Revolution in the Air: One Year of Tahrir

This is the text of a talk I gave on January 25, 2012 at Warren Wilson College in honor of the one year anniversary of the start of the Egyptian Revolution. A lot has changed since then, but it’s still a worthwhile thing to post.

William Wordsworth had this to say during the days of the French Revolution, Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!” I feel these words exemplify the world we live in today. For the whole world has changed from a year ago. And not because of this or that international conference of world leaders or talking heads making speeches, but because of the masses of millions of people who have changed it. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had said that, “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.” It’s the core of all anti-change, anti-revolutionary ideology that working people are too stupid to run things, unlike our brilliant leaders in congress and on Wall St, and any attempt at revolution will end in making things worse. But everywhere you look, people who a few years ago were written off as too lazy, too ignorant, too backward, too bought off, or just too incapable of ever changing things, are doing just that. For instance Arabs and Muslims, who western media has spent their time since 9/11 trying to convince us that they’re all reactionaries who will never be able to implement democracy themselves and need the benevolent hand of white-man’s burden to teach them, have now shown the world what real freedom, real democracy looks like.

The title of this little talk is “One Year of Tahrir” for it’s today the one year anniversary of the start of the Egyptian Revolution, but it wouldn’t be fair to not give credit where it’s due. For it was in Tunisia that the chant ‘Ash-shab yurid iqut an-nizam’ “The People Want the Downfall of the Regime” that has been heard from Morocco to Bahrain, originated, and this whole wave of revolt began. It was the desperate protest and suicide of 26 year old Mohamaed Bouazizi in December 2010, that began the revolt that toppled the 24 year reign of dictator Ben Ali in a month.

I don’t have the time to go into the Tunisian Revolution here, but prefigured in this revolt is the same issues that have been apart of this global revolt wherever you go, whether it’s Egypt, Greece, Nigeria, Spain or US. Just as this 4 year long economic crisis and great recession was a product of what is often called Neoliberalism, deregulation of markets, privatization of public goods, the rise of international corporations, so is the revolutions that have sprung up from this crisis are products of revolution. We are reaping the whirlwind that Neoliberalism sowed. Everywhere you see massive unemployment, gross stratification and inequality, and a young population who don’t see any future for them in the system as is. The revolt of the indignatos as it’s been called in Spain.

In Egypt, in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, this was all a long time coming.

Over the last 15 years, Egypt has been a major Neoliberal laboratory. A large public sector a decent social safety net had been completely sold off and scraped. Labor laws protecting worker’s rights and giving people a moderate sense of job security had been dropped. Most young workers, if they can find a job, work under 6 month temp-diem contracts that work whereby for 6 months every day you get a pink slip and told to return tomorrow and you might get your job back. A livable wage is estimated to be about $200 a month but your average foreign corporation, who have taken over the economy, pay only $80. Like in the US you have the same phenomenon where people line up at emergency rooms cause they can’t afford health care, because the International Monetary Fund stipulated to the Egyptian government that they can only pay spend 4% of their budget on public health care.

And on top of all that we have the total lack of democracy and freedom in Egypt. Egypt under Mubarak and to this day (which I will come back to) is a U.S. bolstered and supported (which I will also come back to) tyrannical police state and dictatorship. Complete lack of real political freedom, a sham of a democratic political process, the largest army in the Arab world, widespread use of torture by the massive police and secret police force. On the day that we’re commemorating, the day that this all began, January 25th, was Police Day. Just the arrogance of dictatorships that they expected people to celebrate a police force that was described by Amnesty International in the ‘90s as “likely” to torture you if you engage in political activities. But it also shows the sheer bad-assery of Egyptians that they chose this day to have a revolution.

One of the several myths about the Egyptian revolution I want to bust in this talk is that it was somehow spontaneous, that it came out of nowhere. Now its certainly true that, like pretty much all real revolutions, the vast vast majority of those who participated had never been involved in politics before, never been to a protest. It’s estimated that 20 million people where involved in Egypt, a country with a population of 80 million, that is a ¼ of the country consider themselves rightly as revolutionaries, but only a fraction of a fraction of that great throng had been active before. But that small minority were there. Since 2002 there has been a rising wave of labor struggles, especially in the textile industries, that peaked in a series of bread riots and labor stoppages around 2008. Out of this groups such as the April 6th Youth Movement, a key component of the revolution, grew in tandem with this labor movement. There had been an occupation by disabled people in front of parliament for many months demanding their right to jobs, as a prelude to Tahrir. Agitation against the Iraq wars. All of this was of course severely repressed and at best contained, but the point is the movement was building itself prior to January 25.

