10th Anniversary of the Arab Spring: An eyewitness account from Egypt 2011

A Berliner’s account from February 2011 following the Egyptian Uprising and the fall of Mubarak


Day 1: Friday, 17 February: Egyptians celebrate the Liberation

Today is my first day in Egypt. I landed at 2:30 am and the atmosphere in the airport is quite different to the last time that I was in Cairo (perhaps more about this in future reports). Then, suspicious soldiers checked all passengers, and you could never be sure whether you’d get out of the airport. Now all the soldiers are gone – from the airport at least.

It’s different on the road. Many streets contain roadblocks, sometimes with tanks. Every kilometer, a group of soldiers check driving licenses and passport. Sometimes, they let us through, sometimes we must find a different route. A reminder that the army is still in charge of Egypt.

Part of the New Egypt

But these soldiers are different from Mubarak’s troops, who previously controlled the airport. They look younger, and all of them are smiling. They all chat with the drivers, as if they’re not really sure what they’re doing here. It may be the case, that in the future these soldiers will receive the command to shoot demonstrators, and must then decide on which side they are. At the moment, though, they are part of the new Egypt.

A few hours’ sleep, and then it’s time to look round Cairo. I meet with Steffi, a colleague from die LINKE in Berlin, who’s also here to experience the Egyptian revolution for herself. The workers in our hotel are all watching mass demonstrations on television. There were so many recent uprisings in Arab countries, that it’s not clear which country they’re watching.

Liberation Square

They ask us if we’re going to “Liberation Square” (the English translation of Tahrir Square). “Of course”, we say, and they wish us well, jealous that they have to stay and work.

Although we weren’t completely sure how we would find Tahrir Square, we didn’t need a map. There is a stream of people from all sides, going in just one direction. Most people carry Egyptian flags, or wear t-shirts containing the motto “25 January: the day that Egypt was liberated“. People of all possible ages are there – men and women, many with their full family. And all of them are happy.

Guests of Honour from Europe

One million people were expected, but beyond a certain size it is impossible to estimate how many people are really there [I was told later there were 4 million people demonstrating in or around Tahrir Square]. Tahrir Square and all surrounding streets are full to bursting in every directions. There is no demonstration today – it is more of a party. Suddenly a demonstration along one greets another demonstration coming from the opposite direction. They are not going anywhere: everyone knows that they must stay here.

As effectively the only Europeans, we attract particular interest. A week ago, we had been warned that it’s too dangerous to travel to Egypt, as Mubarak’s troops were selectively attacking foreigners. Now, we are honoured guests. We are regularly asked where we’re from, and many want to be photographed with us. A few men kiss me. Two lads want to shake my hand – followed by a woman in full burka.

Democratic Uprising

Some don’t understand why we’re carrying Egyptian flags. “But you’re not Egyptian”. We say, “Today, we’re all Egyptian”. Now they understand. They are proud of what they have achieved. This isn’t a nationalistic demonstration like those with German, US or Israeli flags. The flags are a symbol that normal Egyptians have finally won their country back, after centuries of occupation or puppet governments of the USA.

We often hear that we must tell the world what we are experiencing. Many are worried that the Egyptian revolution is being falsely portrayed in the foreign press. Several home-made posters in different languages stress the democratic and peaceful nature of the uprising. The violent men who tried to foment the counter revolution are currently on the defensive. Soldiers allow children with flags to be photographed on top of their tanks. At the moment, they are on the side of the people.

First Celebrate, then Find Solutions

There’s a certain lack of clarity what should happen now. Everyone knows that they can’t just go home, but when we ask what comes next, we don’t get any clear answer. All are happy that Mubarak and Suleiman have gone, and have suspicions of the current military government, but at the moment the general attitude is, let’s celebrate now and talk about solutions later.

In this sense, the Egyptian revolution is simultaneously highly political and at the same time relatively devoid of political content. Political, because the Egyptian have overthrown a dictator, and know that they need to stay on the streets to defend the gains of 25 January. Unpolitical, because there is hardly any political discussion. I’ve seen perhaps 2 leaflets – that’s not two different sets of people handing out leaflets, but literally only two leaflets. Socialists have played an important role in changing Egypt, but the movement is too large to really see them. Currently, no-one has hegemony in it.

Unstable Situation

The situation can’t stay like this. The military is still in power, and must eventually decide, whether it can use its soldiers to disperse the movement. At the moment, this seems to be impossible, but as soon as the movement stops going forward, everything can very quickly reverse. This has happened before – not least in France in 1968, or in Chile in 1973 when right-wing governments kept or usurped power after only a half-revolution had been carried out. In these cases, it was ultimately critical that the forces of the left were not strong enough to bring the revolution to its conclusion.

It’s too early to say how things will develop in Egypt. At the very least, the Egyptians have earned a large celebration. This evening there should be a concert on Tahrir Square.

Day 2: Saturday, 18 February: Anxiety before the elections

On Friday we celebrated a little, then went for a tea in a nearby café with Omnia. Omnia is a friend from Egypt, who was a teenage journalism student when we first met. Since then she has barely said anything political to me – until the fall of Mubarak. Then she mailed me two sentences: “I am 25 years old, and have not experienced anything apart from Mubarak. That is not fair.”

Omnia is naturally excited by the new movement, which means that she can finally talk about politics. However, she has many questions. She wants to know what we think of political parties. She is a member of a party that had been able to stand a candidate against Mubarak, although she also believes that the candidate has grown too distant from the party basis. Is basis democracy really possible in political parties? And if so, how?

