Photo: Tom Dale
The rhythmic clanging of protesters banging rocks against metal shutters, interspersed with the crack of gunfire, warns that you are near the frontline. Dense clouds of suffocating and burning gas fill your mouth, nose and throat. The ground is littered with broken rubble and smouldering fires. Fear of losing your eyes to shotgun pellets slows forward movement. After seeing friends carried away with blood streaming from their lids, you stop trusting the goggles.
This is Mohamed Mahmud Street, leading east from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Lines of police are attempting to assault and clear the sit-in occupying Tahrir. Blocking their way are the ‘ultras’ (organised football fans), leftist activists, students and many from the slums of Cairo in tracksuits and flip flops. Most are men, although women are noticeable – some wearing the niqab and throwing stones, others with long, flowing hair carrying crowbars.
With each crack of the police shotguns, two or three people drop around us. We load them onto a waiting motorbike, and others take their place. The bikes evacuate wounded from the front, bringing rocks on the return journey. When stones run low, the police launch a barrage of tear gas and charge, forcing us back 50 metres. A counter-attack regains the same ground. Block by block, back and forth, this battle continues for six full days, night and day.
Tahrir itself is heaving, barely 200 metres from the frontline. The level of spontaneous self-organisation is on a scale rarely seen in Britain. One million people pack the square and adjoining roads, squeezed in tight. Lines of people hold hands to keep pathways clear for ambulances to collect the wounded. Chants rise from different areas ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’ and ‘Down down with military rule – we are the people of the red line’. Discussion is everywhere. When two people start to talk, a crowd forms to listen and join in. But nobody is put on a pedestal. The protesters have not allowed any stages to enter the square, so there are no speeches from leaders.
Boxes of gas masks, bananas and molotovs are carried forward to help those fighting. Medics stand ready with vinegar and saline solution to spray – sometimes too eagerly – into your eyes. Others break up pavement into rock fragments that will fit in your hand. Even here, the air remains thick with the acrid taste of stale teargas after days of bombardment. People nearby keep collapsing, unaware that the gas is slowly limiting their breathing.
After the six day-long battle of Mohamed Mahmud in November, the revolution has more than 40 new martyrs. Many thousands were injured by the police violence, including 80 who lost eyes.
Then, a month after the ‘Milioniya’ November rallies in Tahrir, the army attacks and burns out the continued sit-in picketing parliament. Tents are turned to ash with flamethrowers. To prevent protesters returning, soldiers bombard anyone approaching with paving slabs, crockery, molotovs and sheets of glass – all thrown from the 12th floor of the parliament building. Despite the rain of missiles, protesters attempt to hold the nearby streets.
In the middle of the night, the army charges over a cement block wall it has constructed across a busy road. As soldiers pour into Tahrir, continuous machine gun fire forces protesters to rush for shelter. But the military fails to take full control of the square and is soon pushed back behind the wall again. In the surge forward, people confiscate batons and shields, body armour and helmets.
The ‘free’ elections
Egypt’s elections have provided a sickening backdrop to the violent repression of the revolutionary movements on the streets and in prisons. The media celebrated the most free elections in many decades, hyping ‘the successful transition’. But turnout has been low and violations were blatant and common, although not on the scale of Mubarak’s election-rigging.
Results have been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who are opportunist, pro-market and the largest organised force in Egypt; the Salafi Nour Party, ultraconservatives bankrolled from Saudi with a network of mosques and underhand support from the army; and the Egyptian Bloc, a largely neoliberal grouping financed by cement and media mogul Naguib Sawiris. Many on the left opposed holding elections while military rule continues, especially given the recent intense attacks on street protests. The resistance against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) junta combined with a lack of financial resources explains why the ‘Revolution Continues’ bloc fared badly in elections.
The elections have legitimised the junta’s rule and its supposed ‘transition to a new Egypt’. The army leadership desperately wants to hand over day-to-day government, while dictating the terms for its retreat back to being the invisible power behind the throne. It hopes to constitutionally guarantee its autonomy and impunity, its finances and web of corruption, while maintaining the ability to intervene when desired. This requires a careful balancing act with the Muslim Brotherhood – the two are competing for power, but recognise their shared interests – and their shared opposition to a continued popular and grassroots revolution.
Revolution and counter-revolution
The junta’s response to protests demanding its immediate dissolution has been to offer limited concessions, usually to the Brotherhood, alongside violent repression on the streets, attempts to incite sectarian violence and the active demonisation of leftists as controlled by an invisible, foreign hand. Meanwhile, the military still receives £850 million in US military aid annually, and Saudi Arabia siphons hundreds of millions of dollars to the Salafis.
Despite its brutal attacks, the military manages to maintain widespread public trust through its tight control over terrestrial TV and radio stations. Without access to mass media or a network of mosques, the left has struggled to publicise its positive demands and values – values with mass support across the country, contradicting the media’s portrayal of ‘increasingly isolated revolutionaries’.
Most Egyptians oppose privatisation and neoliberalism after past experiences of World Bank-imposed structural adjustment and Gamal Mubarak’s privatisation programme. Workers, leftist lawyers and NGOs have begun forcing renationalisation through the courts. Egypt’s new independent unions have been characterised as the largest social movement in north Africa since the Algerian revolution. The September strike wave involved many hundreds of thousands in collective action.
Aware of the potential of the leftist momentum behind the revolution to fundamentally transform Egypt, the junta and Brotherhood are both deploying a rhetoric demanding ‘stability’ – something Mubarak was always great at providing – and framing those demonstrating in Tahrir as isolated. These calls for peace and quiet – and an end to the uprising – are actively supported by the World Bank, foreign governments and major multinationals.
The revolution belongs to Egyptians, but solidarity and joint struggle are essential. The gas that kills protesters in Tahrir is produced in England as well as the US; the debt owed by Egypt includes £100 million to the British Export Credit Guarantee Department; and the largest foreign investors are BP, Shell and BG (formerly part of British Gas).
Despite the aggressive counter-revolution – both physical and discursive – the battles for Egypt’s future are not over. From Tahrir itself to the textile factories in Mahalla, from the fenceline communities resisting polluting factories along the Mediterranean to the football-supporting ‘ultras’ battling their way into the stadiums, Egypt’s social movements are still fighting and dying for freedom and justice.
Mika Minio-Paluello is based in Cairo with the ecological and social justice group Platform, supporting Egyptian movements in demanding social and environmental justice and critiquing international treaties and oil contracts. Follow Mika’s tweets @mikaminio and blog at http://blog.platformlondon.org. This article was written in a personal capacity
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry