The masses of Egypt in their millions have returned to the streets, determined to finish the revolution they began in January by ousting from power the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Every day since a police attack in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday, Nov. 19, thousands of youths have braved murderous police sallies into the square, each time beating them back. Emboldened with their success in repelling the cops—who are backed by the country’s ruling military—these same youth have mounted one offensive after another against the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, which oversees police affairs.
Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which connects Tahrir with the Ministry, has seen countless acts of heartrending self-sacrifice and inspiring courage by the shabab (youth). They consult with each other constantly, assessing when to advance and retreat, how many of the hundreds of thousands gathering in the nearby square to involve, or when to ask them to wait. Those in the front lines appeal to the lines behind them not to back up but instead to stand their ground to bolster the front’s position.
Revolutionary journalist Mostafa Omar reported that “many young people unable to enter Mohamed Mahmoud to support those on the front-lines are wearing stickers distributed by a group of revolutionary socialists that read ‘A Martyr is available here’ to underscore their readiness to die for a chance to live in a democratic country not ruled by army generals.”
An Egyptian American active in building solidarity protests in New York passed along twitters from her cousin on the front line: “We throw rocks and they shoot us with rubber bullets and tear gas bombs … we are still standing and fighting … a lot of ppl died of suffocation and real bullets … injuries are like rain … but nobody surrenders. If one of us falls, more ppl show up and come … the spirit of the revolution is back and the pigs dont understand that shooting us wont let us back, but encourage us to go towards them.”
Omar described uprising participants as “less middle class and more working class” than at the beginning of the year: “Most people who died at the hands of police are poor, young working-class people who have come from the shantytowns—young people who have no hope after years of neglect.” This truth was captured in a quote in The New York Times from a 23-year-old protester taking a break from battle, who declared, “This is a revolution of the hungry!”
Sometimes the unquestioning self-sacrifice of these hungry shabab makes it impossible to find words to properly honor them. Omar reports that “one of those killed was helping a young woman who was breaking stones to throw at police. He said to her, ‘I’m uneducated, I have no future. The police will kill me someday anyway. I will die here—you go. You are educated, you will help the movement.’”
Truly, the working class is uniquely giving and selfless, deserving of the fruits of victory, of a decent life—qualities that it has learned and earned through hard experience, and by rejecting the lying lessons of its masters. The morals of those masters are seen in their encouragement of the heinous behavior of their army, whose soldiers have been seen dragging dead bodies and throwing them on piles as if they were bags of rubbish—after hitting them on the head with batons to make sure they’re dead.
The uprising began after a police attack on Nov. 19 on a sit-in of no more than 100 people in Tahrir Square of those wounded in the Jan. 25 uprising who have been demanding compensation for their injuries. Police began beating the wounded, including shooting rubber bullets purposely at their faces, putting out several eyes. Thousands responded to this repression by coming to the square to reclaim it. By the next day, there were tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square again, and they kicked the police out.
The numbers in Tahrir—and soon in every major city and town in the country—grew day after day and into the night throughout the week following the initial cop attack, culminating in a million-strong “Friday of the Last Chance” on Nov. 25. This followed a week in which at least three dozen were killed and several hundred severely wounded. The size and steadfastness of the mobilizations make it clear that this phase of the revolution can only end either in the SCAF stepping down, or in a massacre on a scale too massive to even contemplate—an alternative that the masses in the streets are only too well aware of and which fuels their determination.
On Last Chance Friday, SCAF appointed a former Mubarak flunky as prime minister—and revolutionary groups immediately organized a sit-in to block him from reaching the PM’s office. Other youth groups began circulating forms for protesters to fill in to nominate their own choices for a transitional civilian council. The independent union federation called for a workers’ feeder march, following up on its call for members to join the protests as soon as they had broken out the preceding weekend.
