By Phil Marfleet
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Act II of the Egyptian Revolution

This article is over 11 years, 2 months old
The revolutionary process in Egypt is deepening. There is now a protracted struggle going on to shape Egypt's future, as the ruling Military Council seeks to counter militancy from below. Phil Marfleet looks at Act II of the Egyptian Revolution
Issue 359

Act I of the Egyptian Revolution culminated with the fall of the dictator. Act II is a far more complex process in which Egyptians address the problem of the dictatorship. How to consolidate and expand their new freedoms? How to continue the momentum of change? How to alleviate the problems of everyday life? How to challenge military rule?

In three key areas collective action continues apace. The workers’ movement has advanced since the strikes of early February which played a key role in convincing military leaders to remove Mubarak. Every area of industry has been affected, with numerous actions organised by workplace and union groups on pressing issues: wages, contracts, pensions, conditions, union rights, welfare provision, and bullying and corrupt managements.

The official Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was a tool of the Mubarak regime. The workers’ movement has established an Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EITUF), initially composed of 14 unions. May Day celebrations in Tahrir Square, with EITUF a key participant, marked the first occasion in over 60 years on which workers have organised a national public demonstration without police intervention, an index of how far Egypt has come since the revolution began on 25 January.


The pace of industrial struggle is nonetheless uneven. According to activists in Cairo, during February there were 500 separate industrial actions, while in March the level dropped to 200. But in April the level rose again and in May there were new developments including the first nationwide doctors’ strike. This demanded radical reform of the health service in the name of social justice. The doctors’ syndicate, formerly a mainly conservative professional association, has been deeply affected by the mood of the mass of the population. It organised for indefinite strike action to secure improved wages and an increase in government spending on health from 3.5 percent to 15 percent of the national budget.

Muhammad Shafiq, a member of the national strike committee, said, “Healthcare is not a luxury; it is a basic human right. We are undertaking this strike action specifically for the sake of poor and underprivileged patients.” Within hours the prime minister and finance minister met a doctors’ delegation and conceded its main demands. This is a huge boost for every Egyptian. The Mubarak regime was dedicated to the reduction of public spending in all areas. The strike shows how workers can combine for the general good, winning tangible gains which increase confidence in the revolutionary process.

In the countryside there have been over 100,000 “encroachments” on private property since the revolution began. These are mainly actions by peasants attempting to retrieve land seized by landowning families of the colonial era who have benefited from a law imposed in 1997 allowing former landowners rights to land distributed to fallaheen (cultivators) under reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. Backed by police who violently enforced eviction orders, they succeeded in removing a million farmers and their families. According to the Land Centre for Human Rights, over the past decade some five million people have been forced into penury, while each year on average 100 people have been killed in disputes, 1,000 have been injured and 3,000 arrested, the vast majority being peasants fighting for access to plots their families had cultivated for 50 years.

A new development is the establishment of independent peasant unions which support collective action including retrieval of land. In May a conference held in the village of Kamshish, a historic centre of peasant struggles, founded a new Union of Egyptian Farmers. Among its aims is the building of a national co-operative movement run by farmers at grassroots level.

In cities and villages across the country neighbourhood action groups have proliferated. As Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution they were formed initially to protect local communities from gangs of plainclothes police like those which battled activists in Tahrir Square in February. The committees have since led campaigns to purge corrupt officials, to reform public services including education, health, water supply and sewerage, and to tackle local issues such as control of traffic. Their national coordinating body met for the first time in Tahrir Square in April. Its newspaper, Revolutionary Egypt, argues for unification of diverse struggles from below:

“The inspiring thing in the Egyptian Revolution and at the heart of the Tunisian Revolution was the unity and coalescence of the people over days and weeks… united by the clear and specific demand for the fall of the regime. Every difference and distinction that separated people before the revolution disappeared off to the side, and nothing remained except one difference: the distinction between the conquerors and the conquered, between the oppressors and the oppressed, and between the governors and the governed. Differences disappeared in the struggle and in the process and preparations for sacrifice for the sake of freedom, justice, and respect between men and women, between Copts and Muslims, and even between the young and the old… Our revolution is still at the beginning, and many of the demands of the revolution are still waiting to be achieved. Their achievement requires the unity that gathered us in the [Tahrir] square.”

These developments give testimony to the advance of the revolutionary process, which combines economic and political issues, presses forward democratic demands and challenges those in authority. The vigour of the mass movement has ensured that, despite the initial resistance of military men who formally control Egypt through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, key figures of the Mubarak regime have been held to account – imprisoned and investigated for crimes including assault on revolutionary activists and the illicit accumulation of wealth.