Liberals and the Headscarf

Omnia also has some reservations about liberals. We quickly learn that the tern “liberal” is used in Egypt more as another word for “social democratic” than in the sense of “neoliberal” or the FDP (right-wing German equivalent of the Liberal Party in the UK). But her experience from individual party members is that they would rather tell her to stop wearing her headscarf than to talk about possible unity. For Omnia, that is the precise opposite of liberalism.

As Omnia has several meetings today, we spontaneously decide to go to the building of the journalists’ trade union. At the beginning of the last decade, the “Cairo Conference” took place here for many years running. The Cairo Conference was an international conference which was organized by the three main opposition forces – socialists, Nasserists (left-wing nationalists) and the Muslim Brotherhood. I visited the conference twice, and it was always fascinating.

Rafah and the Gaza Strip

In the main hall, a meeting was taking place for the families of the victims who were killed during the demonstrations against Mubarak. Although our limited Arabic meant that we could only get a superficial impression of the conference, some things were clear. A furious contribution repeatedly mentioned Rafah. Rafah is the border with the Gaza strip, that is blocked, not by the Israeli government, but by Egypt – even after the fall of Mubarak. It seems clear that several Egyptians are starting to consider the international aspects of their revolution, at least those for the Palestinians.

In the entrance hall of the union building, we spoke with several people, including Walid El-Sheik, an Egyptian journalist, who lives in Berlin. Walid has come back to Cairo to experience the revolution, and is hoping for a new liberal government (that word again). However, he says clearly that the revolution is not yet over, and that all existing parties have been compromised. Some of Mubarak’s ministers are still in office, at the very least for the coming week.

Problem of New Elections

Walid has worries about the coming elections, as he thinks that it will lead to a victory for the parties with the biggest financial resources which can be used to buy votes. He reckons that if the elections were to take place in two months’ time, as originally planned, the Muslim Brotherhood would win 40% of the votes, and a renamed Mubarak party would win 30%. He insists that the problems in Egypt were not just the individual fault of Mubarak, but in his whole apparatus, that will use its money and positions to maintain power. This must be prevented.

I partially agree with Walid. If Mubarak is replaced by a bourgeois party which is orientated on the West, but the power structures remain – that is, if control over the economy stays in the same hands – the gap between poor and rich will not change. However, I also believe that he overestimates the ability of the social democratic liberals to change this, even though he has experienced the Schröder government in Germany. And perhaps he underestimates the potential power of fighting workers. Maybe I’ll write more about this tomorrow, after we have visited Mahalla, the heart of the Egyptian strike movement.

Against the Arab Régimes

What I find less convincing is Walid’s belief that a postponement of the election will automatically help the not-yet-established left parties. In 1968 in France, General de Gaulle made a deal with the Communist Party: call off the strikes, go back to the factories, and then we’ll have new elections. The atomized workers lost their self-belief and their sense of power, and de Gaulle won the election. This could also happen in Egypt if the debate about the timing of the new elections is disconnected from the strategic discussion that the demonstrators should stay on the streets and that the workers should carry on striking.

Walid told us that there was going to be a demonstration outside the Libyan embassy – naturally our next port of call. On this demo there were 15 people – even in revolutionary times, spontaneity is not on its own sufficient to organize mass demos. However, the young activists here want to take their demands against all Arab leaders into the movement. There is a demonstration planned for Monday which will visit several embassies with the demand for the removal of all Arab régimes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to report a much bigger presence on these demos.

Soldiers in Front of the Television Studios

On the way home, we walk past the main television studio. What we see there contradicts the idea that we’ve heard from nearly everyone: “we hate the police (who are, by the way, nowhere to be seen), but the army will always defend us.“ Although it is true that most soldiers are still on the side of the demonstrators, the military leadership is already preparing its retaliation. Dozens of highly armed soldiers stand in front of the television studios, behind tanks and barbed wire. When I photograph them, a solider threatens to arrest me – and he is not joking.

The military régime knows that for many Egyptians the revolution has still not gone far enough, and they are prepared to go further if the new government sells them out. Many Egyptians are learning the experience of previous revolutions that it is important to occupy the communication centres, like television studios and post offices. As Walid, the social democratic journalist, said: “we trust the army at the moment, but if they try to prevent the aims of the revolution, we know from experience, that we must fight on”.

Day 3: Sunday, 19 February: Successful Strike in Mahalla

Our hosts today are supporters and sympathizers of the Democratic Front in Mahalla. Liberals (in the Egyptian sense) who support the presidential campaign of Mohammed El-Baradei. Nearly all are newly politicized, young, and come from the middle class. Four of the five are doctors, though the extent to which a doctor who earns €20 a month is really part of the middle class is maybe open to debate.

We spend Sunday in Mahalla where – the local activists proudly tell us – the uprising against Mubarak began. In 2006 there was an important strike in the textile factories, which inspired the young movement. Two years later, on 6 April 2008, the textile workers fought again, because they had not been paid for two months. 500,000 people demonstrated in solidarity in Mahalla. Unfortunately, the rest of the country lacked the self-confidence to make their own demonstrations, but an important opposition organization named itself after the 6 April. On the day of our visit, 14,000 textile workers had just ended a strike, with which they had won a pay rise of 25%, equal pay for unskilled work and other demands.

How Important is the Muslim Brotherhood?

