The struggle surges ahead

February 4, 2011

International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo on the mass demonstrations that shifted the balance away from the violence of the regime.

ANTI-MUBARAK demonstrators gathered in the hundreds of thousands on Friday, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, in Alexandria and in cities and towns across the country for a new day of mass protest against the regime.

In my estimation, the Tahrir Square demonstration was even bigger today than it was last Tuesday, when across Egypt, between 6 million and 8 million people protested, according to estimates. As the hour for curfew came and went tonight, thousands of people were still arriving to demonstrate. In Alexandria, an estimated 1 million people also turned out.

Everywhere, people were united around the slogan that Mubarak must go now. In Tahrir Square, there was an echo of the old civil rights slogan in the U.S. "We shall not be moved"--hundreds of thousands of people were chanting, "He should go! We will not move." Then there was my favorite slogan of the day: "Ya Mubarak, sahi el noum, inaharda akher youm!" It sounds better in Arabic because it rhymes, but it translates roughly into English as: "Wakey, wakey, Mubarak, today is the last day!"

Millions continue to demonstrate across Egypt calling for an end to the Mubarak dictatorship
Millions continue to demonstrate across Egypt calling for an end to the Mubarak dictatorship (Nasser Nouri)

To understand the importance of today's massive turnout, you only have to remember what happened on Wednesday and Thursday, which can only be described as the unleashing of the hounds of hell--thugs of the regime sent out in a coordinated assault on the demonstrators at Tahrir Square and the whole of the pro-democracy movement.

The scale of violence was seen by millions of people around the world. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and they wielded knives and all kinds of other weapons in an attempt to intimidate, injure and drive out the demonstrators from Tahrir Square.

They also made a particular point to beat up journalists and drive them out of the square, and they raided hotels where news organizations like Al Jazeera and CNN were headquartered, trashing their operations. They also attempted to incite fear against foreigners--anything that would drive a wedge among the demonstrators and that would intimidate people from coming out on Friday.

The violence was so bad that Omar Suleiman--the newly appointed vice president, whose previous position was head of the army intelligence services, someone who must have overseen the arrest and torture of thousands in that post--came on television last night to deny any involvement on the part of the National Democratic Party, Mubarak's ruling party.

Suleiman claimed that no one had any idea who organized the onslaught--despite the fact that several of the thugs were captured, and their police or government employment IDs were shown in the media. So the hollowness of his claims weren't lost on the Egyptian people.

There was even a moment of bizarre other-worldliness when Suleiman--this organizer of repression and torture--appealed for prisoners, who according to many reports had been released from jail by the regime's thugs to help in the violence, to show up at the prisons again and turn themselves in.

That's the context of today's demonstrations--after two days of systematic violence against the anti-Mubarak protestors, people turned out in the hundreds of thousands today, and it turned the balance back again in the favor of the demonstrators.

AS IN every revolutionary situation, there has been a dramatic ebb and flow to the events in Egypt.

The demonstrations began on January 25--ironically, on "Police Day," which was previously a celebration of the regime's strength. On that first day, the movement broke through a kind of psychological barrier by moving into the streets in huge numbers, something that didn't happen under the Egyptian police state.

The demonstrations continued through last Friday, when there were huge battles with the police that pushed the security forces off the streets. The government's response was to deploy the army, which is seen as "above politics"--but to allow Cairo to descend into a kind of chaos, with gangs of thugs roaming through neighborhoods, many of them organized by the regime. The mass of Egyptians responded to this by organizing neighborhood defense committees to protect the people.

Last Tuesday, the demonstrations were the biggest yet. Mubarak spoke on television that night, declaring that he wouldn't run for re-election, but had no intention of stepping down. The thugs were unleashed the next day to show what Mubarak had in mind as a transition.

But Friday represents a new stage following the two days of violence that came before it. In the preceding two days, not only was the anti-Mubarak demonstration in Tahrir maintained--that is, the heart of the uprising and its best-known expression was defended from forces determined to drive the protesters out--but the manner of its defense produced a response in support of it that could be seen throughout the day today.

Early on Friday morning, there were literally thousands of people lined up to go into the square. The army had taken up positions after the two days of sustained violence, not wanting to appear helpless, but what was phenomenal was that it wasn't the army guarding the entrances, but lines and lines of stewards from the demonstration. They searched people as they came in, making sure no one had the kind of weapons that the pro-government gangs had used against them. I've never been frisked so often, and with as many apologies for being frisked.

The army is continuing to maintain its role as a force supposedly above politics. Unlike the last two days of uncontrolled violence against the protesters, which the army didn't intervene decisively to stop, today, it helped create a buffer zone around Tahrir Square. So once the attack on Tahrir Square failed, there was barbed wire and tanks in all the pivotal positions around Cairo.

I got to Tahrir in the morning, before the end of prayers, when even larger numbers came to the demonstration. But already, the crowd numbered half a million, if not more, by my estimate.

Once inside Tahrir, you could see a level of organization and solidarity unlike anything I've seen before.

The first thing that struck me was the makeshift clinics set up all over the place, with dozens and dozens of nurses and doctors--many of whom said they were unemployed--stitching up people's legs or arms or faces. These injuries were the result of the pro-government thugs--there were dozens of people walking around who had been patched up.

In addition to that, people had brought medical supplies with them. Others were circulating through the square with bags of bread, with water, with candy.

