A decade ago, a rebellion of unexpected magnitude shook the Arab-speaking region. Ten years later, people are still suffering the consequences of continuously deteriorating living conditions and escalating state-led violence. The present interview with Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy sheds light on the processes of the past and the impacts on the struggle for »Bread, Freedom, Social Justice« today.
marx21: Hossam, ten years have passed since people flooded public spaces in Tunisia with chants for »Bread, Freedom, Social Justice« echoing in the streets of the broader Arab-speaking region. What was the atmosphere in Egypt like the day Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell from power?
I was in a café in Alexandria the day Ben Ali was overthrown. I was with a comrade, Haitham Mohammadein, who is unfortunately in prison now. We were sitting in front of a TV when the news came on: »Ben Ali has fallen«. The café went up in cheers. There was euphoria among Egyptians.
How did that euphoria translate onto the Egyptian streets?
In the following days, small solidarity protests with Tunisia took place. However, the repression people were confronted with by the Egyptian state swiftly intensified the willingness to press for demands and follow the Tunisian example. On the morning of January 25th, small marches started that were all repressed. The regime went crazy. People went crazy. Met with rubber bullets and teargas, dozens of thousands flocked to the square.
Protests are nothing unusual in Egypt. How were these different?
I had never seen that many people on the streets. I had never seen police forces being that shaken up and running away from protesters. People chanting against Mubarak was when I realised that time was different. Following Friday prayers, protests and marches proceeded from all mosques in Egypt. Battling security forces and riot police street by street, people converged on Tahrir and its surroundings.
How did you feel personally, seeing people shaking the foundations of the regime?
For years, people dreamed of Mubarak’s ouster but feared challenging his regime. Now, millions of people were taking control of their lives and neighbourhoods. Barricading the streets and expelling police forces from the public sphere. I almost cried – out of joy, out of disbelief. Things were getting serious. The so-called »Friday of Anger« on January 28th, was one of the most glorious days in Egypt’s history.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime had been attacked by protesters before, but his regime seemed to be resilient to protest. What was the tipping point leading to his fall?
It was during the last week of Tahrir’s occupation, when protests were taken to the factories and the civil service workplaces. Strikes spread like fire all over the country, resulting in the military dismissing Mubarak to save the regime’s heads.
As an actor profiting greatly from Mubarak’s regime, the military was predetermined to be one of the main counter-revolutionary forces. What methods did the military establishment apply to steal the revolution’s thunder?
From the beginning, the military was carefully painting the revolution as a youth revolution. They wanted to blur the class lines and dismissed the massive labour strikes. But labour strikes did not stop with Mubarak’s fall. That is why the military junta’s first act after Mubarak was to legislate an anti-strike law. The regime’s message was clear: »You got Mubarak. This is where it stops.«
How did people on the streets react to the end of his 30-year reign?
For many people this was the end of the revolution, but for a small minority of revolutionaries, it was just the beginning. The hard part was about to start. Confronting the military, the neoliberal regime and social injustice.
Analysing social upheavals worldwide, it is clear that women often take a leading role in the contestation of regimes. Were women at the forefront in organising the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime also?
Women have always been instigators of protest movements and played central organizational roles in the contestation of the regime. As a labour journalist covering strikes, I have noticed most militant elements in strikes are usually women. A tradition of the international working class: whenever a class moves, the most repressed elements always come to the forefront and take leading roles.
How does their leading role translate into action?
During times of protest, police forces swept in and arrested or tortured the men – abusing and leaving behind women and children. Women started contesting police brutality by protesting in front of police stations, calling for their husbands release and showing solidarity with prisoners.
As you already mentioned, women and the most repressed communities suffer the harshest consequences in times of uprisings. What was the case in Egypt in 2011?
Fighting women became one of the counter-revolutionary strategies by the regime, using sexual harassment as a weapon. It is being used worldwide. It was condensed and intensely focused in the years running up to the revolution. Thugs were mobilized, picking specific women out of protester’s crowds, arresting or killing them, ripping off their clothes, and sexually attacking them in broad daylight.
Which other communities were subjected to state-led violence?
The same applies to Egypt’s LGBTQ+ community. The issue of homosexuality or queerness is instrumentalised by the regime, and used not only as an instrument against the political opposition, but as a means of controlling the Egyptian society. So, it is no surprise that after the counter-revolution and the coup, the biggest crackdown on the Egyptian LGBTQ+ community happened, coupled with a crackdown on women and revolutionaries in general. A known victim to »western« media regarding crackdowns encompassing imprisonment, electrocution and sexual assault was LGBTQ+ activist Sarah Hegazi. She committed suicide in Canadian exile in 2020, or better said, was killed by the regime through its campaign and her torture in prison.
