Egypt’s Decade of Revolution and Counterrevolution

The fall of the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ten years ago today, was a triumph for popular mobilization. But the revolutionary forces lacked the political organization and vision needed to head off a counterrevolutionary backlash that restored the authoritarian state’s power.

Temporary monuments are erected in Tahrir Square as thousands of Egyptians gather to mark the one-year anniversary of the revolution on January 25, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

On October 17, 2010, I was sitting with a man I will call S.O., a prominent Egyptian labor organizer, on the banks of the Suez Canal. A massive oil tanker slowly made its way through the water while we sipped from our teas.

We were talking about labor struggles past and present in the Canal zone for higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to establish independent trade union committees. Already before the 2011 uprising, a vibrant and combative labor movement had started reintroducing ideas and practices of resistance to the wider Egyptian population, especially in marginalized spaces that lay outside the field of middle-class political activism in Cairo and its environs.

The 2006–8 strikes in the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company of Mahalla el-Kubra, a provincial town in the Nile Delta, engulfed the whole Egyptian labor movement, also inspiring workers in the Canal zone to strike, from the cement sector to steel and food processing. Progressive human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers offered their support and solidarity to these often-isolated struggles that received little or no media coverage.

Egypt’s opposition parties, on the other hand, remained largely absent, or played at most a minor role in organizing resistance. They showed little interest in the social plight of workers and peasants, mainly focusing on purely “political” issues such as freedom of the press and restrictions on presidential power. Conversely, workers often distrusted political parties, even left-wing ones, and accused them of trying to hijack their social struggles for dangerous political goals.

Even so, revolutionary groups and individual leftist activists such as S.O. played a key role in organizing struggles, connecting different workplaces with one another, and bringing these fights “at the margins” of Egyptian society to its political center through demonstrations and sit-ins — for example, at Parliament or the Ministry of Manpower in Cairo.

Seeds of Resistance

When does a revolution begin? Before the crucial, explicit breakthrough of a mass uprising, there is always a long buildup of small-scale protests, experiences, and networks of resistance. Political scientists who were “surprised” by Egypt’s January 25 insurrection probably never went to the factories of provincial towns, rural areas, or even poor neighborhoods in metropolitan Cairo, which had seen protests long before 2011.

In the fall of 2010, Egypt was simmering with indignation about increasing poverty, police violence, and corruption. At the same time, the boiling point that would lead to demonstrations in defiance of state power — let alone a full-scale uprising — still seemed to be far off, especially to the activists themselves.

The security state left no room for street politics. The Central Security Forces (CSF) quickly crushed a spontaneous uprising in Mahalla el-Kubra on April 6, 2008 through a massive deployment of the paramilitary police force, numbering some four hundred thousand troops.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can say that the Mahalla revolt constituted one of the many seeds of the revolutionary process. It called into being the April 6 youth movement, which would play an important role in the 2011 uprising.

In November 2010, just a few weeks after my meeting with S.O., people in Suez revolted against the rigged parliamentary elections. Around fifteen thousand citizens demonstrated in the streets of the Canal city, calling for an end to the regime — two months before the January 25 revolt. State security forces shot three people.

The Republic of Tahrir

The next time I talked with S.O. was on March 18, 2011. Little more than a month had passed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but it seemed almost a decade. Egypt’s political convulsions brought to mind some old lessons about the nature of revolution, supposedly buried with the end of the Cold War. Recall the words of Lenin more than a century ago:

Every revolution means a sharp turn in the lives of a vast number of people. Unless the time is ripe for such a turn, no real revolution can take place. And just as any turn in the life of an individual teaches him a great deal and brings rich experience and great emotional stress, so a revolution teaches an entire people very rich and valuable lessons in a short space of time.

Seeing hundreds of thousands of hopeful protesters in streets and squares all over Egypt, demanding freedom, bread, social justice, and dignity in a country that had been characterized for so long by ruthless oppression and political passivity, breathed fresh life into the stale Leninist formulas that Western leftists have often repeated intellectually without experiencing them sensuously.