They have no homogenous viewpoint and discuss amongst themselves the importance of the religious question. Two of them warn that the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to use religious differences to come to power. Two others say that we shouldn’t take this danger too seriously. What is interesting is that on each side of this argument is one Christian man and one Muslim woman. Despite their worry about the mixture of religion and politics, all are religious – one wears a headscarf, although she whispers to me later, she only wears it for defence. All are fighting for a secular state in which religion is a private matter.

From the office of the Democratic Front, we go to the “Labourers of Egypt“. This organization of volunteers helps workers in Mahalla to organize resistance. The coordinator for Mahalla, Gamal Abu Ala, says that all trade unions were part of the old state machinery, and that it is therefore necessary to found new organizations. He thus introduces Saeed Habib, who apparently organized the latest strikes from this office.

Strikes and Demonstrations

We’re not able to validate these claims, but it is reasonable to say that the ideas of the Labourers of Egypt roughly reflect the ideas of many striking workers. For this reason, it is interesting to hear what they have to say.

Their argument goes roughly as follows: it is good, that workers strike during the week. It is also good that they demonstrate on Friday. Both are part of the same struggle, but the demands of the strikers should remain economic – for higher pay, equality between skilled and unskilled workers, etc. It is thus perfectly reasonable, that the strike is over without winning all its demands. They don’t want to appear too greedy.

The idea that workers should organize themselves for trade union demands, separate from their political work is an essentially syndicalist idea. But if a system is standing on the edge, as in Egypt today, syndicalism shows its limitations. Should we fight for better conditions inside the existing capitalist system, or should the system as a whole be removed? The absence of political demands also means that, in times like these, the economic demands can only be partly fulfilled.

Criticism and Respect

From trade union activists to so-called religious fanatics, the young activists are meeting Mahmad Bara for the first time today. Mahmad is the local organizer of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the activists are sceptical. Not just because they believe that the Brotherhood doesn’t share their goal of a secular state, but also because they worry that the Brotherhood is surfing the wave of the revolution, in order to come to power. Nevertheless, they have great respect for the discipline and organization of the Brotherhood, and treat them as a relevant part of the opposition.

Bara explains that the Brotherhood fully supports the revolution, and had only not officially supported the initial protests because they wanted to avoid the revolution being identified with the Brotherhood alone. The Brotherhood is not standing a candidate for the presidency, and also a limited number of candidates for parliament.

He goes on to say that the gains of the revolution must be defended, and that the strikes from last week were therefore counter-revolutionary – and probably organized by Mubarak supporters. My comrade Steffi and I recognize these arguments. From at least 1937, the Stalinist Communist Party in Spain argued against strikes to defend the revolution, in order to maintain the existing gains. The result was that many Spanish workers found it harder to identify with the revolutionary forces and Franco’s Fascists finally won the civil war.

Conservative Interests

Finally, the young activists ask Bara about women’s rights. First, he explains that the Koran tells us to respect animals – so why shouldn’t we also respect women? He answers the question as to whether the Brotherhood could live with a Christian or female president first with a “no”, then by saying that the question is abstract, because the Christians are in a minority.

Our discussion carried on after the meeting. The young men and women are more convinced than ever that Bara and the leadership of the Brotherhood represent conservative interests. However they also accept that the Brotherhood cannot be ignored. The basis of the Brotherhood, which does not necessarily share all the ideas of the leadership, must be won through political argument. The Brotherhood receives its support, not primarily on religious grounds, but because it could and can offer a coherent body of ideas in opposition to Mubarak.

Roots of Syndicalism

Finally we go to the station, to speak with Mohammed Mourad. Mohammed is a railway worker, and local councillor for the Party of Labour. Because of the ban on parties, it was impossible for Egyptian organisations to join international groups. The one exception was Mubarak’s National Democratic Party which as a member of the socialist international is still a sister party of the German SPD and the British Labour Party. This means that it is difficult to judge exactly where the Party of Labour stands, but we can assume that they have some sort of social democratic ideas.

It is therefore interesting to hear that at least on one point, Mourad is in agreement with Mahmad Bara from the Brotherhood. The recent strikes in Mahalla were counter-revolutionary, and could have been organized by Mubarak supporters. It hadn’t really surprised us that a relatively petit bourgeois organization like the Brotherhood would argue so, but Social Democrats as well?

This makes it perhaps easier to understand how syndicalist ideas can develop amongst fighting workers. If apparently progressive politicians are not prepared to support their resistance, then perhaps it is better to reject politics and just fight in the workplace. The unifying perspective, that only political change can guarantee permanent economic improvements is unfortunately not offered by most Egyptian organizations or individuals.

Redistribution in Egypt

Over an evening meal of Egyptian food, we go over today’s discussions. Mario, a badly-paid doctor, who has begun in the last few weeks to think about political alternatives, asks me how the new Egypt should look. I answer him with something that Walid, the Social Democratic journalist had told me. The problem in Egypt is not money. Egypt is a rich country. The problem is who owns the money, and who does not.

If you take Walid’s argument to their logical conclusion, you see that a simple change of government won’t solve Egypt’s problems. What is necessary is a redistribution of wealth, which itself raises the question of power. The people who can successfully build an alternative society are the workers, like those in Mahalla, who have been rejected, on one side by the Brotherhood, and on the other side by the social democrats. However, these workers are affected by syndicalist ideas and keep a general distance from politics. An organization which can fill this vacuum is absolutely necessary.

Mario finds these crude Marxist ideas plausible. He would like a link to my blog, and we swap e-mail and Facebook addresses. He and his comrades have already done so much for the Egyptian revolution, but to ensure success and to bring the revolution to its conclusion, there is still more to do.