The spread of the uprisings did not stop in Egypt but spread to Syria and Yemen also – just to mention a few. What is your take on the spillover of revolutionary demands to the entire region?
Revolutions spread with a domino effect. The first wave of revolutions hit the region partially because of the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. Mubarak was the biggest criminal of the region. The fall of the biggest client to U.S. imperialism and the »West« signaled to the masses in the Arab-speaking world that toppling the regime was possible. The rebels in Bahrain could do it, and so could the rebels against Bashar in Syria or against Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.
Yet, the regimes seem resilient and the ruling classes’ firm grip on power was successful. Did these counter-revolutionary efforts spill over as well?
Yes, alas, the defeat of the revolution in Egypt, with the July coup against Mursi bringing El-Sisi to power in 2013, also meant the end for the first wave of revolution, and initiated a counter-revolutionary domino effect. It filled Bashar al-Assad with the moral courage to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people and encouraged the tyrants in Bahrain to tighten their iron grip rule. Egypt is now under El-Sisi’s military dictatorship, Bahrain a quasi-fascist regime. Yemen’s story is no less tragic than what is happening in Syria.
What about Tunisia with its new constitution and free elections? Is it the only success story?
Tunisia, usually being presented as the one success story, has a police force as brutal and vicious as ever. It is still benefiting from the same impunity. Poverty is still prevalent and fills Tunisian streets. The unbearable situation culminates in huge bursts of riots on the same issues that triggered the revolution in the first place. The revolution was and is about social justice and the regime’s repression – just two of the issues still being endemic.
Why have the uprisings been afflicted by so many defeats while victories appear absent?
The only way of securing victory is through organisation. The organisation of militant sections of the local population that can bring forward strike waves; that can link movements in the squares to those in workplaces. These are the seeds of victory. It will take time for the revival to happen, but revolutions are inevitable!
Does that mean the revolutionary momentum of that time died out unsuccessfully and all hope is lost?
Revolution is a process. It takes place through a cycle of defeats and victories. As the revolutions in 2011 were the cumulative process of dissent of the previous decades, the impact of these revolutions will be enshrined in the region’s collective memory. Today, we are seeing a second wave of revolutionary upheavals in the region: in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria. In a show of solidarity, protesters waved flags of other countries, not limited to the Arab-speaking region. People drew parallels linking their struggles.
Do you believe this, as you called it, »second wave« of revolutions in Iraq and Lebanon and the show of solidarity can be understood as the legacy of the 2011 uprisings?
I think it is safe to say that they have roots in the events of 2011. These two countries have witnessed cycles of protests from 2011 onwards. For example, there was the »You Stink« movement in Lebanon in 2015; it was triggered by the garbage crisis. Demonstrators started to contest the political situation as a whole and with it the structures of power in the country. In Iraq the 2011 protests achieved a similar occupation of Tahrir Square as in Egypt, but were not able to reach the same scale.
What is the scope of these self-proclaimed October Revolutions?
The significance of the revolts in these two countries lies in their ability to inspire the wider region. Giving activists hope that the game is not over yet and pockets of resistance still exist. The continuation puts many regional powers in difficult positions. These are the playgrounds for imperial proxies like Iran, Syria, Israel and »Western« powers. It may be the first time in a while that people assume self-agency and start organising independently against these powers.
What makes them special?
These protests are happening despite vicious sectarian divisions used by the ruling classes in order to divide and rule the population. In Lebanon, they have more than 18 sects sharing power and economic growth. In Iraq, there is a massive sectarian feud between the Sunnis and the Shia. Both countries have armed militias in addition to the monstrous security apparatus. It is brave to demonstrate for the purpose of breaking sectarian divides and to start posing a threat to the ruling classes and the political order comprising warlords from all sects.
Mass protests on Lebanese and Iraqi streets diminished in the last couple of months. Is the uprising over?
The revolt might have subsided a little compared to the end of 2019, partly because of repression. Targeted campaigns against organizers – in Iraq even assassinations – and ordinary citizens taking part in the protests, hit the movement hard. Also, the covid-19 pandemic and the overall situation reduced mobility on the streets.
So, as you said, a counter-revolutionary domino effect hit the region. What role did imperial powers like the US, Germany and France play regarding these developments?
These imperial powers supported the numerous dictators in the region for decades prior to the events unfolding in 2011. They armed Mubarak, financed his regime and promoted him as a cornerstone for regional »stability«. Egypt is just one example, but it’s also the case for most of the other countries, not only in the region.
A democratic transition failed after all. How did the EU and US react to El-Sisi’s military coup?