Ahdaf Soueif, prize-winning novelist and aunt of imprisoned blogger Alaa abd el Fatah (detained for criticizing military tribunals), wrote movingly in the Guardian of scenes she saw in Tahrir. She described activists following the advice of organizers to write their names on their arms so loved ones could be informed if they were killed, advice issued after some bodies of the murdered couldn’t be identified.
Soueif reported that someone had written on a wall: “We are the Square: A Church, a Mosque and a Parliament.” The notion of Tahrir as a more genuine parliament (certainly more than the one to be convened by the military’s rigged elections) is a recognition that ultimately only organs of mass power born from the squares of Egypt can bring real democracy to the country.
The tragedies mount, but they only further fuel protesters’ steadfastness. One hero murdered by the security forces was young field doctor Rania Fouad, who entered a coma and died after an attack by tear gas canisters on her make-shift clinic in the Square. After her murder, said Soueif, “The people notched it up: the revolution had just become dearer—more impossible to abandon.” On one day motorbikes brought to such clinics 50 cases in 10 minutes. On another day, the media reported 500 brought in during a two-hour span.
On Tuesday night, Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of SCAF, made a speech that stunned all observers with “its detachment and tardiness, its formal emptiness, its moral vacuity. And then the teargas started in earnest. People stood their ground because they knew the army wanted to claim that the speech had satisfied people so they’d left.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party was expected to garner the biggest vote totals in elections scheduled for Nov. 28, held a mass march of its own on Nov. 18 out of dissatisfaction with the military’s threats to remain in power. But once the masses demanded an immediate end to military rule, many of them challenging the legitimacy of military-run elections, the Brotherhood reverted to form, and its middle-class leadership called on protesters to leave Tahrir.
In a typical but incredibly cynical move, on Last Chance Friday the Muslim Brotherhood distributed leaflets expressing its support for elections, and rather than join the monster rally in Tahrir, held its own small demonstration to protest the decision of Israeli authorities to demolish the gate to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. But the masses of Egypt know that the Brotherhood, after decades of collaboration with dictatorial regimes (even when its own members faced repression), is no more capable of genuinely resisting Zionism than its military partners.
And in any case, increasing numbers of the younger, more working-class ranks of the Brotherhood are defying the leadership’s advice and joining the fighting alongside their sisters and brothers against SCAF.
The most well known bourgeois liberal candidate for president, Mohamed El-Baradei, was said to be planning to join negotiations, maybe even to be willing to accept being chosen by SCAF as prime minister. In the end he boycotted the talks, obviously afraid of being denounced by the masses.
In the weeks before the uprising, pressure was building on the military. Workers had engaged in a wave of mass strikes in late September. Meanwhile, activists in the Campaign to End Military Trials of Civilians began holding rallies against such trials, for freedom for political prisoners, and against military rule.
Egyptians abroad and their supporters began holding actions in solidarity with these demands, and are now holding frequent actions in solidarity with the uprising. In New York several have already occurred, including a picket line on Last Chance Friday at Point Lookout Capital Partners in Manhattan (Point Lookout is the majority stock owner of Combined Systems Inc., maker of the tear gas being used to murderous effect in Egypt). The picket demanded an end to tear gas sales, an end to all U.S. military aid, an end to military tribunals and the freeing of political prisoners, and an end to military rule.
Nearly 12,000 Egyptian civilians have been tried by kangaroo military courts since the fall of Mubarak, the overwhelming majority convicted. Eighteen civilians have been executed after such trials, and minors sentenced to adult prisons in which torture is common. Women demonstrators have been subjected to sexual assault in the form of “virginity tests” by the army, and demonstrators of both genders subjected to electric shocks and other forms of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. The regime sponsoring such crimes has been rewarded by the U.S. government with promises of billions in loans, and continued military aid to the tune of $1.3 billion a year.
The uprising marks the end of months in which revolutionaries’ propaganda about the intransigence of the military regime often fell on deaf ears. This is inevitable in a revolution, which has phases in which the masses give new powers a chance—but eventually realize that only institutions created by their own power can form the basis of a legitimate revolutionary government, one which they control and which meets their needs in practice and not just in words.