History was in the making in Tahrir Square. Moreover, it was ordinary people who were making it. Before January 25, Egyptians seldom spoke spontaneously about politics to me or only in a typical cynical, humorous way. Now the random passerby, the taxi driver, the waiter, the street vendor enthusiastically asked me what I thought about “their revolution.” They owned it and knew that every oppressed group in the world was looking at them with hope and expectation.

The occupation of Tahrir Square had become a symbol, not only of resistance, but also of the potential of the masses to start creatively building a new society. To quote Lenin again:

Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution.

Midan Tahrir had been slowly transformed into a “city of tents.” Activists defended, cleaned, and governed their “Republic of Tahrir.” Famous artists and actors joined the protests, and amateur musicians and singers tried their luck on improvised stages.

By liberating Tahrir from state power, people began to liberate and transform themselves. Beyond the region, activists tried to emulate the successes of Tunisia and Egypt, turning “square occupation” into a general strategy for confronting state power.

Confronting the State

A revolution, however, is not only a carnival, prefiguring and celebrating new ways to live, work, and love. It is also a popular confrontation with organized state power that will find it difficult to remain peaceful, regardless of the intentions of the revolutionaries. In Suez, the eighteen days of the uprising that started on January 25 and ended in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from office were especially violent.

The first protester killed was Mostafa Ragab, a twenty-one-year-old resident of Suez. As S.O. recalled to me:

On January 25, three youths were killed; on January 26, two; on January 28, there were eighteen youths killed. On the Friday of Anger, there were eighty thousand people on the streets . . . in a city like Suez! Half a million people are living in Suez, so almost twenty percent were in the streets. The police aimed to kill the protesting youth in Suez, especially during the Friday of Anger, using bullets and snipers. Ten percent of all the people killed during the revolution were from Suez. But each time someone was killed, it was a new provocation for us to protest and come to the streets. There are five police stations in Suez: we burned three of them. We burned a lot of police trucks. We burned the fire station because they were using the fire brigade trucks to transport weapons and kill protesters.

While Egyptians shouted “salmeyya, salmeyya!” (“peaceful, peaceful!”) during their mass demonstrations, they had to defend themselves against the police attacking them with batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and even live ammunition. In order to create the basic conditions for protest, demonstrators had to physically overwhelm and defeat the CSF in street battles that raged in every Egyptian town.

Once the police force had been defeated and humiliated, they withdrew to barracks and remained there until long after Mubarak’s fall. On January 28, policemen threw away their uniforms in Suez, fleeing the streets in civilian clothes.

The Egyptian revolt brought back another old theme from the Marxist classics, forgotten by many: the question of dual power. As Lenin observed, “the basic question of every revolution is that of state power.” In Egypt, the uprising disrupted and disorganized the established structures of state power, but it did not dismantle the authoritarian state apparatus, let alone replace it with a form of popular governance. During the eighteen days of revolt, we saw the embryonic development of “dual power” — a situation whereby a new center of political power is emerging while the old still exists.

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square for a mass rally on November 25, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

Building on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune, Lenin characterized this new opposing power as one stemming from “the direct initiative of the people from below,” leading to “the replacement of the police and the army . . . by the armed people themselves,” with the state bureaucracy also replaced in the same fashion “or at least placed under special control.” The revolt witnessed precisely this tendency to replace oppressive state structures with popular initiatives from below, not only in Tahrir, but in neighborhoods throughout the whole country.

Although the effective impact and level of organization of these committees should not be exaggerated, they did represent a development of popular power, with Tahrir functioning as the central laboratory. Along with Cairene citizens, the occupants of the Square included people from provincial districts and even remote rural areas. Farmers who were not able to return home when the regime closed the roads joined in the protests. Representatives of four independent trade unions established the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) at the Square.

If the uprising had continued, Tahrir would have been the logical, organic space in which to organize a revolutionary constitutional assembly, or some other creative form of “parliament of the nation” to which the local popular committees could have answered. This would have set up popular power in direct, formal opposition to the authoritarian state.

