Ongoing mass demonstrations, strikes and riots have rocked Egypt since January 25.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in national protests on January 25 to demand an end to the United States-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
The regime has responded with brutality. By January 30, the media had reported at least 100 people had been killed.
The regime has responded to the unrest by shutting down the internet — a key organising tool of the protests — across the country.
On January 28, Mubarak sought to stabilise his regime by dismissing his government. He promised changes to address the issues behind the revolt, pledging to tackle poverty, unemployment and corruption as well as introduce democratic reforms.
However, AlJazeera.net reported that protesters have remained on the streets, defying the regime’s nighttime curfew.
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Support the Egyptian people solidarity protests:
Brisbane: Friday February 4, 5pm. Brisbane Square (top of Queen St mall, outside Casino)
Sydney: Saturday 5 February, 12-3pm at Town Hall. Called by Egyptian community.
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US Socialist Worker’s Lee Sustar spoke to International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki, recently returned from Cairo, and Egyptian-American activist Mostafa Omar about the significance of the protests. A longer version of the interview can be read at www.socialistworker.org . You can also see live streaming from Egypt, as well as live blog updates, videos and articles, at www.aljazeera.net .
Some footage from the uprising in Egypt. A protester declares: “We will not be silenced! Whether you are a Muslim, a Christian or an Atheist, you will demand your goddamn rights! And we will have our rights, one way or another, we will never be silenced!”
What impact has the uprising in Tunisia had in Egypt?
Ahmed Shawki: Everyone in Egypt is talking about Tunisia. The uprising there has brought into focus Egypt’s longstanding issues about the lack of democracy, as well as economic issues.
What you have is an accumulation of grievances at all levels of society over the exigencies of daily life. Food prices are rising. There is high unemployment, homelessness and a lack of opportunity for young people.
These same issues are at the centre of the struggle in Tunisia, and people were inspired by the action there.
Mostafa Omar: A number of Tunisian protesters on Facebook were giving advice to the Egyptian protesters regarding tactics.
Following the advice of the Tunisians, the protest organisers in Cairo decided they would not meet in one place. Instead, they met in different locations and converged on a number of different government buildings. As a result, they defeated the police.
In the past, the police would sometimes tolerate demonstrations, but control them through violence or arrests. This time, they failed.
The second problem for the police was that they didn’t expect the numbers. They thought the demonstration in Cairo would be a few thousand, but there were at least 10,000 in Tahrir Square on January 25, and more in other places.
The police did attack the demonstrations in a number of places with rubber bullets and water cannons. 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 on January 25, 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.
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?
MO: 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 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 January 25 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 — didn’t officially endorse the protests, but allowed its members to participate on a personal basis.
What are the politics of the opposition?
AS: The Muslim Brotherhood gave a nominal nod to the mobilisation. There is, however, broad support for the protests across social classes.
Even the sections of the middle class that might be in favour 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.
MO: 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, mobilise 1000 or 2000 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 labour demonstrations in recent years, it is about 1 million. The workers movement has been building up for a number of years, gaining steam and winning concessions from the government.
All that was building up before Tunisia. What Tunisia did 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.”
All this is remarkable, because there has been a popular animosity against Tunisia dating to the 1970s. When the two countries play in soccer matches, there is often bloodshed — people have been killed. Now there are Tunisian flags flying all over Egypt.
Will the political demands merge with the economic demands of workers?
MO: What happened on January 25 in the textile city of Mahalla is telling. A demonstration that started in the morning with 200 people had, by the end of the day, reached 45,000 people. I suspect a lot of workers who have been protesting want to continue demonstrating.
The Egyptian national trade union federation — led by people appointed by the government — has partially broken with the government after the Tunisian uprising. They want price controls, an increase in wages and a system of subsidised outlets for basic food.
People can’t find staples like tea and oil. For the union officials to demand this is unheard of, because these people supported neoliberalism. That is the impact of Tunisia.
Meanwhile, the conditions facing workers are growing worse. The official unemployment figure is 12%, but the real figure is 24% or 25%.
Food prices are out of control. One kilo of tomatoes is US$2; it used to be 35 cents not long ago. That’s prohibitively expensive in a country where government workers make only about $26 a month.
The question of hunger is real. And now the IMF is pressuring the government to remove the subsidies on gasoline prices.
That is why there has been an increase in the workers’ struggle over the past three years. Every day, there's a strike. On January 25, there were 12 major strikes. The government settled them right away by promising everything they wanted.
The US media focus always on the supposed threat of “Islamic radicalism” in the Middle East. Is it a factor in this struggle?
MO: Twice now, the Muslim Brotherhood has abstained from any call for a national strike or a national demonstration. First in 2006, and again on January 25.
They are still the biggest political force in the country, but they refuse to enter into a confrontation with the government. It’s really the workers’ movement and the radical youth that are the driving force.
A lot of young people and workers coming into the movement in the last two weeks are open to democratic and socialist ideas. Even a lot of the young supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are open to a different analysis — one that doesn’t just see the conflict as Islam vs the West.
On one protest, for example, an obviously religious man carried a sign that said it doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or Christian, join the struggle.
That’s a big change from January 1, when violent attacks on Christian churches made it seem like the country was on the verge of civil war between Muslims and Christians. Last year saw more attacks on Christian churches than any time in modern Egyptian history.
But today, there are many Christians who have joined in common struggle with Muslims against the police and corrupt state, even though church leaders called on them to stay away from the protests.
All this means that there is an opening for the left to grow. It’s the left that is taking up this fight, along with new radicals.
What can supporters internationally do to assist the Egyptian movement?
MO: Mohamed ElBaradei, the former international inspector of atomic weapons and a leader of the democracy movement, recently called on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to stand up for human rights in Egypt and the Middle East.
But the US has been a key supporter of the regime in Tunisia and by far the most important backer of the Egyptian state.
The US government is partially responsible for the atrocities committed by the Mubarak regime, and it doesn't really want democratic reform.
Activists in the US and around the world, therefore, have an important role to play in demanding that the US end its support for the Mubarak regime.
Qasr al-Nil Bridge, Cairo, 28.01.11, 3:30 PM