Day 4: Monday, 20 February: United but Different

Today we meet in the King Hotel with Mahmoud Adel Elhetta and Amr Aladin. Mahmoud and Amr belong to “Generation Facebook” – to the young people, who initiated the Egyptian revolution. Mahmoud says, correctly, that the strikes and large demos were important, but they came later. It was the youth who provided the spark.

Right at the beginning of our talk, both activists explain that the term “Generation Facebook“ is misleading. Of course they used Facebook to mobilize for their demonstration, but that was a small part of their work. They – and many other organizations and individuals – produced and distributed leaflets, they rang and mobilized their friends. The uprising of 25 January didn’t come out of nowhere: it was the result of hard work.

Young Activists

Mahmoud and Amr are – like the young activists that we met in Mahalla – supporters of the Liberal Mohammed El-Baradei, although El-Baradei’s supporters do not all share the same ideas. They are agreed that Mubarak had to go, and they are a little more sceptical about the ruling military council than others with whom we have spoken. Some say, for example, that Mubarak is still ruling the country from his palace in Sharm El Sheik. However, apart from some abstract terms like “democracy” and “freedom”, they have few clear ideas what they want instead of Mubarak.

Although the King Hotel is not a 5 star hotel, it is a little more opulent then the small cafés with which we are more familiar. These young activists have already travelled abroad, which means that they are politically more experienced than many of their countrymen. It also means, though, that their demands are much more orientated on the German government and industry investing more in Egypt. They discuss amongst themselves, whether the demonstrations should go on or stop – some using the argument that further demonstrations would be bad for tourism and business.

Conflicting Interests

Without the young activists, the revolution would not have happened. For example, the strikes in Mahalla didn’t break out until after the demos organised by young people. Yet it is quite possible that the interests of the workers in Mahalla and those of some of the youth could start to diverge.

The Egyptian middle class could be satisfied with a bourgeois democracy, where it is not Mubarak who exploits the workers, but themselves. For some of them, it does not matter whether they receive their support from the USA, China or the EU – what is important is that this support comes in support of the new Egyptian ruling class.

Whether Mahmoud and Amr also go in this direction depends on the extent to which organized workers and socialists can take the initiative. These young people know better than most that the successes of the revolution are fragile. They can choose to decide either to fight to take the revolution further, or they can say “if only a minority is going to profit, why shouldn’t we be that minority?”

Revolutionary Housewife

From the King Hotel we go once more to the building of the journalists’ trades union, for a meeting with Mona Wafa. We met Mona two days ago at the meeting for the victims’ families. She impressed us with her emotional intervention. We had no idea what she said, as we don’t speak much Arabic, but we wanted to know what this woman had to say.

Mona, roughly 50 years old, introduces herself as a simple housewife. She worked previously for Egypt Air and has no political experience. On 25 January, the first large demonstration, she didn’t even take part. But after Mubarak’s police fought back, murdering many people on the 28th January, she decided to do something. For the first time in her life, she slept outside, together with one million others who were occupying Tahrir Square for the two weeks until Mubarak fell. She is now a proud member of the “25 January movement”.

As a result of her experience, Mona – like many others, who had only experienced Mubarak’s National Democratic Party – is very sceptical about parties. Not just that, she is convinced that the new organizations like the “defenders of the revolution of the 25th January” are being financed from Mubarak or from others abroad. She believes that the reforms are coming too slowly, the revolution is still in danger, and that the movement must go further while remaining on the street.

Expand the Movement

For this reason, Mona, together with others who she knows from Tahrir Square, has called a demo for tomorrow. The demo will march from Tahrir Square to the government buildings, where they want to organize a permanent vigil, until the following demands have been met:

  • Remove the government of Ahmed Sharif. Sharif leads Egypt with the acquiescence of the military council. However, he is Mubarak’s chosen successor and therefore part of the old régime.
  • Release of all political prisoners.
  • Abolition of all emergency laws, which are still being used against civilians.
  • Legal action against Mubarak and the freezing of all his assets (including those in Germany and the EU).

Mona’s demands show how far Egypt still has to go to achieve even the appearance of democracy. But the fact that she is so convinced that the struggle must go further is grounds for hope. We will see how large her demonstration will be, but she is not trying to compete with the existing weekly Friday demo. After our experience of the relatively unpolitical demo last Friday, maybe it could benefit from her clear demands.

Socialist in Egypt

We don’t want to leave Mona, but now it’s time to visit Nivin. Nivin is a socialist who spoke about Egypt last year at the summer academy of the Socialist Left (a tendency inside the German Left party) in Bielefeld. Nivin shares Mona’s scepticism about Sharif and the army council. Until now there have been virtually no concrete reforms. With a few exceptions, all the old leaders are still in office. The revolution must go further.

We ask Nivin about El-Baradei, the great white hope of the liberals. She is less convinced than the young activists, who we met yesterday. El-Baradei is running his election campaign from abroad. He currently lives in Vienna, and is not seriously anchored in the movement in Egypt. Although he spoke out against the Iraq war, you can’t be sure that he won’t make compromises with the Western powers.

Alliances and Conferences

Nivin believes that there will be three important opposition groups in the coming elections. Various liberal groups and parties are forming an electoral alliance. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood will set up an electoral list (a few hours after we spoke with Nivin, the Brotherhood formed a party to contest the elections). And the Left, organized socialists, and independent individuals will come together.

