The World Turned Upside Down: Is Egypt Heading for a Social Revolution?

Written for and originally published by the New Left Project.

Note: this article was published before the fall of Mubarak. I think it holds up pretty well, especially considering the current wave of strikes in Egypt.

By Asa Winstanley

The massive popular uprising in Egypt is already the most important event in the modern history of the Middle East. It will have wide-reaching reverberations for decades to come. Arab tyrants around the region are already announcing pre-emptive “reforms” in the hope of staving off what US Senator John McCain has called the “virus” of resurgent pan-Arab nationalism.1

Algeria on Thursday said that a state of emergency in place for 19 years will end. Jordan’s King fired his (appointed) government, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen claimed that neither he nor his son would run for president elections in 2013.

The prospect of a democratic Egypt means the climate in Israel is now “bordering on hysteria” and the Israeli government is “freaking out” according to Dr Shmuel Bachar of the Israel Institute for Policy and Strategy.2

What started in Egypt on January 25th quickly escalated from a Tunisia-inspired intifada (uprising) into a massive nation-wide revolution against the 30-year dictatorship of key US/Israeli client President Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of Cairo and in cities across the country. This culminated in the “Friday of Rage” on the 28th which resulted in comprehensive defeat of the riot police, exemplified by the already legendary Battle of the Qasr al Nile Bridge:

Mubarak sent the army into the streets to “maintain order”. Night-time curfews announced by the regime on state media were openly ignored and have been a non-starter ever since.

What happened next may be identified by future historians as the point at which the intifada began to develop into a full-scale revolution. The police suddenly withdrew from the streets of Cairo and many other cities. At the same time, reports on state-controlled and western media outlets began to focus on “looting” and “chaos”.

Cairo-based Moroccan journalist and analyst Issandr el Amrani writes that looting was likely a deliberate strategy, planned by the regime as early as the 28th:

“According to reports circulating in the Egyptian press, [Interior Minister Habib] al-Adly was warned by Mubarak himself at 5 p.m. on 28 January that the army was about to arrive in central Cairo. The same reports suggest that a frustrated al-Adly decided to withdraw all police from the centre of Cairo and let loose the baltagiya – thugs hired by the police to beat up protesters – with orders to loot and cause mayhem (a Ministry of Interior document that appears to confirm this has surfaced on the internet)”.3

Faced with such overt criminality by a regime that claimed to uphold the “stability” of the country, the Egyptian masses began to organise themselves, “taking security into their own hands” as Al Jazeera English often put it.

Ad-hoc groups variously described as “popular committees” or “neighbourhood watch groups” began to form in a completely spontaneous manner (there had been a similar phenomenon in Tunisia). Many if not all of the looters were suspected to be undercover police or mercenaries in the pay of the regime, since looting seems to have been stopped after the popular committees got organised on the street.

Meanwhile protests continued to escalate and the army did little to stop them. On the 30th thousands gathered in Liberation Square (Maydan Tahrir) chanting against the regime. The most popular slogans were: “Leave, leave, leave!” and, “The people demand the fall of the regime”. Note the early focus on toppling the entire regime, not just Mubarak.

On February 1st, millions took to the streets across Egypt, with the focus still on Liberation Square. Mubarak responded with a defiant televised speech in which he pledged not to stand in the September presidential elections (such elections are systematically rigged). But he angered protesters by digging-in and refusing to take a quick exit out of the country in the same way as Tunisia’s former tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Of Egypt, Mubarak said: “on its soil I will die”. Many protesters expressed a desire to fulfil his wish by having him arrested and tried.

Since then, an interesting dynamic has developed: the US and the regime make concession after concession. But the longer they refuse to address the central demands for Mubarak to leave and for the regime to fall, the more revolutionary the masses become.

Outside of Cairo reliable news has been difficult to obtain, but the revolution is clearly nation-wide. Footage from Alexandria (Egypt’s second city) shows hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, in the streets. There has also been intifada in Suez, Mahala, Port Said and other cities and towns, reportedly spreading as far south as the Upper Nile region and as far east as the border with Gaza. In the Sinai peninsula, the home of many independently-minded and anti-state bedouin clans, revolt became more radical and violent after police used live ammunition.4

As early as the 30th there were reports of factories in Suez on strike, and news of workers kicking managers out and running the factories for themselves.

There are many counter-revolutionary dangers ahead, the first of which is the US attempt to prop up the regime by handing the presidency over to the chief-torturer and new Vice President Omar Suleiman.5. The technical term for this is a “smooth transition of power”. The regime is also trying to create divisions in the ranks of the protesters through the use of the deep state and media propaganda.

