Fear no more: power of the people

Phil England interviews Gigi Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian activist. She talks about the real causes of the revolution, the situation on the ground and Egypt’s future. A shorter version of this interview is in our latest issue (New Internationalist Issue 442, May 2011).

Corruption, injustice, repression of political freedom, censorship of the press – on every level the authoritarian state is reflected in its policies and interaction with the public, using the police as a machine of repression and torture.

Gigi Ibrahim.

Photo by Rachel Beth Anderson.

On the causes

Could you sum up what Egyptians were protesting against?

Starting with the call-out for mass protest on 25 January, there was a list of demands, including minimum wage and the right to build independent unions that really represent workers rather than the state-run unions. Obviously, there were democracy demands such as the end of the Emergency Law, to dissolve parliament due to the rigged election in October 2010, to detain the Interior Minister Habib al-Adly over his responsibilities for all the torture cases and the police brutality that peaceful protesters faced on a daily basis; also for Nazif’s cabinet to resign and to reform the constitution for presidential elections.

The slogans were Bread, Justice, Equality and Freedom. Under each slogan there was a list of demands, for example, for Bread it was minimum wage and to make food prices match wages. There is a great disparity: people earn 99 Egyptian pounds a month whereas a kilo of tomatoes costs 10 Egyptian pounds. This disparity is growing, and with it, anger is growing too. Food prices are going up and the wages haven’t changed for decades – the national minimum wage is 35 Egyptian pounds, just like it was in 1957.

Some people point to global food price rises as one of the elements that ignited protests.

Absolutely, they have a lot to do with it. But there is also a direct link with all the corruption that exists in every single institution from ministries to factories, and it is directly linked to the Mubarak family, his regime and the élite: people like Ahmed Ezz [former Secretary of the NDP] who monopolized the steel industry, or Hisham Talaat Moustafa who monopolized the real estate. The Mubarak family, tied with élite businessmen, basically own and control the rest of the country.

In the past 10 years privatization has led to thousands of workers being laid off, which contributed to the anger and discontent among every social class – even the élites started to feel the global recession. Corruption, injustice, repression of political freedom, censorship of the press – on every level the authoritarian state is reflected in its policies and interaction with the public, using the police as a machine of repression and torture.

In 2010 alone, we witnessed the highest number of strikes and protests demanding everything from minimum wage to stopping torture and ending the censorship of the press. There was a huge independent newspaper Al-Dustour, whose editor-in-chief was fired right before the parliamentary election. All the newspaper employees went on strike because [the government] was shutting down the main oppositional voice in Egypt.

On 4 February 2011.

monasosh under a CC licence.

Then you’ve got the sectarian issue: in December 2010, a permit for building a church was rejected and there was a lot of confrontation between the local people in a big Coptic community and the police – nine people died and 187 were arrested for demonstrating. The police used tear gas against them. In January this year, we had the Alexandria church bombing – the state security failed to protect religious sites. All this led to a whole uprising for an end to sectarianism, and calling for a unified law for religious practices. The police met this demand with brutality; many people were arrested and beaten. I was there.

And when [the uprising in] Tunisia happened and Ben Ali stepped down on 14 January, many people got inspired and started believing in the process of change through mobilization, revolution and the power of the people. That was the moment the oppositional and youth movements started calling for mass protests on Police Day, 25 January. They wanted to have this symbolic thing, not knowing that it would turn into a revolution. When people occupied Tahrir Square on 25 January, they started chanting, ‘The people demand the removal of regime!’ Even though we weren’t calling for that when we spread the word for the 25 January protest, that was the moment when it changed from a mass demonstration into a revolution. As an opposition and organizing group, we couldn’t demand anything less than what the people were calling for already.

On mobilization

One of the main narratives we get in the global North is that the April 6th movement was the main organizing force. Is there another narrative about the role of the unions that we’re not getting?

Yes. I’ll give you a little bit of historical background on mobilization in Egypt. It all started 11 years ago with the second Palestinian Intifada when people started taking to the streets again in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, this solidarity gesture turned into an anti-war movement: what started as anti-imperialism became anti-war. That led to Egypt’s first multi-candidate election in 2005. In 2004, the Kefaya movement – which means ‘enough’ – was born. It demanded the end of Mubarak’s regime and kept going until in 2006 it was confronted with brutal force; [the government] infiltrated protests with thugs and even sexually harassed women during those protests. These 5,000-10,000 people used to protest in Tahrir Square. Then in 2006, the labour movement got strong; women would go on strike, calling on the men to join them, to have more rights, higher wages and better pension plans.

