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Egyptian student organizers tell their story

‘Tahrir Square was owned by all the people’

Published Jul 18, 2011 9:28 PM

For 18 days the people of Egypt gathered in the streets in the millions and brought down the 30-year reign of U.S. client Hosni Mubarak. This January 25 Revolution, named for its first day of protest, was led by youth and students.

Egypt, Tahrir Square, February.

Among those playing an organizational role were socialist students, steeled in the struggle through years of battles with the police on campus. During a mid-June visit to Cairo, this reporter spoke with three such students who went to Tahrir Square, the heartbeat of the revolution, and stayed.

Kassem Moussa, age 21, a medical student at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, is an organizer fighting to get the political police off campus. Essam Mohamed is a 21-year-old law student at the University of Cairo. The political police on that campus recently prevented him from taking his final exams because of his political activity. Mohamed Mohamed Ali is a 21-year-old engineering student at the same campus. He is a third-generation Marxist, whose father was a student activist and whose grandfather was jailed under Nassar.

Essam Mohamed

“For us youth, the revolution is about freedom,” Moussa said. “Within the last five or six years, the economic situation has been so hard. We wanted to change this. The state responded with repression.

“Police bother all of us all of the time, arresting everyone political, from left to Islamic,” he said. “In the last two years the student movement has been very strong. Last November there were protests of 2,000 to 3,000 against police stations in the universities — [which are] there for the purpose of arresting and harassing students. This has been a big issue for many years. The courts have even ruled it illegal for police to be inside the universities, but they won’t leave.”

The need to outsmart the police just to have these protests; withstanding constant arrests and beatings by police; defending their demonstrations against police in sometimes pitched battles — all this became a school for struggle. How did these young activists use these skills to organize the people on the first day of protests on Jan. 25?

Kassem Moussa

All youth planned to gather at Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. They knew the square would be ringed by thousands of riot police and police would be looking for demonstrators throughout Cairo.

Marching from the pyramids

Mohamed explained that he was part of a group of fewer than 100 young people who gathered by the three pyramids at Giza, with plans to march to Tahrir Square. “The small numbers was an advantage, as the police weren’t alerted. We called to the people to join us, shouting that if you are generous, if you are Egyptian, if you love your country, you must work to make it good.

“At first, others didn’t come, out of fear of the police,” he said, but after seeing that they weren’t attacked, “People gathered to us as we walked.” They grew to several thousand.

Mohamed Mohamed Ali
WW portrait photos: Joyce Chediac

“We entered Tahrir from the Dokki entrance. This was the first time the police tried to stop us. They beat us with night sticks and tear gassed us. On the bridge a police car blocked us and threatened to run us over. I stood in front of the police car and wouldn’t move. This allowed people to pass. [The police] brought a fire truck and started to set up a water cannon. Two protestors disabled the cannon so it couldn’t be used. People passed around the truck. The people went over the bridge and into Tahrir Square. Because we began at a gathering point that wasn’t known to the police. we got in easier that day.”

From 50 to 10,000, outnumbering police

Ali was with a group of 50 who gathered on Jan. 25 at a mosque in the Mohandiseen neighborhood. “We began chanting and going around and gathering the people, and soon we were 500. We saw others coming — workers and the unemployed from the poor neighborhood — and we became 2,500. We started walking to Tahrir Square, and we grew to 10,000. It was the biggest demonstration I had been on in my life. The police [in Mohansideen] left us alone. They didn’t know what to do, as the crowd was too big for them.

“When we entered Tahrir Square, the police began fighting us, shooting rubber bullets, using water cannons, throwing tear gas grenades, hitting us with night sticks and stun guns. We got into the square because the demonstrators outnumbered the police. The police were astonished. They never imagined the numbers would be so great, especially since no political movement called the protest, only the Egyptian youth.” After the attack, the police left the square, and Ali’s group was “in Tahrir with the people.”

Revolution’s key demands are born

“In the square then were all the youth, from left to right parties, and the people as a whole, without identified political views,” said Mohamed.

