Socialist Worker

The Egyptian Revolution—could things have been different?

by Sam Ord
Issue No. 2745

Workers marching in Egypt on May Day 2013

Workers marching in Egypt on May Day 2013 (Pic: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr)


The strength of the Egyptian Revolution pushed dictator Hosni Mubarak from his presidential position in just 18 days.

Mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands and workers’ strikes forced him out.

But despite the revolution’s successes, it didn’t ultimately put power in the hands of the working class. This wasn’t inevitable.

Workers have shown their potential to take power and run society differently time after time during ­revolutionary upheavals.

During a revolution in Germany in November 1918, workers set up workers’ councils, called Arbeiterrat.

They were alternative strongholds of power, and more democratic that the capitalist parliament.

They mirrored the workers’ councils called Soviets that were built during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

These councils are made up of elected people from different workplaces and areas.

They challenge the existing state for power, and are tasked with driving the workers’ movement to victory.

The Soviets in Russia, led by the Bolshevik party, were able to seize state power and started to build a socialist society.

But in Germany, the councils didn’t take power. Instead they chose to return it to the social democratic government.

Workers councils are born from struggle and shaped by the circumstances of the time.

In Egypt, the Revolutionary Socialists group called for the setting up of councils during the revolution in February 2011. These could have driven the revolution forward.

But the revolution took place at a time when the working class had suffered decades of repression.

Many workers were ­forming unions for the first time, and were new to organising.

Established

And revolutionaries, ­relatively small in number, didn’t have the reach that a bigger and more established group could have had.

This doesn’t mean Egypt’s workers weren’t able to fight. Egypt has a large, young working class that had taken militant action before the 2011 revolt.

Over 220 major strikes took place in Egypt in 2006, including a series of militant walkouts by 27,000 textile workers in Mahalla.

And tens of thousands of workers struck during the revolution, in solidarity with people facing repression in Tahrir Square.

In the months that ­followed, some groups of workers set up committees in workplaces that challenged bosses for control. It was a tiny example of what was possible.

But these initiatives didn’t develop into workers’ councils that could have posed a bigger challenge to the system.

Had they done so, they could have won soldiers over to opposing the regime and strengthened the revolution.

A bigger challenge to the state in Egypt could also have spurred revolts across the region—and pushed back Western imperialism.

The revolution clearly showed a thirst among ordinary people for a different way of living.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a space to raise debates and arguments during the revolt. These offered a glimpse of what real democracy could look like.

Today Egypt remains plagued by dictatorship, unemployment and low wages. But the Egyptian Revolution could have ended differently.

Revolutionaries and workers must learn the lessons from 2011 to be in a better position for future struggles.

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

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