The Battle of Tahrir Square
Thursday, 03 February 2011
“The sky was filled with rocks. The fighting around me was so terrible we could smell the blood.” With these words Robert Fisk describes the dramatic events in Tahrir Square, where the forces of the Revolution met the counterrevolution head-on. All day and all through the night, a ferocious battle raged in the Square and the surrounding streets.
This pogrom was presented to world public opinion as a spontaneous response by ordinary citizens who have had enough of the disorder. It was described in the media as a clash between two rival political movements. On both sides tens of thousands of young men fought, and both sides sang the national anthem and waved Egyptian flags. It was described as “chaos” and a “battle of Egyptians with Egyptians”.
But there was a fundamental difference. On the one side stand the representatives of the workers and youth, of the democrats and progressive intelligentsia, that is, of all the living forces of Egypt. On the other side of the barricades stand the representatives of a reactionary and corrupt regime, the oligarchy and the bureaucracy, the gangsters and torturers. One side is fighting for the future, hope and freedom. The other side is fighting to defend a shameful and barbaric past.
The “dangerous class”
There was nothing spontaneous about this vicious and bloody encounter. It was highly organized and well planned, a final desperate effort to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship. Huge posters of Mubarak were distributed by officers of the National Democratic Party and held in the air by men carrying cudgels and police batons. The indiscriminate use of tear gas by the latter was further proof (if any were needed) that these pro-government “demonstrators” were in fact policemen out of uniform.
Of course, the police did not act alone. They emptied the prisons of common criminals, who they armed and organized, and they used their contacts in the criminal underworld to mobilize thousands of other young men from the slums of Cairo to do the fighting for them. These are the lumpenproletariat, the “dark forces” of which Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:
“The ‘dangerous class’, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
That is exactly what we are seeing on the streets of Cairo. Fisk bears witness to this:
“The problem is that the Mubarak men included some of the very same thugs I saw then, when they were working with armed security police to baton and assault the demonstrators. One of them, a yellow-shirted youth with tousled hair and bright red eyes – I don't know what he was on – carried the very same wicked steel stick he had been using on Friday. Once more, the defenders of Mubarak were back. They even sang the same old refrain – constantly reworked to take account of the local dictator's name – ‘With our blood, with our soul, we dedicate ourselves to you’."
This brutal attack was Hosni Mubarak's real reply to the demand of the Egyptian people for democracy. An army of thugs recruited from the jails and slums and bussed into the capital from every part of Egypt descended on the capital. Here was a motley coalition of the most ignorant, venal and retrograde elements in society. The men on horseback and camels who galloped into the Square were, it seems, recruited from the wretches who earn a living hiring their animals to tourists near the pyramids.
Fisk writes: “As far away as Giza, the NDP had rounded up the men who controlled voting at elections and sent them hollering their support as they marched along a stinking drainage ditch. Not far away, even a camel-owner was enjoined to say that ‘if you don't know Mubarak, you don't know Allah’ – which was, to put it mildly, a bit much.”
Armed with cudgels, iron bars, knives, rocks and Molotov cocktails they attempted to storm the Square. The counterrevolutionaries appeared on the roofs of neighbouring apartments from where they threw slabs of concrete and Molotov cocktails on people below.
By the end of the day there were reports of five deaths in Cairo. In the end there will be many more.
Many are asking: what of the army? The army encouraged the protesters by calling their demands legitimate and promising not to fire on them. But it has remained inactive when they have been attacked. In other words the army has acted in collusion with the counterrevolutionaries. They opened the barriers to allow the thugs free entry into the Square, then sat back and did nothing.
Hundreds of those protesting in the square wore bandages and other signs of being hurt, while the army looked on. Robert Fisk writes: “The Egyptian Third Army, famous in legend and song for crossing the Suez Canal in 1973, couldn't – or wouldn't – even cross Tahrir Square to help the wounded.” Such treacherous “neutrality” amounts to support for the counterrevolutionaries.
Mohamed al-Samadi, a doctor who had been treating people complained the troops were not helping. "When we come here, they search us for weapons, and then they let armed thugs come and attack us," he said. But he remained defiant: "We refuse to go. We can't let Mubarak stay eight months."
Many observers have found this conduct of the army strange. But there is nothing strange about it. Lenin long ago explained that the state is armed bodies of men in defence of property.
It is very likely that there are divisions within the army. The top generals have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They are an integral part of the regime and have got their share of the loot. The ordinary soldiers will be under the pressure of the masses but are also subject to army discipline. The middle layers of the officers will be divided: some more inclined to the status quo, but others sympathetic to the protesters.