As part of the celebrations of the revolution, these alliances, perhaps together with other organisations, are organizing a conference at the end of April, in the same tradition as the Cairo Conferences of the last decade, although hopefully on a larger scale.

We leave Nivin with the plan that I’ll meet her again at the Friday demo in Tahrir Square. This should bring me the experience of exactly how the existing forces of the left relate to the new movement. More about this soon.

Day 5: Tuesday, 21 February: Egyptians want Justice

Mona’s demonstration to the government buildings was apparently banned by the army. Omnia is not particularly concerned – because of the Cairo public transport system, demonstrations during the week are problematic. On Friday, it will hopefully go on as before.

There are other indications that not everything is going forward uninterrupted. Today we see police for the first time. Not many – two cars and a bus during the day, but the police are slowly finding their self-confidence again. Previously, the Egyptian people were not prepared to accept the presence of police on the streets. However, this does not mean that the revolution is over.

United Hopes

Over breakfast we chat with a Spaniard, who is also here to experience the revolution. He’s spoken to a number of people who are now looking for some sort of normality. The younger people are still enthusiastic that Mubarak has gone – the older people are happy, but are now looking for stability. Many people live from tourism, and the absence of tourists means that they are poorer than before.

The demo this Friday could be critical. Until now, the movement has stayed together precisely because it has made few demands. Everyone was united in their hopes. But without concrete improvements in living conditions, the diverging interests between those who only want a bourgeois democracy, and those who want to fight their poverty will soon separate from one another. The question is whether the workers will maintain their central role.

Hope in Europe

We won’t get an answer to this before Friday at the earliest. Before that, we will make a trip to the North, to visit Omnia’s family, and after that, hopefully go to the working class city of Alexandria. Omnia’s parents live in Tanta, a city with 300,000 inhabitants in the Nile delta. Although they are both professors, they live in a modest house, and Omnia’s father is proud of his old Opel. Omnia dreams of Paris fashion and Italian bags, but she feels equally at home in the heart of her family.

We talk about European politics. Omnia’s parents seem confused, when I say that I don’t think much of David Cameron or Tony Blair (in a similar vein, many Egyptians find it hard to believe me when I tell them that Angela Merkel supported Mubarak till the bitter end). They are, however, happy, when I support the third British politician that they know – George Galloway. After the long period of dictatorship, they have hope in all politicians who come from Europe, but they have a special love for Galloway, because his anti-war position crosses all international boundaries.

Justice for the Victims’ Families

Omnia must run some errands, and visit her father’s lawyer. This lawyer, Medhat Senagawy, has also taken on the case of several families whose children were killed on 28th January.

This was the day of the counter-revolution. After the uprising on 25th January, Mubarak’s police and secret services went to Tahrir Square and murdered peaceful demonstrators. Snipers shot into the square. We heard several different estimates of how many people died on 28th January – up to 1,000 people. Medhat says it was “only” 300.

Struggles are Still Necessary

According to Egyptian law, Medhat is pushing for the death penalty for everyone responsible for the deaths. And who is responsible? There are three levels of responsibility – first Mubarak, second the old home minister Habib Al-Adly, who ordered the attacks, and third the individual policemen who fired the shots. This was illegal, and the families of the victims don’t need revenge, but justice.

Medhat is convinced that the families will win their case. And if they don’t? “We will win, but if we don’t, the protests must go on.“ Medhat believes in the new Egypt, but he also knows that further struggles for justice are still necessary.

Shot in the Heart

Kemal Anwar comes into the office. Kemal tells the story of his son, Ahmed Kemal. Ahmed was 19 and took his final exam on 27th January. The day after, he told his father that he was going out with friends. Ahmed didn’t say that he was going to demonstrate, but perhaps that was to be expected this January in Egypt.

Ahmed never came back. Snipers shot him in the heart. Kemal shows us the national flag that Ahmed had taken to the demo. It is flecked everywhere with Ahmed’s blood. His friends had used the flag to carry his body but it was too late.

Kemal wants justice. Those responsible must pay. And Kemal names the same three responsible groups as his lawyer – Mubarak, Al-Adly, and the individual policemen. Only when they have been tried can he take leave of his son.

Peace in the Middle East

We spend the rest of the day with a little tourism – enjoying the sunset, visiting the mosque (apparently the largest in Egypt) and visiting Omnia’s gran. We chat the whole time. Omnia tries to explain what has happened in her country. She has great trust that Allah will protect Egypt. At the same time, she believes in the power of people. She also slept in Tahrir square for days to finally get rid of Mubarak.

We talk about Palestine and Zionism – whether it is truly possible for Jews and Muslims to live together in peace in the Middle East. I explain how I think that the revolution in Egypt has done the Palestinians a big favour. Before this, the Israeli leaders could always claim that a country led by Arabs would inevitably be a dictatorship. Now we have experienced the revolutions and Tunisia. Soon, perhaps, Bahrain, Libya and Algeria. Who wouldn’t want that?

Day 6: Wednesday, 22 February: Everyday Life has Changed

A relatively peaceful day in Tanta, which provides the opportunity to find out how the revolution has developed outside the capital city. Omnia has explained to me that the resistance against Mubarak first broke out in Tanta. The people in Mahalla had told me exactly the same about their city. What is clear is that the people in the poor Northern cities had taken to the streets before the revolution arrived in Cairo.

And Tanta is poor. Its inhabitants are proud and dignified, but there is no greenery, the streets are highly in need of repair, and today a string dust storm is blowing through the narrow alleys. It is no surprise that Tanta’s youth is moving to Cairo. Nonetheless the population is growing as an increasing number of people is moving from the surrounding villages into Tanta.

