Eyewitness Egypt: two interviews with Hossam el-Hamalawy

A protester carrying a banner addressed to Mubarak: “The people want you to fall”. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy/3arabawy.

Below are two recent interviews with Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist who produces at the 3arabawy website. The first appeared at Al Jazeera and the second at the Washington Post.

January 27, 2011 -- Al Jazeera via Socialist Worker (US) -- Mark LeVine, professor of history at UC Irvine, managed to catch up with Hossam el-Hamalawy via Skype to get a first-hand account of events unfolding in Egypt.

Why did it take a revolution in Tunisia to get Egyptians onto the streets in unprecedented numbers?

In Egypt, we say that Tunisia was more or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt, and revolt has been in the air over the past few years.

Indeed, we already managed to have two mini-intifadas or "mini Tunisias" in 2008. The first was the April 2008 uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in Borollos, in the north of the country.

Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labour strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa Intifada of Palestinians and the US invasion of Iraq.

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada was especially important because in the 1980s and '90s, street activism had been effectively shut down by the government as part of the fight against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist inside university campuses or party headquarters. But when the 2000 Intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to the streets, in the same way we've been inspired by Tunisia today.

How are the protests evolving?

It is too early to say how they will go. It's a miracle how they continued past midnight yesterday [January 26] in the face of fear and repression. But having said that, the situation has reached a level where everyone is fed up -- seriously fed up. And even if security forces manage to put down protests today, they will fail to put down the ones that happen next week, or next month or later this year.

There is definitely a change in the level of courage of the people. The state was helped by the excuse of fighting terrorism in 1990s in order to fight all sorts of dissent in the country -- which is a trick all governments use, including the US.

But once formal opposition to a regime turns from guns to mass protests, it's very difficult to confront such dissent. You can plan to take out a group of terrorists fighting in the sugar canefields, but what are you going to do with thousands of protesters on the streets? You can't kill them all. You can't even guarantee that troops will do it -- will fire on the poor.

What is the relationship between regional and local events here?

You have to understand that the regional is local here. In 2000, the protests didn't start as anti-regime protests, but rather against Israel and in support of Palestinians. The same occurred with the US invasion of Iraq three years later.

But once you take to the streets and are confronted by regime violence, you start asking questions: Why is Mubarak sending troops to confront protesters instead of confronting Israel? Why is he exporting cement to be used by Israel to build settlements instead of helping Palestinians? Why are police so brutal with us when we're just trying to express our solidarity with Palestinians in a peaceful manner?

And so regional issues like Israel and Iraq were shifted to local issues. And within moments, the same protesters who chanted pro-Palestinian slogans started chanting against Mubarak. The specific internal turning point in terms of protests was 2004, when dissent turned domestic.

In Tunisia, the labour unions played a crucial role in the revolution, as their large and disciplined membership ensured that protests could not be easily quashed and gave an organisational edge to the mobilisations. What's the role of the labour movement in Egypt in the current uprising?

The Egyptian labour movement was under attack in the 1980s and 1990s by police, who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in 1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 in the textile mill strikes.

But steadily since December 2006, our country has been witnessing the biggest and most sustained waves of strike action since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of the largest labour force in the Middle East, with more than 28,000 workers. It started because of labour issues, but spread to every sector in society except the police and military.

As a result of these strikes, we've managed to get two independent unions, the first of their kind since 1957 formation of a union for property tax collectors. The new unions include more than 40,000 civil servants, and then health technicians, more than 30,000 of whom launched a union just last month outside of the state-controlled unions.

But it's true that one major distinction between us and Tunisia is that although it was a dictatorship, Tunisia had a semi-independent trade union federation. Even if the leadership was collaborating with the regime, the rank and file were militant trade unionists. So when the time came for general strikes, the unions could pull it together.

But here in Egypt, we have a vacuum that we hope to fill soon. Independent trade unionists have already been subjected to witch-hunts -- here are lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions. But they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.

Of course, in the last few days, the crackdown has been directed against street protesters, who aren't necessarily trade unionists. These protests have gathered a wide spectrum of Egyptians, including sons and daughters of the elite. So we have a combination of urban poor and youth, together with the middle class and the sons and daughters of the elite.

I think Mubarak has managed to alienate all sectors of society except his close circle of cronies.

The Tunisian revolution has been described as very much a "youth"-led revolt, and dependent on social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter for its success. And now people are focusing on youth in Egypt as a major catalyst. Is this a "youth intifada," and could it happen without Facebook and other new media technologies?

Yes. It's a youth Intifada on the ground. The internet only plays a role in spreading the word and the images about what happens on the ground. We don't use the Internet to organise. We use the internet to publicise what we're doing on the ground, hoping to inspire others into action.

It's amazing to think about the crucial role of trade unions in the Arab world today considering more than two decades of neoliberal regimes across the region, whose primary goal has been to destroy working-class solidarity. Why have unions remained so important?

Unions have always been proven to be the silver bullet for any dictatorship. Look at Poland, South Korea, Latin America and Tunisia. Unions were always instrumental in mass mobilisation. You want a general strike to overthrow a dictatorship, and there's nothing better than an independent union to do so.

