Beyond an impasse — Egypt’s masses surge forth again

by · February 9, 2011

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

From Al-Jazeera’s English-language website:

The square has become a mini-utopia in central Cairo. Political opinions aired, gender and sectarian divisions nowhere to be found. People feed and clothe each other here. Medical areas have been set up by doctors joining in with the protesters. The crime and sexual harassment so prevalent in the country seems absent in this square.

Now it is clearer what Tahrir Square’s function has become in the organisation of the Egyptian Revolution. It is no longer the space in which the regime can try to hem in the protesters and isolate them from Egypt, as it tried to do by deploying the military and its hired thugs. Rather, it is the centre of a growing and strengthening network of resistance, a focal point for all the energies and transformations that have burst forth since 25 January.

Many Western media reports have simply misunderstood the process unfolding around them. Every time Mubarak has refused to go, or to tell people to accept that his torturer-in-chief, Omar Suleiman, would be the great conduit of liberal reforms in the country it has not meant the end of the movement (even if it has exposed real divisions, sometimes along class lines). Instead, it has deepened organisers’ resolve to reach out and draw greater layers of the population into active participation. The concessions being offered by the regime at an increasingly desperate pace are being interpreted not as a restabilisation but as a sign of the ruling elite’s weakness:

The demonstration drew significantly larger numbers of Egyptians who have not attended the protests before — including women, children and government workers — in a sign of the broadening base of support for the uprising.

Importantly, protesters have taken to Cairo streets outside Tahrir Square, finding their numbers swelling in numbers as local residents and bystanders join them. Hossam el-Hamalawy’s joyous tweets (starting here) as part of a march of 3000 university professors give an excellent feel of the mood. At one point they face off briefly with the army, without incident, and are let through. Hossam tweets:

a soldier now murmured to me: we r with u


more soldiers r smiling, some shake hands. We r now passing by AUC

And here is the working class…

There is growing involvement of organised workers in the protests. Telecommunications workers have been out in Cairo protesting against the regime. Some 1300 workers at a steel company in the Suez have started an open-ended strike over pay.  Journalists at al-Ahram have gotten into the act, raising not just economic issues but demands over the corruption and politics of the publishers and editors, chanting: “Revolution everywhere in Egypt, revolution in Ahram!”

Clearly the journalists have won some autonomy, producing an extensive round-up of workers’ strikes and protests. To give you just a taste of it, I couldn’t resist this:

In Cairo, more than 1500 public authority for cleaning and beauty workers in demonstrated in front of the authority’s head quarters in Dokki. According to a statement by the head of the authority on Egyptian television, their demands include an increase in their monthly wages, to LE1200, and a daily lunch meal. The workers are also demanding for permanent contracts and the dismissal of the authority’s president.

Probably among the most important are signs that workers associated with the Suez Canal have gone on strike. As they are from subsidiary companies there is no disruption to the operations of the canal as yet. But the potential importance of this goes beyond Egypt’s economic and political interests tied to the canal. The Suez Canal is a major supply line for the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, one that is deeply unpopular among the Egyptian masses. Any truly democratic Egyptian government would be under extreme popular pressure to undermine the US military effort by denying access to the canal.

The local economic and the global geopolitical can suddenly be fused.

How revolutions unfold

In our era of the 24-hour news cycle, social media and rolling political crises it is too easy for mainstream media to lose interest in momentous events because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of how things unfold. The reasons for the lack of immediate regime change in Egypt is something I addressed in a reply to comments on our last post, suggesting that we are entering what Gramsci would have called a “war of position” within the revolutionary process. British Marxist Judith Orr, who was in Tahrir last week, puts it rather more succinctly and clearly:

Many imagine a revolution is one night of barricades followed by an insurrection that takes power or is defeated.

But a revolution is not a single event—it is a process. A process with ebbs and flows, advances and setbacks that can take place over weeks, months and even years.

At any time the end result is not predetermined. During this process both sides are organising, pushing any advantage they can get, looking for weaknesses in the other side.

Let’s think of Australia since 25 January, where political news has been rapidly shifting around an absence of genuine social change. Interminable debates about flood levies and politicians’ gaffes. It is this hollowness that we should recognise for what it is. For too long we have been experiencing a kind of not-politics, a shell masquerading as politics. Egypt is the return of real politics on a scale and with a beauty we should savour and unequivocally embrace.

UPDATE: Protesters have surrounded the Parliament and are putting up barricades.


Filed under: class, Egypt, revolution