There are really two revolts going on here in Egypt. The first and most publicized abroad and, to a lesser degree, even here, is a revolt for a free political system — the release of political prisoners, a free press, constitutional reform that would allow free and fair elections and set limits on time spent in office, and an end to police brutality and to the use of torture. All these issues quickly coalesced under the banner of two slogans: “Mubarak must go!” and “Down with the regime!”
The other revolt, very much overshadowed by the first, is a struggle by a very poorly paid working class that includes industrial workers who are largely concentrated outside the capital. These participants come from the cement works and steel factories of Helwan, an hour-and-a-half drive south of downtown Cairo; the textile factories of Mahalla el Kubra in the Delta to the north; workers at the port of Alexandria and the many employed to man and maintain the Suez Canal, as well as equally low-paid public sector and lower-level civil service employees concentrated in Cairo.
Consider that a medical school graduate without funds or connections to open his own clinic or work in a private hospital catering to Egypt’s middle and upper-middle classes will be employed at a public sector medical center for little more than the equivalent of $100 a month. Then, think what lesser levels earn — at best, $40 or $50 a month.
I am going against a quite understandable enthusiasm or even political correctness in Cairo when I describe what is under way here as a “revolt” rather than a “revolution.” But I am simply too conditioned, even at this late age, by my very early 1960s immersion in a heterodox New Left-Beat Generation Marxism to think of a “revolution” as anything less than at least a serious attempt to seize power and to effect a radical change in the social system. That may happen, but right now we are looking at a rebellion or a revolt, not Revolution on the Nile.
Beyond the push for political change, this revolt is a struggle for better pay, for serious price control of basic commodities that have in many cases doubled or even tripled in cost over the past five years, and for a halt to the privatization of public sector industries that has enriched many of the businessmen serving until recently in the Cabinet or high up in the ruling party. Invariably, these privatizations have led to reductions in the work force. This, even as the poor of Cairo lack housing, with hundreds of thousands forced to live in cemeteries, among the tombs and in the mausoleums, while a new desert suburbia is bursting with new and still largely unoccupied housing for families with middle and upper incomes. The poor struggle, too, for the improvement of the government educational and health systems that have atrophied over the past two decades while private schools and new private hospitals flourish.
Neither of Egypt’s two current revolts — not the political and particularly not the economic — has anything intrinsic to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, well-organized opposition force that it may be. As for Israel, just about nobody in the streets is thinking about it.
These two struggles do cautiously intersect, and much more than would be understood by the casual follower of the news from Egypt. Even before the revolt, the focus of most reporting in the local opposition press as well as in global news organizations (when they reported at all) has been on the harassment, arrest and on occasion imprisonment of young bloggers in Cairo and Alexandria. Also, it has been on the wanton way ordinary people can be badly beaten and even killed if they get on the bad side of the police.
This police brutality was the focus of one of the two Internet initiatives that set off the current revolt: a Facebook page devoted to the case of Khaled Saeed, a young Alexandrian beaten to death by the police. The Facebook page called for the January 25 demonstration against repression on a public holiday honoring the police.
But the other website that called for people to come out on this date — and I believe it was the first to do so — was set up by the April 6 Youth Movement, a group formed originally to support a massive demonstration on April 6, 2008, in the factory city of Mahalla el-Kubra to protest low wages, high food prices, unemployment and police brutality.
Up until that earlier protest, anti-government demonstrations were considered impressive if they drew 100 or so people in Cairo. These were demonstrations with a strictly political or human and civil rights focus. But the demonstration at Mahalla drew tens of thousands of workers to the streets. The police opened fire, killing two people. And the emerging youth movement posted videos, most likely shot with mobile phones, on Facebook and YouTube.
At the January 25 demonstration — the first day of what turned out to be the Tahrir Square revolt — many of the slogans had to do with the same economic issues that drew these workers. But when clashes with the police left several dead, the slogans became sharply focused on repression and on the regime held responsible for it. Even the growing number of slogans against corruption sounded intrinsically political unless one paused to think about how that corruption is an essential factor in the economy. Of course, the common thread between these two revolts has been the issue of police brutality.
Over the past few years, what little I could read in the press about labor unrest interested me far more than the extensive reporting of demonstrations in Cairo on behalf of arrested bloggers, campus-based university student activists or the harassment of nongovernmental organizations. I don’t think that had to do with my early 20s Fidelista-Guevarista version of Leninism; I haven’t thought of myself, or behaved, as a Leninist revolutionary for the past 45 years. Equally important, that particular version of struggle was based for us at the time on a Third World revolutionary merger of nationalism and socialism as a directive for theory, and on the romance of violence (and easy sex) on the deeper emotional plane.
I think it was all too easy for the New Left, as it aged and as the revolutionary impulse faded, to shift over to such issues as militant feminism and the defense of openly homosexual life styles, both of which would come to characterize the left liberal left wing of the Democratic party, a shift that alienated the working-class and “ethnic” wings of the same party.
But here in Egypt, strangely enough, I am seeing a rebirth of the focus on social justice that has haunted me since high school in Queens. It is a focus born of the same spirit that led me to join the youth wing of the old New York Liberal Party, much of whose most influential cadre came from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, with its predominantly Jewish and democratic socialist tradition, a secular, even agnostic political tradition that is derived to a great degree from the imperative to seek justice in Judaism. This may be a strange route shaped by my Jewish origins some 46 years after my conversion to Islam. But here, in the midst of the rebellion of Tahrir Square, it is the true focus of the revolt and the route I have found.
S. Abdallah Schleifer is a former NBC News bureau chief in Cairo and professor emeritus of journalism at American University in Cairo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org