Is there a larger ideological program behind the protests, or is it just about getting rid of Mubarak?

Everyone has his or her reasons to take to the streets, but I would assume that if our uprising became successful and he's overthrown, you'll start getting divisions. The poor will want to push the revolution to a much more radical position -- to push for the radical redistribution of wealth and to fight corruption, whereas the so-called reformers, who will want to put the breaks on, and more or less lobby for change at the top, and curb the powers of state a little bit, but keep some essence of the state. But we're not there yet.

What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how will its remaining aloof from the current protests impact the situation?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever its leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership, it has demoralised its base cadres.

I know personally many young brothers who left the group. Some of them have joined other groups or remained independent. As the current street movement grows and the lower leadership gets involved, there will be more divisions, because the higher leadership can't justify why they're not part of the new uprising.

What about the role of the US in this conflict. How do people on the street view its positions?

Mubarak is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. He's known to be America's thug in the region, one of the tools of US foreign policy and implementing its agenda of security for Israel and the smooth flow of oil, while keeping Palestinians in line.

So it's no secret that this dictatorship has enjoyed the backing of US administrations since day one, even during Bush's phony pro-democracy rhetoric. So one should not be surprised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ludicrous statements that were more or less defending the Mubarak regime, since one of the pillars of US foreign policy was to keep regimes stable at expense of freedom and civil liberties.

We don't expect anything from US President Barack Obama, whom we regard as a great hypocrite. But we hope and expect the US people -- trade unions, professors' associations, student unions, activist groups -- to come out in support of us.

What we want of the US government is to completely get out of the picture. We don't want any sort of backing -- just cut aid to Mubarak immediately and withdraw backing from him, withdraw from all Middle Eastern bases and stop supporting the state of Israel.

Ultimately, Mubarak will do whatever he has to do to protect himself. He will suddenly adopt the most anti-US rhetoric if he thinks that would help him save his skin. At the end of the day, he's committed to his own interests, and if he thinks the US won't support him, he'll turn somewhere else.

The reality is that any really clean government that comes to power in the region will come into open conflict with the US because it will call for radical redistribution of wealth and ending support for Israel or other dictatorships. So we don't expect any help from America--just to leave us alone.

[First published at the Al Jazeera.]

Hossam el-Hamalawy.

Crisis in Egypt: Blogger/journalist first-hand stories -- Hossam el-Hamalawy answers Washington Post readers' questions

January 31, 2011 -- Washington Post -- Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger and journalist from Cairo who writes the popular blog 3arabawy, was online January 31 to take questions about what is currently happening on the ground in the Egyption capital.

El-Hamalawy has been an editor at several Egyptian papers and is currently at Al Ahram English, a leading English-language daily.


Boston, Mass.: How long before Mubarak steps down? If he does, do you worry about a power vacuum? Do you see ElBaradei as property interim leader until free and fair elections can be held?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I see him stepping down pretty soon or else he will be taken into custody of the protestors and will be put on trial.

I do not worry about power vacuum because the people are already taking initiatives on the ground to fill any security or political vacuums as we saw in the case of the popular committee that are running security now in the Egyptian neighbourhoods, following the evacuation of the police.

Regarding ElBaradei, I do not want to see him as an interim leader because he will diffuse the revolution, not take it forward.


Sheffield, U.K.: Which are the opposition parties capable of replacing Mubarak and will they respect the call for elections?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I don't see any of the current opposition groups capable of providing an alternative at the moment. And what I hope for is that we end up with direct democracy, not liberal democracy. Direct democracy is based on collective decision making from below based on the committees that are springing up now in the neighborhoods and hopefully soon in the factories.

Liberal democracy is voting for rich fat cats once every five years.


Bluffton, Ohio: As a university student interested in social justice and social change, what can American students alike do to help during this situation?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: They can protest in the front of the Egyptian embassies and consulates and pressure their own government into cutting the aid they give to the Mubarak dictatorship.


Durham, N.C.: How much truth is there to rumours that police are behind the looting?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: These rumours are largely through many of those criminal thugs who work closely with the police who use them against political dissidents previously in elections and in protests.


Coon Rapids, MN: Do you think the new government will be a secular one?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: At the moment it is very hard to say what the outcome of the uprising will be since it's not over yet. However, the Islamic forces are not running the show. Personally I'm hoping for a secular system.


New York, NY: I am a Coptic Christian and would like to know if Coptic youth are taking part in the protests? And if you have spoken to any of them what are their hopes for Coptic rights if the regime leaves? Please give us some information. Thank you.

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Despite the call by the Coptic church in Egypt not to take part in the protests because the church is closely affiliated to the Mubarak regime, but many of the Coptic youth are taking part in the uprising and the Muslim protesters largely welcome that and in demonstrations there are always slogans chanted by the demonstrators calling for unity between Copts and Muslims against the regime and denouncing sectarianism.


