Socialist Worker

The Egyptian Revolution—how the unity of revolt broke down old divides

by Isabel Ringrose
Issue No. 2741

People gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011 to call for an end to sectarian divides and support for Palestine

People gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011 to call for an end to sectarian divides and support for Palestine (Pic: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr commons license)


In the Egyptian Revolution oppressed groups were central to the struggle. Class anger unified people. Divisions on the lines of gender and religion were challenged.

Prior to the revolution sexual harassment against women was endemic in Egypt.

Hosni Mubarak’s state used sexual assault against female activists. Women suffered verbal, physical and sexual abuse in public and in workplaces.

But this changed during the revolution.

Egyptian revolutionary socialist Gigi Ibrahim reported in Socialist Worker at the time.

She said, “From the beginning of the revolution, and throughout the 18 days I spent in Tahrir Square, I did not face sexual harassment once.”

Tahrir Square during this period was, according to the women there, “the safest place in Egypt”.

Women, men and children slept in tents next to strangers, sharing food and water. Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists, people wearing niqabs, hijabs or no religious coverings, stood in unity.

Coptic Christians were targets of state repression before the revolution.

At times during the revolution, the state tried to sow division by inciting attacks on them, their churches and their homes. But ordinary Muslims and Christians stood together.

In Tahrir Square on 2 February 2011 Coptic Christians circled Muslim revolutionaries as they prayed to provide protection.

And Gigi said, “During the revolution women played a role equal to men—in fact, we played a pivotal role.

The Egyptian Revolution—18 days that shook the world
The Egyptian Revolution—18 days that shook the world
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“Women were part of all the day-to-day organisation in Tahrir. We marched and fought the police, we faced tear gas and bullets.”

Women ran checkpoints, acted as messengers and threw rocks at attackers.

Life during this period shows the potential of a liberated, socialist society.

But after Mubarak fell the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) took over. They made sure to reassert their authority.

Sexual harassment was back on the streets and thugs targeted women at protests—assault was used as a weapon against the revolution.

And the Coptic minority were easier to attack than Muslims.

The military government tried to undermine the revolution.

But a brutal military attack on Coptic protesters was met with mass solidarity for Copts across the movement.

The Scaf government also stigmatised revolutionary women as “loose”. Women who were arrested were stripped and given “virginity tests”, often by men in front of others.

One woman, Samira Ibrahim, took a military doctor to court. The impact of her speaking out filled women with similar confidence to fight back.

Operation Anti Sexual Harassment was also developed. Revolutionary members would attend protests and protect women who were threatened with assault.

When a video of Scaf soldiers beating a woman in December 2011 went viral, women of the revolution had a new symbol of resistance—the girl in the blue bra.

She was severely beaten and as soldiers dragged her away, they pulled her abaya from her body to reveal her bra underneath.

It was a symbol of how far the state would go to keep women off the streets.

But it became a rallying call of resistance. Thousands marched just days later across the country.

The counter-revolutionaries dragged backwards the progress made during the 18 days of protests.

But powerful memories of a different way of living remained.

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt in revolution. Read our coverage at bit.ly/EgyptSW2021

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