John Rees examines the momentous events of the last weeks in Egypt and argues the Egyptian revolution is deeper and potentially more far-reaching than most modern revolutions.

The self-activity of working people is at the heart of every revolution. The greater the self-activity, the greater the revolution. The greater the self-activity in one phase of the revolution, the greater its resources to deal with the challenges of the next phase. So let’s not hurry on too quickly, as some left commentators do, to the ‘inevitability’ of this or that ‘bourgeois settlement’, ‘betrayal of the revolution’ and so on. Let’s stay awhile with the revolution’s immediate past and present and assess this critical resource.

The Egyptian revolution is exceptional in the level of self-activity compared with most revolutions of the modern era. Even today in Tahrir Square it was on display in a thousand small ways. Squad after squad of cleaners are taking away the rubbish and literally sweeping every inch of the Square with domestic brooms. Another group of hijabed women scrub graffiti off the shop shutters at the top of Talat Harb, the main street running off the Square.

The curb stones in the Square have been re-pained alternately black and white in the old style. A line of stewards stands in front, arms linked for hours, stopping the still immense crowd stepping on the wet paint. Another long line of stewards, perhaps 150 in number, link arms around the tanks at the Egyptian Museum-end of the Square because, one tells us, ‘we need to keep the photographers away because the soldiers are getting tired of having their picture taken’.

At least three stages, each with its own huge crowd, have different bands and speeches going on according to taste. The field hospitals and the blood donation points have gone now, although there were at least four at the height of the barricade fighting with the Mubarak thugs on 2nd and 3rd February.

Some of the barricades remain, the areas in front of them now used as ersatz motorcycle only parking bays, homes for the indomitable Cairo Vespas and their lesser relatives. Food distribution still takes place, but the professional popcorn vendors have moved in now accompanied by the professional sellers of Egyptian flags.

And, crucially, what you see in Tahrir, huge as it is, is only a part of a greater whole. Increasingly the organised workers played a role in the final days of the revolt, helping to tip the balance. Some of the strikes continue and they are one sign that the great example of the revolution is spreading and deepening below the surface.

It is important to know this because when it comes to assessing whether the Egyptian revolution can sustain itself as the governing elite begins the process of trying to construct a settlement that will allow them to retain as much of their old power as possible, it is this self-activity which is the revolution’s greatest asset.

But to maintain self-activity, greater political organisation will be necessary. What can be sustained for a matter of days or weeks under the impulse of immediate struggles will require a more organised form if it is to last months.

In this respect it is worth noting that the revolution was not simply spontaneous as many, even among its participants, argue. There was in fact an interaction between conscious organisation and spontaneous response. A short review of the turning points of the revolution will underline this point.


Some have argued that the revolution ‘came from nowhere’. But this view is only supportable if you wipe out a decade of political development of the left in Egypt. When I first came to Egypt in the early 1990s the left was tiny and it was underground. They never met together, but in cells, and never openly. To meet them we changed cabs and only met in the coffee shops of the elite hotels on the basis that it would be the last place the secret police would look for a meeting of revolutionaries.

All that changed after the solidarity movement with the Second Palestinian Intifada in the late 1990s. It changed again with the movement against the war in Iraq and the Tahrir Square Intifada of March 2003. The Cairo Conferences were one forum where the left operated semi-openly – although veteran revolutionary Kamal Khalil caused every camera in the conference to hurriedly pack up and leave, with some delegates, when he called for an end to the Mubarak regime at the second Cairo conference.

But by the following year everyone was doing it. Kifeyah, the democracy movement, was never powerful. But the fact that it existed at all was unprecedented. The growing number of strikes and the birth of some independent unions in the second half of the 2000s was another sign of growing resistance; so too was the election of Muslim Brotherhood MPs in the last but one election, the one before Mubarak clamped down and cleared any opposition out of even the rigged parliament.

So could anyone predict the exact scale and form of the revolution? No. Was it without precedents, coming from nowhere? No. Indeed, in an article in 2003 called ‘Waiting for revolution’, Marxist Tamer Wageeh made the point that Egyptian society was at boiling point, objectively ripe for revolution. But the subjective element was also crucial.

Birth of a revolution

The first demonstration did not simply assemble from nowhere, nor was it merely Twittered into existence. The demonstration that began it all on Tuesday, 25th January was called by a group of young democratic, socialist and Muslim activists, and this call was then magnified by social media, becoming wholly greater than they had imagined. And then events took on, as they sometimes do, a logic of their own. The protest of Friday, 28th January was the first great mass demonstration.

Those who claim that the revolution was ‘non-violent’ should pay attention to the events of this day. The crowd burnt down the headquarters of the ruling NDP and then attempted to storm the Interior Ministry. This attack was repulsed with lethal force by the government. Even then participants confirm that the crowd were prepared to make another attempt on the Ministry before being persuaded to return to Tahrir Square.

