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Uprising spreads as the Egyptian revolution moves to the next stage
A version of this article was published in schNEWS….
Egyptian dissidents celebrated on Friday as Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for over three decades finally threw in the towel after mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and across the country, refused to abate. However, the Egyptian revolution is not yet won as the military have stepped in, repressed protest and threatened to declare martial law.
Inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country on the 14th of January, popular protests have rippled through the Middle East this week in Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Bahrain.
State of Emergency
Egypt has been subject to emergency laws almost continuously since 1967. Under the state of emergency police powers are extended, media censorship legalised, protest repressed and all non-government political activity criminalised. The Egyptian regime, propped up by an annual $1.5 billion of US aid, has tortured and murdered its own people, targeted Egypt’s Christian community as well as dissidents of all flavours; from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main opposition party, to communists, trade unionists and human rights activists.
Mubarak has served four terms as president, with the 2005 elections extensively rigged. Hired government thugs intimidated voters while Mubarak bought votes by the job lot. One spark for the Egyptian revolution was concern that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, would steal the September 2011 elections.
Riot like an Egyptian
On 25th January 2011 the Egyptian uprising began – Inspired by the success of the Tunisian rebellion the 25th January revolt was organised by autonomous groups. The first demonstration in Tahrir Square was publicly advertised through Facebook and Twitter; one activist said “We didn’t know who was going to come, we thought maybe Mubarak himself would turn up”. On the 25th tens of thousands of demonstrators converged in the square, they were attacked by police wielding batons and shooting ‘made in the US’ tear gas, manufactured by CSI (see schNEWS 521).
The uprising quickly spread across Egypt with mass demonstrations in Suez on the 26th and Sinai and Rafah on the 28th. Police responded with water cannons, tear gas, sound bombs and live bullets.
On the 28th huge protests faced a massive state crackdown with activists battling the police in Cairo and across Egypt. One eyewitness who was in Tahrir Square that afternoon said “everything was on fire”, police vehicles were destroyed and used as barricades in Tahrir and government buildings, police property, banks and branches of multinational companies were torched across downtown Cairo.
Mubarak instructed the army to take over from the police to put down the uprising. Police stations across Egypt were destroyed and several prisons were simultaneously opened in suspicious circumstances, with many people suspecting it was in fact the work of the police. On the evening of the 28th the police disbanded and widespread looting, at least some of which was carried out by the police, ensued. In response communities across Egypt organised ‘Popular Committees’ to defend themselves.
On the 28th the state shut down telephone and internet networks across Egypt and, the next day, declared a curfew. Cairo and other cities were put under effective military occupation, with literally hundreds of tanks locking-down the normally busy streets of Downtown Cairo and F-16 flyovers used to intimidate the population.
Hundreds of Egyptians were killed over the course of that weekend. However, protests continued daily with tens of thousands breaking the curfew in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.
On Tuesday 1st February the largest demonstration yet was held, mobilising millions of Egyptians and prompting Mubarak to appear on state TV and announce that he would not stand in the election in September, ominously he called on the army and judiciary to maintain order.
The following day the occupiers in Tahrir Square were attacked by supposed ‘pro-Mubarak’ demonstrators. One occupier said that these men were “people who had heard the President’s speech the previous evening and who thought the protests should stop as he had promised not to stand in the next election, others were from the police and security forces and still others were paid bandits – the same people who come out to intimidate people at election time”. “They attacked us with horse and camels, then with molotovs and knives and finally with guns. They took the roofs of buildings. It was a well planned coordinated attack. All in all ten people were killed in Tahrir Square that day while similar state orchestrated violence erupted in Alexandria and elsewhere. It was clear that the army had allowed the attackers into the square and onto rooftops to fire on the protesters and allowed them to escape. One teenager, who had occupied Tahrir since the 28th said “Wednesday was the worst day of my life, but being here in Tahrir has been the best time of my life”.
Self organisation within a dictatorship
“Whatever people say, there are no leaders here, the square and the uprising belong to the people”
The Tahrir occupation was a shining example of grassroots organising in action. Occupiers set up community barricades, crewed by both male and female volunteers, complete with piles of rocks to use as weapons in case of attack. Medical clinics were set up staffed by volunteer doctors and surgeons. Hundreds of tents and shelters were erected around the square, rubbish collection was organised and food was distributed. At night the occupiers slept in front of the tanks surrounding the square to prevent the army from entering.
The Egyptian revolution was leaderless and self organised, the seven demands formulated by the Tahrir Square occupiers were: Resignation of the president, the end of the State of Emergency, the dissolution of parliament, the formation of a national transitional government, to elect a Parliament that will amend the Constitution to allow for presidential elections, the immediate prosecution for those responsible of the deaths of the revolution’s martyrs and the immediate prosecution of the corrupt and those who robbed the country of its wealth.
On the 11th February, the day after the largest protests yet and widespread strikes across Egypt, Mubarak, after an initial show of defiance, announced that he would step down and retire to the resort of Sharm El Sheikh. Power was handed over to the ominously named Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and parliament was dissolved. The army has promised to amend the constitution and facilitate free elections. They have, however, called for a return to normal – for an end to the strikes and to political protest. Tellingly, the Supreme Council refused to rescind the State of Emergency until ‘calm’ was restored.
Jubilation gripped Egypt. The Egyptian people who have lived most, if not all, of their lives under Mubarak’s rigid military dictatorship had successfully shaken off the dictator. But the question is what will happen now? On Sunday the army removed the protesters from Tahrir square. The fact that the army prevented cameras and reporters from recording the eviction, thus continuing the media blackout and repression of free speech of the Mubarak regime should act as a warning.
The Egyptian revolution, like the Tunisian uprising, is ongoing; strikes have been held by everyone from airport staff, public transport workers and nurses in Cairo to workers in the sweatshops of Mahalla al-Koubra and Mansoura to oil industry employees. Egyptian banks, briefly reopened last week remain closed and the stock-exchange lies dormant. The demands of the strikers represent the other side of the Egyptian rebellion, a call for an end to corruption, for better wages and for lower prices. Predictably, Egypt’s new military rulers have called for an end to the strikes on the grounds of ‘security of the nation’ while Egypt’s caretaker finance minister is preaching the language of austerity.
The dissidents still have everything to win. If the Egyptian revolution is to achieve more than a cosmetic change, replacing one system of oppression with another, the struggle must challenge the military’s power. Without that, Mubarak’s departure will simply herald a consolidation of US colonialism in Egypt. The military, now, will preside over a reorganisation of power in negotiation with the US – the regime’s bankrollers. If it is up to them this will mean a tightening of the imperial grip over the Egypt, either through a new dictatorship or through a move to control through a parliamentary democracy subjugated to US hegemony, similar to the puppet democracies already in place in Iraq and the West Bank.
The uprising spreads…
Rebellions are underway across North Africa and the Middle East. In Manama, Bahrain, protesters mimicking the Tahrir occupiers, have occupied the pearl roundabout after two anti-government activists were killed by police. Thousands of protesters have been demonstrating for democracy in Yemen and the president has already promised to step down this year, thousands of Algerians took to the streets on the 13th carrying Egyptian and Tunisian flags. Libyans fought police with petrol bombs in Benghazi on Wednesday amid calls for a ‘day of rage’ against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and anti-government protests have been reignited in Iran. The Iranian and Libyan governments have taken a leaf out of Mubarak’s book and restricted access to the internet while, in the West Bank, an election has been called to stave off murmurings of a popular uprising.