The situation has become explosive with extraordinary speed. In the last few days hundreds of thousands of people went on to the streets demanding freedom. With admirable courage they braved the batons, bullets and tear gas of the police. Today they faced a real baptism of fire. The protests that used to be predominantly made up of students have now been swelled by the army of the poor and disinherited from the slums of Cairo and other cities. Robert Fisk wrote:
“There are various clues that the authorities in Cairo realised something was afoot. Several Egyptians have told me that on 24 January, security men were taking down pictures of Gamal Mubarak from the slums – lest they provoke the crowds. But the vast number of arrests, the police street beatings – of women as well as men – and the near-collapse of the Egyptian stock market bear the marks of panic rather than cunning.”
Can repression succeed?
On the face of it the Revolution faced a daunting challenge. The regime has a million and a half soldiers in its security apparatus, upon which it lavishes millions to keep them loyal. The purpose of this fearsome apparatus is not to defend Egypt against foreign aggressors. It is not to fight Israel. It is to keep the Egyptian people down. But can it succeed?
On paper it is a formidable force, against which the people have no chance of success. But one could say the same of every tyrannical regime in history. Louis XVI of France, Tsar Nicholas of Russia and the Shah of Iran all possessed an apparatus of repression that was a hundred times stronger than the one at the disposal of Hosni Mubarak. Yet in the moment of truth these mighty monsters collapsed like a house of cards.
But such a display of naked force revealed not strength but weakness: save for the police force and the army, the government is powerless. Napoleon once observed that one can do many things with bayonets, but you cannot sit on them. In the final analysis the army and police is too narrow a base to sustain an unpopular regime. To their shock and astonishment the authorities are finding the repressive apparatus cannot stop the protests. Their spontaneous character itself provides a certain protection against the state, although it is a weakness that will have negative effects later on.
Today the regime mobilised its full strength to abort the revolution. Members of an elite counter-terrorism police unit were ordered to take up positions in key locations around Cairo in preparation for a wave of mass rallies. From the early hours of the morning the security forces were already taking possession of all the key points in an attempt to stop demonstrators from coalescing.
But all these measures were in vain. The protestors poured onto the streets in greater numbers than before. There were 80,000 protestors in Port Said, 50,000 Beni Suef, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, and big demonstrations in Alexandria and Suez City and elsewhere. As in Iran last year, it is impossible to arrest the organisers when demonstrations have been organised through Facebook and Twitter. The army of informers is powerless to combat this.
The state tried to block Facebook. They closed down the internet and disabled mobile phones. But the people proved to be one step ahead. Bloggers passed on ways to bypass the controls and information was spread by word of mouth. By midday (in London) the television screens were already showing scenes of massive conflict on the streets of the Egyptian capital. The police lines were unable to contain the demonstrations. The television coverage shows masses of protestors pushing against the police lines and the police retreating in disorder.
After chasing the police, thousands of protesters were able to flood into the huge Tahrir Square downtown after being kept out most of the day by the heavy police presence. Few police could be seen around the square after the confrontation. At a certain point even the violence of the state security services becomes counterproductive. Instead of fear, it arouses indignation and anger. In Suez City people rose up against police who shot demonstrators and burned a police station. And when this point is reached, cracks always appear in the ranks of the state forces. Most ordinary soldiers and policemen are reluctant to kill fellow citizens and will refuse to carry out orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators. In Suez there have been reports of such incidents.
Role of the youth
The protestors who have poured onto the streets all over Egypt in recent days are mainly young Egyptians, unemployed and without any future. One young Egyptian told the BBC: “We are poor. We have no work, no future. What should we do? Should we burn ourselves?” The only hope these young people have is to fight for a fundamental change in society. They have cast aside all fear and are prepared to risk their lives in the fight for freedom and justice.
Many of the protesters are university students who are unable to find work, and are therefore unable to marry and raise a family. They are motivated by a deep sense of injustice and a burning anger and resentment towards a system that denies them a future and a corrupt regime that has enriched itself at the people’s expense.
The Guardian correspondent in Cairo, Alaa Al Aswany, who participated on the big demonstration last Tuesday, was profoundly impressed by the “dazzling bravery” of the protesters, and impressed by their determination to do one thing – change the regime:
“I will always be in awe of these revolutionaries. Everything they have said shows a sharp political awareness and a death-defying desire for freedom. They asked me to say a few words. Even though I've spoken hundreds of times in public, this time it was different: I was speaking to 30,000 demonstrators who were in no mood to hear of compromise and who kept interrupting with shouts of ‘Down with Hosni Mubarak’, and ‘The people say, out with the regime’.”
