Egyptians bring down a dictator

February 11, 2011

People in Egypt got a taste of their power, and they won't stop with just the one tyrant.

PROTESTERS IN the streets of Cairo and every city in Egypt erupted in jubilation on Friday as the news spread that the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak had fallen.

Less than 24 hours after a televised speech Thursday night in which Mubarak defied the mass uprising against him and declared he would stay in power, his newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on state television on Friday to announce that Mubarak had stepped down and authority had been transferred to a council of military leaders.

Journalists from news channels with their cameras trained on Tahrir Square gave up trying to make themselves heard over the wild celebrating. Reporters described deafening chants of "Egypt is free!" and "You're an Egyptian, lift your head."

Many questions remain about the shape of the new regime under the military--Egyptians are right to be suspicious of any promises that the generals make about a transition to a new government. Then there is the question of what role, if any, Suleiman--who infuriated Egyptians over the past several days with his defense of Mubarak's continued reign--will play.

Masses of people fill Tahrir Square, cheering the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak
Masses of people fill Tahrir Square, cheering the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak

The military has been at the heart of the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years and also bears responsibility for the regime's crimes. In fact, military police have been involved in arresting key democracy activists. Now the struggle will continue to make sure that the military establishment--which is also deeply involved in the country's business affairs--doesn't consolidate power in the hands of the armed forces.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the people of Egypt have changed the course of history in the Middle East--and the world beyond. They have overcome a police state with a three-decade-plus history of torture and repression. They have endured the savage violence of police and thugs against demonstrators, the regime's attempts to co-opt parts of the opposition, and the double-dealing of Western leaders who put "stability" ahead of Egyptians' demands for democracy.

The emergency laws that enabled Mubarak's police state to rule for 30 years are still on the books. But the millions of people who engaged in this revolutionary struggle--with the sacrifice of at least 300 lives, with thousands more injured and arrested--weren't intimidated.

They will continue to press for genuine democracy. And workers, whose strikes pushed the regime to the breaking point, will continue to organize for wages that can put food on the table, as well as the right to organize independent unions.

Egypt's revolution has taken a giant leap ahead, opening the way for a struggle that can reshape the whole society. And the monarchs, dictators and U.S. stooges who hold power across the Middle East are terrified that they--following Mubarak and the ousted Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali--could be next.

THE PRECEDING 24 hours before Suleiman's statement was a day of wild ups and downs.

On Thursday, as the first signs that military officials were putting pressure on Mubarak emerged, masses of people descended on Tahrir Square. With the announcement that the dictator would make a televised speech that night, demonstrators prepared for a long-awaited celebration.

In Washington, D.C., officials of the government that supported the Mubarak dictatorship with tens of billions of dollars in military hardware and other aid over his 30-year reign suddenly started voicing their concerns about Egypt's human rights abuses and their long-hidden sympathies with the pro-democracy demonstrators. CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly predicted that Mubarak would be gone by the day's end.

But Egypt's dictator was determined to make one last stand. Declaring his loyalty as a "father" to his "children"--only a megalomaniac could have uttered those words with no sense that he was infuriating virtually the whole population of Egypt--Mubarak said he wouldn't be dictated to by "foreign" powers and therefore would not step down, though he did transfer his authorities to the vice president, Omar Suleiman.

Even as Mubarak was speaking, the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and every other city exploded in anger. In Tahrir Square, the masses of people gathered to celebrate his downfall waved their shoes and chanted for Mubarak to leave.

Among U.S. officials, there was shock at guessing wrong that Mubarak would go--but eventually the beginnings of a rationalization that he had transferred his powers to Suleiman, and so the demonstrators were getting most of what they wanted, and should be patient a while longer.

There could be no more shameful display of the U.S. government's contempt for ordinary people, whether in Egypt or any other country of the world, including its own. U.S. leaders like to talk about democracy, but if their business and political interests are at stake, they're fine with dictatorship.

Friday dawned with the certainty that the demonstrations in Egypt would be as big as ever--but also with the threat that the military would go along with Mubarak and move against the protesters. Communique #2 of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces backed Mubarak and Suleiman's line that constitutional changes would come--but only after the protests ended.

Once again, though, the masses of Egyptians defied the threat of repression and violence, mobilizing in massive numbers and extending their occupation of Tahrir Square to the state television building, the parliament and other government buildings in Cairo. According to reports, about 2,000 workers in state TV and radio went on strike to show their loyalty to the uprising, not the regime.

What effect this mass discontent on the streets had on the maneuvers behind the scenes will probably become known in the days to come, but the morning and afternoon mobilizations were a clear rejection of Mubarak--and of Suleiman, who was now acting in Mubarak's place.

When Suleiman finally appeared on television to make his brief statement that Mubarak had stepped down, the streets erupted again, but this time with joyous celebrations.

In fact, there has been a similar dynamic at work throughout the Egyptian revolution. Every attempt by the Mubarak regime to control the uprising has been confronted and defeated.