Example/segway.  Ahmed Swaki relates this story of how with protests in Egypt, say around against the Iraq War and Egypt’s complicity in it, 500 protesters would arrive at Tahrir square, and actually emerge into it out of the subways and be surrounded by 5,000 cops. They’d chant for a bit and then return to the subway. The fear of the police state is in the potential infection of the non-activist population by the activists, hence why all the effort had to be in containing them, hermetically sealing them from the rest of the people. On January 25th, something different happened, it was decided that they would march TO Tahrir from multiple locals through what’s called the “popular districts” or working class neighborhoods, and masses of people joined these marches. What began as tens, became hundreds, became thousands and by the time they reached Tahrir Square it was hundreds of thousands.

But it wasn’t just a particular method of marching or type of action that decided things. Something else had changed. The Russian revolutionary Lenin said that, “It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.” The Egyptian elite were corrupt and inept and the Egyptian people were absolutely fed up. But there was something else, the Egyptian elite had lost that one thing beyond all the other mechanism of repression that they required to stay in power, fear. When the Tunisians showed the world how you can topple a dictator, all the fear that Egyptians had of their regime was gone, they could do this to.

This was a movement that toppled a decades old police state in 18 days.

Tahrir, liberation square in Cairo, become the hub of all political activity and discussion- though it wasn’t the only location of protest of course, they were far larger in Alexandria for instance, and in another case farmers in Assiut province did such things as build barricades out of flaming palm trees to block highways. In this foci, strategy, tactics, demands, deciding of needs, organizing food, organizing their daily lives on their own terms. A true expression of what Marc called, “the self-emancipation of the working class” or in Lenin’s words on revolution, Tahrir became a, “festival of the oppressed and exploited.” But especially they were organizing defense, cause that is another myth I wish to dispel, this wasn’t a peaceful revolution. Over a 1000 people were killed and 10,000 injured. Protesters in Tahrir had to organize defense of the square through barricades and rock throwing from the police or the plain’s clothed thugs who attacked them on camel back, who also happened to be police.

It says a lot about people’s ability to change and grow through processes of collective struggle. In Egypt where sectarian divisions between Muslims and Coptic Christians had been played up for years by the regime to keep the people separated, you saw such heroic actions of Coptics forming human shields to protect praying Muslims during Friday prayer from the police’s water-cannons. In Cairo where woman can expect every time they go out the door to be get some sexist insult, it was in the Tahrir Square that woman reported never feeling so unthreatened, and took on a leading role in the revolution.

To quote Ahmed Sawki, “The longer the uprising goes on the more people begin to feel a sense of their own power, of their own capacity to change and control their destiny, and their sense of communality. Its an intoxicating feeling.”

But the Mubarak regime could have survived Tahrir and all the other protests it spawned. What it couldn’t have survived was when workers in key sectors of the economy, such as transport, textile industry, postal workers, railroad workers, bus drivers, construction workers, telecommunications, the census bureu and the suez canal went on general strike. Even the Wall Street Journal understood what this meant, “Egypt’s labor movement has been the sleeping giant of the past two weeks. Now it’s awake.” The economy shut down and the last of the generals in the armed forces realized Mubarak had to go and so he did on February 11th.

To quote Mostafa Omar who was there at Tahrir when news broke, “the atmosphere was indescribable. Fireworks. It looked like and Egyptian wedding, except multiplied by 2 million  people.”

But truly this was just the beginning. Revolutions aren’t events, they’re processes. The ousting of the dictator only opens up a whole period of revolution and intense class struggle, as people begin to question and figure out what kind of society they want.

Initially there is a honeymoon period. All classes in society want the dictator gone, of course after he’s left. Yet all these forces want different things out of the revolution. What was one of the chants in Tahrir, “The Army and the People are One Hand.” Literally the revolution and the counter-revolution are one.

This is a longer quote by Egyptian activist and socialist Beesam Kassab, but I think it covers this well, “This is a real popular revolution, not a revolution of facebook and twitter. These terms were intentionally made up to hide the nature of the revolution. It was led by working class people who used the most daring tactics of scaring the police off the streets, not middle class people with internet connections. This myth, that it was a middle class revolution is being used against the workers who are striking, that they’re being called ‘spoilers’.”

