Exactly one week after the abrupt resignation of Egypt’s President Mosni Mubarak shook the country and the world, another series of tremors occurred on Friday, February 18. In a clear signal that Egypt’s revolution is not over, millions of newly energized and politically awakened people flooded Tahrir Square in Cairo and dozens of other plazas in cities, towns and villages throughout the country.
Scanning the scene of several hundred thousand people gathered in Tahrir, you truly felt the power and unity of a people who, for the first time in their lives, are realistically anticipating a “New Egypt.”
I was in a hurry to get to Tahrir that morning because I knew it would be the most accurate way to gauge the power relationship between the military and the movement. Were people still energized and feeling empowered? Or, was the fairly broad support for the military taking over the government now seen as a blank check for them to handle the transition?
But getting to Tahrir that morning was not easy. Everyone was searched at numerous military checkpoints. Documents were reviewed and passports checked. In my case, I was forbidden several times to enter with my camera. This was strange because many Egyptians already entering Tahrir had phone cameras.
It seemed to me the army was showing their lingering discomfort of foreign press coverage of mass rallies. But it was an impossible task for them under the circumstances. All the major world media had cameras mounted on balconies of buildings adjacent to the square.
In any case, I was determined to find a way around my predicament. I began to think. I recalled a union official who 20 years ago once suggested that I should always walk in work areas like I was going somewhere with a purpose, that way I would avoid workers needlessly speaking to me.
Of course, I never followed this bureaucratic advice; that is, until now.
I found another checkpoint and walked briskly around guards checking papers with a firm purpose in mind and not stopping to speak with anyone. I soon found myself, camera in hand, amidst hundreds of thousands of people. This was a diverse crowd from all faiths and all social backgrounds. There were men and women, young and old. Many families were there with children.
The highly respected Iman Yousef el-Qaradawi was speaking at what was the start of the traditional Friday prayer meeting that normally occurs five times a day. Today, they were all combined into one huge service in Tahrir Square before the official start of the day’s festivities.
In dramatic fashion, typical of these days where everything seems possible, the religious leader had just returned the previous day from political exile in Qatar. His last sermon in the country of his birth was in 1981. As the Iman spoke, several worshippers in the enormously friendly crowd whispered translations to me.
Most significant, I learned that el-Qaradawi urged “patience with the military” and suggested “all return to their jobs so we can rebuild our country.” This is the same political approach shared by the Muslim Brotherhood who are among the small circle of political leaders and groups thought to be currently in negotiations with the army about the timing and character of reforms.
Noticeably absent from these government negotiations are representatives of the newly formed independent unions and leaders from the thousands of striking workers protesting all across Egypt.
This "back to work" theme reveals a serious political divide emerging in the original unity of the pro-democracy movement that began on January 25. But it’s only inevitable that different political views are going to emerge in such a broad movement. Now that Mubarak is gone, the movement is challenged to go beyond Tahrir, so to speak, to the more complex tasks of deciding the terms and conditions of rebuilding the nation.
Voices in Tahrir
As I walked through Tahrir Square on Friday, speaking informally with person after person, I was struck by the sense of determination that was in the air. Everywhere was the resolve of a people whose voices are suddenly no longer stifled. One man, 60-year-old Hamad, a Muslim who worked a few years in Germany as an engineer, perhaps best expressed the spirit of the day. “It’s not just the last 30 years," said Hamad in an emphatic voice. "We have been repressed by dictators for thousands of years. We are never, ever going back!
"It’s over!” Hamad exclaimed.
Into these last few terse, succinct words, the Egyptian people pack a tremendous amount of conviction and zeal. You can see it in their eyes when they say it and in their hand movements when they express it. In numerous conversations on this historic day of victory, the theme was always the same: “The regime from top to bottom is finished!"
But what about the top generals, all of them long-time cohorts of Mubarak? They have so far escaped this same infamy largely because they refused Mubarak’s orders to launch a Tiananmen Square-type massacre in early February. Certainly the military command has shown itself far more politically astute than the stubborn and arrogant Mubarak, a man whose imperial detachment only fueled the early days of the rebellion.
For example, when protestors refused to leave Tahrir Square last Sunday as commanded by the authorities, the army quickly made dramatic concessions by suspending the hated Constitution, dissolving the discredited Parliament, and lifting the ban on all political groupings.
Similarly, on the eve of today’s huge Victory Rally, the army arrested three corrupt Cabinet ministers, including the despised Interior Minister and one notoriously dishonest businessman. They also announced the whole cabinet would be removed, including vice-president Omar Suleiman who has been missing in action for the past week.
However, in a press statement on the day of the rally, the army command also revealed its strategic goal to divide the people’s movement. In a statement praising the Victory Rally, the army at the same time condemned “illegal demonstrations and strikes” that they claim jeopardize Egypt’s future.
Will Tahrir Unity Survive as the Revolution Deepens?
All this was on my mind the day before Friday’s Victory Rally as I traveled Cairo’s subway system to meet with Khaled Ali, Egypt’s best-known counselor and defender of independent unions and worker protests. While waiting for a translator, I spoke with third-year law student Malek, who works upstairs in the same building as an administrator for an Oxfam-financed law firm at the center of defending human rights, trade union rights, and democratic principles. Mubarak closed the firm’s Cairo office for 18 months in 2007, but it is now up and running again.
Of course, if you follow CNN and other major western news outlets, you might get the impression that restoration of "stability" is the number one issue facing Egypt. In fact, this is the Egyptian military’s main concern. For the Egyptian working class, however, not so much.
“Workers are not impressed with calls for stability while they suffer hardships some of the middle classes cannot even imagine,” Malek told me. "Strikers are being told by the army that they are bringing the economy down, but for workers the economy has always been down. How can we be expected to go home earning only several hundred
pounds [less than $50] a month?”
Malek was wise for his young years. "We do not define or limit our concept of democracy as simply establishing free, open and honest parliamentary elections," he explained. "As important as that is, we also know that elections can be manipulated by those with money and power under even the best of circumstances. We see this happen the world over."
For Malek, "true democracy" means allowing people to improve their standard of living by freely organizing democratic unions, by enjoying the right to collective bargaining, and by the freedom to engage in peaceful protests and strikes.”
I sat with Democracy Now’scorrespondent Anjali Kamat as Ali talked. I listened with great interest as Ali astutely reviewed the rich history of work stoppages and protests over the past several years that prepared the ground of the January 25 movement. Ali also emphasized the vital role of the Egyptian labor movement in the protests of the past few weeks.
“If you do not understand the background of strikes and worker protests, you misread and misunderstand all recent events," he declared. "Once workers entered Tahrir after February 3, the threatened isolation of young people ended. The police disappeared and the army refused to attack. The massive participation of workers and the poor was absolutely decisive. Only now that workers want to press demands for economic justice, we are being told we are disruptive.”
Clearly, the issues posed by the current moment require more debate and discussion. But as long as millions of Egyptians remain committed to establishing genuine democracy, rooting out all corruption and lifting the standard of living, then the revolution will continue to grow and deepen.
One thing is guaranteed. As the labor struggles continue to expand, deepen and broaden, so also will the debate and discussion among the brave Egyptian people who have shown themselves willing to face any challenge in their quest to build their new Egypt.
Thanks to Mark Harris in Portland for his ongoing insights in preparing these reports.
CARL FINAMORE has been in Egypt with letters of introduction from his San Francisco airport Machinist local, where he served as President before retiring, and from the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, where he currently serves as delegate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org