London: What does "diffusing the revolution" mean for you? What is the aim of this revolution if not an interim leader and then a properly and freely elected new government?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The revolution for me is about radical redistribution of wealth and a government that will represent the will of the Egyptian people when it comes to civil liberties in addition to a pro-resistance stand vis a vis the US hegemony on the region and Israel. ElBaradei is not the man for that.


Toronto, Canada: We see the size of the street protests but what types of organisations are springing up to organise these? For instance neighbourhood committees, factory committees, political parties. Or is it still primarily "spontaneous" and localized organizations?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: In many cases the protests are spontaneous but slowly there are grassroots organisations that are mushrooming to manage the protests, including the neighbourhood committees, the few independent trade unions we have and hopefully soon factory committees.


London: Do you see this as a popular, mass-led revolution? What chance do the Muslim Brotherhood have of hijacking it?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: It is a popular mass revolution indeed. However, history is full of previous cases where groups have hijacked the uprisings. Up until now the Brotherhood have not presented themselves as an alternative to Mubarak. But who knows about tomorrow?


Washington, DC: If Mubarak steps down, is there a fear that a radical regime will take his place instead of a democratic one? How likely is that to happen?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: If you are talking radical, like in radical redistribution of wealth and active support for the spread of regional dissent against both the local Arab dictators and the Western backers, then we welcome the radicalism. But if it was radicalism in the direction of religious fanatacism we definitely do not want that and I see no signs on the ground that religious fanatics are taking over.


Barcelona, Catalonia: Was Tunisia a "Berlin Wall moment" for the Arab world? Do you think it's likely that many other dictatorships in the region will fall in 2011?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: The real Berlin moment was the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 that started a chain reaction all throughout the Arab world providing inspiration for street dissent. Having said that, the Tunisian revolution is indeed a catalyst in a process that has been brewing for 10 years now.


Austin, TX: We're only hearing about what is happening in Cairo, and to a lesser extent some other big cities. What's going on in rural Egypt?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: In rural Egypt ... if you mean the provinces, which are not necessarily rural, these protests continue on a daily basis and sometimes they are even more militant than the ones in Cairo.


Newfoundland, Canada: What do you think Mubarak's strategy is, or are he and his ministers just living in a bubble detached from reality? It is very odd that the government would continually impose curfews and then do nothing to enforce them -- it just emboldens people.

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think Mubarak is confused and desperate so he is trying every trick in the book. But it's not working because the street pressure continues and escalates. Mubarak hoped for the end of the protests when he sent in the army expecting that people will be scared by the sight of the tanks and fighter jets. But it backfired.


Bielefeld, Germany: Which country in the Middle East will be next? Do you think many more countries will experience such events like in Egypt?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think many countries in our region are about to embrace their own intifada. I think Yemen, Jordan and Algeria might be next.


New York, New York: What incentive does Mubarak have to resign? What if he just decides to ignore the protests? Do you think the protesters can continue their momentum? Egypt is a country of over 80 million people -- do you feel the protests are representative?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: No dictator has an incentive to leave and they only leave when they are forced to and I feel the tipping point to be coming very soon. And yes, the demonstrations are very much representative of the Egyptian people because you find men and women, Copts and Muslims, veiled and unveiled women, children and old men and women, so you have all the strats of Egyptian people.


New York: Thus far, it appears that a very small percentage of Egyptians are demonstrating. Why is that? What percentage of Egyptians do you think the demonstrators represent?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: I think this is a mistaken idea and it's enough to tune in the TV stations to watch the hundreds of thousands basically in every province to understand that this has become a mass uprising.


Sheffield, UK: Why do you think the West has been so hesitant and incremental in transitioning their support from Mubarak to the Egyptian people?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: Western governments like all other governments care about their own interests and do not put much value on what choices they make on who to ally themselves with except for their personal gains. That's why the Obama administration made foolish statements like those made by Joe Biden refusing to label Mubarak as a dictator simply because Mubarak is a friend of the US government and Israel.


Boston, MA: From your narrative it appears that you are supporting a socialist restructuring of Egyptian economic life in the post-Mubarak era, but there are also many in Egypt who would support something more akin to the European liberal social-democratic model. Are you qualified to give an accurate representation of what approach most protesters are agreeing upon?

Hossam el-Hamalawy: No one claims that there is an agreement yet among protesters about the post-Mubarak regime and I was very much clear in my previous answers that I was expressing my personal hopes towards what Egypt should look like. However, at the end of the day the majority of the Egyptian people will decide which direction to go.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 02/01/2011 - 17:34



Comrades and Brothers (2007)

Hossam El-Hamalawy

Hossam El-Hamalawy is a Cairo-based journalist and blogger.

A joint Muslim Brotherhood and Revolutionary Socialist protest against the Egyptian regime, August 14, 2005. (Nora Younis)

Emad Mubarak is a busy man. Director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and a lawyer with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the leftist Mubarak cannot hold a meeting without being interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. The calls these days come from student members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the officially outlawed Islamist group that is Egypt’s largest political movement. The students call to report security service abuses against them on campuses, or to request his legal counsel while they undergo interrogation by university administrators.

