If we’re talking about the day itself, one of the main issues involved in the uprising was the question of police brutality and oppression, so that was the link to Police Day. But if you’re talking about the revolution in general, there are three different levels of causes. There are long-term historical and structural causes; there are medium-term causes, which have to do with developments during the last decade of Mubarak’s rule; and there are triggers that have to do with why the uprising took place at that particular moment in time.
In terms of long-term structural causes: it has to do with the peculiarities of capitalist development in postcolonial Egypt — not simply the general contradictions of uneven and combined development
, but also the shift from the short-lived state capitalist phase of the 1950s and 1960s to the failed attempts to significantly develop the economy through neoliberal reforms.
This does not mean that there was no capitalist development, but this development was constantly crisis-ridden and slow when compared to other countries like Turkey.
Turning to medium-term causes of the revolution during the last ten years of Mubarak’s rule, there are two main elements. The first was an acceleration of neoliberal reforms from 2004 onwards — in terms of privatization, in terms of the removal of crucial state subsidies for the poor leading to a rapid decline in living standards, and in terms of the removal of all kinds of restrictions on the free movement of capital.
This was embodied by what has been called the businessmen’s government of Ahmed Nazif
that started in 2004. On the one hand, there was an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an alliance that included the army and police generals, the ruling party leadership, and a group of monopoly capitalists linked to the Mubarak family, and on the other hand a steep rise in poverty and unemployment.
The second element is the development of a variety of protest movements in Egypt during the last ten years of Mubarak’s rule. Let’s divide them into political movements and economic movements.
On the political side, there was the movement in support of the Palestinian Intifada of 2000, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and the secular opposition on the other. They really were two separate Intifada solidarity movements. They developed rapidly, and for the first time in decades, we saw quite unexpectedly the eruption of a mass mobilization.
There were demonstrations by high school kids, mass demonstrations coming out of the universities, and even some big demonstrations in poor districts in support of the Intifada. That moment was an important turning point in the politicization of large sections of young people in Egypt, something that hadn’t happened since the 1970s on that scale.
Then again in 2003, the same kind of groups and solidarity networks developed in response to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. There were major demonstrations in nearly every Egyptian city, and at this time there was also the first serious occupation of Tahrir Square. It was the first time that pictures of Mubarak were burned, and people made a direct link between opposition to the US war and opposition to the Mubarak regime.
The mobilizations against the Iraq War
also marked the emergence of two types of opposition: on the one hand, a left-secular opposition; and on the other hand, an Islamic opposition, mainly led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that wanted to exert its influence in anti-Mubarak actions. These two wings each contributed to what later became a much larger movement.
Then in 2004, the same two players participated in the third stage of the development of political protest movements: the democracy movement. And the democracy movement, because it depended on a very broad alliance of forces, created a kind of united front called Kefaya
, which means “Enough.”
This united front included Nasserists, liberals, and several left-wing organizations, including the Egyptian Communist Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, and others.
It also brought together many significant independent figures who signed onto the Kefaya movement — journalists, artists, writers, and so on. The Muslim Brotherhood was also represented in the Kefaya movement but did not take up a very active role in the beginning.
The Kefaya demonstrations in late 2004 had three main demands. The first was that Mubarak would not nominate himself again for elections and that his son would not run for the presidency. The second was to lift Egypt’s emergency laws. And the third was to have free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. As you can see, these were very basic democratic demands that allowed this broad alliance to take shape.
What was surprising was that despite the fact that the early demonstrations against Mubarak, organized by the Kefaya movement, were very small, the general support on the street was very wide. It resonated so much, in fact, that the Muslim Brotherhood was under extreme pressure to start moving in the same direction.
So, early in 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood organized mass demonstrations for exactly the same democratic demands. They were able to organize much bigger demonstrations, both inside the university campuses and on the streets.
It was the first time in years that the Muslim Brotherhood organized demonstrations, for example, in Ramsis Square, which is half a kilometer from Tahrir Square, where they mobilized more than seven thousand Muslim Brotherhood activists. There were mass arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005, and though there were also severe restrictions on Kefaya, it was nothing like the level of repression that the Muslim Brotherhood faced during that period.
Turning to the economic movements, in 2006 the largest wave of worker strikes in modern Egyptian history takes place, starting with a major strike involving 24,000 workers in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a city known for its massive textile industry.
In 2007, the strike wave spread to nearly every single industry, including the service sector, the entire public sector, and even spreading to doctors, professionals, and nurses.
This was not completely unrelated to the fact that there was a significant political movement in the preceding years, but it was not directly linked to this movement, nor organized by those who were mobilizing the political demonstrations.
For the radical left, the question became how to try to link this emerging workers movement with the democratic political demands that were starting to get a wider audience. And this remained a central question.
Two important developments also took place in the workers movement as a consequence of the increase in class struggle. One was the emergence of independent trade unions, which had been completely controlled by the state since Nasser nationalized them and outlawed independent unions.
With the massive strike wave in 2006 and 2007, the first important development was the start of strike committees growing into the early stages of an independent trade union movement. That was a historically significant shift in the workers movement.
The second very important development was that textile workers in Mahalla tried to organize a general strike on April 6, 2008, but state repression turned the event into a massive anti-Mubarak protest. On the morning of April 6, security forces broke into the factory and occupied it before the workers were able to. The police attempted to compel workers to run the machines and to escort them out of the factory at the end of the day in order to stop mass protests from developing.
But the repression provoked a huge explosion of protests throughout the town of Mahalla, which is an industrial city of about half a million people. The protests involved all sectors of the population — workers, elementary school kids, high school students, women — and it turned into the biggest demonstration the town had seen in decades.
Billboards of Mubarak were burned town, several government buildings were attacked, police cars were set on fire, several people were shot, and there were major confrontations.
Eventually, the movement in Mahalla was surrounded and crushed, but it was a sign of things to come. It was a rehearsal for what would happen three years later. And you can see here the economic and the political dimensions starting to merge — the attempts at a strike that had purely economic demands turning into an anti-Mubarak mass demonstration.
That’s why one of the biggest youth movements that developed during the last years of Mubarak’s rule called itself the April 6 Youth Movement
, which was the date of the main Mahalla strike in 2008.
Finally, to return to the three levels of causes of the Egyptian Revolution, we’ve already covered long- and medium-term causes, and we’re now at the third level, the short-term triggers. There are three main triggers.
The first is the 2010 elections. In the 2005 elections, eighty-eight Muslim Brotherhood candidates won seats out of what were then around four hundred seats in parliament. In the 2010 elections, there was literally no opposition at all. Not a single seat was won by the Brotherhood. The election was totally rigged, controlled by the police completely.
There were three rounds in the 2010 elections. In the first round, the Brotherhood ran candidates, but the police surrounded all the polling stations and only allowed people with National Democratic Party cards or who were known to the police to enter.
In response, the Brotherhood boycotted the second and third rounds. As a result, there was a parliament with a few independents, but more than 95 percent of legislators were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Of course, this produces an enormous contradiction. The government was moving towards further repression in an attempt to “nationalize” all political space, while at the same time the workers movement and the democratic movement were emerging as vocal, independent forces.
The second main trigger was the Tunisian Revolution. The 2010 elections were held in November, and in December, a massive mobilization of Tunisian people toppled US-backed dictator Ben Ali from power.
The third trigger was the torture, beating, and murder of a young blogger in Alexandria named Khaled Said
. Said’s death sparks a movement of sorts around the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” as well as street protests in Alexandria, and his murder becomes emblematic of the brutality, police repression, and corruption of the Mubarak regime.