Different to Cairo

Although Tanta was a source of the revolution, some of the mood of Cairo is missing here. Cairo is bedecked with flags everywhere – here the trees and lamp posts are still painted black-white-red, but there are few flags. As in Cairo, I am regularly greeted because I am a foreigner, but here the impression is more one of curiosity than solidarity. The people of Cairo welcome me as a supporter of their revolution – those in Tanta wonder what I am doing here. They are friendly, but it is a different feeling.

I ask Omnia why this is. She says that the revolution has moved to the capital. The people of Tanta are still vigilant – if the counter-revolutionaries try to come back, there will be demos in Tanta again. Will there be a demo on Friday? “I don’t know. The Muslim Brothers are strong in Tanta. Maybe they’ll organize something. If so, we’ll be there.“

In the Hands of the Professionals

This idea, that resistance and demonstrations can be suddenly turned on and off is one that I have often heard this week. And with good reason – if you have overthrown one of the world’s greatest dictators, everything is possible. There is still the danger of counter-revolution, but the people have already shown that they will fight for democracy and justice.

This is a plausible view, but it separates the revolution from its main actors and leaves it in the hands of the so-called professionals, who decide when and how resistance should take place. This is no basis for a new society, controlled by the people. It is also not an effective method of organizing defence, as the dynamic of the movement will gradually peter out.

Counter-Revolution Through the Back Door

There is a second problem. The counter-revolution doesn’t just fight with policemen and bloodbaths – it can also come through democratic elections. And if a new president tries to gradually roll back the gains of the revolution, for example using the justification of economic problems or appeasing US foreign policy, how strong will the movement on the streets be in defending the revolution?

This question is still open, and must be discussed by the Egyptian movement. I am convinced that Egypt will never return to how things are. The pride of the people who I meet and the knowledge that they have already made history is there and will stay. It is barely believable that Mubarak will somehow come back. This fact alone justifies the revolution. But if a new society is to be built in Egypt, the resistance must stay visible – not just in Cairo, but everywhere.

Focusing on People’s Needs

Notwithstanding this, much has changed, also in Tanta. Today I’m meeting Omnia’s friends, who have been carrying out charity work since 2005. They collect clothes from relatives and friends, sell them cheaply to poor people and use the profits to organize operations for sick people, who would otherwise be unable to afford it. An example of how people can work together, when they concentrate on needs and not profit.

I ask the young people, mainly students in their mid-20s, how Tanta has changed in the last few months. All are certain that there have been changes – even if it’s not always concrete. The people are happier, their relationships with each other are better, more people look after each other.

The Arab Revolution Goes On

But the most important change is the possibility of talking openly and discussing politics. This week I’ve heard several jokes about Mubarak. Most of them aren’t that funny – after 30 silent years perhaps people need a little time to learn how to be funny. A month ago, such jokes were high treason, but now they’re part of everyday conversation.

Today we also hear jokes about Gadaffi, who everybody believes is mad. The idea that all dictators will automatically survive has gone. Some people worry that Gadaffi is using foreign troops to avoid a repeat of the Egyptian situation where soldiers might refuse to shoot. But everyone believes that Gadaffi’s days are numbered. The Arab revolution goes on.

We talk about God and the world. Omnia says, it’s quite simple: “there are the rulers, and there are the normal people. And the rulers always want to ignore and abuse the normal people. In Egypt that was clear, but this is also the case in Europe and the USA. That means that the revolution is just a start. You must be prepared to question all governments.”

Day 7: Thursday, 23 February: Illusions in Europe

Omnia had to go to Upper Egypt. Apparently people have died there, and the radio station for which she sometimes works needs a report. So, I return to Cairo earlier than planned and use the time to take more photographs.

But first I need to find some accommodation, The hotel that I’d seen on Tahrir square has closed, and I can’t find any alternatives nearby. Shame. It would have been a great experience to view the Friday demo from a balcony on the square.

Tahrir Square 1

But then I have a spot of luck. One of the few tourists who is in Egypt at the moment passes and asks me if I’m looking for a hotel. His hotel has the address Tahrir Square 1 and is fifty metres from where we are standing. It’s on the eight floor – even though there are no signs informing you of its existence. Perhaps it’s going to be interesting after all.

I set off with my camera. My first stop is Mubarak’s old party headquarters, between the Egyptian museum and the Nile. The building has been burned to the ground. In the car park you can see cars which have been set alight by demonstrators. The gates are locked, but an Egyptian family is standing there and looking, as if they want to be sure that Mubarak has really gone.

Nervous Soldiers

From Mubarak’s headquarters, I go back to the television station, to see whether the military protection is the same as it was in the late evening. The tanks are still there, and the soldiers are still in a strange stand-off with hundreds of passers-by. Children with national flags climb onto tanks and are embraced by soldiers. However, as soon as I ask whether I can take their photograph, a soldier clearly tells me to put my camera away.

Someone, who is apparently a television journalist, is allowed to pass through the barbed wire, but entry is strictly controlled and the general public must stay outside. At places like this we can test most clearly the apparent neutrality of the army. If the régime hits back, it will probably start here.

Expensive Flags

From the television centre, it’s only a short walk into the main workers’ quarter – if that’s the correct term in a city with such a high level of unemployment, particularly among young people. There are fewer flags here, and at first I’m not sure whether workers are as supportive of the revolution as the people in other areas.