Following the military coup, the European Union and the US initially denounced what had happened. Today, he is one of the biggest allies of the German state, with the government sending him billions worth of arms. Egypt was the world’s third-largest arms importer in 2019. They invest billions in equipment and training for the Egyptian military, police forces and surveillance. All they care about is their stability, their fight on terrorism, and illegal migration.
But terrorism is a threat to people’s lives all over the world, not only in Egypt. Should it not be fought?
Terrorism does not come out of the blue. It is not people misreading the Koran. It is not people being brainwashed. After repressing all forms of dissent, it was predictable that some sections of the population would resort to terrorism, which is ignited and increased by the actions of the Egyptian army. When all possible means for a citizen to live with dignity are taken away; if no jobs and no viable means of decent living are offered, obviously, people would throw themselves in boats trying to reach Europe, or resort to terror and violence.
What about »Political Islam«? Does it not promote radical armed movements?
The term »Political Islam« is vilified by the »West«. It has a very general and loose meaning. It encompasses a wide variety of political streams that range from reformist or peaceful mainstream political groups, all the way to radical armed jihadists.
What role did Islamist movements play in the revolution?
The Muslim Brotherhood was very influential during the 2011 uprisings. Islamists were part of that uprising at least in the beginning. Its leadership acted in a very opportunistic manner. They did not endorse calls for protests on January 25th. When it became clear that the uprising is going to happen anyway, they threw their lot in but sent delegates to negotiate with Omar Suleiman – chief of the national intelligence agency – at the same time. They tried to negotiate a compromise with the regime. On the other hand, the base cadres were part of the Tahrir occupation. They defended the Tahrir sit-in heroically during the so-called »battle of the camel«. Many of them died defending the revolution. The youth took a revolutionary stance on several occasions, they even disobeyed organisational orders about participating in the rebellion.
What classes do these movements include?
Islamist movements are cross-class movements. Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood has been led by people with money hiring people. Businessmen and well-situated people can be found within the leading ranks. They are part of the bourgeoisie. Though they may not be part of the bourgeoisie aligned with the state, they represent part of the ruling class. The bulk of the organization used to belong to the middle class: doctors, engineers, pharmacists, civil servants. The bottom has some working-class roots, gathering support among the working-class sections and the urban poor. However, it cannot be called a working-class organization since, historically, it has not been active in labour politics.
Is it even possible then, to politically categorise Islamism and push it back?
At the end of the day, political Islam aims at reforming the system slightly, step by step, leading to its own contradictions. This is what people of the leftist spheres must grasp and be able to deal with. Political Islam is like any other political tendency anywhere, there is nothing unique about it. Therefore, reaction to political Islam should be in accordance with the targeted group to be dealt with, and should correspond to the position and cause of the struggle.
What about the repression of Islamist movements by the state?
Do not stand with the state in its crackdown on Islamism in the name of fighting reactionary ideas. The state produces reactionary ideas like fighting a war on terror. Once you mandate the state to repress a group, it is going to use this mandate in the future to repress everyone else. If no clear stand towards Islamophobia is taken, if no clear stand against repressing Islamists is taken, the issues will deepen, alienate Muslim communities and political Islamists, driving them further to violence, fringe and radical politics.
How should the left react to the popular backing of the movements?
Revolutionary socialists in Egypt have taken the following approach: Join forces with the Islamists sometimes, but never with the state. I am not talking about armed militias though, but mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. Leftist movements need their own independent narrative, discourse and propaganda to win over the Islamists base. Islamist movements grew because the left failed and aligned itself with the regimes in the name of democratic national revolutions.
What do you expect for the near future in the region?
»The darker the night, the brighter the star«, as goes the Arabic saying. Those standing on their feet carrying the flag, continuing the resistance and looking for a socially inclusive future, are a beacon of hope for others. But, unfortunately, there is no quick solution or exit to this misery in the near future.
Why do you think so?
The scale of defeats in the first wave was bloody, forcing activists to organise in the underground. People are scared. People are exhausted. Many went straight to prison. Many got killed. There are some still trying to resist, still trying to work on the ground. They are creating or rebuilding the networks that were destroyed. However, this takes time.
Sounds like you are positive about the future after all. What should be done differently in your opinion?
I am still and always will remain hopeful, but I also stay realistic. When the revival takes place, I hope activists are better prepared than last time. Ready with organisational structures rooting in the workplaces, the universities, the neighbourhoods – a network baptised by people’s continuous struggles, fights and daily challenges.
Thank you for the interview!
Interview held by Karim Khoury.
Cover: flickr/Hossam El-Hamalawy (CC BY-2.0)