Socialist Worker

The Egyptian Revolution—A glimpse of what democracy could look like

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2742

Tahrir Square was a place where people could debate the way forward

Tahrir Square was a place where people could debate the way forward (Pic: Gigi Ibrahim Creative Commons)


The Egyptian Revolution was the result of the coming together of two forces—those of the street with those of the workplace. And in both, the question of democracy was crucial.

Initially workplace battles focused on economic issues, and demands to remove particular tyrannical bosses.

But as the movement grew in confidence, and hundreds of thousands more joined the struggle, demands became increasingly political.

Now there were arguments about whether to target prominent regime individuals, the dictatorship as a whole, or even the entire economic system.

These questions were a sign that even within the revolution there were sharp differences of opinion.

The Egyptian Revolution—how the unity of revolt broke down old divides
The Egyptian Revolution—how the unity of revolt broke down old divides
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Political forces included the Islamic reformers of the Muslim Brotherhood, mainstream liberals, and the left, including a small but influential group of revolutionary socialists.

The question of how to decide which strategies best fitted the situation started to be answered by the creation of networks of independent trade unions. These new bodies were created in the heat of strikes.

They encompassed wide layers of people, from the very poorest to some among the precarious middle classes. And they spread from mill workers to bus drivers, and on to civil servants, and even doctors.

Meetings of workers voted on the issues of the day, and were able to keep their elected leaders accountable.

They became vital spaces in which ordinary people got a say in how the growing revolution would proceed.

There were also attempts to link the rank and file leaders of new formations so that they could coordinate their actions. And it was here that the revolutionary socialists were at their strongest.

The bringing together of thousands of striking workers with common demands posed a real problem for defenders of the regime.

It also created a nucleus of a force in society that could replace the state that so many wanted overthrown.

The democracy of workers’ organisation contrasted with the lack of democracy at the top of society.

United strikes were a particular threat to Egypt’s military rulers because workers acting together carry great social and economic weight.

Strikers were, of course, huge in number, but because they were acting collectively as a class, their power was magnified.

Without the strikes there could have been no revolution. Nevertheless, it was the magnificent protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that captured the popular imagination.

The Egyptian Revolution—18 days that shook the world
The Egyptian Revolution—18 days that shook the world
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Over the course of a year, it was the place for hundreds of thousands to gather and hear speeches, make plans for action, and debate the way forward.

From the start, it was a contested space, with different political traditions trying to convince others that they had the best strategies.

There, mixed together, were people from various religious backgrounds and classes.

Like the new unions, Tahrir was also an experiment in democracy.

Activists had a chance to demonstrate how extending the revolution would protect religious minorities from persecution, and how oppressed people became leaders in their own right.

One way for the ruling military to head off this insurgent democracy from below was to institute a presidential election from above.

The presidential election of 2012 passed the initiative to the right, giving prominence to official and “respectable” forces.

It was an arena in which the newly emerging leaders from the bottom of society were ill-equipped to fight.

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

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