Homage to Cairo: ‘Ordinary people are standing shoulder to shoulder.’

on 25 Comments

Photo of Ghazl textile factory workers in Mahalla in 2008. (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

The word ‘surreal’ has crossed many mouths since 25 January. Egypt—a country where the minimum wage is $7 a month—harshly criminalizes the incitement and organization of protest, and yet it is the cradle of the largest, boldest and most evocative demonstrations that anyone alive can remember. Socioeconomic diagnoses of the Middle East are completely sidestepped in most Western coverage of the region (though, to be fair, little in the way of class consciousness dares get stirred in domestic coverage too). There has been due attention on the unprecedented galvanization of Egypt’s modestly comfortable middle class, though it can’t be forgotten who or what brought them to the point of leaving their houses for the streets en masse, putting their bodies in the line of tear gas and live ammunition pelted (sometimes lethally) by Mubarak’s forces.

Spanish worker’s party poster: ‘Obreros ¡A la victoria!’ (Workers: To Victory!’), 1936.

The feelings generated by the ongoing revolt in Egypt—the revolt of the poor who’ve endured stagnant wages for decades, the revolt of the young who dare not hope for better economic prospects than their parents, the revolt of any Egyptian who seeks free and fair organization and expression, and on and on—is something I’ve only heard described in books. Specifically one book, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and the afterlife of the Spanish Civil War. Orwell described witnessing the ending of fascism as ‘that strange and moving experience.’ When he enlisted to aid people’s militias he hadn’t known that the war would end with radical self-governance, collectivized commerce and the disappearance of class divisions. The people had eviscerated, at least temporarily, not only the heavy foot of a torturous dictator but the conventional trappings of elitism. A passage from Chapter One is worth quoting at length:

I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was
ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. […] Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senior’ or ‘Don’ or
even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud.

It is extremely premature to think these wild, fantastical thoughts of a free society, and the experiment of Spain was so short-lived that Orwell ended up writing Animal Farm to allegorize the totalitarian period that followed. But compare Orwell’s accounts to today’s live report from Cairo by Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous:

There is a great sense of pride that this is a leaderless movement organized by the people. A genuine popular revolt. It was not organized by opposition movements, though they have now joined the protesters in Tahrir. The Muslim Brotherhood was out in full force today. At one point they began chanting ‘Allah Akbar’ only to be drowned out by much louder chants of ‘Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian.’

Meanwhile, across Cairo there is not a policeman in sight and there are reports of looting and violence. People worry that Mubarak is intentionally trying to create chaos to somehow convince people that he is needed. The strategy is failing. Residents have taken matters into their own hands, helping to direct traffic and forming armed neighborhood watches, complete with checkpoints and shift changes, in districts across the city.

I want to hope for something better than my own speculative imagination running amok. For Egypt’s precariously organized workers (and their supporters), a scenario of collective cooperation is not a pipe dream. It comes up in the last major published interview with Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy (before the 27 January internet shutdown) in which he describes the origins of the worker movement’s struggle:

The Egyptian labour movement was quite 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 actions since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of largest labour force in the Middle East with over 28,000 workers. It started because of labour issues but spread to every sector in society except the police and military.

[O]ne 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 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 since they tried to be established; there are already lawsuits filed against them by state and state-backed unions, but they are getting stronger despite the continued attempts to silence them.

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 is nothing better than an independent union to do so.

For Egyptians and their supporters outside of the country, the energy of the silver bullet has been contagious. This is a circulated video of Waseem Wagdi, an Egyptian at the Egyptian embassy in London. His emotional appeal is rife with class awareness:

We are here to show solidarity with the heroes on the streets in Egypt, we are here to show solidarity with the political prisoners in Egypt, we are here to show solidarity with the the workers who declared an open strike and a sit-in until bringing down the regime of Mubarak.

I had hoped, against all hope, [this] would happen in my lifetime. And I had hoped, and I think with millions of people, that our children will live in a more human society. But this society we have, lucky enough, that the heroes in Egypt are making today, they are not waiting for our children to dream, they are bringing all of our dreams true today. In Suez, the factories, in Meydaan al-Tahrir. The biggest square in the Arab world is being liberated today from this regime.