So you had that Google executive Wael Ghonim who had been elevated to a position of note in the revolution by western media, afterwards going around basically saying, good job everyone, now lets get back to work. Your seeing differentiation along class lines between those people who want to put the brakes on the thing as quickly as possible and those who want to push it to its logical conclusions. Cause the Mubarak regime continues, just now under the stewardship of the Supreme Council of the Arm Forces, all the nasty old generals and Mubarak’s closest lieutenants. The rhetoric that’s been coming out of the state run media of settling down so we can patriotically “build a new Egypt” is just a buttress to this continued authoritarian rule, and the masses of people are beginning to see this. They didn’t start this revolution just to end up under the same political and economic regime as before. When polled 65% of participants in Tahrir said they’re driving motivation was poverty and the desire for equality.

There are thousands of Mubaraks in the state institutions, universities, businesses, and all need to be ousted. During the Portuguese Revolution of 1975 this was called Saramento or “cleansing” the driving out of the Secret Police and the old order.

In April students and faculty struck at the American University of Cairo demanding the ousting of the dean, who was part of the Mubarak regime, and the democratic election of all management of the university. Protests have continued with names like the “Save the Revolution” day, the “Friday of Cleansing”, the “Friday of Retribution”, the “Friday of Determination”, the “Second Friday of Anger and so forth, with hundreds of thousands of participants all demanding either the quickening up of the democratic process or an immediate stepping down of the SCAF junta. The State secret police headquarters were raided by protesters, so you have such heartbreaking scenes of people standing in the cells that they were tortured in, but now all the opposition political groups have all the files on them along with documentation of the years of abuses.

Strikes have continued in many sectors and for the first time independent trade unions, that is independent from the regimes control have formed. Tahrir, that form of mass popular civil disobedience, was entering the workplaces and schools.

When Rosa Luxemburg wrote about the revolt going on in Russia in 1905 she describe the process of mass strikes like this, “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.” Today we’re seeing this same sort of great, chaotic even, flowering of struggle, just now internationally.

In January there was Madison, Wisconsin and the fight against the anti-union anti-worker Governor Walker. Over the Summer Europe erupted, with more general strikes in Greece against the austerity regime being imposed on that country, and millions taking over squares in Spain. Protests in Russia, protests in the UK, huge student strikes in Chile. And then there is Occupy. Anyone of those things is worth a discussion in there own rights. The point is all of them are part of the same process and they are growing off of each other in terms of solidarity and inspiration. Egyptians in Tahrir paid for pizza to be delivered to protesters in the Madison capital building while in Madison they held up signs like “Protest like an Egyptian”. And recently when a general strike rocked Nigeria, strikers refered to it as “Occupy Nigeria” and the main square in Kano was renamed by protesters as “Liberation Square” ala Tahrir. Demands of Freedom, Dignity and Social Justice that characterized the Arab Spring have inspired millions.

But the process that radicalizes the revolution is also the same process that radicalizes the counter-revolution. We have seen here the coordinated response by America’s police forces to stomp out Occupy. The still in office Mubarak cabinet passed a law in March criminalizing any strike or protest that disrupts any normal economic activity.

How did the Egyptian workers, respond, they struck anywhere. 500,000, including 200,000 teachers, struck in September against the regime. This inspired more demonstrations dubbed “Occupy the Cabinent” including peaceful sit-ins that were mercilessly repressed by the police force in November killing 9, which prompted even larger responses by the people. People may remember the video of an Egyptian woman who was stripped by the police in the street. and kicked in the chest. This prompted a march of woman 10,000 strong, the largest woman’s demonstration in the country in a century, against the regime who’s chant was “We have no fear.” To quote Mustafa Ali, “A majority of those in streets today probably supported the SCAF in February and believed that it would take the side of the people and dismantle the Mubarak regime. It has taken nine months of disappointments in the regime’s economic policies and increasing repression to change that.”

Consciousness changes as people begin to realize what is necessary to get what they want and who they’re real friends are. Or to quote Hossam el-Hamalawy when asked if Egypt was ready for another revolution, “This is still the first revolution, we’re just trying to finish the job.”

I want to end of two major question, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of the United States, then end.

A lot has been made of the Muslim Brotherhood by western media, that they’re going to try to co-op this revolution for their own purposes. And though there is a certain level of truth in this, its not in the way that the west fears. First off the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood when compared to the Iranian Revolution is fascinatingly different. When in Iran in ’79, the more liberal forces had to clothe their pro-democracy agitation in the language of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood has to now clothe their more fundamentalist Islam rhetoric in the language of democracy.

