Decade of discontent: The road to Egypt's revolution

Ahram Online , Friday 20 Jan 2012

Last year's Tahrir Square uprising came as a surprise to many, but activists say it was at least 10 years in the making

Mahalla protesters stomp on Mubarak picture during 2006 mini-uprising (Photo: Reuters)

“The people demand the overthrow of the regime!” might first have been heard in Tunisia, but the phrase quickly became the defining mantra of what has since been termed the “Arab Spring.”

While demanding an end to the oppressive Mubarak regime, 846 Egyptian protesters were killed between 25 January and 11 February of last year, while an estimated 6,000 were seriously injured. Many argue, however, that the price of freedom had been paid for more than a decade by both veteran activists and concerned citizens.

The main reason for the protests on 25 January was to condemn police brutality – a common feature of the ousted regime under the supervision of former interior minister Habib El-Adly.

Public fury over police abuses reached its peak after 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death by two police officers in Alexandria.

“The murder of Khaled Said led to continuous protests against the brutal tactics of the state security apparatus,” Ahmed Bahaa Shaaban, head of the Egyptian Socialist Party, told Ahram Online.

Yet for a decade before the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, the country had witnessed numerous demonstrations against official corruption, spiralling inflation, rampant unemployment, pervasive poverty and warmongering on the part of the US and Israel.

In 2006, for example, the country saw the revival of its domestic labour movement after decades of stagnation.

“We had our revolution in Mahalla in 2006 against the mafia that was running Egypt, headed by Mubarak,” said labour activist Kamal El-Fayoumi, in reference to the massive strike launched by Mahalla textile workers to demand better working conditions and unpaid bonuses.

The Mahalla strike inspired workers in other sectors to demand their rights, and eventually culminated in the 6 April Mahalla uprising in 2008, when a nationwide strike was held in solidarity with long-exploited workers.  

During the uprising, two Mahalla men were killed by security forces while a security cordon was erected around the city. Consequently, in a notable escalation, workers tore down posters of then-president Mubarak.

“From that point on, we knew that revolution was possible,” El-Fayoumi recalled.

According to one workers’ rights advocate, Egypt’s labour movement “paved the way for the January 25 Revolution.” Journalist and activist Rasha Azzab described the earlier Mahalla uprising as “a dry-run for 25 January.”

Judge Zakaria Abdel Aziz, former head of the Egyptian Judge’s Club (EJC), argues that the 2005 judges’ protests against the Mubarak regime’s practice of rigging elections also served to mobilise the public against the oppressive status quo.

“We broke the pervading siege mentality; the popular fear of criticising the regime. Then protests erupted all over Egypt,” said Abdel Aziz. The EJC protests, also known as the “Judges’ Intifada,” demanded judicial independence and judicial oversight of elections.

Abdel Aziz says the judges’ protest helped trigger the hundreds of subsequent labour strikes and demonstrations seen countrywide. According to Shaaban, since late 2005, some 3,000 strikes were staged by Egyptian workers, peasants and the disenfranchised.

Shaaban went on to point out that several disparate Egyptian political forces joined the opposition movement at that point due to “frustration with the regime’s agenda, in which only those close to it – such as business tycoon Ahmed Ezz – were in control of money and power.”

Ezz, who is now on trial for squandering public funds and money laundering, is the former Secretary of Organisational Affairs of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP). Along with being a close friend of the Mubarak family, Ezz also enjoyed a monopoly on Egyptian steel manufacturing.  

Plans to install Mubarak’s youngest son, Gamal, as president after his father also served to mobilise the masses against the notion of “presidential inheritance,” say activists. “The inheritance-of-power scenario challenged the dignity of Egyptians after their long struggle to overthrow the [British-backed] monarchy,” stressed Shaaban.

Many activists praise the role played by the Kefaya (“Enough”) protest movement in aborting the presidential inheritance plan. Kefaya first emerged in 2004, organising demonstrations in opposition to father-to-son presidential succession and demanding that the elder Mubarak not run for yet another term as president.

 “In its first two years, Kefaya organised 150 protests,” Shaaban said, lauding the movement for promoting a culture of public protest among the Egyptian public.

Shaaban also blasted the former regime’s close ties with the US and Israel, which, he said, contributed to rising anti-regime sentiments that pushed people of different backgrounds on to the streets – both during the eruption of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000 and again in 2003 with the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.  

In 2000, thousands-strong protests erupted all over Cairo in support of the second Palestinian intifada, which eventually left over 4,400 Palestinians dead at the hands of Israeli occupation forces. Pro-Palestine demonstrations in Egypt, however, were soon put down by the same security agencies that would later attempt – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to quell last year’s Tahrir Square uprising.

“It was then that we realised that, in order to free Palestine, we would have to first liberate Egypt,” recalled Azzab, who had been a member of Egypt’s Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian Intifada.

Some three years later, in the spring of 2003, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the US-led war on Iraq, occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the first time in decades. Notably, it was during these protests that the first popular chants against the Mubarak regime were heard.

“It was the first time for demonstrators to shout slogans specifically directed at Mubarak and his regime,” said Azzab, who participated in the protests.

At one point, in a harbinger of things to come some eight years later, a billboard depicting Egypt’s unpopular president – located outside the Cairo headquarters of his ruling NDP – was torn down by irate demonstrators.

“Anyone who had closely followed events in the country knew that Egypt was on the road to a revolution,” said Shaaban. “It was only a matter of time.”

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