“Each time I receive a call, I can’t help but remember the old days and what it was like being on campus with the Brothers,” Mubarak giggles. In March 1999, he spent 22 days in Tura prison south of Cairo after Muslim Brotherhood students assaulted him and eight of his fellow socialists on campus, turning them over to the police. “Today, things are different. Leftists and Islamists can sit down and talk. Most of my clients are Muslim Brothers,” Mubarak said. “I tell them, ‘I’m a communist,’ and they are fine with that.”

From campus fistfights in the 1990s to joint demonstrations in 2005–2006, relations between the Muslim Brothers and the radical left in Egypt have come a long way. In settings where the two tendencies operate side by side, like student unions and professional syndicates, overt hostility has vanished, and there is even a small amount of coordination around tactics. Still, the cooperation remains symbolic, and leftists and Islamists have yet to join forces to undertake sustained mass actions against their common foe, the regime of President Husni Mubarak.

A New Kind of Leftist

The improvement of leftist-Islamist relations can largely be traced to two factors. First is the evolution of a new left in Egypt whose two main pillars are the Revolutionary Socialist Organization and a growing left-leaning human rights community. This new left has different attitudes toward Islamism than those held by the previous “communist waves.”[1] Second is the generational change within both the left and the Brotherhood cadres spurred by the revival of Egyptian street politics, thanks to the second Palestinian intifada.

Bad blood between the Egyptian left and the Brothers has a long history, from the Islamists’ coordination with King Farouq in breaking strikes in the 1940s to President Anwar al‑Sadat’s encouragement of violent Islamist assaults on leftist university students in the 1970s. Most independent leftist organizations in the 1980s and 1990s hewed to a line on political Islam similar to that of the Egyptian Communist Party—the dominant faction inside the “legal left” Tagammu‘ Party—equating Islamist organizations, reformist or radical, with fascism.The only modest exception was Ahmad Nabil al‑Hilali’s People’s Socialist Party, which briefly flirted in the late 1980s with theidea that militant Islam was a “movement for the poor” deserving of support. The majority attitude on the traditional Stalinist left translated into an alliance, sometimes overt and occasionally tacit, with the Egyptian secular intelligentsia—and with Mubarak’s regime. Needless to say, joint political action with the Brothers was never on the table. A few independent leftist lawyers like al‑Hilali and Hisham Mubarak were involved in defending Islamist detainees, but these were individual initiatives. As might be expected, the Muslim Brothers did not appreciate the “fascist” label, and they regarded the left with great distrust.

Starting in the late 1980s, small circles of Egyptian students, influenced by Trotskyism, gathered to study, eventually evolving in April 1995 into an organization named the Revolutionary Socialists’ Tendency. In contradistinction to the Stalinist left, these activists put forward the slogan “Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state” in the literature they distributed on university campuses and elsewhere.[2] In practice, this slogan translated into taking up the cause of Muslim Brotherhood students on campus when it came to “democratic” issues, as when state security banned Islamist candidates from running in student union elections or expelled Islamist students from school. The “galleries” (ma‘arid)—impromptu broadsheets written on cloth or cardboard and laid out in campus squares—of Revolutionary Socialist students at Cairo and ‘Ayn Shams Universities regularly carried denunciations of military tribunals’ sentences handed down to Muslim Brothers. At the same time, the Trotskyist students confronted the Muslim Brothers on issues such as freedom of expression and the rights of women and Coptic Christians. Whenever they felt the Brothers wanted to impose sex segregation in the classroom, or clamp down on campus theater and art, or whenever the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide made sectarian comments about the Copts, the socialists’ “galleries” would carry vehement denunciations.

As a Revolutionary Socialist member who was active in the 1990s recalls: “We were a kind of leftist the Muslim Brothers hadn’t met before. They couldn’t quite figure us out at the beginning. Anyway, we were still too marginal for them to bother with. We were only a few individuals.” This began to change in 1999. On a few occasions in that year, as one socialist remembers, the Muslim Brotherhood students at Cairo University allowed the Revolutionary Socialist students to speak at rallies held on campus against the US airstrikes on Iraq. The socialist students took this unprecedented opportunity as a sign of the Muslim Brothers’ recognition that they were a force that had to be given a place on the political stage. It was a step in a long, slow process of building trust.

From a handful of members in 1995, the Revolutionary Socialists grew to a couple hundred activists on the eve of the second Palestinian intifada. Their ranks then swelled thanks to their role in the Egyptian movement of solidarity with the Palestinians, at a time when the Muslim Brothers largely abstained from street action. The radicalizing influence of the intifada among youth helped to reawaken the Egyptian tradition of street politics, which had been virtually smothered by the Mubarak regime’s fearsome security services. Cairo and several provinces witnessed their largest and most boisterous demonstrations since the 1977 uprising following President Anwar al‑Sadat’s attempt to remove state subsidies for bread and other staples. Despite the opportunities presented by the ferment on the streets, the Muslim Brotherhood pursued the policy of non-confrontation with the regime it had abided by since the 1995 crackdown on its rank and file, culminating in a series of infamous military tribunals. Not only did Brotherhood students refuse to mobilize on the street, but they also sought on several occasions to curb the militancy of demonstrations. [3] In October 2000, for instance, after the socialists clashed with state security and burned police vans at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, the Brothers emerged to denounce “socialist sabotage.” At other times, Islamist students tried to physically restrain students from marching outside campus gates.