Why women in particular?

Everybody thinks that women are oppressed in the Arab world, but when they mobilize, they mobilize as a class and not necessarily as a gender. The working class women in the Arab culture are usually in charge of the household – they’ve got the budget and have to scrape and divide it to make sure they manage throughout the month with very little money.

At that time, vicious privatization programmes and policies were being implemented, and workers started feeling it quite harshly. In Mahalla, which has the biggest textile mill in the Middle East, the workforce dropped from about 38,000 to about 27,000 workers, so they went on strike. Their demands were met, even though not fully, which inspired other workers to go on strike and demand the same things. There was a wave of labour movement striking and mobilizing. On 6 April 2008, the Mahalla workers called for another strike. But it never took place because the central security forces had occupied the mill, so instead the whole town of Mahalla erupted in a two-day Intifada. This was very similar to what we had in January 2011 – like a mini-revolution. This labour uprising in Mahalla in 2008 was the birth of the youth movement of April 6th – but it did not necessarily have close ties with the workers or Mahalla itself. It was more solidarity with the inspirational movement in Mahalla.

Since then until 2010, they’ve been mobilizing on different issues, not just worker-related but also anti-Mubarak and pro-Palestinian. April 6th Youth have been at the forefront – because they are the most known, not because they are the only ones. There was also a leftist movement – revolutionary socialists operating from the Center for Socialist Studies; they’ve been organizing for a decade on issues related to the workers’ movement. In 2010, there was a huge national minimum wage campaign organized by many different groups and also ElBaradei’s National Committee for Change. A group broke out of that and formed the Freedom and Justice Youth. Then when Khaled Said was killed, the We Are All Khaled Said group formed.

So the spectrum of the movement looks like this: on the far right is the Muslim Brotherhood, then the ElBaradei supporters, April 6th, Freedom and Justice Youth, Kefaya, and various socialist groups.

In 2008, the first independent union was set up was by the real estate tax collectors who went on strike in 2008 for the first time since 1919. It was a 90-day strike, demanding better representation and minimum wage.

Strikes are illegal under the Emergency Law.

Of course. Not only did they get their demands, but they were so organized that this committee became the first independent union representing 55,000 workers. In December last year, health technicians – who didn’t belong even to a state union – set up an independent union with around 15,000 workers.

Since the revolution started on the 25th, a lot of sectors went on strike, such as transport and postal workers. It was happening every day and it was increasing. Every sector that went on strike started setting up its own independent union. It was their decision to go on a general strike on 9 February that pressured Mubarak to leave. In two days, he did. This shows that it was the actual pressure from the people that started hitting the élites’ pockets that made the regime fall.

The most awesome thing is that the people didn’t stop then. After Mubarak stepped down, they started organizing even more: they’re now forming a new workers’ union federation that is independent of the state. The state union for public sector workers is completely corrupt; the Trade Union Federation is notorious for being the most corrupt institution ever. Because people have formed enough independent unions, they can form this alternative federation that would take over the state-run one and would also form the basis of the Democratic Labour Party that we’re setting up.

All these working-class sectors in different industries and sectors who shared the same demands want not only to have more rights as workers, better wages, better pension plans, but also to cleanse the state institutions of mini-Mubaraks and corrupted officials. They understand it better than anyone else, because they live it every day and they’re capable of running their own industries and sectors.

Tahrir Square Country.

Maged Helal under a CC licence.

On electoral representation

How do the people who are on the street get represented electorally and by whom?

This is a big challenge. After three decades of absence of democracy or any political life, all of a sudden people are expected to have representatives and to know who to vote for. We need time. If we had elections right now, the result wouldn’t be any better than what we had just a few months ago. We need time to build political platforms which would truly represent the masses.

How popular do you think the Democratic Labour Party will be and will it be sufficiently organized in time for the August elections?

This is why we are pushing to have more time, to further organize and co-ordinate between all these sectors in order to have an actual representation that reflects the people’s demands.

There is a danger that Mohamed ElBaradei might soak up a lot of the vote?

ElBaradei’s support is mostly coming from upper-middle class or upper class people who are not so keen on a Muslim Brotherhood or any other religious party and at the same time don’t want the dictatorship – but they have neoliberal agendas. They are businessmen, high professionals – maybe their economic interests align somewhat better with the old regime than with, let’s say, a workers’ one or a socialist one.

