As the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin said, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
For years, Egyptian activists would plan a day of protest—and on the planned day a few hundred of the usual suspects would show up.
We would be surrounded by 3-4,000 riot police, and after chanting, speeches and a few confrontations with the police, the planned day would end.
Activists were more optimistic about 25 January, because of the Tunisian spark. This time we might get several thousand people, at least in two or three of the main centres. Perhaps we could even reach 10,000!
But none of the activists in our wildest dreams could have imagined what actually took place that day.
The demonstrations started with the usual slogans. But as soon as the now famous Tunisian chant was shouted—“The people demand the downfall of the regime”—something seemed to have changed.
More and more people came down from their houses and started shouting the slogan with overwhelming passion. Men and women, young and old, Christians and Muslims took part—the vast majority poor Egyptians.
The louder they shouted that magical slogan, the more it echoed in the poor alleyways, the more people joined. What started with a few hundred activists turned into mass demonstrations of tens of thousands.
The fear and confusion of the police was palpable. They were ordered to retreat to the major junctions in an attempt to prevent the demonstrators from reaching the city centres.
It is there that the major battles on that historic day took place. Water cannons, rubber bullets and endless rounds of tear gas canisters were used to beat back the protesters.
By far the most difficult obstacle was the choking tear gas. But the more seasoned demonstrators started organising the distribution of clinical masks, cola cans and onions—provided freely by housewives, pharmacy workers and coffee shops—to help survive the white clouds.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators were able to break through many of the police barriers and reach the city centres, including, of course, Tahrir Square. But the battles continued. There were tens of martyrs and thousands of injured at the end of that day of liberation—the day that ignited the Egyptian Revolution.
Demonstrations and battles continued during the following two days, but the main focus was on organising the “Friday of Rage”—28 January. This time the Muslim Brotherhood decided to participate.
The organisers were no longer just the “usual suspects” but thousands of new leaders—mostly working class youth who were better educated by days of actual revolution than years of political education.
After Friday prayers, hundreds of thousands started their marches from all the major mosques and squares towards the city centres.
Hundreds of thousands reached Tahrir Square and began their famous occupation of it that only ended with Mubarak’s fall on 11 February.
Popular committees started springing up all over the country to defend their neighbourhoods, to organise traffic and even to clean the streets.
The protesters called for million‑strong marches on Tuesday 1 February in all major cities.
The reaction of the army generals was one of the major turning points in the revolution. Military spokesman General Ismail Othman declared on national television that the army recognised the legitimate demands of the people and would not shoot at them.
The army generals understood that ordering a crackdown by the troops would split the forces and turn thousands of soldiers and young officers against them. The army leaders were prepared to sacrifice Mubarak to save the regime.
Millions participated in the protests of that day including two million in Tahrir Square in Cairo, one million in Martyrs’ Square in Alexandria, 750,000 in Mansoura, and a quarter of a million in Suez. It was an unprecedented show of strength.
Thousands of banners and placards with the people’s demands expressed through poetry, jokes and personal stories filled Tahrir Square. Graffiti, murals and slogans covered every building’s wall.
People shared food, water, and cigarettes. Songs, music, poetry and chants filled the air. A new Egypt was being created.
The next day, a number of prominent billionaires, leaders of the ruling NDP party, and secret police officers, led by Gamal Mubarak, devised a plan for a full-blown attack on the demonstrators.
Dozens of horse and camel-riding thugs came charging at the demonstrators. Confused and bewildered at first, protesters fought back with their bare hands.
The demonstrators quickly organised themselves into thick defence lines and stones and bricks were gathered from all over the square for the fightback.
An elaborate division of labour was devised.
The young and strong, particularly the working class youth, would take the frontlines as stone throwers. Others would break pavements to provide a steady flow of stones. Yet other groups would carry the stones to the frontlines.
Young women brought water to the fighters throughout that terrible but heroic night.
Snipers started aiming their laser pointers at the demonstrators. Tens of young demonstrators would climb the barricades and let the pointers aim at their chests. These were fearless fighters, with a clear aim and a clear message—either victory or death!
Blood flowed everywhere. Over a dozen young fighters were martyred during that night, their bodies carried with pride and determination by their comrades to the makeshift hospitals. Hundreds of the injured would return to the fighting immediately.