Divisive efforts currently seem focused on co-opting opposition parties, which do not have much of a following, into early negotiations. All parties outside his own have long been marginalised by Mubarak. The opposition did not organise the demonstrations, and their sheer scale took everyone off guard. Mohammed el-Baradai did not even arrive in the country before the 27th. He has been doing the rounds on US TV networks, but when he tried to make a speech in Liberation Square he was largely ignored. The Muslim Brotherhood actually opposed the call for uprising on the 25th.6 All political parties seem to be in a rush to make themselves relevant.

Despite many obstacles, there are reasons for optimism. Every time events seem to be slowing down, and the pundits predict a loss of momentum, Egyptians prove them all wrong and the revolution escalates. Indeed, for so many people, their lives literally depend on it.

The revolt is showing many early signs of popular social revolution, reminiscent of the wave of factory occupations, strikes and mass-uprisings that took place in Latin America in the late 1990s and 2000s. Youth, women, children and the working classes are leading this revolution. New independent trade unions have sprung up and there have been multiple calls for a general strike7.

Given the mysterious New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, the extent to which the revolution has been consistently anti-sectarian is heartening. There have been widespread reports of Christian Egyptians protecting praying Muslims, frequent use of the cross-and-crescent symbol and even participation of Coptic religious leaders (despite the fact that the church hierarchy, like the Muslim clerics of al-Azhar, has long been co-opted by the regime). On Sunday there was a Coptic mass in Liberation Square, protected by Muslims, and joint Christian-Muslim prayers for the martyrs of the revolution.

The level of spontaneous self-organisation is striking and highly impressive. Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal describes a scene in Liberation Square:

“Hundreds of young men guarded the square’s perimeter. Some frisked new arrivals and checked identification… By Thursday afternoon, several dozen protesters were wearing badges made of masking tape that specified their role in their hastily assembled administration. Doctors with medical coats wore pieces of tape bearing their names and specialities.”8

Democracy Now! senior producer (and Egyptian-American) Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been reporting from Cairo (his work has been essential, as has that of the Electronic Intifada’s Matthew Cassel). Abdel Kouddous described how protesters in Liberation Square began to clean up for themselves: “not only are they gathering the trash, but they are actually separating plastic, doing recycling”.9

The question of how Egyptians can take the revolution forward is now key. What is already being thought of as the Cairo Commune in Liberation Square is showing increasingly sophisticated signs of delegation and self-organisation. The Guardian’s Jack Shenker reports:

“… potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large. Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.”10

Were the US or Israel to intervene more forcefully and directly, the situation could begin to resemble the Spanish Civil war. A massive escalation of the global solidarity campaign would then be a matter of urgency.

Asa Winstanley is an independent journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He has a book about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine coming out on Pluto Press in 2011. His website is


[1]  McCain said: “This virus is spreading throughout the Middle East”. Democracy Now! headlines, 4th February. On the return of pan-Arabism, see recent Anthony Shadid articles in the New York Times, including: “Yearning for Respect, Arabs Find a Voice”, 29 January; and “Street Battle Over the Arab Future”, 2 February.

[2]  Rachel Shabi, “Israel’s government raises alarm at events in Egypt”, the Guardian, 4 February. See also Ali Abunimah, “Egypt’s uprising and its implications for Palestine”, Electronic Intifada, 29 January.

[3] Issandr el-Amrani, “Why Tunis, Why Cairo?”, London Review of Books, 5 February.

[4] See for example: Mohammed Omer, “Revolution spreads to Egypt’s deprived Sinai”, Electronic Intifada, 1 February; and Matt Bradley, “Bedouin Arms Smugglers See Opening in Sinai”, Wall Street Journal,  5 February.

[5] See Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Spreading Egyptian Values”, New Left Project Blog, 6 February; and Sallam, Stacher & Toensing, “Into Egypt’s Uncharted Territory”,  MERIP, 1 February.

[6] For some rational analysis and history on the Muslim Brotherhood, away from the hysteria, see:  Juan Cole, “Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979”, Informed Comment blog, 2 February; and Ian Johnson, “Washington’s Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood”, New York Review of Books blog, 5 February.

[7] “Egyptian workers form new union”, TUC Press Release, 30 January.

[8] Charles Levinson, “In Tahrir Square, Protesters Dig In”, Wall Street Journal, 4 February.

[9] Transcript: “Voices of the Egyptian Revolution”, Democracy Now!, 2 February.

[10] Jack Shenker, “Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure”, the Guardian, 5 February.