Egyptisk vänster och revolutionen

Intervju med US-amerikanska egyptier och vänsteraktivister.

At least 15,000 protesters jammed Cairo’s huge Tahrir Square January 25 in the biggest political demonstration seen in the Egyptian capital in more than 30 years. Tens of thousands more people turned out for demonstrations in provincial cities as well. At least two people were killed in clashes with the Egyptian state’s security forces.

But rather than be intimated by police repression, protesters were able to turn the tables on Egypt’s notoriously violent cops, and beat up several. And as a follow-up to the demonstration, a range of secular, democratic organizations have called for a national strike on January 26.

The movement has put a spotlight on the U.S.-backed police state ruled by Hosni Mubarak, the 83-year-old dictator despised for presiding over a society in which a tiny minority has amassed enormous wealth while more than 23 percent of the population of 79 million lives under the official poverty line. The resurgence of Egyptian workers’ strikes and protests is now feeding into the pro-democracy movement.

International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki, recently returned from Cairo, and Egyptian-American activist Mostafa Omar spoke to Lee Sustar about the significance of the protests, and the social and political forces that gave rise to them:


WHAT ABOUT the protests outside Cairo?

Ahmed: In Alexandria, the police were very aggressive, and used rubber bullets to try to break up the crowd. But people held their ground. This is despite the fact that police are, as usual, arresting key activists and harassing their families.

Mostafa: The police did attack the demonstrations in a number of places with rubber bullets and water cannons. They allowed the demonstrations to proceed and then attacked them. But that didn’t work. People actually attacked the security forces. There are a number of reports of people beating the hell out of the security forces and a fascinating video of protesters chasing the police.

The size and scale of the protests outside Cairo is the government’s biggest problem. In Suez, people refused to be dispersed and fought a kind of guerilla battle with police. In Alexandria, there was a mass demonstration of tens of thousands, followed by meetings at central squares. There were fascinating scenes–people brought huge posters with Mubarak’s face, and were burning them in the street. Elsewhere, in a number of cities in the Nile Delta–a very industrialized era–the demonstrations were most militant as well. It was almost like a national uprising.

In Cairo, there were a number of prominent opposition figures involved. The main one is the former candidate for president, Ayman Nour, who sat in with the occupiers in Tahrir Square.

ARE THERE any precedents for the scale of these protests? Who is leading them?

Mostafa: This hasn’t happened since 1977, when Tahrir Square was occupied to protest price hikes mandated by the International Monetary Fund.

The leadership of the unified opposition comes out of the parliament elections that were completed in December. Since the vote was completely rigged to give the Mubarak regime an overwhelming majority, about 80 or 90 former members of parliament formed a shadow parliament and brought a number of opposition parties into it. These people more or less coordinated the call for the protest.

Some of the youth held a number of workshops to discuss how to prepare the action in terms of tactics. The Muslim Brotherhood–the largest opposition group in Egypt–didn’t officially endorse the protests, but allowed its members to participate on a personal basis.

The demonstration was organized in about 10 days. The organizers chose January 25–Police Day, the day in 1951 when police fought the British occupiers. The organizers wanted to defame the police on a day the police were celebrating their so-called patriotic holiday. The intention, in part, was to highlight police brutality. The protest also comes close to the anniversary of the 1977 uprising against the IMF and neoliberalism.

The organizers knew that this protest would be different, however. One indication was the number of suicides in recent days as people followed the example of the martyr in Tunisia–Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed college graduate who set himself on fire after police shut down his fruit-vending stall.


WHAT ARE the politics of the opposition?

Ahmed: The Muslim Brotherhood gave a nominal nod to the mobilization but will not actually back the demonstrations. There is, however, broad support for the protests across social classes.

Even the sections of the middle class that might be in favor of repressing the protests have a fairly hard view that Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, should not be his successor. There’s a wide layer of the political class that will not allow the functioning of the state to be a family operation.

So now the protests have raised the stakes around the question of whether Mubarak will run for the presidency again. And the boycott of the parliamentary elections has left that body even more of a rubber stamp than usual. The state’s reliance on emergency laws to maintain itself is clearer than ever.

Mostafa: The liberal opposition has been fighting to lift the emergency laws, to hold democratic elections, and to cut the sale of natural gas to Israel. It has been able to, at best, mobilize 1,000 or 2,000 people to protests. So the media have been saying that the January 25 protests are unprecedented.

In fact, if you take into account the number of workers who have been involved in strikes and labor demonstrations in recent years, it is around 1 million. The workers movement has been building up for a number of years, gaining steam and winning concessions from the government. The government didn’t always come through. But workers won their strikes, at least on paper, and have felt more confident.

All that was building up before Tunisia. What Tunisia did–and you can’t underestimate it–was change the equation. People said, ”Tunisia is small country. If they can put tens of thousand on streets, burn themselves alive to send a message, and change the regime, we are going to do it, too.”

Frågan är vad som nu ska hända i Egypten. Klarar Mubarak att stanna kvar? Militärkupp? Eller lyckas revoltörerna och vi får se en utveckling mot mer demokrati. En sådan utveckling i det stora landet Egypten kan få mycket större betydelse än vad som hänt i Tunisien, ett litet arabiskt utkantsland.

Noterbart är att Muslimska brödraskapet inte har varit med i arrangerandet av demonstrationer och protester.


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