I’m proud of all Egyptians who are cleansing themselves of all remnants of fear, who collectively and singly have raised their head up high, and no one will bring it down again. No one.

When asked if he had a message to the people of Egypt, Wagdi looks directly into the camera for the first time, and recites the celebrated revolutionary poem ‘Unadikum’ (‘I Call Upon You’) by Palestinian Tawfiq Zayyad by heart.

… My tragedy that I live
Is my share of your tragedies
I call on you
I press your hands
I kiss the ground under your feet
and I say: I sacrifice myself for you
I did not humiliate myself in my homeland
and I did not lower my shoulders
I stood facing my oppressors
orphaned, naked, and bare foot
I call on you….


Update: Since posting this last night, many reports have been coming in from Cairo that substantiate the widespread collective organization of the Egyptian people self-securing on two fronts. They continue to defy curfew and attack by Mubarak’s forces (including an aerial provocation hours ago that saw at least two fighter jets flying very low to the people in Tahrir Square) by demonstrating in head-spinning numbers. In the sudden (and very creepy) disappearance of the police they have organized neighborhood patrols to defend their municipalities, families and private property. Here are some a collection of notable tweets from Egypt (of considerable value since the internet suspension), in ascending order of timestamp:

There’s no appropriate way to make abstract predictions without watching closely, but in the words of al-Jazeera English’s Ayman Mohyeldin (live on the air at 11:08 EST): ’ordinary people are standing shoulder to shoulder.’

Monalisa blogs at South/South.

25 Responses

  1. Potsherd2
    January 30, 2011, 4:00 pm

    A guy in Cairo, reported by JPost: link to jpost.com

    “The USA does not support democracy, they’re supporting Israel, which is like their baby,” said Ahmed, a 26-year-old Cairo resident. “They think Egypt is functional because it’s in favor of their considerations.”

    “I don’t care if we have peace [with Israel] or not,” Ahmed continued, echoing the indifference of many demonstrators who don’t have a clear agenda for what they want a future Egypt to look like, as long as it does not include Mubarak. “But will Israel allow us to have a real president? For example, Turkey elected an Islamic government, but it was their choice. Will Israel give us the freedom to make the same choice?” he asked.

    Demonstrators are relying on the foreign press to get their message to Obama. “Isn’t this democracy?” they asked me over and over when I said I was a journalist from America, incredulous that the country held as the pinnacle of world democracy could ignore such widespread popular sentiment.

    “Obama has to be on our side, where is your democracy?” asked Osam L, who works at a foreign bank in Cairo. “You say Arabs are just donkeys, but the USA is supporting the system, not the people.”

    • thankgodimatheist
      January 31, 2011, 6:49 am

      “But will Israel allow us to have a real president?”
      “Will Israel give us the freedom to make the same choice?” he asked.”

      I find it hard to believe that an Egyptian, any Egyptian big or small, would ask such questions without implied sarcasm! The JPost doesn’t know those people! They’re proud but most importantly, they have a great sense of irony and humor!

      • Shmuel
        January 31, 2011, 9:48 am

        most importantly, they have a great sense of irony and humor!

        I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve always appreciated Mubarak’s wit and sense of humour (always at ease with his preferred Arabic-speaking Israeli interviewer, Araleh Barnea). Somehow, I feel better knowing it’s a general Egyptian trait.

  2. seafoid
    January 30, 2011, 4:08 pm

    Blair says there shouldn’t be a vacuum, it could lead to chaos. Where did he learn that ?

    link to guardian.co.uk

    Israel is now worried about its Western border. I wonder will the rabid attack dogs stop whining about Iran.