The increasingly radicalized political scene created a space for the left to intervene, but also generated pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership from the organization’s cadre. Leftist activists then at universities recall “naming and shaming” campus Brotherhood activists for their lack of participation in the mass protests. In early April 2002, precisely following the outbreak of the leftist-led, pro-Palestinian riots at Cairo University, members of the Muslim Brothers began turning out for events organized by the Egyptian Popular Committee for the Solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. “Muslim Brotherhood representatives from the syndicates starting showing up to our meetings,” says Ahmad Sayf, the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, who has been hosting the committee’s meetings. “They didn’t have much choice, as they would have lost credibility in their constituencies if they hadn’t turned out. Still, they only sent representatives [usually, ‘Isam al‑‘Iryan or ‘Abd al‑Mun‘im Abu al‑Futouh, the two most popular party elders with Islamist youth] and avoided mass mobilization.” More importantly, Sayf continues, “the Brotherhood was bowing to pressure from its youth, who were not happy with a complacent stand vis-à-vis the authorities.” On April 5, 2002, a group of young Muslim Brothers published an open letter to Supreme Guide Mustafa Mashhour in the London-based daily al‑Hayat, questioning the group’s acquiescence in security crackdowns and demanding more involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Sayf concludes: “The alternative was approaching the radicals in the opposition, as the ‘legal’ opposition, namely Tagammu‘, Wafd and the Nasserists, were too hostile. The radicals in the opposition, on the other hand, were happy to get whatever help the Brothers were willing to contribute.”

The Muslim Brothers initially approached Revolutionary Socialist members, regarding them as the “least hostile” among the leftist factions, to suggest that Islamists collaborate with the left in the pro-intifada and anti-war movements. The move triggered a debate among leftist circles. Sympathizers of the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party, members of the Tagammu‘ bureaucracy and a faction from the human rights organizations refused any form of coordination with Islamists, though they made an exception for Magdi Hussein’s Labor Party, whose brand of Islamism is regarded as somehow “left-leaning.” The usual scene at such demonstrations was that the crowd would split into two circles, one led by leftists and Nasserists chanting leftist slogans, and another led by the Labor Party supporters chanting Islamic slogans. The Revolutionary Socialists, on the other hand, pushed for close coordination, supported by left-wing human rights activists such as members of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

“Brotherly Spirit”

In 2003 and 2004, the Muslim Brotherhood stuck to its non-confrontational policy. While the Brothers kept on sending representatives to pro-Palestinian and anti-war demonstrations, the main concern of the organization was charity work, and demonstrating within the boundaries set by the regime, in complete coordination with the security services. The regime used the group as a safety valve for dissent during the early stage of the ongoing war in Iraq, allowing the Brothers to take part in government-sponsored rallies in Cairo Stadium, as well as in the provinces. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Palestine solidarity committee evolved into an anti-war movement, convening small street actions, which exploded into running clashes with the police in downtown Cairo on March 19 and 20, 2003. The next summer, a middle-ranking Muslim Brothers activist spoke of the increasing frustration among the group’s cadre at the leadership’s “leaving the street empty for the leftists. When Kifaya came onto the scene, some Brotherhood youth wanted to follow suit.”

The anti-war movement, successor of the pro-intifada movement, evolved again by the end of 2004 into an anti-Mubarak movement, composed of two organizations. One was Kifaya (the Egyptian Movement for Change), a coalition made up primarily of members of the breakaway Nasserist faction Karama, individuals from the liberal al‑Ghad Party, figures from the Egyptian Communist Party and veterans of the 1970s student movement. The other wing was the Popular Campaign for Change, which was more Marxist in composition, and included the Revolutionary Socialists, left-wing human rights activists and independent leftists. The two organizations more or less fused together in the months to follow. Kifaya’s sometimes quixotic and theatrical street actions attracted public attention, and helped to break taboos in Egypt’s political life by issuing direct challenges—without euphemisms—to the president and his family.

Shortly after a series of Kifaya demonstrations, a group of Muslim Brotherhood activists, notably ‘Ali ‘Abd al‑Fattah of Alexandria, held talks with Revolutionary Socialists and independent leftists, resulting in the launching of the National Alliance for Change in June 2005. The alliance was tactical, and revolved around an anti-Mubarak platform, with emphasis on vigilance against the prospect of vote rigging in that year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The fruits of this alliance did not radically alter the political scene on the ground. After announcing their intention to hold a joint demonstration with the left in ‘Abdin Square in July 2005, the Muslim Brothers failed to show up, citing security pressures. Two more joint demonstrations were organized in front of the Lawyers’ Syndicate. The first was chaotic, and the second was better organized, with consensus on slogans and banners. Since the winter 2005 parliamentary elections, the alliance has stayed out of the streets, but it remains in place as a coordination and problem-solving mechanism whenever friction arises in workplaces.