The SCAF Enters

However, the military coup of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) cut short this development toward dual power on February 11. In a laconic speech, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Hosni Mubarak had resigned and that the SCAF had taken over executive and legislative power. The first demonstrations on January 25 had opened up a complex and often confusing period of struggle between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces that was arguably closed by the Rabaa massacre in August 2013.

During the eighteen days of the uprising, the Mubarak regime attempted to quell the protests by using every trick at its disposal: intimidation and killing of protesters; propaganda channeled through state-controlled media; internet and mobile phone blackouts; a capital strike; curfews; the release of criminals from prison and the withdrawal of the police to sow chaos in neighborhoods; superficial concessions such as cabinet reshuffles; vague promises of economic and political reform. Nothing could stop the revolutionary tide.

Once the police had been defeated, the regime sent in the army to restore order. When tanks and armored personnel carriers moved into the center of Alexandria, Cairo, and Suez, protesters often welcomed them with chants that proclaimed the army and the people to be “one hand,” hoping that the soldiers would side with the people. Unlike the CSF, the Armed Forces were still a respected institution in Egyptian society, a legacy of the Nasserist era of the 1950s and ’60s.

Moreover, the protesters realized that while they could not defeat tanks and machine guns, they could hope to win over the soldiers that operated those weapons. On the one hand, the absence of an organized revolutionary center made it possible for the generals to step in as caretakers of the revolutionary process; on the other hand, they clearly felt pressured to act because the rank-and-file soldiers and even middle-ranking officers were often sympathetic to the cause of the protesters. In this climate, the SCAF could not simply order the army to shoot protesters.

The generals preferred a literal war of position, digging “urban trenches” around important sites of state power such as the Presidential Palace, Parliament, the Stock Exchange, and the Maspero radio and television building. In the final days of the uprising, protesters had begun to rally toward these sites and also toward army barracks, so the SCAF had to take the initiative in removing Mubarak before a confrontation that might split the army itself.

The best option for the survival of the collapsing Egyptian state was to have the SCAF place itself at the head of the revolution and lead the process in order to ultimately defeat it. Because of the revolutionary momentum that had built up, this was primarily a defensive counterrevolution cloaked in the language of elections, constitution-making, and “democratic transition” — a counterrevolution in democratic form.

Dividing the Revolutionary Camp

When Mubarak resigned, the revolutionary movement was euphoric, and thousands of protesters stayed overnight in Tahrir Square to celebrate their victory. The following morning, however, revolutionaries were divided over their goals and strategies.

The hard core of Square occupiers argued that they should remain in Tahrir to pressure the SCAF to carry out real reforms. Other protesters wanted to give the SCAF the opportunity to prove itself, claiming that they could and would return to the streets when necessary to keep the “democratic transition” on track.

Hosni Mubarak on December 25, 2010 in Cairo, Egypt. (Getty Images)

Indeed, mobilizations in Tahrir still had an impact over the months that followed Mubarak’s fall. For example, protesters successfully applied pressure on the SCAF to fire the prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, on March 3 and replace him with Essam Sharaf.

Nevertheless, the real challenge for the revolution at this point was not to continue occupying the Square, but to turn Tahrir inside out, to bring the experience of popular decision-making and the “festival of the oppressed” into urban neighborhoods, rural villages, and industrial workplaces all over Egypt. However, the revolutionaries were struggling to unite and organize themselves and to agree on their strategy and priorities.

The vague demands of “bread, freedom, social justice, and dignity” could mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators precisely because they articulated a wide range of frustrations and desires. This heterogeneous “popular will” now had to be translated into a program of social transformation, which created cleavages between those socialist, liberal, nationalist, and Islamist groups that had been leading the protests against Mubarak.

Limits of Spontaneity

The 2011 uprising was “spontaneous” in the limited sense that the massive scale and radicalization of the movement had neither been planned nor foreseen. However, a diverse coalition of forces had organized the first protests on January 25: social media activists, left-wingers, youth organizations, members of the political opposition, human rights campaigners, Islamists, and the Ultras — hardcore football fans.