    “For around 30 years, the IDF has created perfunctory scenarios involving regime change in Cairo, but in practice Israel’s ability to respond and adapt quickly to such a situation, with the military confrontation it could bring, has atrophied.”

    link to haaretz.com

    They could create the Stuxnet worm and have god knows how many Nobel prizes but they don’t know sh*t about intelligence. Another very definite blow to Israeli invincibility to go with Hezbollah 06 and the Mavi Marmara.
    The British Navy had a saying. “You may hate us so long as you fear us. “And when the fear goes, what is left?

    link to haaretz.com

    “Three or four days ago, Egypt was still in our hands. The army of pundits, including our top expert on Egypt, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said that “everything is under control,” that Cairo is not Tunis and that Mubarak is strong. Ben-Eliezer said that he had spoken on the phone with a senior Egyptian official, and he assured him that there’s nothing to worry about. “

    • MHughes976
      January 30, 2011, 4:33 pm

      The phrase ‘oderint dum metuant’ – let them hate so long as they fear – may have been popular in the Royal Navy for all I know, but it was invented by the poet Lucius Accius around 100 BCE in a play about the tragedy of the House of Atreus. It was a favourite of Caligula, according to Suetonius, along with ‘strike so that he feels himself dying’, advice which torturers are probably still following.

      • seafoid
        January 30, 2011, 5:09 pm

        Cheers. Apparently the RN swore by it.

  3. Potsherd2
    January 30, 2011, 4:12 pm

    Abu Quisling apparently called Mubarak to wish him well remaining in office and continuing to repress his people. Two of a kind.

    • Surcouf
      January 30, 2011, 4:54 pm

      I just love the Abu Quisling thing! LOL
      But it’s not just a rumor. It’s been confirmed by the PA controlled Ma’an News Agency : President Mahmoud Abbas contacted his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, state media said. “President Abbas affirmed the Palestinian leadership’s support for Egyptian security and stability,” Abbas was quoted as saying.
      I guess it takes an irrelevant political thug to recognize another one. Who is in charge of their communication in Ramallah?! It is such a stupid thing to say so late in the game for Mubarak and even for Abbas I should add.

      • annie
        January 30, 2011, 5:40 pm

        oh yeah, someone linked earlier to a report from haaretz that quoted some goi official saying that if egypt was no longer an ally that left only jordan and the PA as israel’s allies!

      • Potsherd2
        January 31, 2011, 10:02 am

        They have a lot in common, they both hate Hamas.

    • bijou
      January 30, 2011, 5:47 pm

      Abbas and Mubarak were just together in Cairo a few days ago. Perhaps this photo will become symbolic of the last gasp of an era on the eve of the Great Upheaval.

  4. Jim Haygood
    January 30, 2011, 4:39 pm

    ‘Waiters and shop-workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. ‘

    That’s certainly the flavor I get — of an erasure of customary Egyptian political constraints and social barriers, in a fraught moment of national transition.

    So the Islamophobes got hoisted on their own petard. They believed their own anachronistic myths about ossified Arab backwaters made up of autocratic rulers, mad-dog geriatric clerics, and apathetic peasants incapable of cooperation or democracy.

    Unfortunately the world passed the Islamophobes by, though they’ve retreated to their last-ditch redoubts in apartheid Israel and the US government/media axis. Glasnost, comrades! Internet killed Israeli PR …

  5. seafoid
    January 30, 2011, 5:10 pm

    Which Arab country provides Israel with its oil ?

    • Eva Smagacz
      January 30, 2011, 7:11 pm

      Not sure about oil, but Egypt is providing Israel with 50% of it’s gas supply.

  6. syvanen
    January 30, 2011, 5:15 pm

    Terrible parallel you draw using Spain. You lead with the flag of POUM. This was one of many groups that made up the revolution that supported the Spanish Republic. Then the regular army tried to crush the Republic. This was the beginning of the Spanish civil war and the Republic was able to build its own army and put up significant resistance. But at the same time, the ultraleft leadership of POUM in Barcelona decided that it was time for the Proletarian Revolution and seized power. This was a revolt against the Spanish Republic which at that time was a “united front” government that included many capitalist element. They now had a two front war — the fascist armies led by Franco in the South and ultraleftist general strike in Barcelona led by POUM. Republicans had no choice but to divert military forces to put down that insurrection.

