People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 07

February 13, 2011


Egypt: People Make History


Prakash Karat



PEOPLE around the world have watched with exhilaration the uprising of the Egyptian people.  Since January 25, for fifteen days (up to February 9), millions of Egyptians have joined the mass revolt.  All sections of the people particularly the young, the workers, middle classes, ordinary men and women have come out against the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak.  They are all united in the resolve to end the Mubarak regime and usher in a new democratic set-up. The energy, determination and courage shown by the people assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo shows history is in the making.  Around 300 people have laid down their lives in this struggle.


Egypt is the biggest Arab nation with 82 million people.   Historically it has been the political and cultural centre of the Arab nations.  What happens in Egypt will have a crucial impact on the entire region.


In 1952, the officers’ revolution overthrew the old and decadent  monarchy.  Under the leadership of Nasser and the army, a secular Arab republic was founded which became a beacon for Arab nationalism. It drew the ire of the Western imperialist powers who sought to grab the Suez Canal and vainly tried to keep it under its occupation.  Egypt, under Nasser, became a leading member of the non-alignment movement. But in the seventies came a dramatic turnaround. 




Under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, Egypt opened up its economy to the West.  Sadat signed the infamous treaty with Israel in 1979 under US auspices.  The Egypt-Israel alliance became the key for the US to control the Middle East.   The US poured in billions of dollars to shore up Sadat and later the Mubarak regime.  Underpinning this regime is the army which receives 1.3 billion dollars annually as aid from America.  Egypt has been coordinating with Israel to contain the Palestinian movement.  The Rafah crossing into Gaza from the Egyptian side  is tightly regulated to facilitate the blockade of Gaza by Israel.


Egypt has been a key link in the US “war against terror”.  The Mubarak regime has been receiving prisoners kidnapped by the CIA from around the world to be tortured in the  prisons run up by the secret service.  These “renditions” have exposed how deeply the Mubarak regime colludes with the United States.




The mass uprising which began on January 25 with mass demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities is being attributed to the impact of the developments in Tunisia. It has been widely purveyed by the global media that the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia sparked off the Egyptian revolt.  While it is true that the Tunisian revolt acted as a catalyst for the Egyptian movement, it will be incorrect to see it as a sudden and spontaneous event.


The neo-liberal policies adopted by the Mubarak regime for the last three decades have resulted in large-scale deprivation and suffering for the people.  It is estimated that 44 per cent of the population live on less than two dollars per day.  The unemployment especially among the youth has reached high levels.  The agrarian crisis has impoverished the peasantry.  The Mubarak regime with its crony capitalism and the patronisation of a group of capitalists who are grabbing  all the  resources, including  land, has led to a strata of super-rich and a sharp divide in society. 


Despite severe repression of political parties and groups opposed to the regime, there have been mounting struggles of the common people.  The working class movement had always been severely repressed. No trade unions outside the  officially sponsored trade union federation were allowed. In the 1980s and 90s, this severe repression led to a weakening of the workers struggles.  But in the last one decade, there was an upswing in the struggles of the workers. 




The global economic crisis hit the working class in Egypt badly. Hundreds of factories were closed down.  The struggles of the working class rose sharply from 2008.   The historic April 6, 2008 strike by the workers in the town Mahallah Al Kubra marked a watershed.  In this town of 28,000 workers, the strike was met with brutal repression. But the Mahallah struggle saw similar struggles developing in the industrial areas of the delta region.  The intensity of the workers’ struggles can be gauged by the fact that in 2009, there were 478 industrial actions. They included 184 sit-ins in closed factories, 123 strikes, 79 demonstrations and 27 rallies.


Alongwith rising unemployment, the last two years have seen the rising prices of  bread and other basic food items such as rice and cooking oil.  It is this severe economic crisis which set the background to the political crisis which faced the Mubarak regime.