That consciousness reached the tipping point this fall as Egypt’s suffering masses saw that the new regime was doing nothing to mitigate the impact of the global economic crisis that had played a key role in sparking the January revolt (as it had in Tunisia and throughout the region). What’s more, as the military made more and more statements indicating elections would have no bearing on their continued control of the main levers of power, the notion that “the army and the people are one hand” began to lose its power.
As a result, as reported by Sameh Naguib, a member of one of the leading radical groups, the Revolutionary Socialists, “in Tahrir Square we have people coming up to us and saying, ‘We know you. You have opposed the military council from the start. We want to be with you.’”
Meanwhile, Obama still wants to be with Tantawi. Even the Washington Post had to chide Obama for being so transparently pro-SCAF. In an editorial titled, “As Egyptians protest anew, the Obama administration again enables the generals,” the Post said that “faced with the escalating violence in Cairo, the administration is repeating the mistake it made in January, when it hesitated to push for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Rather than using its considerable leverage, the administration is deferring to the military council. White House spokesman Jay Carney weakly called Monday for “restraint” from “all sides”; when asked whether the generals should specify the date for a presidential election, he replied, “I don’t want to dictate specifics to Egypt.”
On Last Chance Friday, the U.S. gave de facto backing to the SCAF, calling for elections to proceed on the following Monday—elections rigged by the military, in the middle of a mass uprising attacked with murderous force!
Similarly, the Christian Science Monitor wrote that “a White House statement appeared to place the blame equally on both sides for violence that has killed at least 29 protesters since Saturday. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the violence and “tragic loss of life” and called for “restraint on all sides, so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.”
That call for restraint on “all sides,” in the face of days of excessive use of force by police and soldiers, was met with incredulity in Cairo: “‘Should we stop dying? Is that how we should show restraint?’ scoffed protester Salma Ahmed as heavy gunfire echoed through Tahrir Square.”
Meanwhile, the State Department, which has been channeling money to “pro-democracy” fronts to tempt and coopt the more naïve or corruptible middle-class elements in the opposition, opened a new front in the U.S. An NGO leader working with State concocted an effort to get Occupy Wall Street to send a delegation, costing tens of thousands of dollars, to “monitor” Egyptian elections. Egyptians here and abroad and their supporters argued that the time and money should be devoted instead to organizing solidarity and material aid for the struggle against military rule.
But ultimately, Washington’s schemes and funding of SCAF will come to naught. We can see this, as in January, in the humor that runs through the uprising. The New York Times reported that “some activists joked that the anger was so widespread and deep among the protesters that their chants should be, ‘The people want the fall of the coming president.’”
Behind this seemingly paradoxical joke lies the clear long-range vision of those committed to completing revolutions. The fighters in Tahrir know the ruling class will try to foist on them one fraud after another in the hopes that they’ll be fooled or just get tired. But just as the May 1968 barricade fighters in Paris scrawled on the walls, “Be realistic: Demand the impossible,” so the shabab of Tahrir know that today it is possible, indeed essential, to hold out for a solution in the interests of the country’s masses, and there is no need to settle for what is “practical,” i.e. what the rulers are willing to grant.
Reports are beginning to arrive of junior officers defecting to the revolution. This is crucial, as one requirement for the success of the uprising will be the splitting of rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers away from their superiors’ dictates. The other key components will be the continued mobilization of millions, and growing workers’ strikes, hopefully coalescing in a general strike, which can be the coup de grace for Tantawi, as it was for Mubarak. And to ensure lasting gains, it is essential to construct a mass revolutionary socialist party, rooted in the working class, to lead the fight against capitalist rule.
One final key factor will be global solidarity. In the U.S., the labor and Occupy movements have repeatedly stressed the debt they owe to the Egyptian uprising. It is now time for those movements, as well as the antiwar movement, to pay that debt and organize massive solidarity and support for the Egyptian masses.
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and first appeared in the December 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.