The demands of the organizers were quite moderate, as Jack Shenker explained in the Guardian on the day before the protest:

Demonstrators are calling for the sacking of the country’s interior minister, the cancelling of Egypt’s perpetual emergency law, which suspends basic civil liberties, and a new term limit on the presidency that would bring to an end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

It wasn’t the activists who were the first to realize that this was an opportunity to take down Mubarak and “the system” — it was politically unorganized people, swarming the streets and occupying the squares. To the dismay of activists who at first tried to rein them in, they began to chant revolutionary slogans. Many of those activists saw the masses in the streets as a tool with which to obtain democracy, rather than as a developing political subject in their own right.

Unsurprisingly, most opposition groups developed a “democratic” strategy aimed at participating in elections and rewriting the Egyptian constitution. They mainly perceived the Mubarak state in terms of its outer shell: the presidency, the parliament, and the constitution, which could be changed through negotiations with the military. They shared a “democracy first” policy: first Egypt had to become democratic, only then could economic issues be addressed.

What’s more, these groups often framed such issues in technocratic and neoliberal terms — speaking in favor of “market efficiency” and against “cronyism” and “corruption.” This alienated social groups such as workers and peasants who had joined the protests mainly because of their social grievances.

Other, more militant, left-wing groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party had a clear understanding of the class nature of Egypt’s state and economy, the crucial position of the Ministry of Interior and the Armed Forces, and the need to demolish these authoritarian structures through popular power from below. Yet the organized, revolutionary left only amounted to a marginal force in a population of around 85 million.

In addition to developing popular power, the Egyptian left had to develop itself, in a mutually reinforcing process. The left can only organize and build itself through supporting and being active in protest movements. On the other hand, the Egyptian masses could only develop a strategy to defeat state power and transform their society by combining the intuitive slogan “al-shab yurid isqat al-nizam” (“the people want the fall of the system”) with a scientific analysis of exactly what that “system” was.

Between March and September 2011, more than a million workers went on strike. Demands that included a national minimum wage and investment in the public sector showed their heightened level of class consciousness. Workers were also struggling against the “little Mubaraks” in and out of their workplaces, trying to get rid of corrupt and authoritarian managers and state officials.

The SCAF and its allies denounced these strikes and social protests as fi’awi (“factional”) and contrary to the national interest. The main rationale of the counterrevolution at this stage was to demobilize, depoliticize, and atomize the revolutionary movement through a combination of violence against activists and a top-down process of “democratization” that would pacify the wider population.

Military-supervised elections, plebiscites, and constitution-making emphasized procedures and representation within the narrow realm of the state, excluding the kind of direct, popular democracy that could be found in embryonic form in the ongoing street and workplace protests. By setting the pace and scope of elections and referenda, the SCAF was able to create cleavages within the broad revolutionary alliance.

Sectarian Cleavages and the Role of the Brotherhood

The constitutional referendum on March 19, 2011 was a decisive moment that divided the revolutionary movement into the sectarian camps of “secularists” and “Islamists.” Over the next two years, revolutionary groups and parties were unable to establish a revolutionary “third current” that could stand between the military and the Islamist camp (the latter being represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties).

The “triangular conflict” between popular revolutionary forces and the rival counter-revolutionary camps of regime elites and their Islamist challengers came to define the uprisings across the whole Middle East and North Africa region. The failure of revolutionary forces to organize themselves and gain traction among the masses brought the conflict between the two counter-revolutionary wings, regime and Islamist, to the center of the political stage.

The states that have long played an imperialist role in the region, before and after decolonization, reinforced this dynamic with their support — diplomatic, financial, and military — for authoritarian regimes or Islamist militias, depending on their interests. This even took the form of direct intervention in Libya and Syria.