    That briefly is what Orwell was writing about in Homage to Catalonia. As great a writer as Orwell is, he was a colossal fool when it came to politics. May the people of Egypt be sparred a similar fate.

    • Donald
      January 30, 2011, 6:01 pm

      ” As great a writer as Orwell is, he was a colossal fool when it came to politics”

      Orwell was only a great writer because he was arguably the most insightful political observer of his time. Nobody would read him otherwise. I’m a lefty, but lefties in the 1930’s were in large part dupes of Stalin. It was Orwell’s experiences in Spain that immunized him against the leftist idiocy of his day, the worship of Communism, the belief that the world can be simply divided into good guys and bad guys with Stalin as one of the good guys.

  7. annie
    January 30, 2011, 5:43 pm

    excellent post monalisa, especially the last part about wagdi reciting tawfiq zayyad’s revolutionary poem by heart.

    • bijou
      January 30, 2011, 5:48 pm

      Let’s not overlook the fact that in his moment of shining Egyptian national pride, Wagdi cites a PALESTINIAN poem — it shows you how profoundly is Egyptian identification with Palestine and what Palestine symbolizes in the Arab world. He could have cited an Egyptian poem instead, right? But no…. this one has the greatest resonance.

      • seafoid
        January 31, 2011, 3:45 am

        There were 2 striking aspects to that video. The first was the mention of the workers. That was beautiful and so unusual , sadly. And the second was Unadikum

  8. RoHa
    January 30, 2011, 7:07 pm

    It looks to me very much as though the army is trying to play a moderating role. They don’t seem to be supressing the demonstrations, but rather working for public safety.

    Here is a clip in which it looks as though the army uses APCs to protect the protesters from the police. The soldiers keep pushing the protesters behind the vehicles, but I don’t see any clubbing, etc.

    link to revolutionarypolitics.tv

  9. RoHa
    January 30, 2011, 7:08 pm

    And there is even unrest in Saudi Arabia!

    link to zerohedge.com

  10. syvanen
    January 30, 2011, 11:08 pm

    We agree that Orwell is a great writer. But I insist he was a political fool. An analogy today, would be some sect in Cairo that pushes the people to denounce the current Army and challenge them in the streets. If such a sect were successful the outcome would be a military reaction that would lead to the deaths of thousands if not millions of citizens and the imposition of marshal law.

    Orwell basically supported analogous factions during the Spanish Civil War (namely the POUMist). I know idealistic leftist and anarchist continue to think that the Barcelona General Strike was the greatest revolutionary event since Spartacus, but in fact all they really succeeded in doing is attacking the Spanish Republic and thereby helping the fascist movements that were attacking them.

    Orwell was charged during this period with objectively giving support to the movements led by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco because of these events. In fact he deserved those awful charges. Ezra Pound is a great poet but that does not forgive his cooperation with fascism.

    • Donald
      January 31, 2011, 11:46 pm

      ” Orwell was charged during this period with objectively giving support to the movements led by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco because of these events. In fact he deserved those awful charges. Ezra Pound is a great poet but that does not forgive his cooperation with fascism.”

      I find this funny. Orwell was one not terribly important soldier in the Spanish Civil War who later wrote about what he saw and the lies told by the lefties of his day. If that is objectively supporting fascism, well, sign me up. I’m not even a big fan of the Spanish anarchists–I don’t really care about the sort of euphoria one gets in revolutionary times where everyone feels like they are brothers (as Orwell describes). Now if some way could be found to make that euphoria last and run a society, I’d be interested.

      Orwell wasn’t a particularly great writer, in my opinion. He was a great observer and chronicler of the political hypocrisies of his era.

  11. rachelgolem
    January 31, 2011, 11:00 pm

    You people just don’t see it. The food distribution system is Egypt is going to collapse, leading to mass starvation. Congratulations.

    • annie
      January 31, 2011, 11:06 pm

      lol..help help egyptians can’t eat without a dictator

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