Moussa added, “All the youth had had enough and felt that they, and the people of Egypt, deserved better. This is why they all came out.” He explained: “The youth of the Moslem Brotherhood came with us in the streets from the first day against the decision of their leadership. They came with us because of their national feelings. They have the same issues as we do — jobs, education, health coverage.”

“There were about 50,000 of us on Jan. 25,” Mohamed said. “At about 8 p.m., without a sound system, people in the square began shouting for the first time the main demand — ‘The people of Egypt want to get rid of the regime.’” A few minutes later, he said, a second major slogan was born, “People need bread, freedom and social justice!”

“At 1 a.m., a large number of police penetrated the square with tear gas grenades, firing rubber bullets, and beating us. We dispersed, with the police following us,” Mohamed continued. “I was wounded in the shoulder, head and body by rubber bullets, and still have a fragment imbedded below my left ear. A friend had 62 pieces of rubber imbedded in him from rubber bullets being fired.”

The young protesters were forced out of the square, but they didn’t go home. They walked the streets all night, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, telling the people what happened at the square.

All three interviewees were arrested soon after, and Ali was tortured with a stun gun while in custody. As soon as they were released, however, they all returned to the square.

“We decided to stay in Tahrir Square until Mubarak left,” Mohamed said. “At one time there were 3 million people in the square. After Mubarak left [on Feb. 11], we decided to stay until Ahmed Shafik, his Prime Minister, left. And we succeeded in that,” he added with pride. Shafik resigned March 3.

“Friday of Anger,” other battles

The three revolutionaries described some of the critical days of the struggle. On Jan. 28, now called the “Friday of Anger,” their numbers grew from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, as workers from all over Cairo flooded into the square.

“That day 5 to 8 million people protested in all of Egypt,” Mohamed explained. When the police attacked, there were pitched battles. “In only four hours, the people destroyed the police forces all over the country, forcing the police to return to their own camps. The number of police in Egypt is 3.5 million. We destroyed that,” he said emphatically. The next day the Egyptian army entered the square.

On Feb. 2, now known as the “Battle of the Camels,” the state staged a major attack on the protestors, with men on horses and camels, snipers firing live ammunition into the square from surrounding buildings, and thousands of plain-clothes police and hired thugs swinging bats and sticks and throwing Molotov cocktails at the demonstrators. Taking many casualties, the unarmed people of all classes, women and men, fought back and won. How was this possible?

“The Egyptian people are for freedom,” Mohamed said. “All the people in Tahrir Square said ‘freedom or death.’ We gave everything we had to defend our square. So we won, and the revolution continues now.”

Moussa added, “Tahrir Square was owned by all the people. All people were welcome.”

“This is the reason for our success,” Ali explained.

“Tahrir was owned by the people, not the capitalists,” said Mohamed, who emphasized the importance of the trade union strikes of 200,000 workers on Feb. 10, which raised economic demands but also called for Mubarak to resign. The unions threatened a general strike. He explained, “It was the workers who gave the knockout blow to Mubarak,” who resigned the next day.

Continuing the revolution

What are the views of these young fighters on the present situation in Egypt and the tasks ahead?

“We still have work to do. All the goals of the revolution haven’t been met. They are still arresting and attacking people,” said Mohamed. “We want food and work for the people.”

“For our people, Mubarak, [deposed Tunisian head of state] Ben Ali, the Saudi Arabian rulers are all U.S. allies — the hand of the U.S. here,” Mohamed said. “They are stealing from us like the U.S. is stealing from the whole world.”

“Sixty years ago there was a big uprising in many Arab states. Why has nothing been achieved after 60 years? The revolutionary states became allies of the U.S.,” stated Moussa. “We have been moving backwards for the last 60 years. But now the people are looking for a new start for their lives. When the people here can’t have bread, education, health services, they have to struggle against the regime.

“It could be the start of a new world. It’s about real democracy which is not just political. It’s about human life — 40 million people can’t read or write and can’t get jobs or earn enough to live.”

Ali added, “When you have millions in the streets, you can’t stop them, even with nuclear weapons. There is a new objective circumstance here.”

“We have a situation here which is revolutionary,” Moussa explained. “So we have to build a real revolutionary Marxist organization.”

“We want a socialist revolution. That is our goal,” said Ali.