The rapprochement between Islamists and the left continued when students from the Revolutionary Socialists’ Tendency, Muslim Brothers and some independents formed the Free Student Union (FSU) in November 2005, with the aim of acting as a parallel organization to the government-dominated student unions. The FSU was centered in Helwan and Cairo Universities, with tiny presences at a few other universities, including ‘Ayn Shams. Following the rigging of the October 2006 student union elections, the Brotherhood threw its weight behind the FSU, sanctioning new branches at universities such as al‑Azhar, Mansoura and Alexandria. Though the FSU is far from achieving the ambition of its organizers—nothing less than a national grassroots student union—the places where the FSU operates have witnessed another great improvement in relations between the Brothers and the radical left. Mustafa Muhi al‑Din, a socialist activist from Helwan University, describes relations with the Brothers on campus as friendly. “They invite us to their events, and they show interest in our activities. Maybe the union here is still not strong, but there’s space for activities. We can be active and spread our message, worrying about state security, but not about hassles from the Brotherhood, and sometimes they give us a hand. We do the same. This makes things easier.” ‘Abd al‑‘Aziz Mugahid, a Brotherhood activist and president of FSU at Helwan University, speaks enthusiastically of the “brotherly spirit” on campus. “The socialists intervened to help us out in solidarity demonstrations with our sisters who were expelled from the dormitories because they wore the niqab, and they stood by us when the administration expelled more than 400 students for security reasons. These joint activities were not frequent before.”

Generational Change

The backbone of the solidarity actions with the Palestinian intifada has been students in their late teens or early twenties. As political virgins, they do not carry the baggage of the historical fighting between the leftists and Islamists, and among leftist factions.[4]

Meanwhile, the profile of the average young Muslim Brotherhood activist has undergone its own transformation, rendering a considerable number of the Brotherhood youth open for coordination with secular groups. “The Brotherhood cadre has changed,” says Husam Tammam, author of a recent book on the organization.[5] “They have become socially assimilated. They are not necessarily the sons of the poverty belts and the marginalized nowadays.” The Brotherhood’s decisive entry into electoral politics “came at the expense of their identity, forcing them to be more pragmatic,” Tammam adds. “So forget about the Islamic state, the caliphate, and so on. The more the Brothers get dragged into the political arena, the more they are integrated, and the more they try to operate according to the rules of the arena.” Tammam continues: “The Brothers have changed in their relation to art, society and vision. You can see that well among the [Brothers’] youth. The youth voted for [Ghad candidate] Ayman Nour. This wasn’t a central order from the group’s leadership. When the youth are left without orders, they don’t necessarily follow the group’s traditional line. In my view, the last remarkable event held by the Brothers, before they took to the streets, was an event organized by the Brotherhood students called Muhammad Day that took place on Valentine’s Day. The Islamist youth thought, ‘How can we love, but in a “good” way?’ If you compare this to the behavior of the Islamist youth in 1985, it is completely different. Back then all they could think about was how to establish the Islamic state [and] revive the caliphate. They would have looked at Valentine’s Day as a waste of time. The youth today, however, do not take the same aggressive approach.”

Tammam’s observations are echoed by leftists who shared jail cells with young Brothers during the spring 2006 crackdown on the movement in solidarity with Egyptian judges exposing fraud and voter intimidation in the 2005 elections. Blogging about his encounter with Muslim Brotherhood detainees, independent secular leftist ‘Ala’ Sayf wrote: “They were from this new breed of Islamist that reads blogs, watches al‑Jazeera, sings sha‘bi (popular) songs, talks about intense love stories and chants ‘down with Mubarak.’ And being young, most of them did not have any experience with prison before. Waiting to know whether they’ll get 15 or 45 days’ detention for starters, waiting to know whether they’ll be sent to one of the just-horrible prisons or one of the too-horrible prisons, and in the middle of it all we got the news that I would be released the next day.” And with the news of his release, “All of a sudden, they transformed from just Brothers into comrades! They hugged me, they clapped, they shook my hand, they laughed and they were genuinely happy for my release.… When you speak of the 22 who were released this week, don’t say 22 out of 30 were released, say 22 out of 600…facing the same charges and fighting the same tyrants.” The Muslim Brothers’ official website invited ‘Ala’ Sayf to write a message to the Brotherhood youth. On July 24, he wrote them, calling on them to be “more adventurous,” and advocating more militant street action.

Today, the majority of factions on the left still stand opposed to (or express caution about) joint actions with the Islamists, most notably the newly evolving Democratic Left (a reformist tendency centered around al‑Busla magazine), the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party and a faction of the human rights community. But the Brothers and those comrades who will work with them remain engaged in mutual confidence building. The Muslim Brothers’ leadership is staunchly gradualist, and always on the lookout for compromises with the Egyptian regime. That stance will likely impede a further rapprochement with the radical left, unless the Brotherhood’s base of youth attains a greater say in when, and how, their powerful organization bestirs itself.


