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‘Hope has not died in Egypt’

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Five years ago this month protests in Tunisia triggered revolutions, crucially in Egypt. Sameh Naguib spoke to Judith Orr about the events—and the lessons for socialists
Issue 2485

Hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Sqaure, Cairo, during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011

Hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Sqaure, Cairo, during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 (Pic: Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim)

Street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia in January 2011 after police harassed him over his street stall. How did this kickstart the revolutionary process in Egypt?

The Tunisian demonstrations grew in a way we had not seen in the Arab region for decades.

Everyone could watch the events unfold on satellite TV. They had an electrifying effect, especially when the slogan, “The people want to bring down the regime” was raised.

When Tunisia’s president Ben Ali was forced to leave the country it had a huge impact on activists and young people in Egypt.

In Egypt there had been preparations for protests on 25 January against the police.

But people began to think that because of what was happening in Tunisia these could be bigger than usual.

When did you realise these protests were different to anything that had happened before?

We saw that very quickly. The demonstrations started at around noon. But the speed at which people started to join them, turning them into mass protests, shocked activists and the police.

The police were not prepared. For the first time in decades they become an ever smaller minority in front of a huge wave of people.

Everyone’s natural inclination was to go to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Nobody expected to reach it.

When the police began losing the battle we reached the square in a state of exhaustion. But there was also exhilaration and excitement, and meetings and discussion of what to do next.


What were the most significant moments of the first 18 days of the Revolution in Egypt?

Within two days Hosni Mubarak’s regime shut down internet and mobile communications. It wanted to make it difficult to build for even bigger demos on the Friday 28 January.

The real revolution started on that day. All the police stations in Cairo were burned down and the police as a force disintegrated.

The scene in Tahrir was almost surreal. You could see the ruling party’s headquarters on fire with smoke pouring from it and there were no police whatsoever.

The sheer numbers of people coming into Tahrir throughout the day was something I had never seen before, ever.

The second significant event was on 2 February when police and thugs attempted to break into Tahrir. Pitched battles broke out throughout the night.

Different political tendencies organised structures together to defend the square. Many people died.

The third peak moment was when Hosni Mubarak made his last TV speech saying he wasn’t going to go.

People got ready to march on the presidential palace and storm it.

Seeing the reaction to the speech was amazing. I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of thousands of people waving their shoes and screaming at the screens.

The level of anger was matched only by the level of exhilaration on 11 February, when the vice?president finally announced Mubarak was leaving.

Celebrations went on through the night.


Looking back over the subsequent events, what were the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement?

The main mass political opposition organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, allied themselves with the ruling military junta—Scaf—which took power after Mubarak fell.

They wanted to push for a procedural democracy and stop the waves of the revolution. These waves kept bringing new sections of the oppressed into struggle as well as sparking more workers’ strikes.

The radical left did not have the mass organisation that could deepen the revolution.

We were too weak compared to the main reformist organisations, and the main currents of the left have been Stalinist. These wanted to limit the revolution.

This legacy made it very difficult for the radical left to build organisations that could challenge the Brotherhood and other reformist currents.


The ruling class has built an effective counter-revolution. How was this possible?

The Brotherhood kept making concessions to the military, even before coming to power. They wanted to try to portray themselves as responsible. They wanted to show they could control the masses and stem the revolt on the streets.

This allowed the police and military establishment to regroup and rebuild their forces.

They built a wave of fear through mobilising against the Brotherhood.

They claimed the Brotherhood was going to turn Egypt into a theocratic dictatorship and lead the country into chaos.

When Brotherhood supporter Mohamed Mursi ruled, state forces fuelled a sense of instability among the middle classes. Cars were stolen, there was kidnapping and mugging.

The military said it could bring a return to stability, jobs and normal life.

This resonated with wide sections of the middle class—especially as Mursi had nothing to show for the revolution.

His policies continued neoliberalism and opened the way to the counterrevolution.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the face of the counter-revolution. Has he been able to crush all resistance?

Despite unprecedented repression there are still strikes and demonstrations that have that same spirit and slogans of the revolution.

I doubt the Sisi regime has the capacity to completely destroy that.

Sisi doesn’t have a new political machine. He depends on the same corrupt businessmen, generals and old ruling party bureaucrats that led to the revolution in the first place.

There is no new economic project or political party.

And repression is back.

In November alone, 13 people were tortured to death in police stations around Egypt.

The police are returning to treating people with extreme forms of abuse. This was another trigger of the revolution.

The experience of ordinary people of revolution has not been extinguished. And the old regime has nothing to offer.

Socialists understand revolutions as a process, rather than a single event. What are your hopes for the future?

I’m very careful not to minimise defeat. But Egypt after the revolution will never be the same as Egypt before the revolution

It changed people’s hopes, aspirations, expectations and opens the possibility for a second revolution.

Because the other side know this they have to be more repressive than Mubarak ever was.

The ruling class is scared and is trying to crush the spirit of the revolution. Life under Sisi is unbearable and unsustainable—and will not continue.

So there is a lot to be hopeful about in the coming years.

We have to rebuild the revolutionary movement that has experienced temporary victory and defeat, and can learn the lessons of the revolution.


Egypt is the biggest and most important country in the region. What impact has the struggle there had in the wider region?

The positive impact of the success of the Egyptian revolution on the region was huge. You saw revolts in Bahrain, Syria, Libya and Yemen using the same slogans and organising.

The current success of the counter-revolution in Egypt has the same regional impact. But the positive effect of the revolutionary period on the experience of millions of Egyptians will not die easily.

Can more be done to expose the reality of the Sisi regime while he is being courted by Western leaders?

International solidarity is central. The degree of solidarity in the West for the movement against Sisi is less than it should be. In November, 40 people disappeared.

Dozens have been raped or tortured in police stations and prisons. Prisoners are left without food, blankets and medical care. Islamophobia and attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the reason that there is not more international solidarity.

We need a louder campaign against this regime. Solidarity counts.

Sameh Naguib is a member of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists

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