As part of our series on the Arab Spring ten years on, we repost John Rees's reports from Cairo during the Egyptian revolution that brought down Mubarak
On 25 January 2011, around 15,000 protesters marched through Cairo demanding political and social reforms. Their protest came in the wake of the Tunisian uprising that had successfully toppled the Ben Ali regime. Below is a short documentary by John Rees with footage and interviews on the ground, followed by his reports over the course of the revolution.
Egypt: Inside the Revolution
31 January - Day Six: The march of revolution
This demonstration assembled this morning at 10 o'clock, it wasn't supposed to start until 2 o'clock, its 9pm now and it's absolutely rammed - people are chanting, groups of people are discussing politics, people making speeches, people all over the square.
But in some ways, this is only one development of the day. All around Cairo, at every intersection in the heart of the city there are popular militia controlling the traffic and the flow of population. There is probably a tank on one in twenty of the intersections, but there are militia at every single intersection in the city. The police have completely disappeared off the streets, people from the neighbourhoods have taken it upon themselves to protect themselves where they live.
The show of force by the regime today was to have six fighter jets flying low over Tahrir square. But this simply encouraged the demonstrators, as far as I can see. As one Egyptian friend told me: “They control the air, but we control the streets.”
I think people think the world is going to change. They have been under this dictatorship for 30 years, there are people who have been raped and tortured in prison, their families killed by the regime. They have done something absolutely extraordinary, and they think the whole world will have to change as a result of what they are doing - and who knows, they may be right.
We have seen a little foretaste of what may happen: The Egyptian police just melted away from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza strip and Egypt yesterday in the face of a Bedouin uprising. So, already the question of national self-determination, which comes up in all great revolutions, is happening in the Egyptian one right on the border with Gaza. So, yes, this is going to happen.
Everybody, from the US state department, to the British government, to the Israeli state, is going to have to change their plan. One of the incredible things that has been exposed for all to see is the dependency between the Israeli state and the Arab dictators. You can see that Israel is absolutely terrified of the march of democracy in the Middle East, that it has been absolutely dependent on a symbiotic relationship with the Arab dictators, and if that begins to change, then the whole region will begin to change as well. Those of us who have been in politics and been identified with the Palestinian cause for a long time will be aware of the old phrase that the road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo. Well, it certainly looks that way this evening.
But, needless to say, such things still hang in the balance. The young activists in Tahrir are pushing on. They are, as many tell me, ‘not afraid to die’. It’s not rhetoric. Ola Shahba told me last night that when she was marching in the front rank to Tahrir last Friday the protester next to her was shot dead. Mohammed Shafique was one of those trying to storm the Interior Ministry when the snipers opened fire. He still has the marks from shotgun pellets. He winced when I embraced him because the bruises from the rubber bullets are still on his back.
They are both organising today from the Socialist Renewal Current offices just around the corner from the Square. They hope Tuesday’s demonstration, the one-week anniversary of the revolution, will be a million strong. They hope it will be the day Mubarak goes.
The army’s press statement this evening that they respect the peoples’ right to protest and that they will not open fire on peaceful protesters is an unmistakable message that it is safe to demonstrate in huge numbers tomorrow.
The message was given directly to the crew of the military helicopter that repeatedly buzzed Tahrir Square today when protesters spelt out in giant letters on the ground ‘Tomorrow in our millions’.
Today the crowds in the Square were greater than yesterday and just as determined in a carnival kind of way. The Square is now a permanent fair.
Different groups gather crowds around them and make speeches or sing songs, often the ones from Egypt’s Nasserite revolution. Occasionally a ‘demo’ of a 1,000 or so will move through the crowd with its own slogans and chants.
People come to meet, socialise and be seen. Families walked around with the toddlers carrying anti-Mubarak posters like the one I saw this evening based on a famous play title, ‘The lesson is over, stupid’.
But the movement is also beginning to change. Mahalla, home of the famous militant textile plant were there today and many thousands more intend to make it Cairo tomorrow. And not just from Mahalla.
The state is closing the national rail network so that people cannot get to Cairo tomorrow. Activists are arguing with train drivers to run the trains anyway.
But whatever, there will be demonstrations. Alexandria saw half a million on the street after a funeral of one of those killed in an earlier demonstration.
Dina Samak, Al Jezeera’s correspondent, has just returned from Suez which she confirms is in a state of insurrection.
Popular power has replaced state power. Activists are campaigning for the Suez Canal workers to close navigation on the world’s most important shipping lifeline.
Tomorrow the left are encouraging factories where the bosses have fled to demonstrate under their own banner and to begin to run the firms themselves.
And the left are planning to issue a joint platform to challenge the 'El Baradi for President' bandwagon.
Tuesday, seven days after the first demonstration, will be a decisive day in the Egyptian revolution.
3 February - Day Nine: The revolution is in danger
Mubarak’s resignation in slow motion was a feint behind which the regime prepared a counter-revolution. That is the meaning of the plain clothes police thugs attack on the protestors in Tahrir Square last night.
The best reports I can assemble from the Square tell that the thugs almost got right across the length of the Square but were driven back by the revolutionaries who had, by late evening, retaken most of the area. They were being reinforced by marches from local areas including some key working class districts. Perhaps 7 have been killed and thousands have been injured.
It is the heroism of these revolutionaries that has kept the revolution alive.
We should not be surprised. This is the deepest, most profound revolution of this generation. Its international impact will be enormous, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. That is why it is the first duty of the left to defend it.
The revolution has already survived one attempt at outright repression. Pre-emptive arrests of activists did not halt the protests. Neither did the shootings of detainees or the murderous gunfire at the Interior Ministry last Friday.