After this insurrectionary demonstration the police all but disappeared and the regime encouraged both plainclothes police and ordinary looters to create a climate in which the revolution could be blamed for social breakdown. This strategy backfired as popular militias formed to take over control of the streets.

The movement was now so powerful that the regime’s last line of defence, the army, declared on the evening of Monday, 31st January that it would defend the protesters’ right to demonstrate. This helped to make the protest of Tuesday, 1st February a day of unprecedented mass demonstrations throughout Egypt. Perhaps 2 million protested in Cairo. For the first time state TV showed pictures of Tahrir Square.

Estimates were of between 4 and 10 million nationally. There were very large demonstrations in Alexandria, and Suez was in a state of insurrection even before this day. There were also large demonstrations in some industrial areas, including Mahalla. When Mubarak promised to resign in his televised address, but only in September, this was immediately rejected by an angry response from the crowd in Tahrir Square.

The Black Days: Wednesday 2nd and Thursday 3rd February

The regime unleashed a counter-revolutionary mob which almost succeeded in taking Tahrir Square. But the protesters built barricades and threw the thugs back. Again, advocates of the peaceful revolution theory should take note. When confronted with violence the revolution responded with violence to protect itself.

Participants in the battle of Tahrir Square tell of quickly learning how to make Molotov cocktails, of breaking up paving stones and building barricades. One young woman in her twenties told me ‘I think I killed one of them… but what else could we do, they wanted to kill us.’ Tunisians among the Square’s defenders passed on insurrectionary tactics from their own experience.

Eventually the counter-revolutionary thugs were driven from the Square, but there were widespread arrests and the torture of protesters. Some popular militias become reactionary, caught up in the regimes ‘anti-foreigner’, ‘anti-journalist’ chauvinism. The army remained neutral, although sympathy for protesters was shown by some soldiers.

The important point is this: the revolution was violent in the exact measure that was required to defend itself. And when violence was no longer required, its mood changed back, remarkably, to the carnival spirit that dominated it for most of its brief history. But the defence of the Square strengthened and toughened the revolution, just as the survival of the Kornilov coup strengthened the Russian revolution in mid-1917.

On Friday, 4th February a massive protest filled Tahrir Square, demonstrating that the momentum of the revolution had not been broken by the attempted pogrom. Mubarak’s last card was to try and exhaust the revolution by sheer tenacity. The international media played along by talking up the mood for ‘a return to normality’ on 6th and 7th February. Once again the movement responded by coming out in greater numbers.

On Monday, 7th February, Google Executive Wael Ghonim was released after 12 days in custody. His dramatic TV appearance fuelled the mood ahead of the following day’s protest. On Tuesday, 8th February the largest protests yet hit Tahrir.

The revolutionary mood was building and Suez workers and others began strike action. The next day widespread strike action by transport, communication and state employees increased the pressure on the regime. Journalists, doctors and lecturers joined the protests in organised groups.

But on Thursday, 10th February, despite being widely expected to resign, Mubarak refuses to do so, attempting to bluster it out in a televised speech. Widespread anger results in large demonstrations at TV centre and other government buildings. The next day the strikes continue, mass demonstrations sweep past the tanks and towards the TV centre… and, at last, Mubarak goes.

Critical issues

The regime failed to break the momentum of the revolution on every occasion. All its counter-revolutionary thrusts and attempts at concessions failed to halt the mass mobilisations. The armed forces of the state were compromised, but not fatally so. The police were effective only as plainclothes vigilantes since the first week of the revolution. The army remained a studied neutrality: not moving against Mubarak, but not moving in a decisive manner against the revolution either.

In the final days, however, it became clear that the army was in no condition to carry out a Tiananmen Square-style massacre. A retired Staff Colonel told me in the Square that he was in touch with serving officers who were not prepared to do this. Other senior officers were telling their families the same thing.

For all its splits, the army command have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo and cannot be trusted to move towards civilian rule without massive pressure.

But the working class revolt and the ambivalence of the army were the last straws for Mubarak. Added to these were the sheer stamina, guts and bravery of the mass of demonstrators in Tahrir and their counterparts in other areas. This broad and deep movement has carried the revolution to its first victory and bequeathed a heritage that will be hard for the ruling class to negate.

But other methods, more precise class politics and more conscious organisation will now be necessary to take the revolution forward, and even to defend the positions it has taken so far.

Now is the time for the left to show that it has the breadth of politics to win an audience with those who most want the best of the Egyptian revolution to go forward. Observing closely what the revolution has succeeded in doing so far, and how, is critical. History is our guide. All great revolutions start with a huge united impulse from the people as a whole. As revolution develops, its more well-healed supporters tend to abandon it or try to tame it, whereas the poor and the working class have a burning interest in taking it as far as possible.

The Egyptian revolution is not some re-run of previous experience. The revolution is cutting its own channel and we must observe its work closely and learn what is new in its already magnificent history.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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