Among the Mubarak family – which only months ago seemed ready to create a 21st century Pharaonic dynasty – the former president is under house arrest, his wife Suzanne has been detained periodically and forced to give up millions of dollars, and sons Gamal and Ala’a are in Tura Prison, where the regime once incarcerated thousands of political prisoners. Some of their closest collaborators – including former ministers, property developers and bosses of industrial and agribusiness corporations – have been charged with involvement in crooked deals which involved the sale of vast areas of state land at knock-down prices. But most of those who profited from Mubarak’s networks of privilege are still free and the apparatus of state repression is largely intact, raising testing questions about how the revolution is to proceed.

Mubarak’s men

Prime minister Sharaf (put in place by the generals) and the ruling Supreme Council are committed to much of the Mubarak agenda. They have said that economic policy will not change – despite powerful evidence that 30 years of aggressive neo-liberal strategy have brought huge increases in inequality and conflicts like those on the land. They have also endorsed existing foreign policies, including close collaboration with the United States and with Israel – arrangements under which the Egyptian army has policed the people of Gaza.

Each and every member of the Supreme Council is a Mubarak appointee. Most do not enjoy the vast wealth accumulated by venal businessmen like those who clustered around the Mubarak sons; they have nonetheless been provided with huge salaries, homes, holidays, special schools, foreign travel and all the other perks required to assure loyalty to the dictatorship. Without exception they have progressed through officer corps trained and armed by the US. They have been part of American intelligence operations and of projects of “extraordinary rendition” through which prisoners seized by the US worldwide have been transported to Egypt for torture.

In February, under immense pressure from below (and in fear that they could not guarantee the loyalty of a conscript army), the generals removed Mubarak and conceded partial freedoms including the right to protest and to form independent political parties and trade unions. Even these changes were hedged around with many restrictions, however, and the council rushed through a referendum on constitutional reform which ensured that changes to the electoral system would be limited and closely controlled.

Their strategy is now one of containment and co-option. The council has retained the notorious Emergency Laws imposed by Mubarak in 1981 – even though ending the Emergency has been a key demand of the mass movement. In March, Sharaf issued a decree that criminalised demonstrations and occupations seen to “interrupt” businesses or affect the economy in any way, prescribing severe punishment for those “inciting” such actions. Shortly afterwards troops assaulted a demonstration in Tahrir Square, killing at least two protesters. In May police and troops fired at demonstrators who had marched to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in solidarity with Palestinians marking Nakba Day. Two more people were killed and many seriously injured.

For the left these interventions mark a new and dangerous phase in the containment strategy. The Revolutionary Socialists organisation has declared that by assaulting demonstrators at the embassy, ministers and the generals publicly placed themselves at the service of Israel – the state with which Mubarak had made so many compromising agreements. It was clear, they said, that “Sharaf and the military are the successors of Mubarak”.

There will be more angry demonstrations over the government’s shameful stance on Palestine (at the time of writing its promise to open the Rafah crossing at Gaza has still not been fulfilled). At the same time Egyptians face pressing problems in their daily lives. Unemployment has increased sharply as tourism has declined, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers have fled Libya. The cost of basic foods has risen by 30 percent over the past six months. Will the army intervene against those demanding jobs, adequate wages, and access to bread and clean water? If so, they will intensify the process by which economic and social issues become inextricably linked to wider political questions. Who now rules Egypt? What gives them the right to power? How can they be called to account?

Special relationship

These questions have until now been clouded by a belief among many Egyptians that the army has a special relationship with the wider society. During the Tahrir events of January and February activists declared that “the army and the people are one hand”. This was not only a call for troops to refrain from attacking the protests but reflected widely held views about the progressive nature of the military as an institution – ideas associated with key episodes in Egypt’s modern history. In 1952 the Free Officers movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser mounted a coup which removed the pro-British monarchy; two years later they expelled British troops, and in 1956 enjoyed a stunning success during the Suez Crisis, when Egypt saw off a combined invasion force launched by Britain, France and Israel.

During the 1950s and 1960s radical nationalist governments led by Nasser and senior military men delivered land reform, full employment and Egypt’s first state welfare system. They championed the Palestinian and Arab causes, making Egypt a focal point for anti-imperialist struggles across the Middle East. The Nasser era has often been seen nostalgically as a period of economic and social advance in which the army expressed popular interests.