Censorship has failed. The ridiculous state TV broadcasting scenes of streets with no protestors in them and claiming that they were Tahrir Square simply created more anger. Closing down the internet and mobile phone signals just sent more people into the streets say many Egyptians...if only to talk!
The attempt to create a strategy of tension around ‘looters’ in part promoted by police not only failed but backfired spectacularly by resulting in the creation of the popular militias which now control the streets of Cairo. This has spread and deepened the revolution.
As the police dissolved attention turned to the Army. But a crucial turning point came when the Army issued a statement on the eve of the massive protest yesterday saying that it would defend the people’s right to protest and would not open fire on them.
Of course the Army has not yet split and remains a unified military force, although doubtless there are tensions within it.
In areas other than Cairo it has been less worried about the use of force and yesterday at least some routes into Cairo were blocked by tanks to stop supporters of the revolution flooding into the city.
Now the renewed attempt at counter-revolution has radicalised the revolution again. The army has been reduced to temporary neutrality, in some cases soldiers have sided with the revolution.
In other parts of the country the movement is in any case more advanced. Suez is still essentially under popular control. Some reports say that the important textile centre of Mahalla had 100,000 of its 250,000 population on the streets on Tuesday.
There was talk, at quite an advanced and practical level, among activists yesterday about how to organise the taking of a government building on Friday if Mubarak did not resign.
There is also talk of getting workers to take over the factories that have been deserted by frightened bosses. Talk too of encouraging Suez Canal workers to halt traffic through the canal.
It is hard to know how much of this will go ahead or on what timescale but at the very least it shows that activists are strategically thinking how to deepen the revolutionary process. The founding a couple of days ago of a new independent trade union federation is also a hopeful sign.
But of course elite figures outside the Mubarak clique will also be making plans. El Bareidi may feel the timetable suits him. His popular support base is not strong and he may welcome the time to build it.
The Muslim Brotherhood, despite vicious persecution by the Mubarak regime, is usually a cautious opposition and has said that they back El Bareidi. Its youth organisations however are not so compliant and many fought at the heart of Tahrir last night.
So what we see now is not the bi-polar opposition of a broad democratic front against an isolated section of the ruling class but a more complex polarisation in which the resignation in slow motion will be used both by the old guard and the conservative sections of the democratic movement to try and get a ‘peaceful transition’. These elements are, as Marx said of the bourgeoisie in 1848, fearful of those above them and terrified of those below them.
The radical democrats and the left must now organise more systematically to frustrate the counter-revolution.
11 February – Day Seventeen: Egypt's people make history, dictators tremble around the world
For many Egyptians this is the greatest day of their lives. For the whole world, the Egyptian revolution will go down in history as an extraordinary example of people power.
It’s impossible to move in the Square, the scenes are emotional and exhilarating. There are millions of people on the streets - a sea of humanity - car horns, fireworks and most importantly a feeling of freedom, confidence and change is in the air.
The determination of the Egyptians has proven to people everywhere that collective resistance by ordinary people can change society.
They battled thugs on the streets, cavalry charges, and family members and comrades have died. Day after day, for 18 days, they came out on the streets in the belief that they could bring an end to the Mubarak regime.
When Mubarak dug in his heels, they came out in greater numbers. And the mass movement then led to a wave of labour unrest, which only deepened the crisis for the regime. Every day for the last few days, demonstrations have been growing. Now they are celebrating.
The Egyptian army now knows that if civilian rule doesn’t follow soon, the Egyptians will be out on the streets again. The revolution has raised the level of consciousness in society to a point where things can never be the same again.
The revolution has been a genuine people’s revolution. It has been peaceful, other than when the Mubarak regime provoked the demonstrators and shot people in the streets. If there was any violence in this revolution, it was due to the Mubarak regime, not to the protesters.
For all the dictators of this world, this revolution will put the fear of God in them. And for all other world leaders, they will think twice about suppressing freedom and real democracy.
There is no better sight in the world tonight than the view from the stage raised 30 feet above Tahrir Square. Hundreds of thousands chanting, singing and waving flags that stretch out North, South, East and West.
Only yesterday Mubarak was facing the revolution down. But the workers' action and splits beginning in the army were the factors, along with the sheer guts, bravery and stamina of the protesters, that has won the day.
I could feel that in two episodes today. A retired Army Staff Colonel came up to me in Tahrir Square and said the serving officers he was talking to would not fire on the crowd.
Then I was part of the demonstration that broke through the first army barricade and line of tanks at the state TV station mid-afternoon. It was halted at the second line of tanks but you could see the soldiers - tense but friendly - were in no mood for a massacre.
After the police and thugs had been decisively routed in previous encounters with the revolution, it was the workers joining the revolution, and splits in the armed forces, that have finally rid the Egyptians of the plutocrat Pharaoh.
Of course there will be more struggles. The debate is already alive in Tahrir about when it is right to leave the Square. How do we get rid of the whole regime? What about the class demands of the workers? Will a new regime break with US foreign policy?
Tonight the whole Arab nation, from Lebanon to Morocco, is alight. But nowhere more than in Cairo... here we fought, here we won. It is the revolution that will change the Middle East.
And when you change the Middle East, as my old mentor Tony Cliff understood, you change the world.
13 February - Day Two after Mubarak's fall: What is past and what is to come?
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.
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.
Before you go...we need your help
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.
More articles from this author
- ‘Long to reign over us’? The monarchy, land, money and guns
- 18 days that shook the world: the Egyptian Revolution ten years on - video
- Ring the bells of Old Bailey: judge halts Assange extradition
- The spy who never came in from the cold
- Revolutionaries and trade unions - video
- Corbyn suspension: seven lessons of the Starmer witch-hunt
- Trump is in charge of the political prosecution of Julian Assange