[1] Leftist historians divide the history of Egyptian communism into “waves.” The first wave began in 1919 with the founding of the Egyptian Socialist Party, which later became the Egyptian Communist Party, only to be destroyed by the Wafd government’s crackdowns in 1924. The second wave started in the late 1930s with the formation of communist study circles that evolved into several organizations and factions, with brief periods of unity; it ended with the dissolution of the Egyptian Communist Party in 1965. The third wave commenced in 1968 with the revival of the student and worker movements, received a crushing defeat in 1977 and officially died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The (current) fourth wave started in 1995, with the launching of the Revolutionary Socialist Tendency.

[2] The slogan was coined by Chris Harman, an International Socialist Tendency theoretician based in Britain, in his book, The Prophet and the Proletariat, accessible online at http://www.marxists.de/religion/harman/index.htm. The book was translated into Arabic, and distributed widely by the Revolutionary Socialists in 1997.

[3] See Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Street Politics,” Cairo Times, September 26, 2002; and Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Post-War Middle East,” Islam Online, April 30, 2003.

[4] El-Hamalawy, “Street Politics.”

[5] 5 Husam Tammam, Tahawwulat alIkhwan alMuslimin (Cairo: Madbouli, 2005).

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 02/01/2011 - 20:09


January 31, 2011

Volunteers Work to Keep Order in Chaos

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — At the first protest, on Jan. 25, Majd Mardini noticed that an ambulance could not get through the crowd of demonstrators. Outgoing, voluble and anything but shy, he began asking people to step aside, parting the crowd so the ambulance could get through.

From this small gesture, Mr. Mardini, 37, and several other men who stepped in to help discussed the fact that citizens would have to work together if the protests against the Egyptian government were going to proceed without tearing their city apart.

Out of these humble beginnings, the Popular Committee for the Protection of Properties and Organization of Traffic was born. “What we tried to do first was protect the electricity, water, gas — even the state-owned ones,” Mr. Mardini said, his voice a hoarse whisper after starting on the street at 8 in the morning on Sunday and finishing at 6:30 a.m. Monday, with a two-hour nap before hitting the road again. His stubble is gaining on his soul patch, and if he does not shave soon he will have a full beard.

Compared with the chaos in Cairo, Alexandria has seemed relatively orderly, though only relatively. In some neighborhoods the only building that has been destroyed is the police station, though there has been looting in others. The streets are filled with volunteers.

“We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,” said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. “It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,” he said, “we all have the same goal.”

“I am glad, that they are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,” said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. “We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.”

Soon after Mr. Mardini’s first tentative steps, committee members were recognizable by the simple white armbands they wore, often just strips of fabric. They created logos and distributed fliers asking for more help from the public. Some wear photocopied pieces of paper on their chests like marathon runners’ numbers. Mr. Mardini wore a badge that read simply People’s Committee in red Arabic. But the way people walked up to him and began talking, it appeared he needed no introduction.

The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.

Though others refer to him as the head of the committee, Mr. Mardini said: “We don’t have a leader. This is our country, and we all have to protect it.”

Mr. Mardini, of Syrian and Egyptian descent, has lived in Alexandria for 15 years. He studied in Britain and may have unwittingly prepared himself for his current work when he was employed at the Dubai airport in passenger services. His English is quite good, but he kept forgetting the word

“demonstration.” “I never actually had to use the word ‘demonstration,’ ” he said, describing himself as apolitical until he became fed up with the police and corruption and joined the protests.

In his black jacket, black jeans and black boots, Mr. Mardini, who cites Che Guevara as a hero, looks like he should be on a motorcycle, but he said that he walks to stay in touch with as many of the youths directing traffic at intersections and manning checkpoints as possible.

“We have water, juice, chocolate for the kids, because we don’t want to scare them,” he said. “Any problem, and we can call the military to handle the situation.”

In his neighborhood, Sidi Bishr, volunteers had caught and turned over 20 accused criminals to the military as they searched vehicles and checked registration papers against identity cards. The young men at the checkpoints look scary holding knives and heavy pipes but are polite, and despite being volunteers, professional.

Mr. Mardini said he was doing it for free elections. Asked what kind of government he wanted, he said he did not care, even if he disagreed with it, as long as it represented the people’s will.

But when those elections come, he said he would be back managing his small computer business and raising his three young sons, not running for office.

“Candidate? No, I don’t want that,” he said. “I’m a normal guy.”

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 02/01/2011 - 23:13


The TUC has received the following press release from the independent trade union organisation CTUWS, whose website has been blocked by the Egyptian government as part of the repression of dissent in Egypt.

