Egypt once more defied all expectations on Sunday, when Tahrir Square was re-occupied and millions took to the streets across the crisis-ridden country in an attempt to push President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power and resume the revolutionary process that was kick-started with the spontaneous popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in January and February 2011. While the protests remained mostly peaceful, the health ministry has reported that at least 16 people have died and 781 have been injured in inter-factional clashes since Sunday.
According to unconfirmed reports and military sources, whose claims could not immediately be verified and which may have been politically inspired, as many as 14 million people marched against the government on Sunday, while hundreds of thousands of Islamists gathered in various counter-demonstrations to support and defend “their” President. According to Egypt analyst Michael Hanna, Sunday’s “scenes of protest are unprecedented in size and scope, and seemingly surpass those during the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.”
Hanna stressed that the sheer scale of the mobilization was all the more impressive because it was “a bottom-up, grassroots effort and not directed by political opposition leaders. In a sense, they have latched on to this expanding current. While the organisers were diligent and creative, while lacking organisation and funding, this breadth of mass mobilisation could not have transpired unless the protest movement was tapping into deep and growing frustration and disenchantment with the current course of the country and its leadership.”
The grassroots Tamarod (Rebel) campaign that initially called for the demonstrations claims that it has collected over 22 million signatures from Egyptians across the country demanding the President’s resignation. The campaign to push Morsi from power and start a renewed constituent process is supported by a panoply of opposition parties and autonomous social movements, including the April 6th Youth Movement that spearheaded the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011 through years of tireless organizing in solidarity with striking workers in the town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra.
Social movement scholars generally recognize the worldwide marches of February 15, 2003 against the Iraq war to have been the biggest protest event in world history, bringing between 6 and 10 million people to the streets in over 600 cities and up to 60 countries. According to informal metrics gathered by members of the Take The Square and ROAR collectives (and widely picked up by the international media), the worldwide Occupy protests of October 15, 2011 might have been even bigger, bringing millions to the streets in 952 cities in 82 countries.
If the latest reports are true, the Egyptian protests of Sunday would shatter these records flat out. But even if the numbers are exaggerated, one thing is now clear: these mobilizations are so vast that there is no doubt that the revolutionary process that began in 2011 is now back in full swing. After two and half years of broken promises, shattered illusions and continued resistance, the Egyptian people appear to be more politically conscious and more outraged than ever. There is simply no way to put this revolutionary spirit back in its stifling bottle of state repression while sidestepping its demands for “bread, freedom and social justice.”
This is where the reporting of the mainstream media becomes painstakingly reactionary. In its latest editorials, even The Guardian seems to have abandoned the revolutionaries in favor of an angst-ridden liberal obsession with stability. In its Sunday edition, it somehow managed to gather the whit and shortsightedness to claim that the revolution is now on the brink of self-destruction. If we are to buy this story, the people of Egypt should just suck it up and accept the fact that, while their new democracy may be far from perfect, continued struggle is not the way to improve the situation. In fact, reform and bread should come first — freedom and democracy can come later.
Clearly such a reading echoes precisely the type of fearful narrative that predominated during the first uprising of 2011, when world leaders and the international media initially took the side of Mubarak in a bid to preserve regional stability, only to shift sides once they realized that the tides had turned. Back then, world leaders and the international media stoked the fears of an Islamist take-over; now that a “convenient” Islamist regime is in power, they stoke the fears of a full-on civil war. If the current anti-Morsi protests persist and succeed, they may pull off a similarly hypocritical strategic shift to once again preserve their thinly veiled illusion of regional stability.
That said, it is obvious that today’s situation is much more complex and volatile than it was back in 2011. The second rebellion that kicked off on Sunday can no longer be spoken of in simplistic terms as an uprising of the people against the state. The revolutionary coalition that toppled Mubarak has been ripped open in a schism between the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and a curious oppositional alliance on the other, made up of a “hardcore” of anarchist, autonomist and socialist revolutionaries and a divided opposition of secular middle-class liberals, the disaffected religious poor and even reactionary elements from the old Mubarak regime.
The secular army, which runs a sizable industrial empire and which is not too comfortable with the creeping Islamization of society, currently sits in the wings waiting for an opportunity to jump in and shift coalitions if circumstances allow for it. The state security apparatus, meanwhile — most importantly the unreformed Interior Ministry and police forces — have clearly stated that they will not actively defend any political party against “the people”. On some isolated occasions on Sunday they actively sided with the protesters, and they did not defend the Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo when they were ransacked on Sunday night and Monday morning.
The organizers of the Tamarod campaign have now given Morsi an ultimatum to step down by Tuesday or face an endless wave of mass civil disobedience. Meanwhile, in a sign that the societal rifts may now be spreading into the ruling party’s internal circles, eleven cabinet ministers have already abandoned Morsi and defected to the opposition. The Brotherhood still retains a sizable base of popular support, which will surely put up a fight to preserve its control over state institutions, but even this base is now rapidly shrinking as a deepening debt crisis and massive fuel shortages are removing the last bits of legitimacy from Morsi’s trembling regime.
Before Sunday’s historic mobilization, Egyptian friends and comrades sent us messages expressing their heartfelt fear of bloodshed and serious social instability. We all share these fears and hope for the best. But unlike The Guardian, we believe the wisdom of the streets lies not in demobilization but in continued struggle. Even if the objective conditions for the overthrow of the capitalist state may not yet exist, any state that does not fear its people will continuously seek to abuse its power. Only a vigorous and endless struggle can make those in power fear their people enough to bring about meaningful social change. Egypt’s future will be determined in the streets.
LATEST UPDATE: In a sign that the clock is ticking and time may soon be up for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the army has just given the government an ambiguous (but thinly veiled) 48-hour ultimatum to “meet the people’s demands”.