But I think [the Democratic Labour Party] would definitely be popular because Egypt is a poor country with a huge working sector. The public sector shrank because of the structural adjustment agreement that Mubarak adopted in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the privatization policies that have been viciously implemented. And now, with this global recession, it really hurts. People have no security whatsoever. If these people were able to organize – and they are heading in that direction with so much progress in so little time – that would be a huge force because it would make those socio-economic demands that everybody is labelling as ‘social’, political. It’s like, ‘If you don’t ban the emergency law, we will go on strike.’ This is a huge force, a huge power. Even if it’s not in the whole society, it will give so much political power to use work and labour as a political weapon – that would be the role of the party.

On direct democracy

People in Tahrir Square were reported to have held meetings and formulated demands in a kind of direct or participatory democracy. That seemed to be another significant, yet under-reported, facet of what was going on.

From day one, Tahrir Square was really a mini-example of what direct democracy looks like. People took charge of everything – trash, food, security. It was a self-sustaining entity. And in the middle of this, under every tent, on every corner, people were having debates about their demands, the future, how things should go economically and politically. It was fascinating. It was a mirror of what Egypt would look like if it was democratic. And it defied the stereotype perpetuated by the regime and Western media that Arabs are supposedly politically apathetic.

[The revolution] came from people’s daily struggle living under the Mubarak regime: anywhere in Egypt, but especially in the poor areas, struggling to get the bus in the morning, to make a living, to educate children... A lot of people said to me, ‘I don’t know how to make it through the month.’ One said, ‘I have a daughter who is getting married, and I don’t know what I’m going to do’. He showed me a few coins. ‘This is what I have in my pocket,’ he said, ‘This is all I have.’

These people understand exactly what they want and how they can get it. They have the power now because the fear barrier is gone.

And this fear was huge. Let’s say you piss off some businessman who is well connected to the regime. They can have you arrested for whatever – for not having an ID or anything, really, that they can make up. Their favourite is using drugs. That’s what Khaled Said was accused of, that he was a drug dealer or used drugs. They arrested and tortured him to death, this 19-year-old boy in Alexandria. The same thing happened in Alexandria at least four times last summer. You could be arrested and put in state security prison just for the fun of it. No accountability, no responsibility, no trial – they literally kidnap you, beat you up, rape you, then release you. Or maybe not. Maybe they hold you. The state security is a thuggery institution which cannot be reformed – it has to cease to exist. We want that never to happen again. We just need the civil police that take care of the day-to-day things – and that’s it.

Tahrir Square Country.

Maged Helal under a CC licence.

On the army

It seems to be quite a dangerous situation with the army in control. There still seem to be abuses by the army, violence towards people in Tahrir Square, the army reneging on promises, counter-revolutionary forces mobilizing, April 6th could sell out by supporting ElBaradei…

ElBaradei is the least of our problems right now. The main issue is that the regime is still intact. We took off the head but the body is still there and it’s still strong. The regime has been there for so long that it made a web of connections on every level – banks, businesses, public and private sectors – and it’s all connected by these tiny élites which control everything. These people are infiltrating the protests with thugs, creating chaos and instability, and running the counter-revolution that’s happening right now. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the army is allowing it to happen – at the very least. I would go as far as to call it ‘collaboration’.

We should never trust the army. It has ruled Egypt since 1972; it’s a huge part of society. The soldiers are Egyptian, so they’re part of the Egyptian public – but they are not the ones we’re concerned about. What worries us is the top generals in the Supreme Council – the same people that have been closely related to Mubarak. They don’t want that system to change but they can’t publicly say it, so even though they’re giving all these nice announcements about how they guarantee the peaceful transition and how they are the defenders of the revolution, at the same time you can see them arresting peaceful protesters, detaining and torturing them.

I was hit by the army on the night of 25 February, when we were sleeping over in front of the Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s office calling for him and his government to resign. At around 2 am, a High General came and told us that they had orders to clear the square. Not a minute later, they started beating and attacking us with cattle prods. We started running, but some of us got arrested and are now facing five years in prison.

All this shows that the army is using the techniques and mechanisms of the old regime in support of the old élite that still exists.

How confident are you in the army to deliver on the people’s demands?

Not at all. If anything was achieved, it was only because of the pressure of the revolution continuing. The army didn’t tell Prime Minister Shafiq, who was installed by Mubarak before his resignation, to step down. The people kept demanding he step down and eventually he did. This is exactly what needs to happen now: we have to increase the pressure and continue the revolution and never trust the army, even when they say pretty things. They have the power to cancel the Emergency Law, but the fact that they haven’t done it yet means that the people have to do it. We took down state security but at the same time, state security destroyed all the evidence that would hold them accountable. They shredded and burnt the papers.

