Two years ago this month, mass protests and strikes in Egypt forced out hated dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Since then the Revolutionary Socialists’ (RS) newspaper, Al-Ishtaraki, or The Socialist, has become a familiar sight on protests and picket lines. Its red and white masthead is a public sign of the growing confidence of Egypt’s revolutionary left.
Mohammed Hosny, a member of its editorial board, was surprised when new readers began to search out the paper. He recalled, “One time there was this guy who said, ‘I’ve been looking for you’. I thought he wanted to return the paper. He said ‘No, I’d like seven copies, please’.
“This was a very ordinary person. The pound he was paying for each paper was the price of four loaves of bread. But he was so convinced by the arguments in the paper that he came back to buy copies for his colleagues.”
Before the revolution began things were very different. “We could have been arrested at any time,” said Mohammed. “One moment everything would be quiet, then there would be a wave of arrests.”
The monthly paper rarely reached a readership beyond already-committed activists. “We used to print about 1,000 copies, but we only sold a few hundred,” explained RS member Ashraf Omar. “There were few activities. We had almost no opportunities to sell openly in the street.”
But millions poured into the streets during the uprising against Mubarak in January 2011.
There were sharp debates about the role of the paper. “We had a fight about using the paper in the streets,” said Mohammed. “For a start at a journalistic level it was extremely poor, very amateurish.
“But soon it was being distributed and being read. We had short articles and strong headlines, and some people refused to take it because it was raising slogans against military rule. Afterwards people said, ‘You were against the military from day one’.”
The paper helped to make the Revolutionary Socialists a visible, organised presence in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “People came to a specific place to get copies of the paper to sell,” explained Mohammed.
“At first comrades didn’t know how to sell it and they’d just chuck it down and run off. But after a while when people saw us with the paper, they’d come up and ask, ‘What’s that paper?’ ‘Why are you selling it?’”
One thing which set The Socialist apart from many other publications was the fact that it was sold, not given away. Egypt’s ruling military council had whipped up a storm about “foreign forces” supposedly distorting the revolution through covert funding.
“Whenever people said to us ‘Why are you selling the paper?’ we could reply, ‘Because we don’t get any funding,” said Mohammed. “It was like a magic word.”
The respect that the paper had earned among revolutionary activists was tested in December 2011. The courts opened an investigation into the RS, accusing it of plotting to overthrow the state.
Mohammed remembered the fear and exhilaration as RS activists gathered in Tahrir Square to sell the paper. “It was a kind of challenge,” he said. “And we could have paid a high price for it.
“So we set up the table in the Square and started shouting, ‘Yes, we do want to bring down the state’. And despite the investigation against us, we had people crowding round to buy the paper.”
The Socialist has a tiny circulation compared to the numbers involved in the battles of the Egyptian Revolution.
The regular print run is between one and three thousand. Moreover, its readership is a small fraction of the tens of thousands following the Revolutionary Socialists over social media. The official RS Twitter account has over 75,000 followers.
Its modest successes may seem small-scale compared to the enormous tasks faced by the revolutionary left in Egypt. But the paper has played a central role in wining a new generation to socialist ideas.
‘We distributed 1,000 copies of issue 101. We printed 2,000 of the next’
The development of the revolutionary paper has shifted with the twists and turns of Egypt’s revolution.
By the spring of 2012 the revolution entered a different phase and the waves of demonstrations began to ebb. “We initially depended on big protests to distribute the paper,” explained RS member Ashraf.
“As they subsided we knew that we needed to build distribution networks on the campuses, in the workplaces and in the localities.”
The RS had already begun to expand its activities to new towns and cities across Egypt, such as Suez and Port Sa’id in the Canal Zone.
In some cases the first contacts with new layers of revolutionary activists were made through selling the paper. In others, RS activists arriving with their papers were greeted by young revolutionaries familiar with the online publications but eager to meet them in person.
Mohammed sees this face-to-face contact as critical for turning a relatively passive online audience into active revolutionary socialists. “There is a direct, tangible interaction with the reader,” he said.
“You’d get 700,000 people say they were going to something online but only 700 would turn up. Selling the paper makes direct physical contact with people and translates directly into activity.”
Over the summer of 2012, the RS organised its most ambitious national campaign to date. Activists went to dozens of towns and cities to campaign over the social issues the new Muslim Brotherhood government wanted to ignore.
Under the banner “We want to live” they joined local people in protesting over bread shortages, water and electricity cuts, unemployment and the crisis in the health service.
The campaign helped get the paper into new areas. By October last year The Socialist’s distribution was no longer dependent on big street protests. “We distributed 1,000 copies of issue 101” recalled Ashraf. “And the following issue we printed 2,000 and distributed 90-95 percent.”
The content of the paper has also had to evolve to meet the challenges of the revolution. “We’ve seen huge waves of strikes recently,” explained Ashraf.
“The independent unions are developing, but they’ve had their problems. It isn’t enough just to report the strikes—we have to analyse and argue what steps workers should take next.”
Ashraf stressed the importance of getting a balance between different elements in the paper. “The first is theory,” he said. “You can’t have a paper without theory. Secondly, you need to have analysis. Thirdly, we bring in historical experiences.
“Fourthly, we use the paper to agitate. This agitational writing is not just about raising direct slogans: ‘Strike!’, ‘Occupy now!’ and so on. It should talk about concrete situations, and mention specific tactics for the battle.”
The paper is still evolving. But Mohammed said it has already seen important successes. “We’ve won people to the idea that we sell the paper in the middle of street battles,” he said. “We’ve shown that people who write for the paper don’t have to be professional journalists.
“We’ve shown that the paper can be a starting point for activity in places where you have nothing. In towns where we had no one at all, we started with the paper.”
‘Selling on the streets is new’
Bissan Kassab is a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt. She described her experiences of selling The Socialist on the streets after Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked protests against president Mursi’s constitutional changes last month.
“The Revolutionary Socialists had organised a protest,” she said. “While people were gathering, I was selling The Socialist to the people passing by. Practically nobody said no to the offer of a paper. I was selling to bus drivers, people in the taxis, motorcyclists, everybody.
“People were in shock also that the Brotherhood, a party elected into government, could attack protests. People had so many questions. Every street corner turned into a political meeting, from the vegetable market to the Metro.
“People who thought, just a short time ago, that politics was for educated people now realised that politics belongs to us all. I sold to housewives who are isolated from political life. I was surprised that so many were buying the paper.
“There was a general hunger for printed publications, but particularly papers like The Socialist. It provides analysis and that makes people hungry to read all the time.”