Press release

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Today, representatives of the Egyptian labor movement, made up of the independent Egyptian trade unions of workers in real estate tax collection, the retirees, the technical health professionals and representatives of the important industrial areas in Egypt: Helwan, Mahalla al-Kubra, the tenth of Ramadan city, Sadat City and workers from the various industrial and economic sectors such as: garment & textiles, metals industry, pharmaceuticals, chemical industry, government employees, iron and steel, automotive, etc… agreed to hold a press conference at 3:30pm this afternoon in Tahrir Square next to Omar Effendi Company store in downtown Cairo to announce the organization of the new Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and to announce the formation of committees in all factories and enterprises to protect, defend them and to set a date for a general strike. And to emphasize that the labor movement is in the heart and soul of the Egyptian Peoples’ revolution and its emphasis on the support for the six requirements as demanded by the Egyptian People’s Revolution. To emphasize the economic and democratic demands voiced by the independent labor movement through thousands of strikes, sit-ins and protests by Egyptian workers in the past years.

Translation of original in Arabic into English

For more information about the CTUWS, the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services, an independent NGO in Egypt, see this Oxfam report.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 02/02/2011 - 00:24



Egyptian army statement vowing not to use force

Egyptian soldier
In a move likely to embolden protesters demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian army has vowed not to use force against the people.

Here is the full translated text of the statement relayed by an army spokesman on 31 January 2011:

Your Armed Forces acknowledges the legitimacy of the people's demands and is adamant on carrying out its responsibilities in protecting the country and its citizens as ever.

We stress the following:

1. Peaceful freedom of expression is guaranteed for everyone.

2. [No-one] shall carry out an action that could endanger the country's safety and security or vandalise public and private property.

3. It is not acceptable that some outlaws have terrorised citizens. The Armed Forces will not allow it. It will not allow the safety and security of the country to be tampered with.

4. [To citizens] Keep safe the assets and capabilities of your great people. Resist any vandalism against public or private property.

5. The Armed Forces is aware of the legitimate demands of the honourable citizens.

6. The Armed Forces' presence on the Egyptian streets is for your own sake, safety and security. Your Armed Forces have not and will not resort to the use of force against this great people.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 02/02/2011 - 17:33



By Leila Fadel

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 5:37 PM

CAIRO - From the center of Tahrir Square, Hossam el-Hamalawy surveyed the sea of people around him.

He could feel it, he said. Victory was close.

"I've dreamed of this for a very long time, and it's finally happening," the well-known blogger and activist said. He stood completely still in the center of the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded into this downtown square from every direction. "No words can describe it."

For so many, this fight had started just eight days ago. But Hamalawy, 33, has been fighting against a feared ruler for 13 years.

Hamalawy, a socialist, began his political activism in the late 1990s. No one dared to speak out when the Egyptian regime was brutally cracking down on Islamists, arresting men with long beards and often torturing them in prison, Hamalawy said. Sometimes at small demonstrations, Hamalawy would chant against the iron-fisted rule of President Hosni Mubarak - and behind him people would scatter in fear.

"The people were not courageous enough," he said, dressed in a pin-striped blazer and jeans. "They were not confident enough to chant against the government, and they would never open their mouth against Mubarak,"

But that didn't stop him. On Oct. 8, 2000, he was detained after pulling down a U.S. flag from the top of a building at the American University of Cairo, where he was a student. It was a protest against what he calls the hypocritical policies of the United States, which has supported Mubarak despite his autocratic rule.

Hamalawy was stripped naked, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was beaten for days, he said. State security interrogated him and threatened him with rape. After four days, he was released.

The flag was not replaced.

"I'm still proud of that," he said.

In the past decade, Hamalawy has participated in demonstrations that sometimes drew thousands and sometimes hundreds. Mubarak was denounced and, in some cases, his picture was burned. All of those actions raised the ceiling and created the space to maneuver, he said.

"We've seen many glimpses of what's happening today before, but this is like an accumulated explosion," he exclaimed, his handsome face creasing with a wide smile.

"On Friday, we fought street battles with the police when we walked here," he said, recalling how security forces fired teargas and shot at some protesters before retreating from the streets. "We took control at 6:35 p.m. I checked my watch."

He walked through the crowds Tuesday kissing and congratulating friends and strangers.

"So finally we lived the day, we will see it," a friend told him.

"Indeed, indeed," Hamalawy replied. "Today is like a wedding."

He snapped pictures of banners and protesters sharing water and food to sustain each other. On the first days of these demonstrations, he used the Twitter to transmit minute-by-minute accounts of the growing popular movement.

"I would love to think I was a drip in this big ocean," he sighed as he walked through the unprecedented crowds. "We feel so close now, so close. Mubarak is stubborn, though, and he won't go in silence."

Army tanks surrounded the demonstrations as helicopters buzzed above. Many people trust the military as their protectors, but Hamalawy does not.

"The leadership is loyal to the Mubarak regime," he said. Mubarak will fight to stay, he added. "You can expect anything from him."

He asked a friend to take his picture. "I need a picture of myself in the revolution," Hamalawy said. He is unmarried and has no children, but says someday he will, and he will show them this day, this moment.

On Tuesday night, Hamalawy watched in fury as Mubarak addressed the nation, announcing that he would not seek re-election.

"It's too late to make these concessions," Hamalawy said. "He needs to step down, and not only to step down. His entire regime has to go."