“I said I was proud of what they had achieved, and that they had brought about the end of the period of repression, adding that even if we get beaten up or arrested we have proved we are not afraid and are stronger than they are. They have the fiercest tools of repression in the world at their disposal, but we have something stronger: our courage and our belief in freedom. The crowd responded by shouting en masse: ‘We'll finish what we've begun!’" (The Guardian, Thu 27 Jan 2011)
The decisive factor is that the masses have acquired a sense of their collective strength and are losing their fear. Beginning with the youngest, most energetic and determined elements, the mood of defiant has transmitted itself to the older, more cautious and inert layers of the population. The Guardian reports a significant instance of this:
“More ordinary citizens are now defying the police. A young demonstrator told me that, when running from the police on Tuesday, he entered a building and rang an apartment bell at random. It was 4am. A 60-year-old man opened the door, fear obvious on his face. The demonstrator asked the man to hide him from the police. The man asked to see his identity card and invited him in, waking one of his three daughters to prepare some food for the young man. They ate and drank tea together and chatted like lifelong friends.
“In the morning, when the danger of arrest had receded, the man accompanied the young protester into the street, stopped a taxi for him and offered him some money. The young man refused and thanked them. As they embraced the older man said: ‘It is I who should be thanking you for defending me, my daughters and all Egyptians.’" (The Guardian, Thu 27 Jan 2011)
One thing is clear. Today has ended in a catastrophic defeat for Hosni Mubarak. As I write these lines events are moving with lightening speed. Rumours spread thick and fast. A Cairo daily has been claiming that one of President Hosni Mubarak's top advisers has fled to London with 97 suitcases of cash, but other reports speak of a furious President shouting at senior police officers for not dealing more harshly with demonstrators.
As night fell, the protestors remained on the streets, defying the curfew that the government has proclaimed throughout Egypt. They have begun to storm public buildings. According to Al Jazeera a few minutes ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo has been stormed and taken over by protestors and set on fire. For the first time an office of the ruling National Democratic Party was set on fire, and the fire brigade made no attempt to douse the flames.
There is growing alarm in Washington. This afternoon Hillary Clinton admitted that the US is "deeply concerned about the use of force" against protestors. She called on the Egyptian government to restrain security forces but also says protesters should refrain from violence. She said: “These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.” And she added: “As a partner we strongly believe that the Egyptian government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing political, social and economic reforms”.
Translated into plain English this means: “Don’t be a fool Mubarak. If you try to use the military to crush the rebellion it will break in pieces. The movement is too big to drown in blood. You must use cunning instead. Make some changes, or at least, give the impression that there will be change. In the end, of course, you may have to go. That is unfortunate, but we all have to make sacrifices from time to time. You are an old man and have outlived your usefulness. You can have a comfortable retirement and save capitalism. Or you can cling to power and end up like Sadat, dead. That would be too bad for you. But if you provoke the masses too much there will be a complete revolution and that would be too bad for us.”
But Mubarak does not seem to be listening. Shut off from the real world in his palace, surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, he is clinging to power even as power ebbs away. He declares a curfew, but people remain on the streets. He calls in the army “to help the security forces” but the people applaud the army and call on the soldiers to join them. Here and there we hear of reports that the fraternisation is having an effect. Associated Press reported on the scene in Cairo's central plaza. One of their reporters saw the protesters cheering the police who took off their uniform joined them. The triumphant protestors hoisted them on their shoulders.
Is this just an isolated incident? Or does it show a more widespread tendency? In such a rapidly changing, dramatic and chaotic situation, the mood can swing violently in minutes. In Alexandria the army is on the streets, but the soldiers are giving the thumbs up sign to the demonstrators. In Suez also the people are cheering the soldiers, who they see as their allies. There are unconfirmed reports that the army and the police are clashing. If this is true, Mubarak is in serious trouble.
Robert Fisk is one of the few western journalists who shows a serious understanding of the real situation in the Middle East. In today’s Independent he writes:
“Already there have been signs that those tired of Mubarak's corrupt and undemocratic rule have been trying to persuade the ill-paid policemen patrolling Cairo to join them. "Brothers! Brothers! How much do they pay you?" one of the crowds began shouting at the cops in Cairo. But no one is negotiating – there is nothing to negotiate except the departure of Mubarak, and the Egyptian government says and does nothing, which is pretty much what it has been doing for the past three decades.”
The Egyptian Revolution
Whatever the outcome of today’s protests, one thing is clear: the Egyptian Revolution has already begun. Those sceptics and intellectual snobs who constantly harp on the alleged “low level of consciousness” of the masses now have their answer. Those western “experts” who talked contemptuously of the Egyptians as “apathetic” and “passive” and “indifferent to politics” must now eat their words. The masses, whether in Egypt, Iran, Britain or the USA, can only learn from experience. In a revolution, they learn much faster. The Egyptian workers and youth have learnt more in a few days of struggle than in thirty years of “normal” existence.
Only a few months ago the President and his ruling clique imagined they had everything under control. They were so confident that they were already grooming the youngest son of Mubarak, Gamal, to occupy his father's post. A former investment banker, Gamal was educated at the elite American University in Cairo, and worked for the Bank of America. He was heavily involved in the economic “liberalisation” of Egypt, which delighted the rich while the poor suffered. This information is sufficient to make clear his political allegiances. Last year posters were plastered across Cairo calling for Gamal to stand for president in elections scheduled for later this year.