By dawn the battle had been won. The thugs and police were fleeing. They ran for their lives as the revolutionaries had reached the bridge and intersections outside the square and ran after the thugs. The majority of our enemies held either police or NDP identity cards.
By daybreak, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians joined their fellow demonstrators in order to show support and solidarity. The leaders of the protests had already called for massive demonstrations across Egypt on Friday after prayers, calling the event “Departure Day”.
In the last week of the uprising a wave of mass strikes and demonstrations by workers in key sectors of the economy spread like wildfire, with both economic demands and the main revolutionary demand of removing Mubarak.
Suez, scene of some of the fiercest battles against the police on the Friday of Rage, led the way. On 8 February, 6,000 Suez Canal workers went on strike, joining textile and steel workers.
By 10 February, the wave had spread from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south. Even the generals’ own factories, where workers live under harsh military discipline, were alight with strikes.
The demonstrations on Friday 11 February were the largest ever. Over 15 million people were estimated to have taken part in demonstrations all over the country.
Workers came out this time in organised demonstrations from their workplaces, signalling that they would paralyse the country if Mubarak did not back down.
The same evening, our demand was finally met.
The first stage of the Egyptian Revolution had triumphed. Nearly a thousand were martyred, tens of thousands injured—but Mubarak was history.
A revolution that was years in the making
The outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 had an electrifying effect in Egypt. The shameful role of our regime, compared to the bravery and resilience of the Palestinian people and their armed resistance movements, helped to radicalise hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians.
Mass demonstrations took place throughout the country. Both university and school students organised demonstrations that were to be their very first participation in politics.
This political awakening became wider and deeper with the US war on Iraq. On 20 March 2003, activists organised an anti-war demonstration in Tahrir Square which drew 40,000 people.
Protesters burned posters of Mubarak and occupied the square for 24 hours in what turned out to be a rehearsal for the 2011 revolutionary occupation.
The violence and repression used by the regime to crush these waves of protest forced the question of democracy to the fore.
On 12 December 2004, a coalition of political opposition forces—including Nasserists, socialists, Islamists and liberal democrats—organised the first of a series of demonstrations under the title “Kifaya” (“Enough”).
The demonstrations were small, attracting a few thousand at their peak. But their political effects were much larger than their numbers would suggest.
Taboos were broken with the call for the end of Mubarak’s rule and the explicit demand for putting police generals on trial for torture and illegal arrests.
The exposure of the corruption of the ruling family and top state officials resonated strongly with a much wider audience.
By far the largest and most dangerous challenge to the regime came in the form of the unprecedented workers' strike wave that began in 2006 and continues to widen and deepen even after the fall of Mubarak.
In December 2006, workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, where more than a quarter of Egypt’s public sector textile workers are employed, began a strike that would become a major turning point in the workers’ movement.
On 7 December thousands of workers gathered at one of the main entrances to the factory.
A demonstration of 3,000 female garment workers marching through the spinning and weaving sections called on others to join the strike. Production was totally halted in all sectors of the giant textile mill.
Some 24,000 workers struck and occupied the mill with a sit-in that continued for three days. By the fourth day the government conceded to most of the demands.
The strike movement spread in an unprecedented manner. It went from the public sector to the private, to the civil service, from the old industrial areas to the new towns, in all provinces.
It went from the textile sector to engineering, to chemicals, to building and construction, to transport and to services. The strike wave succeeded in generalising a culture of protest.
At the end of 2007 some 55,000 property tax collectors went on strike. The strike lasted for three months. Victory was achieved with an 11-day sit-in in downtown Cairo, in front of the finance ministry.
The tax collectors won a 325 percent increase in pay—and transformed their democratically elected strike committee into the executive of the first independent trade union in Egypt since 1957.
Dozens more new independent unions were formed in the heat of the struggle that overthrew Mubarak, democratically electing leaders from the strike committees.
During the two months after Mubarak’s fall more strikes took place and more workers participated than throughout the whole 2006-9 strike wave.
A democratic revolution in which the working class plays a major role is in itself already implicitly and potentially a social revolution.
The revolutionary crisis in Egypt and in the wider Arab world will probably be one of years rather than months. A historic victory for the working class in Egypt and internationally could be within our grasp.
The Egyptian Revolution by Sameh Naguib is available for just £3 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Call 020 7637 1848, go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or visit the bookshop at the Marxism festival this weekend www.marxismfestival.org.uk