In 2014, in clashes against police forces outside the journalists’ trade union, a young April 6th Movement activist, Sayed Abdullah, lost his life. The following year, 31-year old poet, mother and member of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party (SPSP), Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, was tragically killed by a bullet while walking to Tahrir Square to leave a bunch of flowers for the martyrs of the revolution.
The latest very sad event – as mentioned above – concerns an Italian student from the Friuli region, a researcher at Cambridge University named Giulio Regeni, who was temporarily attending the American University in Cairo as part of his PhD studies and was found dead in a ditch in the suburbs of the Egyptian capital after not being seen since January 25th. The dynamics of these events have not yet been clarified, but clear signs of torture allegedly found on the young man’s body leave little space for speculation.
From the altars to oblivion; the silence of the Egyptian middle classes
The Egyptian revolution has often been described by western journalists and experts as one single event restricted to a square – Tahrir Square – and one that lasted only a few weeks. The recurring story thus presents us with a sudden and mainly unexpected mobilisation of young people belonging to that lower middle class that was increasingly experiencing problems during the last years of Mubarak’s regime.
These children of the Nasserite bureaucracy, in spite of having a very good education, clashed with a reality that consisted of corruption, cronyism, nepotism and very limited opportunities for success for those not knowing the right people. A desire to achieve a more merit-based system, with greater political and civil freedom, sparked protest dynamics that instantly took advantage of support provided by modern means of communication.
After a lengthy and peaceful debate with the regime, according to this version, the numeric and symbolic power of these protesters in the end obliged Mubarak to stand down after almost thirty uninterrupted years as Egypt’s leader.
The problem with this distinctly prevailing version is its extreme bias. It must be emphasised that the aforementioned is not an imaginative description of something that never happened, but rather the transformation of some of the events.
The middle classes were certainly one this revolt’s backbones, but one cannot ignore the role played by the workers’ movement, which, in 2004 – according to Joel Benin, an American scholar who is one of the greatest experts on this subject – sparked “the longest and most powerful wave of protests since the distant forties.” Nor can one ignore the explosive power that society’s rising marginal sectors impressed on the revolt with their anger and frustration.
Nowadays it seems to be extraordinarily difficult to put together the pieces of that puzzle that found its splendid harmony in Tahrir Square five years ago – and not only there since during those fateful eighteen days the entire country rose up, from the Delta to traditionally calm Upper Egypt. All this is spite of the vitality preserved by the workers amidst advances and withdrawals, especially in industrial districts where there is a high concentration of skilled labourers, and the untamed working class districts in the more important Egyptian cities.
In other words, it is precisely those middle classes so highly praised as the main instigators of the revolution that seem to be the main missing element in the unique and magic formula that could result in challenging and defeating authoritarian regimes from below; the simultaneous mobilisation of multiple classes and political movements in various parts of the country and for a sufficiently long period of time.
The long journey to Tahir
Young members of the middle classes did not suddenly materialise in Tahrir Square on a winter’s day reserved to police force celebrations. What became spectacularly evident on January 25th, 2011, was the outcome of a lengthy mobilisation process that had started in the final months of 2000, when, after many years of deafening silence, the opposition once again managed to make itself heard.
What sparked the protests was the second Palestinian intifada, and the Egyptian regime and its pro-Israeli positions became the political target. Mobilisation that continued throughout most of 2001, reached a new peak in 2003 in view of American military intervention in Iraq, marked two significant successes for the opposition.
For the first time in many decades – probably since the long gone Bread Uprisings of January 1977 – tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Egypt, even significantly managing to occupy Tahrir Square for a few hours.
Secondly, the absolute monopoly over power enjoyed by the regime, which in previous years had led to a ban on any form of public dissent, was now being partially challenged. In spite of these undisputed successes, it seems right to state that the greatest importance of this first wave of mobilisation lies elsewhere, and, more specifically, in a new spirit of cooperation experienced and practiced in the Egyptian opposition’s fragmented political panorama. Islamists, Nasserites, liberals and Marxists achieved a new level of cooperation founded on mobilisation against a common enemy – the regime, ça va sans dire – and one that involved reciprocal freedom within one’s own constituency.
As of 2004, this system was to be at the base of the Kefaya Movement and all its ramifications. The balance of all these movements, as well as that of the April 6th Movement, created in 2008 and mostly a direct emanation of Kefaya, remains however in chiaroscuro. Faced with constant mobilisation that resulted in the crossing of many red lines drawn by the regime, the attracting capabilities of these movements always remained limited, leading to protests and sit-ins that rarely involved more than a thousand participants.
This was the greatest appeal of Cairo-centric movements linked to liberal issues and in favour of the democratisation process, with a very strong presence of middle class members. These young people, politically active in large and small groups, which – with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood – had no contact whatsoever with the more disadvantaged classes that were to be the driving force of the 2011 uprisings, when, to the surprise of many, Islamists and liberals, Copts and Marxists mobilised together against the hated regime until they caused it to fall.
Today’s problems: from the Islamist “betrayal” to the coup d’état supported by liberals and Nasserites
This scenario was not, however, repeated on January 25th, 2016. Of course the security fielded by the regime was amazingly effective. The opposition, already weakened due to a very high number of political prisoners, often thought to be about 40,000, was decimated by threats, excommunications and preventive arrests. Furthermore, the number of security agents deployed to the most sensitive parts of the city had been extremely elevated even during the days leading up to the anniversary.
In the end, if one excludes a few isolated and sporadic protests in Alexandria and in some of Cairo’s suburbs, the outcome was a great success for the regime. Success, however, cannot be entirely attributed to the arrogant repression enacted by the al-Sisi government, but also to the weakness of a divided, fragmented and resentful opposition. In particular, the failed democratic transition that following the fall of Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011 resulting in the coup d’état led by General al-Sisi on July 3rd, 2013, determined an upsurge of the rift between political Islam and the rest of the opposition.
The Army, having removed Mubarak to protect the system, initially entered a more or less explicit alliance with the Brotherhood, which, awaiting a general election and even more a presidential vote, assumed a low profile in the many protests organised in 2011 to achieve the full implementation of the principles that had inspired the uprising. Such behaviour, and even more so the measures adopted once Mohammed Morsi won the presidency in the summer of 2012, resulted in the Nasserites, liberals and left-wing groups in general, accusing the Islamists of betrayal.
This mix of movements therefore took part in the increasing protests aimed at the government led by the Brotherhood, leading to the oceanic protests on June 30th, 2013 that created the framework for the legitimisation of the coup d’état that followed. The army’s intervention in politics led to a very significant repression of Islamist movements, culminating in the Rabaa massacre, when the Brotherhood’s permanent base demanding the release of the democratically elected president Morsi – arrested together with many of his supporters – was attacked by security forces that killed over a thousand people.
Furthermore, quite a number of liberal, Nasserite and secular movements have openly supported the movement led by al-Sisi. The more exceptional cases are those involving Nobel Peace Prize winner and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, and the leader and symbol of independent Egyptian trade unionism, Kamal Abu Eita. At least initially, they both assumed important positions in the interim government supported by the army. In other words, the long and complex path that led to al-Sisi’s coup d’état has resulted in great mistrust between the Islamist universe and the fragmented world ranging from liberal to Marxists groups.
This atmosphere obviously makes it impossible to repeat the political experience of the years 2000, thereby weakening the mobilisation capabilities of those middle classes that on January 25th 2016 once again stayed well away from Tahrir Square.
Translated by Francesca Simmons