One of the aims of the pro-Mubarak forces had been to drive out all journalists--they focused in particular on foreign journalists to try to raise anger at a supposed foreign plot against Egypt. So it was good to see that journalists were operating freely and quite welcome in the crowd.

Probably the most significant sign of the health of the protest was the continued political discussion and debate within the square. I also saw dozens and dozens of people who were calling friends and relatives, and encouraging them to come to the square--trying to convince them of the fallacy of the government's claims about chaos and violence.

ACCORDING TO press reports, the U.S. government is lobbying hard to get officials around Mubarak to pressure him to step down.

The U.S. maneuvers around this question must, as always, be taken with a grain of salt. No one will say it in the mainstream media, but Obama could have held a press conference in which he simply declared that aid to Egypt is cut off, that this kind of violence will not be tolerated, and that the U.S. now stands squarely with the protesters.

But of course, he won't say that because that's not how diplomacy works. And the reason it doesn't work that way is you can't send that signal about a dictator the U.S. has been supporting for 30 years. Not because Mubarak isn't finished, but because of how his downfall on those terms would affect other relationships and the whole Middle East.

So the U.S. is scrambling to find an alternative, and there are plenty of options. Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, showed up to the demonstration today to be among the protesters. He's clearly thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president. There's also Mohamed ElBaradai. There's the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the current defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, made the rounds through Tahrir Square today, under protection of soldiers, without much opposition to him.

But there are still plenty of difficulties and contradictions for the U.S. and for the rulers in Egypt, because there are significant problems from trying to gently step back from a military dictatorship.

Egypt is still that, in many respects. I should add that a couple offices of human rights and labor organizations were raided yesterday and closed down. It's still very gingerly that people produce any public literature that's against the regime. So it was quite an exercise, for example, to get leaflets into Tahrir Square today.

One problem for the U.S. is that Omar Suleiman figures prominently in their plans for a post-Mubarak transition. Many of the demonstrators were dismayed by Suleiman's speech last night. But of course, most know the history of the man--that he was involved integrally in the repression that took place under Mubarak's regime.

In general, most demonstrators still agree that their central demand is for the removal of Mubarak. That's not to say that the rest of the regime should get off scot-free. But Mubarak's downfall is what the movement has focused on so far, and when that's accomplished, that significant victory will then open the process.

My own view is that it's virtually impossible to imagine the departure of Mubarak without the cabinet and the government he's put into place then becoming the central question for the movement. That's the underlying dynamic.

Mubarak is the lightning rod that has brought all the forces together. Those forces don't necessarily agree on the same outcome, but they're at least agreed on the central necessity of seeing him go, and that will become the practical measure of what's been accomplished.

ONE OF the most interesting conversations I heard was one man trying to explain on the phone to someone the profoundly democratic thrust of the protests.

He said to the person he was talking to that people see demonstrators chanting "Allah Akbar," and they conclude these protests must be organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Then they see many famous actors and musicians showing up to Tahrir Square today, and they think it's just a middle-class protest of the intelligentsia.

But it's not the Muslim Brotherhood behind all this. It's not the middle class. It's not, as this man went on to say, only socialists and Marxists talking about workers' rights, and it's not people talking about just women's rights. This is really a protest of all Egypt united in a profound movement for democracy.

I think that's the first thing that has to be grasped about the uprising--that this is a movement that seeks fundamental democratic rights. As a friend of mine put it a few days ago, it's the 1789 of Egypt--similar to the opening of the French Revolution in that way.

I think the second aspect that became certain today is that this is no longer the Egypt that existed prior to January 25--and there's no turning back, however much violence the regime tries to organize. A tipping point has been reached in terms of the willingness of masses of people to put themselves on the line and defy the existing order, and that's a genie that will be very difficult to put back in the bottle.

The third aspect apparent today was, as I described earlier, the enormous self-organization of the movement in the face of horrendous violence and repression--most especially, the attacks that took place over the past few days.

The fourth point is broader--about what happens next. You now have a movement that has emerged in a most explosive fashion and is present in every Egyptian town and city, which is the product of many, many years of injustice, including around economic questions of unemployment and dispossession. But it's also an expression of the rise of a number of social struggles in Egypt, including the strikes of the last few years and the riots over rising food prices.

Right now, the movement is united around the political aim of getting rid of Hosni Mubarak. But hopefully, once Mubarak is unseated, the political questions will then mesh with social questions that still remain unresolved.

If that happens, there will be a really explosive mix of political and social issues that represents the possibility of political and social revolution.

I think that's the key to understanding why Mubarak hasn't left yet. It's not just a question of his own stubbornness, but how the regime can continue and the status quo can be maintained, not just for the Egyptian elite, but for Israel, the U.S., its European allies and so on.

Their interest is in preventing this process from triggering an even greater change. That's what these demonstrations are heralding, and we hope it's a process that will continue.

One last story from today: When Mubarak spoke on television on Tuesday night and said that he wouldn't run for re-election, he vowed that he was going to die on Egypt's soil. One Socialist Worker reporter quipped at the time, "We should tell him that the soil is ready for him." I translated that today at Tahrir Square, and I can report that it was greeted with wild applause and cheers--it's another part of the ongoing Egyptian revolution.

Transcription by Matthew Beamesderfer

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