Tens of thousands of protestors took to the street across Egypt yesterday in what looks like the beginning of a mass movement against the regime of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Inspired by the sacrifice and heroism of the Tunisian workers, Egyptian activists called for a national day of protest on 25 January; the official public holiday to “celebrate” the Egyptian National Police.
The turnout on the day gave the police very little to celebrate. Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Tantan, al-Mahala, Asiut, al-Bahira and al-Quium. The scale of the protests took the ruling class and media by surprise.
Egypt has been a police state ruled by the dictator Hosni Mubarak for the past 30 years. A permanent state of emergency placing severe limits on democratic rights has been in effect for all this time, recently extended for another 2 years. Protests and strikes have been violently repressed in the past, and most street protests were small until this point. But there were massive strikes by the Egyptian working-class involving hundreds of thousands of workers in the past several years, and this is the key to the Egyptian situation.
The Egyptian masses, much like the people of Tunisia, are suffering immensely from the capitalist crisis. Inflation is causing the price of foods and basic goods to rise, while unemployment grows and wages are stagnant or being cut. Combined with the daily oppression of the police state, and the gruesome corruption of the dictatorship, the situation has become intolerable. Egypt had been exhibiting many of the same characteristics which lead to the explosion of protest in Tunisia for several years. However until now the government had been able to repress the opposition and prevent it organising significant action to destabilise the regime.
Last year there were parliamentary elections and the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist organisation saw many of its activists jailed, and its candidates lose out due to massive vote rigging. Since then, although conditions for the working-class have worsened, there was little sign of opposition on the streets.
This began to change with the uprising in Tunisia.
The revolt spreads
The protests in Tunisia which toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sparked a massive revolt across North Africa and the Middle East. The masses of Arab workers who have suffered under numerous dictatorships for the last 20 to 30 years suddenly saw the potential power they had reflected in the actions of the Tunisian workers. With the entire region afflicted with mass unemployment and poverty, the anger unleashed was immense. Protests quickly spread to Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan.
The reality of the popular revolt inspired millions and crucially, demonstrated in action another way of struggle, a progressive, collective, working-class alternative to the individual terrorism of some Islamist organisations, often seen as the only option in countries with no democratic rights. Millions of people across the Arab world could watch on Al Jazeera as the Tunisian workers demonstrated en mass, protested, fought the police, carried out a general strike and in 4 weeks kicked out the hated President Ben Ali, with more power and effectiveness than a thousand bombs or shootings.
The question hanging over the entire upheaval was, “would the protests spread to Egypt?” While Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan are important countries in the region, Egypt’s population is larger than the other five combined, it has a large and well organised working-class and borders Palestine and Israel.
Egypt has been the economic and military power in the region, alongside Israel, on which the domination of US imperialism over the Middle East and North Africa rests. Mubarak’s dictatorship has been complicit in the blockade of Gaza and opposition to Hamas, in return for massive US military and economic aid.
If the Egyptian government was to fall, then anything would be possible.
Anything becomes possible
The fear created in the imperialist governments by the Tunisian revolt cannot be underestimated. Within days reports were incoming of protests elsewhere, but many news items focussed on Egypt. The BBC even published an article about the lack of protests in Egypt entitled “Risk contained”, as if people liberating themselves from brutal dictatorships was a risk!
Now it appears their worst fears were well founded. As the protests in Tunisia have intensified and driven the hated President from office, they galvanised protests elsewhere. Activists in Egypt used facebook to coordinate the protest for the 25th of January.
The turnout on the day was larger than expected, and was helped by probably helped by the fact it was a public holiday. Protestors fought battles with the police, who in some places were overwhelmed by the ferocity and bravery of the crowd. Police were driven back in many places, and protests and clashes continued into the night.
Now the protestors have struck the first blow, they must intensify their actions. The demonstrations have shaken the regime, but alone they will not be enough to topple it. The government can respond with greater repression, and only the massed power of the working-class will be able to stop it.
The lesson from the Iranian “Green movement” in 2009 are crucial. Mass demonstrations of tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the stealing of the election by the regime. Protestors fought bravely against the most brutal dictatorship in the Middle East. However the protests were lead by a liberal wing of the regime willing to compromise with the dictatorship, and crucially the predominantly middle-class protestors did not link up with the Iranian working-class. There were few strikes, not enough to cripple the government, and the regime was able to use the entire might of its million strong paramilitary armed wing to crush the protest brutally.
The protestors in Egypt must not allow this to happen to them. They must form links with the Egyptian workers, to draw the trade unions and the populations of the working-class districts into the struggle against the government and mobilise the masses, not just on the street but in strike action.
Already there are signs of this with protests in the poorer districts of Cairo, and with protestors mobilising around using the slogans, “down with Mubarak!”, “end corruption!”, “we need food and fuel!”
The protests have opened a chink in the regime’s armour, now the movement must organise itself amd draw more workers and youth onto the streets and into the struggle.
Workers and the Egyptian poor need to make sure that their fight against the dictatorship, and for better wages and living conditions is not diverted by liberal or Islamist forces who while opposing this dictatorship, would maintain the class system that leaves ordinary Egyptians so destitute.
They need to form councils of action in every town and city with delegates from factories, small workplaces and the fields. This can represent the interests of the mass of workers and poor, and can form the basis for a constituent assembly, a parliament of the masses charged with drawing up a new democratic constitution.
They will need to form self-defence organisations to stop the dictatorship crushing the movement by force, and form a revolutionary party that can fight to topple the government and replace it with workers’ power.
How the situation develops is crucial. Egypt is a central ally of imperialism, suppressing popular protest, supporting unpopular regimes, imprisoning and starving the Palestinians; all in the interests of US imperialism. If the regime is destabilised, and begins to topple, then the hold of US imperialism over the entire region will be greatly weakened. The possibilities in this revolt are endless. They show the potential for linking up the revolutionary struggles across the region, driving out imperialism and fighting for a United Socialist States of the Middle East.