The Mubarak regime blames Islamic radicals for the unrest.  For the Western media, Tahrir Square symbolise the spontaneous movement for democracy. Neither are correct.   There are many streams which have converged to make this a genuine mass uprising.  The April 6 committee consisting of young men and women sprung up in 2008 in solidarity with the struggle of the Mahallah workers.  It is this group which has played a leading role in mobilising people for this movement.  The link with the working class struggle and general democratic movement is exemplified by this committee.  The other influential committee called the “We are all Khalid Said” is named after a young man who died due to police torture.  This represents the fight against dictatorship and the movement for civil liberties.  So also, the movement has drawn its strength from various strata of the middle class, including professionals, intellectuals and white collar employees.  The slogans and demands of the movement are decidedly secular.  For the call on January 25 termed the “Day of Rage” the first demand was the increase of the minimum wage to 1200 Egyptian pounds per month and subsidies for the unemployed.  The other demands were the end of the stage of emergency, release of prisoners and the dissolution of parliament and changes in the constitution.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest opposition party, did not initiate the movement but joined it subsequently. It is one of the constituents of the platform formed, the National Association for Change, which includes other secular and democratic parties.  It is all these groups together that decided to put Mohamed El Baradei at the head of the committee to negotiate for a political change.


In the meantime, the talks initiated by the newly-appointed vice president, Suleiman, with the opposition parties and groups have not made progress, given the regime’s refusal to accept the demand for the removal of Mubarak.  The regime has announced concessions such as increase in the wages of employees and lowering the price of bread to try and neutralise the political demands of the movement. 




The Obama administration was taken completely by surprise by the popular revolt in Egypt.  Though the WikiLeaks cables of US  diplomats in Egypt show that there was an increasing apprehension about  the credibility of the regime and the accumulation of wealth by the coterie around Mubarak, the US strategic  agencies had no inkling of what was to come.  After a week of mass protests, the United States decided that Mubarak has to make way for a transitional regime.  The United States wanted an “orderly transition” by which a new set-up could be ushered in where its interests are protected and Egypt’s relations with Israel maintained.   It is with this in view that the United States is scrambling to get the notorious intelligence chief and now vice president  Suleiman  to head the transitional government.  But so far, Mubarak has refused to step down till his term is over in September. 


Unlike in Tunisia, the stakes in Egypt are high for the United States and Israel.  They will do everything to see that Egypt remains on the strategic course set out for it by US imperialism.  The United States will bank upon the Egyptian ruling classes and the army to ensure this.




There have been some egregious responses to the events in Egypt among sections of the Urdu media and some of the Muslim religious figures in India.  Some columnists of the Urdu newspapers have viewed the Egyptian uprising as primarily an American sponsored one to get rid of Mubarak.  For this, they point to president Obama’s call for an immediate transition as proof.  They ignore the fact that the US administration, after a full week of the popular upsurge, was forced to initiate damage limitation measures by wanting their loyal agent, Mubarak, to step down.  It saw no other way to retain its influence but by ushering in a new regime with the help of the army that would pursue essentially the same goals and foreign policy as Mubarak, but with democratic elections.  To dub the January 25 upsurge of the Egyptian people, as an American ploy is thus perverse.  Another reason for some of the clerics coming out in defence of the Mubarak regime is the influence of Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi royal regime is petrified of the revolt of the Arab masses.  Their authoritarian regime which is characterised by a mix of Islamic fundamentalism and subservience to US imperialism is being challenged.  The events in Egypt should be heartening as it portends the emergence of strong democratic and secular forces that can harmoniously coexist with Islam.




 Marx had written that, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”  The people of Egypt are making history but that history is conditioned by the historical events and circumstances of the past.  Egypt has a history of anti-colonial struggles, of anti-imperialist nationalism and secularism. It also has a history of brutal repression of the working class movement, of severe restrictions on the democratic rights of the people to assemble and organise. It has the history of the past four decades of becoming the subordinate agent of US strategy in the Middle-East.  The people of Egypt have also experienced the assault on their livelihood through the neo-liberal policies.  The January 25 movement bears all the hallmarks of these circumstances.  The struggle of the Egyptian people to change their future has begun in right earnest but the popular movement has to be prepared for the long haul.  Though no revolutionary change is possible, there can be no going back to the old system.  How much change can be wrested will depend on the strength and the resilience of the united struggle.