After the first days of demonstrations that began on January 25, the hated security forces tried to use violence to crush the protests, as they had so often before--by that first weekend of the uprising, two weeks ago, the police had been driven off the streets. The next week, the regime unleashed its thugs on the demonstrators in Tahrir Square--demonstrators responded with a heroic defense of the square, and the Friday demonstration on February 4 was bigger than ever. Suleiman met with select opposition leaders, while emphasizing that the protests had to end and life needed to go back to normal--and the protests grew even bigger.

This last attempt to get Egyptians to return to work had an unintended consequence. Huge numbers of Egyptians who had participated in the mass democracy protests as individuals returned to their workplaces emboldened and ready to take action on a local level.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, an unprecedented strike wave swept across Egypt. Workers took action for economic demands, like higher wages, but they also made clear their support for the mass protests--strengthening the democracy movement with the power of the organized working class.

This new front in the struggle opened by workers--and the dire threat it represented to capitalists and bankers, in Egypt and around the world, who depend on the labor of the majority for their wealth and power--probably tipped the balance in driving further sections of the elite, including factions of the military establishment, to try to push Mubarak aside.

THE DOWNFALL of Mubarak is an incredible achievement and will soon be bound up with new questions for Egypt's revolution.

For one, state authority has been transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a collection of top military officers. The transfer appears to have taken power not only from Mubarak, but also Suleiman, the veteran of the regime's security apparatus who became thoroughly associated with Mubarak's attempts to cling to power. Suleiman, in fact, was Israel's favorite to replace Mubarak and the spy chief who collaborated with the CIA in its "rendition" program, under which those accused of terrorism were kidnapped and tortured.

Thus, many Egyptians will welcome the transfer of authority to leaders of the military as an alternative to Mubarak and his top henchmen. The armed forces attempted to maintain an image of being above politics during the uprising--although military police were involved in the arrest of protesters, and the army refused to defend demonstrators from attack by pro-Mubarak thugs.

What's more, the council is made up of military officials who were allies for years with every maneuver and policy of Mubarak's regime. Whatever they represent in relation to Suleiman, they can't be trusted to enact even basic democratic reforms. Furthermore, the military is intertwined with Egypt's capitalist class, owing to the armed forces' direct investments and interests in industries ranging from munitions plants to olive oil and resort hotels.

In any case, it is far from clear what will happen when the Supreme Council attempts to impose its authority, whether by trying to implement a political solution or ordering its soldiers to disperse demonstrations if they continue or emerge anew in the coming days. The armed forces have promised to protect the "freedom" of the people--so any attempt to enforce the emergency laws banning political meetings will put the army directly at odds with the mass movement.

The discipline of the military has been shaken, all the more so in recent days when it appeared that Mubarak would attempt to use armed force in a new attempt at a crackdown. Some officers even joined the protests, and there have been many experiences of fraternization between soldiers and demonstrators.

The reports of the military being unable to control the furious outburst on Friday after Mubarak's speech point to a continuing question ahead--of how the movement will overcome the threat of the use of armed force against it, by winning over rank-and-file soldiers not to follow orders to open fire.

During Mubarak's final days, the struggle against the dictator emboldened Egyptians to demand changes in their-day-to-day lives--at work, in their paychecks, in the prices they pay for food.

These economic questions will come to the fore now. Almost half the population of Egypt lives on $2 a day or less, as a direct result of the neoliberal economic policies of the Mubarak regime. Conditions have only grown more desperate as the global food crisis that pushed prices for the most basic goods to new highs.

The military establishment has no intention of dismantling the policies that have inflicted misery and suffering on workers and the poor. And while moderate leaders of the opposition like Mohamed ElBaradei have voiced sympathy with the demands of workers on occasion, ElBaradei himself used the opportunity of an Al Jazeera interview minutes after Mubarak's resignation to call for Egyptians to return to work to save the economy.

On these basic economic questions, Egypt's new rulers, whether in uniform or out, are on a collision course with the masses of workers and the poor who drove out Mubarak.

Expect the conflicts to surface fast. Saturday is a workday in Egypt, and millions of people who celebrated Mubarak's downfall on Friday night will return to their workplace with a sense of confidence, ready to take on their bosses--who in many cases in Egypt's state-dominated economy are connected to Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

THESE ARE some of the immediate questions that the movement faces in the wake of Mubarak's downfall. But a larger point is also important to remember--the masses of the Egyptian people have gotten a taste of their power to change history, and they won't stop with the toppling of one tyrant.

Ten days ago--though it feels like at least 10 published an editorial we titled "The return of revolution" about the revolt that drove out a dictator in Tunisia and the first days of rebellion in Egypt. We quoted Leon Trotsky's famous words about revolution:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state--be it monarchical or democratic--elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime...

The history of a revolution is for us, first of all, a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

Anyone who watched the triumphant scenes from Cairo's streets on Friday night knows now, if they didn't before, what Trotsky meant.

All the more so for the millions of Egyptians who were in those streets. After 30 years of suffering and repression under a police state, Egyptians have risen up to bring down a dictator. They have shown the whole world what a determined and courageous mass mobilization can accomplish, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And they will now move on to the next phase of the struggle, emboldened by their victory.

The rest of us around the world should take inspiration from the overthrow of Mubarak, continue our efforts to support Egypt's revolution by demanding the end of U.S. military aid--and recognize that we can follow the example of the working people of Egypt in winning a better world.

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