The protesters showed their attitude towards the chosen son, chanting "Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you" and tearing up his picture.
With lightening speed everything has turned into its opposite. On the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities people are not just talking of revolution. They are carrying out a revolution. That is now an indisputable fact. The question is posed of who or what is to replace Mubarak's regime? But this question is not uppermost in the minds of the protestors. Maybe the young people on the streets do not know exactly what they want. But they know precisely what they do not want. And that is sufficient for now.
The immediate task is to carry out the overthrow of Mubarak and his rotten regime. That will open the flood gates and allow the revolutionary people to push their way through. They are daily discovering their strength on the streets, the importance of organisation and mass mobilisation. That is already a tremendous conquest. Having gone through the experience of a thirty year dictatorship, they will not allow the imposition of a new one, or any intrigue to recreate the old regime with a new name. Tunisia is sufficient proof of this.
Despite attempts by the media to play up the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is abundantly clear that the Islamist element has been largely absent from these protests, which have taken place under the banner of revolutionary democracy. The overwhelming majority of the activists are young people from the schools and universities, who are not at all under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism. It is not even clear whether the belated participation of the Muslim brotherhood in today’s demonstrations had any real effect in increasing the number of protesters on the streets.
Now the masses have had a taste of their own power, they will not be satisfied with half-measures. They know that what they have achieved they have conquered with their own hands. Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and Nobel prize-winning former UN official, flew back to Egypt last night but no one believes – except perhaps the Americans – that he can become a focus for the protest movements that have sprung up across the country without the aid of any bourgeois “leader”. Today the foreign television cameras made a feeble attempt to highlight ElBaradei’s participation on the demonstration. But all they achieved was to show pictures of a bewildered old man who scarcely seemed to know where he was or what he was doing.
The struggle for complete democracy will permit the construction of genuine trade unions and workers’ parties. But it will also pose the question of economic democracy and the fight against inequality. Democracy would be an empty phrase if it refused to lay hands on the obscene wealth of the ruling elite. Confiscate the property of the ruling clique! Expropriate the property of the imperialists who backed the old regime and exploited the people of Egypt! The fight for democracy, if it is pursued to the end, must inevitably lead to the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’’ government.
In 1916 Lenin wrote these lines:
“Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is….
“The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors.
“But objectively they will attack capital, and the class- conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately purge itself of petty bourgeois slag.” (Lenin, The Irish Rebellion of 1916)
These lines could have been written yesterday. The whole world situation has changed decisively and the events in Egypt show this in a very dramatic way. We have decisively entered the epoch of world revolution. Nowhere is the international character of the revolution clearer than in North Africa and the Middle East. It spreads ceaselessly from one country to another: from Tunisia to Algeria, from Jordan to Egypt, from the Yemen to Lebanon.
The Tunisian events were of course inspiring. People could now see with their own eyes that even the most powerful security apparatus could not prevent the overthrow of a hated dictator. People on the streets of Cairo even imitated the French slogan of the Tunisian protesters: "Dégage, Mubarak".
Tunisia showed what was possible. But it would be entirely false to assume that this was the only, or even the main, cause. The conditions for a revolutionary explosion had already matured in all these countries. All that was required was a single spark to ignite the powder keg. Tunisia provided it. The revolutionary uprising has already reached other Arab states such as Yemen. As in Tunisia, the people of Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen were living in poverty under dictatorial ruling elites which lived a luxurious life by plundering the nation.
These movements have striking similarities to the mass movements that led to the overthrow of the regimes in Eastern Europe. Again, on paper these governments had a powerful state apparatus, big armies, police, and secret police. But that did not save them. The bourgeoisie was overjoyed at the overthrow of “communism”. But their rejoicing was premature. In retrospect the fall of Stalinism will be seen as only the prelude to a far more dramatic development: the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Everywhere, including the United States, the system is in crisis. Everywhere the ruling class is trying to place the full burden of the crisis of its system on the shoulders of the poorest layers of society.
In Tunisia and Egypt the system is breaking at its weakest links. They will tell us that such things cannot happen here, that the situation is different and so on and so forth. Yes, the situation is different, but only in degree. Everywhere the working class and the youth will be faced with the same alternative: either we accept the systematic destruction of our living standards and rights – or we fight.
The argument “it cannot happen here” is without any scientific or rational basis. The same thing was said of Tunisia only a couple of months ago, when that country was considered to be the most stable in North Africa. And the same argument was repeated in relation to Egypt even after Ben Ali was overthrown. Just a few weeks were sufficient to expose the hollowness of those words. Such is the speed of events in our epoch. Sooner or later the same question will be posed in every country in Europe, in Japan, in Canada, in the United States.
Revolutionary developments are on the order of the day. The process will advance at a greater or lesser speed according to local conditions. But no country can consider itself immune from the general process. The events in Tunisia and Egypt show us our own future as in a mirror.