Ten years ago, opposition forces called for protests in Egypt to be held on January 25th. The date was highly symbolic, since just the year before Hosni Mubarak’s regime had made that day a national holiday to celebrate the police force. Despite what had recently happened in Tunisia, where mass mobilizations had forced longstanding dictator Ben Ali out of power, expectations were not particularly high among Egyptian political militants. In 2010, after all, a very similar demonstration attracted just a few hundred participants, who were beaten and arrested by security forces in scarcely more than half an hour. Many of them did not dare to think that something different would have been possible. Yet, history had something radically different in store.
On January 25th, 2011, while small-to-medium-sized crowds gathered in many Egyptian cities, some 15,000 to 20,000 people marched to Tahrir Square in central Cairo, marking the beginning of the now-famous 18 days that ultimately led to the fall of Mubarak. The ousting of the dictator did not halt the revolutionary process, as the armed forces had hoped. Rather, it became the springboard for an unprecedented process of self-emancipation of marginalized groups. In a development that was simply unthinkable just a few days before the outbreak of mass protests, entrenched hierarchies were deeply challenged, politicized art flourished everywhere, and hitherto voiceless people turned out to make their opinions known. In factories and offices, moreover, workers disputed the authority of big and small “Mubaraks”, moving the revolution from squares to workplaces and leading to the greatest wave of strikes in Egypt’s history.
The greatest revolutionary process in a time of revolts
In a recently published pamphlet, Italian philosopher Donatella Di Cesare explores today’s world politics through the theoretical prism of the concept of revolt (Il tempo della rivolta, Bollati Boringhieri, 2020). While it might be debatable whether this is correct or not, she certainly underscores one of the most peculiar features of the last decade. That is, the extraordinary high level of mass mobilization. In 2019 alone, for instance, the last year before the outbreak of a pandemic crisis that has buttressed many governments in various regions, uprisings or large-scale protests occurred in Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Puerto Rico, and Sudan. Confirming a trend that had already emerged in previous years, the Middle East and North Africa scored at the top in this regard. As a matter of fact, the region has been engulfed by two main waves of mass protests over the last decade. The first developed between 2010 and 2013, leading to the fall of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, as well as to serious threats to others in countries such as Syria and Bahrain. The second wave emerged first in Sudan in December 2018, reaching Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon in the course of the following year.
In both waves, however, high initial hopes ranging over different aspects such as social justice, political freedom, and civil liberties have rapidly faded away. Not only today’s Middle East and North Africa appear more autocratic than in 2010, but long-lasting civil wars continue in Yemen, Libya, and Syria – although the level of violence has recently scaled down, at least in the case of the latter two. The emergence of procedural democracy in Tunisia stands out therefore as a significant countertrend. Even in this case, however, social justice and wealth redistribution, let alone class reconfiguration, have remained completely unachieved. The impressive number of protests and riots that characterized the ten-year anniversary of Ben Ali’s fall, just days ago, represents evidence that nothing has really changed for the working classes in Tunisia.
This brings us to the second important element that emerges from a decade of revolts in the Middle East and beyond it. That is, the incapacity of revolutionary movements to revolutionize societies. The Egyptian events represent a case in point here and seem to vindicate the often repeated claim that “those who make revolution halfway, only dig their own graves”. The success of the counter-revolution in the guise of a military coup led by al-Sisi in July 2013 has in fact led to an unprecedented high level of political repression and lack of basic freedoms in Egypt. For many social and political activists, the most immediate consequences of the instauration of a de facto military dictatorship have been years of jail, torture, exile, or forced silence. The dream of radically changing the world (or at least some parts of it) has thus ended in up in the nightmare of brutal repression. The cruelest verdict appears the fact that al-Sisi’s Egypt is worse than Mubarak’s. There is therefore a strong tendency among commentators and activists to depict the 2011–13 revolutionary situation as an ephemeral and passing moment. Yet this is not the case. Whilst it is certainly difficult to correctly evaluate the long-lasting legacies of the Egyptian revolution, millions and millions of men and women have been profoundly affected by the revolution itself. It is likely that ideas such as self-emancipation and political participation remain alive in the hearts and minds of many Egyptians, who for the first time felt masters of their own lives. This change in their consciousness is currently invisible due to state repression, but it might spectacularly re-emerge in the course of a new cycle of protests. The last weeks in Egypt may indicate something in this regard.
A new wave of workers’ protests
On January 18th, an estimated 4,000 workers staged a sit-in at the Iron and Steel Company’s headquarters in Helwan, just a few kilometers south of Cairo. Workers protested against the State’s decision to liquidate the public sector company, which currently employs about 7,000 workers. The gigantic industrial complex was originally established in 1958, when after the Suez crisis, Nasser’s regime had clearly chosen a model of development based on a strong State intervention in the economy and a close collaboration with the Soviet Union. The establishment of the iron and steel factory in Helwan was therefore one of the symbols of Egypt’s State capitalism, which aimed at building a strong industrial sector and achieving actual and not only formal independence from Western powers. As other cases have shown both in Egypt and elsewhere, huge concentrations of workforce tend to create, however, particularly favorable conditions for the emergence of a strong labor movement that might contest governmental decisions. In this regard, Helwan has not been an exception, rapidly emerging as one of the strongholds of the Egyptian working class. There are two turning points that should be briefly recalled here.
The first important episode of labor activism in Helwan happened in 1971. Nasser’s economic model had already entered crisis in the mid-1960s, suffering a symbolic blow from the 1967 defeat in the war against Israel, which shattered the myth of so-called Arab Socialism and Pan-Arabism. The Egyptian government embarked on a series of austerity measures. Workers replied with protests and sit-ins to defend their salaries. In the late 1960s, leftist organizations organized mass meetings to discuss political and economic issues in Helwan, attracting as many as four or five thousand workers. In response, the regime cracked down violently and closed the Socialist Institute, where the main meetings were held. When wages started eroding once again in the very early 1970s, workers staged a massive sit-in at the Iron and Steel Company in Helwan, which employed 30,000 people at the time. Eventually, security forces stormed the protest, which was about 10,000 workers strong, arresting 3,000 of them.
The second critical turning point in the history of the labor movement in Helwan happened in 1989, when two sit-ins were staged in July and August. In sharp contrast to the 1971 protests, however, when workers had not halted production – as the product of the overwhelming hegemonic representation of workers as the rank-and-file soldiers in the struggle against Western imperialism – the Iron and Steel Company was occupied over the August 1989 sit-in. The reaction of security forces was even more brutal this time: they fired rubber bullets, killing one worker, wounding a dozen, and arresting five to six hundred.
Today’s protests at the Iron and Steel Company in Helwan are built on the factory’s legacy of labor activism. At the same time, the experience of the 2011–13 revolution clearly reverberates in the chants, demands, and behavior of the steelworkers in Helwan. From this point of view, it is interesting to note that other significant workers’ protests were also staged at the textile factory in Kafr al-Dawwar and the State-owned Delta Company for Fertilizers and Chemical Industries over the last weeks. In the latter case, the regime’s decision to liquidate the factory led to huge protests by the company’s 2,500 workers. In the wake of the protests, security forces broke down the sit-in and arrested at least 13 workers.
The ten-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution coincides therefore with the sudden re-emergence of the labor movement in Egypt. In a particularly complicated situation for workers and lower classes, it represents the best legacy of the 2011–13 revolution, which continues to live in the broad aspirations for a more democratic and equal country.
Gianni Del Panta is the author of L’Egitto tra rivoluzione e controrivoluzione (Il Mulino, 2019) .
Cover Photo: Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt’s Sharkia governorate – 29/1/2020 (Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP).
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