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Revolt like an Egyptian

Tahrir Square activist Gigi Ibrahim shares her experience of overthrowing a dictator

April 12, 2011
10 min read

What was the background to the revolution?

The most amazing thing in my life was being part of the Egyptian revolution. But this revolution didn’t start on 25 January. It is a process that has been brewing over the last ten years.

It began with the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, when Egyptians took to the streets in solidarity, and it developed with the protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Following that the Kefaya movement (meaning ‘enough’) was born in 2004, which mobilised directly against the Mubarak regime. In 2006 there was the Mahalla uprising – a whole wave of labour movement organising for a minimum wage, for more workers’ rights and for independent unions, because labour unions in Egypt were state-run and didn’t represent the workers’ demands.

A turning point came in 2008 with the Mahalla intifada. The central security forces brutally occupied a textile mill in Mahalla on 6 April to stop a strike. People were killed. It inspired a youth movement to be born on that day – the 6 April movement – which called for a general strike that didn’t take place.

But from then on came the birth of all these movements mobilising for different demands. Some of the causes were work related, some were socio-economic and others were political. But when you live under a dictatorship all these demands are directly linked to the authoritarian regime, to Mubarak.

In 2010 we experienced the highest rate of strikes and protests in Egypt. Many people from different sectors of the economy demanded political freedom and the formation of labour union associations. When the government refused to concede to any of the demands, even to a minimal extent, the mobilisation escalated. In fact the regime went the exact opposite way, especially with the rigged parliamentary elections in November 2010. The government didn’t need to rig the vote so blatantly or use such violence. The fact that they went overboard made people realise how weak the regime was.

What were some of the main forces that mobilised for the 25 January protests?

Before 25 January there was a spectrum of social movements. On the right there was the Muslim Brotherhood. Then there was the Mohamed ElBaradei campaign, which inspired a lot of people to be political but was more of a reformist movement – signing petitions to amend the constitution.

There was the 6 April movement, which mobilised for many different causes – anti-torture, anti-police brutality, anti-Mubarak and for an end to press censorship. Then the Revolutionary Socialists, who I belong to, are connected to workers within factories, especially in places like Mahalla, Suez and Alexandria. Together we had organised and called for a mass protest on 25 January, not knowing that it would turn into a revolution. Everybody jumped on board from the different movements, except the Muslim Brotherhood, who initially gave a statement saying that they would not take part.

In Egypt what would usually happen is that a movement would call for a protest and would advertise it with leaflets and using Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook there would be this beautiful turnout rate saying yes, attend, attend, attend. And then at the actual protest there would be the same 50 people who go to every single demonstration, including myself and my activist friends on Twitter.

But what happened on that Tuesday, 25 January, was very different. For the first time I saw waves of thousands of people on the street and it completely shocked me and inspired me. It made me cry out of joy. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

And that was thanks to Tunisia. The Tunisian revolution had inspired the Egyptian people to believe in the process of change through the streets. That had been a lost hope. Whenever we called for a protest in Tahrir before, it hadn’t happened, because the people didn’t think that it would lead to change.

So when we saw that the Tunisian people could overthrow a dictator we began to believe that Egyptians could do it too. This was an Arab country, an Arab dictator; he got kicked out by the power of the people. We could do that too.

But as social movements we weren’t preparing for a revolution, even on 25 January. We agreed to mobilise in a different way. We took to the poor neighbourhoods with many simultaneous marches moving through the streets chanting for demands related to the socio-economic situation.

And as we were marching in those poor areas we were picking up more and more people and momentum, heading to Tahrir Square in the city centre.

We were faced with brutal force by the police, but once we reached Tahrir Square – which was an amazing achievement to begin with – we said ‘Now what? What are we going to call for?’ At 7pm in Tahrir Square we had a meeting with all of the people from the social movements. We said ‘Now we need to write down what we want’, and the main thing we could think of was the arrest of the minister of the interior, who was responsible for many bad things. But the people around us in Tahrir Square, the majority, who didn’t belong to any political group, were chanting for the removal of the regime. So we knew at that moment that we couldn’t ask for less than the people wanted!