Nasser was in fact a highly elitist political leader who had no time for mass involvement in politics. He suppressed the left, jailed thousands of worker and peasant activists and co-opted trade union leaders into the tame ETUF. He concentrated power within an increasingly small group of loyalists in the armed forces who controlled a state capitalism developed on the Russian model. In the late 1960s, as conditions of most Egyptians worsened dramatically, workers and students demanded change: in a famous attack on the Free Officers, former communist Anouar Abdel-Malik argued that they had betrayed the people. Egypt had fallen into the hands of “a devouring bureaucracy”, he said, for which the people existed merely “to supply the manpower”.

This was the regime inherited by President Sadat in 1970. He used the highly centralised system created by Nasser to introduce new economic policies, embracing the market and turning Egypt towards the US. Mubarak, who followed Sadat in 1981, took this much further. Retaining the army at the core of his machinery of repression, he built a suffocating police state dedicated to the enrichment of his supporters at home and abroad. There was a continuity between the Nasser and Mubarak regimes – but the differences were enough to stimulate in many Egyptians a yearning for times when the army was still associated with radical change, national independence and social reform.

Members of today’s Supreme Council are part of imperialist networks which sustain kings, princes and presidents across the Middle East – and which protect Israel against the Palestinians and the anger of the Arab masses. They have nothing in common with Egyptians who made the Tahrir Revolution. As Sameh Naguib observes elsewhere in this issue, the Supreme Council “remains part of the old regime”. The generals’ attempts to contain the mass movement are likely to reveal this reality more and more clearly. Less obvious is a strategy initiated by Nasser and since used by both Sadat and Mubarak. Co-option was a highly effective technique by which Nasser bound to the state many trade union leaders and prominent communists. Offering them high office in ETUF, he created a bureaucracy which mediated between the army and the workforce, suffocating a workers’ movement which had been the most dynamic force in Egyptian politics before the Free Officers came to power.


Only days after the fall of Mubarak, representatives of the International Labour Organisation and of international trade union federations appeared in Cairo to meet leaders of Egypt’s new independent unions; there have since been many further approaches to the new unions to engage with these international trade union bureaucracies and their conservative agendas. Egypt’s current rulers hope for a tame union leadership which can dissipate the energies of the workers – increasingly the most dynamic part of the revolutionary movement. Activists in the independent unions will need to be on guard against efforts to provide finance, global travel and celebrity status to their leaders. Genuine solidarity activity undertaken from below is, of course, a different matter.

If the Egyptian Revolution cannot be reduced by force perhaps its energies can be dissipated both by co-option and by limiting the democratic space already won by the mass movement. The generals and their advisors hope that a short period of electoral activity before polls in the autumn will favour established political parties. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood has operated in a shadowy area between legality and illegality, maintaining its status as the only national opposition organisation. Now free to campaign openly, it seems likely that the Brotherhood has struck a deal with the generals whereby it will back the army as a guarantor of national “order”, in effect supporting the same neoliberal agenda which brought Egypt Mubarak and his cronies.

The generals wish to halt the present process of change. Together with business interests, the landowners and Mubarak’s old allies in the US, they intend that minor political reforms will be enough to satisfy the mass movement and restore business as usual. There are certain to be further confrontations with workers, peasants and street activists who wish to expand the new freedoms, not least as means of dealing with the pressing problems of daily life. The task for the left is to work with and for the workplace groups, independent unions and popular committees to ensure that the old order is not able to take the initiative and to develop an agenda for counter-revolution. It is above all of critical importance to organise the most militant workers together in an independent party which can maximise the strengths of local workplace organisation (see box on the Democratic Workers Party).

The mass movement still has the initiative – but as the revolution continues to unfold it is vital to press home this advantage.

Egypt’s Democratic Workers Party

This new party aims to bring together worker activists across Egypt. Established only weeks after the fall of Mubarak, it has recruited hundreds of activists, mainly in Cairo and the Delta region.

Kamal Khalil, a leading member, says: “We don’t want a party based on paper, we want a party based in factories and workplaces. Striking workers across Egypt have been demanding the establishment of a party which represents them and which protects their interests.”

Hundreds have joined, including textile workers, Real Estate Tax Authority employees, cement factory workers, railway workers, nurses and bus drivers, conductors, mechanics, and engineers employed in public transport. Among the party’s key demands is a national monthly minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (about £140). It also calls for re-nationalisation of state industries sold to private businessmen in deals struck with the Mubarak regime, for removal of corrupt and bullying managers, and for an end to Egypt’s economic ties with Israel.

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