Indeed, long before the Arab uprisings began, the main counter-revolutionary force in the region had been Western imperialism. Not only did those states act against popular rebellions, they also sought to prevent revolutionaries from gaining power in the first place by shoring up loyal dictators and reactionary states such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

After the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt’s oldest and best-organized political force, played a pivotal role in stabilizing the “counter-revolution in democratic form.” While Muslim Brotherhood youth had been at the forefront of the uprising, the MB leadership cautiously supported the military’s “soft coup” on February 11, calling upon protesters to leave Tahrir Square and start negotiations with the SCAF.

The Brotherhood saw the SCAF’s “democratic transition” as an opportunity to become a legitimate political actor by functioning as a power broker between the generals and the people. Its leaders spoke out against demonstrations and strikes. In return, the SCAF released Brotherhood activists from prison, and recognized the movement’s political apparatus, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

November 2011 was a turning point in the revolutionary process. In the preceding months, the SCAF had discredited itself  by its use of violence, its unwillingness to transform authoritarian state institutions such as the Ministry of Interior and its dreaded State Security Investigation Service (SSI), and its inability to solve urgent social issues. This led to a new wave of protests, culminating in the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street near the popular Abdeen neighborhood and close to Tahrir Square.

The protests had begun on November 18 after the Brotherhood called for a “million-man march” to demand civilian supervision of the constitutional process. The CSF dispersed a symbolic sit-in at Tahrir to commemorate those who had been killed during the February uprising. Protesters responded by coming to the aid of the occupiers and clashed with state security forces for more than a week.

The battle soon targeted the Ministry of Interior, the heart and symbol of the enduring Egyptian police state. The state forces killed more than forty protesters, shooting many young people purposefully in their eyes to maim them for life. Protesters demanded a transitional, civilian government headed by such prominent opposition figures as Mohamed ElBaradei, Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, and Hamdeen Sabahi — representing, respectively, the liberal-democratic, liberal-Islamist, and socialist-Nasserist wings of the revolution.

However, unlike the January 25 protests, these confrontations did not ignite a wider revolt. The Brotherhood’s FJP and other opposition parties withdrew from the protests. Fearful of putting the imminent parliamentary elections — and their seats — in jeopardy, they sided with the SCAF’s call to restore order.

While the Brotherhood and the Salafists won a landslide in the elections, held between late November 2011 and early January 2012, revolutionary parties and coalitions suffered a humiliating defeat. The “counter-revolution in democratic form” had won an important victory.

Morsi in Power

This set the scene for a power struggle between the SCAF, which still monopolized the executive branch, and the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament. This battle dragged into the presidential elections of spring 2012. In the first round of these elections, the “revolutionary” candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh placed third and fourth respectively, losing out by slim margins to the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and SCAF figurehead Ahmed Shafiq.

Morsi won a little under 25 percent of the vote, Shafik less than 24 percent — just 3 percent ahead of Sabahi. This meant that in the second-round run-off, Egyptians had to choose between the two counter-revolutionary camps represented by Morsi and Shafiq. While Morsi arguably represented the lesser evil, both camps remained faithful to the neoliberal economic recipes and authoritarian state structures that had been the prime causes of the discontent that led to the January 25 revolution.

For a brief moment, Morsi appeared to be willing to challenge the military state. The President’s constitutional declaration of August 12, 2012 retired prominent SCAF generals such as Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan. The new president elevated General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to the position of Defence Minister and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.

Nevertheless, the shift from a military to a civilian executive simply drew a veil over the continuity of authoritarian state power through the Ministry of Interior, the elite networks, the military, the governors, and other bureaucratic centers of decision-making. The constitution promulgated on December 26, 2012 shielded the military’s budget from parliamentary oversight and ensured that the Minister of Defence would hail from the ranks of the military.

Instead of dismantling the structures of dictatorship, the Brotherhood added a new civilian layer on this foundation, manned with its own personnel. So far as the revolutionary demands of “bread and social justice” were concerned, Morsi continued to cooperate with businessmen from the Mubarak era, enacting neoliberal reforms that further aggravated unemployment, purchasing power, and unfair taxation. The President also accepted a new IMF loan, but backed down in the face of popular protests.