The older generation within the movements were saying ‘Come on kids, don’t let your ambition take you so high. You want to remove the president? Hosni Mubarak? Yeah, right.’ That was the belief on that day and it shows that this revolution was leaderless and not organised by any group. It was all spontaneous.

People took it upon themselves to self-organise. What united all of us were the demands that came from the chants of the people. It wasn’t planned; it wasn’t called out for beforehand.

How did the regime respond?

From the day of the 25th to the 28th on the street it was brutal. I was walking down Ramses Street and seeing people getting arrested without even chanting or doing a protest or anything. Police were randomly picking people, beating them up, using tear gas, using water cannon, using rubber bullets – I actually got shot the night of the 25th with a rubber bullet.

When they cut all the communication, that was the icing on the cake. That was the Thursday night before the big Friday protest on the 28th, but the word was out already. Everybody knew that after prayers they would take to the streets.

And when we did, on Friday the 28th, there were even larger numbers than on the 25th. It was a sea of people. That was the most brutal day we faced – it was a battle day. I was on Kasr el-Nil bridge. It took us six to seven hours just to cross that bridge, getting hit by tear gas and rubber bullets and even live ammunition. I was seeing blood everywhere. But people were so determined at that point that ‘No, we will not be treated like this and we will fight until the last blood in our bodies to have freedom and democracy and to take down this dictator.’

And we defeated the police – they were withdrawn from the streets and we took Tahrir Square. It was amazing to see how people self-organised without anyone telling them what to do. People started setting up tents and finding ways to get food and maintaining this organised chaos.

Tahrir Square had every single group in society from all walks of life. The rich, the poor, the middle class, the upper class, men, women, covered, uncovered, Muslim, Christian – every type of person was represented. We only called out for the demands; that’s what united the whole movement.

But then the pro-Mubarak thugs came in with the horses and the camels on 2 February. I saw the weapons and the brutal force. The thugs were fearless. They were just raiding Tahrir Square. It was like a scene out of some war back in 1700.

But again people organised. We used whatever was in the square and we were able to hold our ground against attacks coming from all the entrances. People took up the sidewalks to get rocks to fight the Molotov cocktails and the live ammunition that the thugs were using.

That was the scariest time for me. The previous day we had had a million people march, so on the 2nd the numbers were down in the square. Public opinion had started turning after Mubarak’s speech when he said he would only continue until September. A lot of people who were not involved in the protests started to say ‘OK, give him time, he will go.’

And the state media really played up people’s fears to the extent that for the first time ever some people were out protesting in favour of Mubarak. That scared me personally. I knew if this movement ended it would not only hurt us in the long run but it would be horrible for the people who called for the protests. We would be the first people gone.

But we held on, and by the night time the thugs had retreated. That gained us a lot of solidarity in the coming days because people were able to see on foreign media what the regime was really like. Meanwhile the state media was showing nice views of the Nile as if nothing was going on. It was so bad that it actually helped us in the end.

We built the momentum in the days towards the end of Mubarak, after Wael Ghonim’s TV interview won over a lot of people. He was the Google employee who was detained for 12 days by the state.

But most importantly the workers were going on strike consistently and increasingly every day.

On the day of 9 February there were strikes everywhere. These workers then coordinated together and were calling for a general strike and not two days later Mubarak was gone. The strikes had increased the pressure on the regime to the point where it hurt the pockets of the elite and upper middle class.

The army’s role in all this was to do nothing. People were shooting at peaceful protesters and they were just watching and not taking any action. A lot of people are sceptical of where the army is going to lead this now.

What is the situation now?

Even recently, peaceful protesters in Cairo were attacked by the army with beatings and arrests and military police setting people up for military trials. It is a warning sign that this revolution must continue.

But what we have now is that the workers, the labour force, are organising. We are creating the first democratic labour party in Egypt to give all the socio-economic demands a political, official, organisation.

Things are heading in the right direction but we have a long way to go. Democracy from the bottom up is not an easy road but this is what we have worked for. With a dictatorship like Mubarak’s, the only way to bring change is through the power of the people in revolution.

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