After a couple of chats, I’m reassured. Everyone is happy and excited, among other things that Europeans are in solidarity with them. The relative absence of flags is probably more because of pragmatic reasons – in areas like this, flags are a luxury that most people really can’t afford. However, revolutionary graffiti is everywhere.

In the few interviews that I can carry out with my limited language skills, I often receive thanks from Egyptians for support from Angela Merkel. I’m not sure whether this comes from false information, or from the fact that for many Egyptians, any European government is preferable to Mubarak’s dictatorship. Whatever, everyone is surprised when I tell them that Merkel supported Mubarak till the bitter end.

Thanks for Solidarity

Someone tells me that I should thank Merkel for her support. When I explain that the support didn’t come from Merkel, but from the German public, he tells me that I should then thank the German public.

Today’s report will be short, as much is waiting on tomorrow. Is the revolution going to go forward, or are the demonstrations going to be increasingly small until the government – whichever group it represents – takes the initiative again? The demonstration last week was amazing – Nivin told us that 4,000,000 people were celebrating, but at the same time it had little political direction. Tomorrow could be an important turning point for the revolution. But in which direction? I wait curiously.

Day 8: Friday, 23 February: They all must go

When I wake at 8:30, I can already see many people on Tahrir Square. There are the flag sellers, but also there are many people who obviously can’t come too early to a demonstration. I get up slowly, shower, have breakfast, and by the time that I arrive on the square at 10 am, there are already tens of thousands there.

As the day develops, an increasing number of people come, even if we don’t quite reach the 4,000,000 from last week. Nevertheless, 750,000 people is not bad, and today’s rally has much more of a feel of a demonstration than last week’s celebrations. This time, several organizations are giving out leaflets, and the Left are selling newspapers – apparently with great success. I buy ten papers for Arab comrades in Germany, and the seller tells me – rightly – that I should pay a solidarity price. The Egyptian activists can use every cent.

Gaddafi Must Go

Politics is not just coming from organizations. The demonstrators have also become convinced that they can’t just celebrate, but must also fight on. Libyan flags are everywhere – as are home-made placards against Gadaffi. While last Friday evening was just a party, this time the slogans and flags remain through the night. We can celebrate after our demands have been met.

Everywhere people are wearing home-made stickers in English and Arabic “Shafik = old régime”. This is an interesting and desirable development. The majority of people with whom we have spoken have, until now, believed that the army council has earned their trust and that they should wait six months until the election. Now there are clear demands that prime minister Shafik is Mubarak’s man, and that all the old compromised politicians must go immediately.

The World Should See Everything

Fairly early in the morning, I’m greeted by Mona. She is sitting in a group of mainly young activists, and has pretty much lost her voice – she’s obviously had much to scream about since we last met. For this reason it’s not easy to talk to her, but we wish each other the best and she asks again that I publicize my photos and reports.

In the following hours, I spend most of my time taking photographs. I notice again how diverse the different demonstrators are. All possible age groups, many families, women with and without headscarf. There is a group of young men who physically try to prevent me from taking photos of young women, even when these women have said that they want to be photographed. Others argue with these macho lads and say that the world must see everything.

Revolution or Military Coup?

I am often stopped by groups of young people asking me to take their photographs. While I’m chatting with one of these groups I hear my name being called. That can’t be right. In Cairo? I hear my name again. I turn round and in front of me is Suzanne, who I last saw six or so years ago at the Cairo conference.

Suzanne works as a tour guide, and the first time that I saw her, she looked more like a model than an activist. Now she’s wearing revolutionary chic army fatigues with badges from different countries – against war, for Palestine, against the use of German air space for US planes (I think I sold her that one last time). Unlike the liberals who I’ve met this week, Suzanne doesn’t trust the army one inch, and believes that they have carried out a military coup. She has fought Mubarak and she’ll carry on fighting against the military.

Rumours of Torture

Like Mona and Omnia and millions of others, Suzanne lived and fought on Tahrir Square until Mubarak was gone. Unlike many, she stayed on. On the evening of the 11th February, after Mubarak had left, Suzanne and a couple of thousand others stayed to protest until all their demands had been met.

They lacked a critical mass. The military can quite easily disperse a couple of thousand people. As the majority of the movement still has hope in the military council, the people who occupied Tahrir Square were isolated from the masses. Suzanne and at least 21 others were imprisoned in the neighbouring Egyptian museum. They heard stories about torture, including against a foreign journalist. She still doesn’t know what really happened.

Freeze Foreign Assets

Despite her dreadful experiences, Suzanne is unbowed. It’s clearer than ever to her that she can’t trust the state on any level, and that Egypt needs a complete change of government. She worries that the promised elections won’t happen at all. Even if they do, the struggle must go on. Tonight, she’s staying with others in Tahrir Square, to try to put pressure on the interim government. All Mubarak supporters must go, all political prisoners should be released, and Mubarak’s foreign assets must be frozen. This is a demand that German supporters of the Egyptian revolution can take up.

I stay and take photographs until 11:30 pm, accompanied by a group of young people who tell me which pictures I should take. Then the young machos come back and try again to stop me taking pictures of young women. I reluctantly accept the advice that I should go back to my hotel and take photos of the demonstration from my balcony. I listen to the slogans into the night, and gradually fall asleep with revolution in my head.

Celebrations continue into the night

Yesterday, I had real worries that the movement in Egyptian was stagnating or would be beaten back, but now I’m convinced, that it won’t be over for a long time.