The National Salvation Front

Morsi’s constitutional declaration on November 22, 2012 granted him absolute executive and legislative powers, confirming the worst fears among secular opposition forces about an ongoing “Brotherhoodization” of Egypt’s state and society. The opposition to the presidency crystallized around the National Salvation Front (NSF).

The NSF united right-wing politicians like Amr Moussa, liberal democrats like Muhammed al-Baradei, and Nasserists like Hamdeen Sabahi with the Mubarakist old guard in a common front against the Brotherhood. Both the Brotherhood and the NSF claimed to possess revolutionary legitimacy. However, both camps contained a mix of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces in which the counter-revolutionary leadership proved dominant.

At the end of April 2013, Morsi’s opponents launched the massive petition campaign Tamarod (Rebel), going door to door to collect signatures calling on the president to step down. Tamarod represented a new wave of popular initiative and activism “from below.” Yet in contrast with the 2011 uprising, agents of the Ministry of Interior infiltrated this popular movement from its inception, and it received sponsorship from Mubarakist and opposition businessmen.

The military and state security apparatuses had also grown tired of Morsi’s inability to stabilize the country politically and economically and smash the revolution for good. In the previous two years, the state apparatus had tried to repress, demobilize, and divide revolutionary activists, but now it sought to co-opt and lead them in street protests against the Brotherhood. The heart of this mass movement came from Egypt’s better-off, secular middle class, which saturated the protests with its reactionary slogans, urging the military leadership to liberate Egypt from Brotherhood rule.

Massive protests and strikes erupted on June 30, the day that marked Morsi’s first year as President, with protesters demanding his resignation. Morsi stressed his legitimacy as the democratically elected president and refused to step down. On July 1, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, as head of the Armed Forces, issued an ultimatum to both camps to solve the crisis within forty-eight hours. After two more days of deadly clashes, the 30 June Front met with military leaders.

Once again, the inability of revolutionary forces to create a “third current” between the Islamist and military wings of the counter-revolution ensured their downfall. Shortly after the meeting, Sisi declared that Morsi had been removed from his position, and that chief Justice Adli Mansour would head a transitional government as interim president. The army placed Morsi under arrest and occupied key political and economic sites in the country.

Triumph of the Counterrevolution

This aggressive “counterrevolution from below,” followed by a second military coup, succeeded where two years of “counterrevolution in democratic form” had failed. It reforged the state that had broken down during the insurrection of 2011 and reunited the ruling elites that were comprised of warring factions within the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Interior, the Mubarakist oligarchs, and anti-regime businessmen. Its leaders also managed to rally large parts of the Egyptian population and opposition forces behind their project.

At first, even independent trade unions supported the military coup, hoping that Sisi would reverse Morsi’s neoliberal policies, having been led astray by Sisi’s pseudo-Nasserist aura. Kamal Abu Eita, founder of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, actually became Minister of Manpower and Immigration in July 2013.

Unlike the mass revolt of 2011, the driving force behind the June 30 movement was not a collective desire for liberation from oppression, but rather a panoply of fears, uncertainties, and regime-fuelled conspiracy theories about “hidden hands” that had disrupted the lives and livelihoods of Egypt’s citizens. The opposition between “revolutionary” and “counter-revolutionary” forces gave way to a hysterical, hyper-nationalist polarization between what was considered “Egyptian” or “un-Egyptian,” with official propaganda singling out the Brotherhood as the “enemy within.”

The Brotherhood’s subsequent “anti-coup” movement was no match for the full weight of the security apparatus and its crazed civilian supporters. The violence reached its zenith on August 14, 2013, when the state forces dispersed anti-coup occupiers from al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya Squares with bulldozers and live ammunition.

A Human Rights Watch report claimed that at least 817 civilians were massacred in Rabaa and 87 in al-Nahda Square. The absence of solidarity among secular opposition forces made them complicit in this counter-revolutionary violence.

Sisi’s election as president in 2014, with 97 percent of the vote, merely formalized a victory that the counter-revolution had already won. Western states were quick to accept and support the new dictator, even when the abysmal human rights track record of his regime could no longer be denied.