If the army is watching thugs or police shooting at the people, why are they not arresting them? Instead, they’re arresting and torturing the protesters.

On the region and the West

What are your thoughts about the other events in the region? What can we in the West do to support you?

Libya is a different situation to Egypt. I don’t believe Western intervention will help, because they’ve got an agenda and it can never be genuine because it’s the same governments that colonized the Arab world for years. It would be naïve to expect them to be genuine about it.

But people-wise, people in the Western world can definitely be in solidarity and that in itself creates international pressure which connects people. An indirect way of helping is pressuring your own governments to stop making these policies towards the Arabs that are oppressive and imperialist – for example, selling weapons.

What the West could do for Egypt right now is to give us a chance to have our own struggle and build our democracy ourselves. We have a history of countries being set up – their borders decided by a Western country – and having a really strong Western, British or French hand in doing it. Nobody wants that model anymore.

To what extent do you think Egyptian people blame Western imperialism for their situation and for keeping Mubarak in power for so long?

Greatly, greatly. Part of the reason that Mubarak and many like him felt so confident in torturing people and making their lives miserable was because they knew they were backed up by strong powers that had mutual interests which would never be broken. Mubarak’s power came from the West, from the US, not from the people. So supporting a dictator by giving him $1.5 billion a year is a great power to feel. Mubarak knew that was not going to go away and that the interest of the US was to have Mubarak in the region – so he knew he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. After all, he has for years – so why stop now? Because the US wasn’t doing anything to stop him or pressure him to change – they were either giving him the green light or shutting their eyes to him – that made him feel even more powerful.

Do you share Samir Amin’s analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood and that it was used and funded by the West?

Absolutely. When the Muslim Brotherhood came into being in 1928, it wasn’t political at all. It was only religious. Throughout its history, the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime have constantly played the good guy-bad guy game. The top of the Muslim Brotherhood are lawyers, professionals and businessmen whose economic interests lie closely with the regime; but they use religious factors to gain support among the people. They’re smart enough now to know they’re co-opted and that’s why many people within the Muslim Brotherhood have left – they realized it’s not what they thought it was.

The Muslim Brotherhood, I believe, has been made into this big monster; some forces argue that if we let democracy happen in Egypt, the Brotherhood will take over and we will have an extremist society. The Muslim brotherhood is a tool that has been co-opted and utilized by the regime to stay in power, which was mutually beneficial.

On 25 January the Brotherhood printed out an official statement saying they would not partake in the demonstration. They joined only later. But even before that, they were notorious for never taking part in an anti-Mubarak demonstration. It’s interesting to see what the Muslim Brotherhood really stands for. If you take out all the religious bullcrap, they’re a very conservative right-wing party.

Throughout the revolution we heard time and time again people chanting ‘We want a civil secular state!’ We don’t want an Islamist state, we don’t want a military state, we want a civil state. There’s a huge debate going on about Article Two [of the Constitution], which calls for Sharia law to be the basis of law. Many, many people – perhaps even the majority in the country – don’t want that. They want to separate the state and the religion. A lot of people look at Turkey as an example for Egypt. Not that I necessarily agree with that, but from the street you get the sense that people look at Turkey as a country with a lot of Muslims which has managed to have a secular government. Yes, they’re controlled by the army and we don’t want that, but at least that’s a better model than thinking, ‘Now that Mubarak has gone the Muslim Brotherhood will be in power’. This is not what people want.

On the Revolution

There’s a film coming out soon that links the Egyptian revolution with the various ‘colour’ revolutions. For example, people in the April 6th movement were trained in nonviolent direct action by CANVAS – a group that came out of the Serbian revolution and has links to George Soros. There is also an al-Jazeera film that makes this link. What do you think of that?

It’s ridiculous, because it minimizes the struggle of the people who have been mobilizing for years before April 6th came along. It excludes that great struggle of the working class that was essential and even more impactful than any other movement because it had actual power to topple the dictator. The actual political power is in the working class and it was demonstrated when they called for the general strike which really toppled it. Yes, all the other factors are also important, without them it wouldn’t have worked. But it’s taking away [the attention] and I think it’s done deliberately.

When they call ours a Facebook or an internet revolution – that’s just bogus. Yes, we use the internet to communicate and spread information, but if the struggle wasn’t there, if the people didn’t take to the streets, if the factories didn’t shut down, if workers didn’t go on strike, none of this would have happened.

Tahrir Square, Cairo.

Jonathan Rashad under a CC licence.