Day 9: Saturday, 24 February: New Left in Egypt

At 10 am, there are already about 1,000 people on Tahrir Square. Half of them were there all night, and some are still sleeping in improvised tents. Everywhere, there are groups of people discussing how things should go forward. I look for Suzanne, but she’s nowhere to be found.

After I’ve taken some photos, I go to the Internet café. In my e-mails, I see a report from an activist in Berlin saying that last night special forces had attacked demonstrators in Tahrir Square. I hurry back.

Electric Shocks in the Egyptian Museum

I still can’t find Suzanne – I hear later that several people were arrested, and I could well believe that Suzanne was one of them [Post Script: I talked to Suzanne a couple of weeks later, and she hadn’t been arrested. There is just too much to do in revolutionary Egypt than to just stay at Tahrir Square].

Instead, I meet Mona. Mona had also slept on Tahrir Square, and was there when the soldiers came. They were masked and tried to use violence to clear the square. As on 28th January, they had taken prisoners to the Egyptian museum, and there were further rumours that these prisoners had been tortured. Later I met a doctor, who wasn’t there himself, but had heard that soldiers has used electric shocks against their prisoners.

The stories are dreadful, but they have two consequences. Firstly, the protests have become more militant. The demonstrators – still including many families – occupy the Square all day, and I can still hear their loud slogans when I must go to the airport late in the evening.

Secondly, it is more obvious to more people that the army’s role is contradictory. The normal soldiers are still mixing with the people – this is the reason that special troops were used the clear Tahrir Square – but it’s also increasingly clear that the army council is prepared to use violence against demonstrators. And the army council still holds power in new Egypt.

Socialist Activists

I spend the day switching between the demonstration, getting larger as the day goes on, and the Internet café. Then my mobile phone rings. All week I’ve been hoping that I could meet with socialist activists, but they were – with good reason – too busy. But now, Mohamed has a little time. In the half hour in which we can talk I hear much important explanation about my experiences of the previous week.

Apparently, Mona’s demonstration on Tuesday did take place. The problem was that only 6,000 people were there – tiny compared to the mass demonstrations on Tahrir Square. Mohamed understands the frustration of the people who demonstrated, but he thinks that these demos were premature – if we want to change Egypt significantly, we must be able to mobilize masses.

Similarly, he thinks that yesterday’s occupation of Tahrir Square isolated itself from the masses. We will see how much these actions can be converted into something more permanent.

Minority and Majority

Mohamed confirms my impression that there is a significant gap between the minority of activists who want to immediately take the revolution forward, and the millions who are more prepared to wait a little and see what comes.

The minority mistrusts the army councils, sees that very few concrete reforms have been delivered and tries to fight on, at best together with the workers’ movement. The masses, however, will carry on demonstrating on Friday, but activities like the demo last Tuesday and the occupation of Tahrir Square will currently attract fewer people.

What is important is winning more people for militant action. Mohamed has good news here. In two weeks’ time, a new workers’ party will be formed. This party will try to bring together three tendencies – firstly, socialists and trade unionists, secondly radical youth, who are active in the councils to defend the revolution of the 25th January, and thirdly the left wing of the liberals.

Council to Defend the Revolution

Mohamed explains more about the councils to defend the revolution, There are roughly 20 such councils, organized on a local basis, and coordinating with each other. Each group has between 20 and 200 active members, and their activities are often influenced by anarchist ideas. Nevertheless, the new activists are, like most Egyptians, relatively unexperienced politically.

It is a similar situation with the liberals. The story that Mohamed tells reinforces many of the impressions of my various meetings with the El-Baradei supporters in Cairo and Mahalla. Most of them are young, come from the middle classes and have been very recently politically radicalized. They are very strongly for a secular state, even when they are themselves religious.

For other political questions, they have a wide range of opinions. Some want a bourgeois democracy and have illusions that the USA can play a progressive role. However, Mohamed says that at least in this question, the Muslim Brotherhood – despite their other ideas – have a consistent anti-imperialist position. Others are feeling towards socialist ideas, or something similar, and can be won for left politics if there is a relevant opposition – something like the new workers’ party, perhaps.

German Solidarity

I ask Mohamed what Germans can do for the Egyptian revolution. I explain that many people are asking whether they should collect money. Mohamed thinks that at the moment collecting money is not important. Not just because it’s illegal to send money to Germany (unless you happen to be a government), but also because Mubarak and consorts received so much help from the West that any organization receiving financial aid from the West would be viewed by most Egyptians with suspicion.

Nonetheless there are many possibilities in which we can offer solidarity. Firstly, Egyptian activists can be invited to Germany, to share their revolutionary experiences. Secondly, Egyptian activists would welcome delegations, particularly from trade unionists, which travel to Egypt.

The Dynamic Remains

After Mohamed has to go, I return to the demonstration, meet Nivin one last time then drive to the airport. It was a great ten days, but now I want to go back to Germany to relate the experiences of revolutionary Egypt. The first meeting – for the Left Party in Darmstadt – has already been organized.

I also think that I’m going at the right time. A few days ago, it still wasn’t clear whether the revolution would retain its dynamic, but the actions of this week-end and the news about a new party show me that it’s not over. The Egyptians are also watching what’s happening in their neighbouring countries – particularly, in Libya where the movement against Gadaffi has their full support.

Saying that the revolution is not over does not mean that all questions have been answered. The extent to which the army council can keep power, the question of whether a bourgeois revolution involving just a change of government is sufficient, the possibilities of redistributing the wealth in Egypt and in other countries, all these questions remain open. But the Egyptian movement is fight on, and throughout the world, we will learn much from their experience.