With an estimated sixty thousand activists incarcerated in appalling conditions, French President Emmanuel Macron awarded Sisi the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor during his state visit in December 2020.

The Next Round

By 2014, the momentum of the Arab uprisings appeared to have gone, smothered in blood. Saudi–UAE military intervention had already crushed the Bahraini uprising on March 14, 2011. In Libya, a civil war, aggravated by NATO bombing, tore the country to pieces. In Syria, a genuine popular uprising against the Assad dictatorship became not only a civil conflict between armed militias, but also a regional and geopolitical proxy war.

Only in Tunisia has the outcome been less bloody and reactionary — ironically through a “counterrevolution in democratic form” that was more successful than Egypt’s, with Islamist and old regime forces reaching accommodation.

Yet the tide of revolt swept through the region once again in a second wave. From December 2018 onward, street protests in Sudan gave rise to a sustained mass mobilization that forced the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir to step down on April 11, 2019. In Algeria, the Hirak (movement) led to the resignation of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, 2019.

Toward the end of 2019, small protests in the Lebanese capital Beirut against new taxes developed into a mass movement. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation was not enough to defuse the unrest, which persisted throughout 2020 and 2021.

The revolts that were defeated in the first wave of the Arab uprisings have not been completely eradicated, either. None of the original grievances that motivated people in 2011 — bread, freedom, dignity, and social justice — have been adequately addressed.

In Tunisia, unemployment, corruption, and police brutality have brought thousands of protesters, mostly young people, back onto the streets. Even in Egypt, beneath the triumphant counterrevolution, the revolutionary spirit still lives on in a tangle of labor strikes and local, small-scale protests, both urban and rural.

In January 2014, a strike paralyzed the Suez Steel Company’s factories, followed by labor actions in the Nile Delta, Cairo, and Alexandria. In 2015, more than a thousand labor protests were documented, despite state intimidation and violence against workers. Villagers and marginalized groups in rural areas have demonstrated against poverty, corruption, and the demolition of illegally built houses.

In Suez, a small group of youth protesters even marched in September 2019 with an explicit call for Sisi’s resignation. Hundreds of people spontaneously joined their protest — mostly families from popular neighborhoods. Women and children threw rocks at armored personnel carriers (APCs). When factory managers at the Ceramica Cleopatra factory gathered their workers for a display in support of Sisi, they refused to go along with the show, chanting “leave” and “down with military rule.”

Strategic Lessons

There is no question that people in Suez and Egypt in general will start protesting again, despite all the setbacks of the last decade — indeed, resistance is already taking place in popular neighborhoods, villages, and industrial workplaces. Threatened by violence and incarceration, Egyptian leftists such as S.O. are still doing important political work, helping people to organize, to protest, and to defend their rights.

The January 25 Revolution forces us to be humble and to draw key strategic lessons from its experience. Firstly, the Left does not make revolutions: people do, even when they least expect it. Yet the Left is still needed and has a crucial role to play. Its political interventions can mean the difference between success and failure. Hence the priority of the Left should be to support and help build popular power from below, showing the masses in practice that they cannot trust any liberating force except their own — and they don’t need to, either.

Secondly, the idea of dual power is not a strategy imposed from the outside by doctrinaire ultra-leftists, but an empirical reality of revolution: at some point, popular power will come into confrontation with the existing structures. This standoff cannot last forever: it will end with either the restoration or the destruction of established state power.

Thirdly, counterrevolution assumes many different forms, some of which can appear deceptively “democratic” or “popular.” Moreover, counterrevolutionary forces are not homogeneous: they can represent different ruling class fractions, ideologies, and social bases.

Left-wingers can forge tactical and temporary alliances with other democratic opposition forces, but they should organize themselves independently and never enter coalitions dominated by counterrevolutionary leaderships. Rather than confine themselves to posing demands that seem reasonable, they should put forward the ones that are necessary.

In this sense, despite its ultimately grim outcome, the Egyptian revolution still encouraged the world to dream far beyond all kinds of “lesser-evil” politics and the limits of Western-style democracy and capitalism.