Protesters opposing Egypt’s president Mohamed Mursi demonstrate in front of the presidential palace. The placard reads: ‘Void’. Photo: Reuters
Emma Hughes The years of organisation that lead up to the revolution often get overlooked but you’ve been an activist in Egypt for many years. Can you speak about the organisational work that led to the revolution?
Ola Shahba This revolution was built on ten years of organising. In 2003, when there were protests about the Iraq war we occupied Tahrir Square, but no one heard about it because we had to flee. That was the first time anti-Mubarak chants were heard. After this a continuation of movements happened – the Kefaya Movement for Change during the 2005 election, the movement for judicial independence, the April 6 Youth Movement event in 2008, the anti-torture movement and student movement – so we’re building on all of those. I started organising with a workers’ movement umbrella called Tadamon, or ‘Solidarity’ in Arabic. I was also in the Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. I was involved in Youth for Justice and Freedom – this was the main youth movement that was represented in the revolution.
EH Who are you organising with now?
OS After Mubarak had gone we saw it as a moment when a leftist movement should be formed. We needed to mobilise outside Tahrir, we couldn’t just occupy Tahrir. Some of us decided to form a little organisation of revolutionary socialists called the Socialist Renewal Current. This current recognised that we need a party that will bring us all together. Society is not ready for a radical party and we’re not strong enough to have four or five parties between us, so we need to unite. It is a mistake to think that we’ll only start a revolution with a revolutionary party – the revolution already started!
So the Socialist Renewal Current co-founded a political party. It’s a wide left party and we are the radical front within the party. It’s called the Popular Socialist Alliance. I would rather it was just called the Popular Alliance as it doesn’t have a socialist programme. Nevertheless I’m proud of the programme because it clearly states how we see the country functioning and how we see social justice. We participated in the election with a coalition of others and won seven parliamentary seats.
EH Was participating in the elections a difficult decision?
OS It was a difficult experience. Many people were critical and said we should boycott the elections. We discussed boycotting but decided to enter. We decided if the masses are giving the election legitimacy by participating then it is important that we are there and the people listen to something different. We expected to gain two or three seats and we won seven seats. We were supported by many front-liners of the revolution because they know this list involves no money or influence from the old?regime.
EH What is it like being out on the streets now?
OS We’re facing challenges on the streets. Because it is no longer just confrontations between revolutionaries and the police or the army but it is also starting to become a citizen versus citizen confrontation. This is what happened in front of the presidential palace on 6 December when the Muslim Brotherhood moved their members and the Salafi Al-Nour party also moved their members. We started sitting in front of the palace and a few hours later confrontation started.
EH You were grabbed on that day – what happened?
OS I was kidnapped and beaten that day by the Muslim Brotherhood. They took me and another comrade from the front line. They accused us of killing members of the group, which is absurd – we were actually there to provide medical assistance. They grabbed us and 40 or 50 men started beating us. They took us to a cordon by the wall of the presidential palace; the men detaining us actually came from inside the palace. They continued beating us. I was sexually harassed.
There was a line of men who were Salafis demanding that we should be injured or killed to teach the revolutionaries to not dare to oppose the president. I was held for six hours but there were 40 men who were held for longer, 14 hours, and given to the police later. The police treated them as victims, not as accused men. I was the only woman, so there was a separate line of negotiation for me because the Salafis there were insisting that as a woman, who had co-operated with the other side, I had to be killed and couldn’t be handed to the police. Eventually comrades negotiated my release.
EH How do activists find the strength to carry on organising after experiences like that?
OS The situation is totally unfair in this county and the whole world. We have started something big and we can’t stop. We have lost comrades, and some of our comrades have lost their eyes. The price that has been paid is really huge but the hopes and achievements are also huge.
Yes, sometimes we face harder things than people in other countries, and sometimes we find ourselves in life-threatening situations, but who are we to complain? I would never have dreamt of a revolution starting in my lifetime, starting when I am organised and healthy enough to participate. So for me it’s not even negotiable that I should stop – and hopefully I won’t have to.
EH What would a finished Egyptian revolution look like?
OS The Egyptian government and the so-called international community would really like the revolution to be finished. They would like to go back to establishing trade and political relations. But this revolution isn’t finished. We have a right-wing government of Islamists ruling now but we’re actually pressuring, affecting and changing things. This is not a victorious revolution but it’s not a finished one – this revolution is alive!
This is not a left revolution – it is not that yet. And we on the left must recognise that. We’ve acquired no social justice – we need a state that has better worker laws, subsidised education, health insurance law, residency coverage for the citizens and so on.
EH Strategically, how can you achieve those aims?
OS By building alliances in the workers’ movement. We must have a strong connection with the workers’ movement to build a front that can achieve change. In the last three or four days of the sit-in in Tahrir it was the workers striking in their factories that tipped the balance of power in our favour. At the moment the workers’ movement is not close to leading the revolution, but that is our route to a successful conclusion.
EH How are you fighting against the privatisation and austerity measures stipulated by the IMF loan?
OS One of the challenges we’re facing is how to link the disastrous effects of the loan, privatisation and all the policies that Mubarak was implementing, and that the Muslim Brotherhood also believe should be implemented, to the revolutionary struggle. We are trying to organise on the ground and link these policies with the daily suffering of workers and explain how the loan will make Egyptians’ lives worse. We’re starting a campaign next week on the increase in prices and it will link with another campaign started months ago against the IMF loan.
EH What action can people in the UK take in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution?
OS Monitoring your own government and pointing out that they are siding with a government that is violating human rights. The other thing is working against the IMF loan, insisting that there are certain rules for a country to receive a loan and that vicious loans and vicious debts are not needed.
Also motions of solidarity when there are confrontations on the ground. We’ve always needed that. We’ve always been able to say we’re not being beaten alone in a dark alley – the world can see and the world will hold you accountable. That is very important: solidarity means a lot to the Egyptians.
Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.