But the point is, in any one of these revolutions there is always a class of people who were part of the opposition movement but still have one foot stuck in the old order and want to do everything they can to co-op of the revolution so as to bring to a halt as quickly as possible. In Iran in ’79 this was the Khomeini crowd who co-oped what was legitimately a workers revolution based in the oil industry. But the Muslim Brotherhood could be better compared to the Communist Parties in the May ’68 revolt in Paris and the Portuguese Revolution in ’75. Like the Communist Parties then, the Muslim Brotherhood had long since made its peace with the regime, looking only to reform it somewhat, not overthrow it, but once it was overthrown is doing everything it can to reestablish a status quo, law and order.

So of late the Muslim Brotherhood has joined with the SCAF regime and media in an attack against the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt and other smaller socialist, communist and anarchist groups for wanting the downfall of the regime, you know, what this whole revolution was all about. In an amazing showing of bad-assery, which if you listen a rings a certain amount of truth for us in the US, the Revolutionary Socialists released this statement;

“The aim [of these groups] is to raise a storm against us for being in favor of overthrowing the state. Our reply is that it is no indictment to say that we want the downfall of the oppressive state and the creation of a just state–it is the goal we are fighting for. Yes, we are seeking to overthrow the state of tyranny and poverty that has ruled us for the last 30 years, and continues to rule us today–the state that has killed thousands of fighters in its prisons, the state which has looted and stolen from the poor to increase the wealth of the rich. This is the state which discriminates between its citizens on the basis of religion, gender and race. This is the state which deceives the people through its media. It demands austerity and calls on the people to tighten their belts and keep the “wheel of production” turning, while at the same time announcing palaces and resorts to secure the future of “our children.” Yes, we want to overthrow the state. We want the downfall of its health policies which have made health and medical treatment commodities to be bought and sold by those who can afford to pay, while the poor die in their hundreds because the public hospitals have been ruined.”

It is without a doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood holds significant support among the people, largely built on their charity works that they do. But it’s a support that is eroding as they continue to expose themselves as backers of the military regime.

And then we have the United States.

It was noticed during the recent upsurge in protests last month that the tea-gas used smelled different then the tear-gas used in January. The tear-gas in January was US made but expired, it was from 2008. The tear-gas used today is still US made but is brand new, form 2011. The US is still supplying the regime, with or without Mubarak, over a billion and half dollars in military aide, which I can think of a lot of better uses for it here. We have to be very honest with ourselves, we live in the center of world reaction and counter-revolution. That puts a fair amount of responsibility on our shoulders.

The US may go on and on about regimes that anti-democratic, but only if they happen to be against us at that time, namely Syria and Iran. All of the other tyrannies in the region are US client states to one extent or another, hence the silence. We rarely denounce places like Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration only asked for Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down after they had already left the country.

Libya, is complicated. It’s a debate.

Right now there is a battle over what kind democracy will win in Egypt and else where; whether the democracy of the elite, the economic and social status quo, which include the US the generals, big business and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the democracy of workers, which is to say Tahrir and the strike and revolutionary committees throughout the country. Its either one or the other. But the economic status quo, capitalism, if left unaltered can corrupt even the most democratic of revolutions, look at South Africa and the African National Congress.

I’m going to end with two quotes. Occupy right now is in kind of a stasis, actions continue, but its not the same level of hyper activity as of a few months ago, and some might be getting depressed at the possibilities now. It should be remembered that revolutions are again processes, they can take a long time and go through many ups and downs and tributaries in that process. The German Revolution that ouster the Kaiser lasted from 1918 to 1923. In Spain there was a revolutionary upsurge from 1931 to 1939. There were world wide revolts all throughout the late 60s and 70s. The Portuguese revolution lasted 19 months. It took 2 years for Khomeini to full co-op the Iranian revolution. And so forth.

In 1886, an anarchist by the name of August Spies was hung for crime he commit, but essentially because he was a labor radical. He made this speech at the trial, “Here you [ie the elites] will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It [ie the movement] is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

And to quote again our sisters and brother in the Revolutionary Socialists; “The gateway to the next wave of the Egyptian revolution, which will begin on 25 January 2012, under the slogan “all power and wealth to the people”. The task of the revolutionaries in this new wave will be to link the uprisings and sit-ins in the squares with the strikes and protests of workers and the poor. It will be to link those who want to complete the democratic revolution and take it beyond a restricted and incapacitated parliamentary democracy to forms of direct, mass democracy in the popular and workers’ and peasants’ committees and those who want to achieve the demands of social justice through strikes and sit-ins to recover Egypt’s wealth from the 1000 richest families and the military establishment and redistribute it for the benefit of the workers, peasants and the poor.”

Things are just getting started.

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About redpleb

I'm a socialist, an activist, a worker and an all around troublemaker here in New Jersey. You can find me on twitter @RedPleb
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