizers of the support set up a Facebook account called the April 6 Youth Movement and asked everyone to stay at home on that same day rather than mass on the streets. The police made sure that nothing happened, but by 2010 the group had some 70,000 members. So it was older and had a more political profile, combining labour and liberal concerns, than the network created by Wael Ghonim. Although a mass demonstration was contrary to their strategy of a stay-at-home strike, they decided to join forces with ‘We are all Khaled Said’ for the mobilization in January.

A third important group was the Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood that had emerged in the last three years. Within the Brotherhood, reformers had for some time been trying to change the traditional positions and strategies of the movement. Their aim was to form a political party with its own organization and leaders, linked only loosely to the general cultural movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their campaign was further fuelled by news that the movement’s gains in the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which it won 88 seats, was part of the State Security’s plan to dissuade the us from pressuring Mubarak to democratize. In other words, the movement’s leaders willingly played into the regime’s hands, accepting the undignified role of a scarecrow. In 2010 reformers experienced a serious setback, when a conservative old-guard figure was elected General Guide and ignored calls to join secular opposition groups in boycotting the fraudulent elections staged by the regime. To add insult to injury, the Brotherhood’s complicity was not rewarded; it did not secure a single seat in the new parliament. From that point on, the Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood openly challenged its Guidance Council, called on reformers to resign from it and go ahead with forming a political party anyway. So when the call for a demonstration on January 25 went out, they decided to join it.

A fourth group was composed of what might be called a ‘new left’ in Egypt. These were mostly young and middle-aged leftists, whose relations with the original leaders of the Communist movement were not unlike those of the Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Guidance Council. The Communist veterans, who go back to the middle of the last century, are now old men who made their peace with the regime a long time ago. Their excuse was that Islamization poses the biggest threat to Egypt, and that commitment to secularism binds them to the supposedly liberal ruling group. They therefore agreed to play according to the regime’s rulebook, which allowed them to write and lecture, while forbidding them from building a real base among the working class. But for younger leftists, there were threats other than Islamization, namely, unbridled neo-liberal exploitation. From their perspective, the priority was to organize resistance in the factories. So for at least five years, they had been trying to develop a force of their own, creating, among other things, a journal called Al-BouslaThe Compass in Arabic—to bring together the most active layers of the Egyptian Left. These are mostly urban intellectuals, many of them assistant professors—young historians, political scientists or sociologists.

A fifth group had gathered around Mohamed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, who came back to Egypt last year and let it be known he would run for President if the Constitution were changed to allow free elections. Rumour has it that El-Baradei had a falling-out with Mubarak, because as an ambassador he was once Egypt’s official nominee for the top position at the iaea, but at the last minute the president ditched him for another nominee. El-Baradei was elected nonetheless, but with African votes. After that he kept his distance from the regime, though Mubarak had to treat him with some respect because of his international standing. On getting back to Cairo, he attracted disenfranchised youngsters around a general appeal for reform, without more definite contours, creating a group called the National Association for Change. It is a medley of individuals, ranging from liberals to progressive Islamists to a handful of leftists, some affiliated with political parties, notably the Democratic Front, and many freelancers. One of the main spokesmen of this group was the son of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a high-profile cleric; others were young entrepreneurs and corporate executives. But El-Baradei still spent most of his time in Europe, preferring to play the role of inspirer rather than effectual leader of the group. The result was again a group of angry young men left to their own devices. The perfect storm gathering in January 2011 had just found another collaborator.

Finally, a sixth group consisted of a disparate collection of human-rights activists, who had been working either for Egyptian outfits, or Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or other international organizations. This was a very eclectic collection of young people united only by the fact that they had not found any political organization capable of mobilizing them to contest the regime more directly. The common characteristic of all six groups is that they were disillusioned with the traditional alternatives to the dictatorship. They benefited from contemporary communication technologies, of course. In the big cities, internet cafes are everywhere, and even the poor have cell-phones. This is principally a culture of youth, but it is very widely available, across social classes. But social network sites, one must note, played a role in the preliminary stages only. Once the snowball started rolling, their value depreciated in favour of more traditional media, such as television and radio.

From the demonstration of January 28 onwards, Tahrir Square was continuously occupied by protesters. On February 1, a still larger demonstration there demanded that Mubarak go. The next day, police thugs let loose to attack the occupation were driven from the Square. A much larger mobilization followed on February 4. Strikes had become widespread by February 7. On February 10 the Supreme Military Council was in session for the first time since 1973. Mubarak fell on February 11, to a continuously expanding popular uprising. How should its social composition be described?

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