The majority of the troops are bewildered and do not understand what is happening. Fisk cites the following incident: “And there was the soldier on an armoured personnel carrier who let the stones of both sides fly past him until he jumped on to the road among Mubarak's enemies, putting his arms around them, tears coursing down his face”.
In launching a counter-offensive, Mubarak is pursuing a very risky strategy. Undoubtedly he is being encouraged to stand firm by the Saudis and other reactionary Arab regimes, terrified of “contagion” from a successful revolution in Egypt. But these actions will put the Egyptian army under unbearable pressure. How far the inner cohesion of the army can resist these pressures is an open question.
The strategy of the counterrevolution
The result is a complicated equation that can only be resolved by the struggle of living forces. That is why the battle for possession of Tahrir Square was so important. If the counterrevolutionary forces had prevailed, it would have marked a turning point in the whole process. Victory for the counterrevolutionaries would have had a demoralizing effect because of the symbolic importance of the Square.
Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman on Wednesday urged the demonstrators in Tahrir Square to “leave and observe a curfew to restore calm”. He said the start of dialogue with the reformists and opposition depended on an end to street protests. But once the masses are off the streets the regime will be in no hurry to talk to anyone.
Once the revolutionaries have lost the initiative, it would be relatively easy to suffocate revolutionary trends in the army and restore discipline. The next step would have been to clear the streets of the capital inch by inch, one by one, driving the Revolution back. “Order” would be restored. The shops and banks would reopen on Sunday, giving an impression of “business as usual”. Gradually, the momentum of the movement would be lost and people would sink back into the daily routine.
The police would reappear on the streets and arrests would be made. They would include a few criminal elements but would be overwhelmingly anti-Mubarak supporters, starting with the key activists. This would serve to terrorize the “moderate opposition”, who would be forced to accept whatever minor crumbs the regime offered them or go into exile. Mubarak would remain in his palace. The counterrevolution would be in the saddle. But all these plans have been upset by the bravery and determination of the rebels.
Taken by surprise and initially outnumbered by the counterrevolutionaries, they fought back. The army allowed Mubarak's men to enter the Square (it was clearly pre-arranged). They started to throw stones and attack the protesters. But the latter refused to be intimidated and began breaking stones to hurl them back.
Bravery of revolutionaries
As the news spread thousands of Egyptians came to the Square. As Fisk writes, they “swarmed towards each other like Roman fighters, they simply overwhelmed the parachute units ‘guarding’ the square, climbing over their tanks and armoured vehicles and then using them for cover.”
Mubarak's supporters almost crossed the entire square but in the end were driven out by the courage of the rebels. Robert Fisk was with Mubarak's supporters as they charged into Tahrir Square and provides a very graphic image of what happened:
“The sky was filled with rocks – I am talking of stones six inches in diameter, which hit the ground like mortar shells. On this side of the ‘line’, of course, they were coming from Mubarak's opponents. They cracked and split apart and spat against the walls around us. At which point, the NDP men turned and ran in panic as the President's opponents surged forward. I just stood with my back against the window of a closed travel agency – I do remember a poster for a romantic weekend in Luxor and ‘the fabled valley of the tombs’.
“[…] Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that stones cloaked the sky, but at times there were a hundred rocks soaring through the sky. They wrecked an entire army truck, smashing its sides, crushing its windows. The stones came out of side roads off Champollion Street and on Talaat Harb. The men were sweating, headbands in red, roaring their hatred. Many held white cloth to wounds. Some were carried past me, sloshing blood all over the road.”
“I saw young women in scarves and long skirts on their knees, breaking up the paving stones as rocks fell around them – fought back with an immense courage which later turned into a kind of terrible cruelty.
“Some dragged Mubarak's security men across the square, beating them until blood broke from their heads and splashed down their clothes.”
What do you expect? When unarmed men and women are subjected to a violent assault, are they not entitled to defend themselves by violent means? The right to self defence is universally recognized in every civilized nation. And if subsequently they took revenge on the paid thugs who showed no mercy on old people, women and children, we see nothing reprehensible in that. These monsters got what they deserved. Under the circumstances they got off lightly.
The Egyptian revolutionaries acquitted themselves well yesterday. They withstood the initial onslaught and fought back, bravely pushing back the enemy all along the line. They finally won the Battle of Tahrir Square. But there was a heavy price to pay. Five are reported dead in Cairo and 1,500 injured, but nobody knows the true figures. And though the revolutionary people have won an important battle, the central question – the question of power - remains unresolved.
Hypocrisy about “violence”
The Egyptian Revolution has thrown western governments into confusion. They did not expect these events and do not know how to react. The latest trick is to “deplore violence” and call on all parties to “show restraint”. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, said if the regime sponsored violence, “that is completely unacceptable”. Similar comments have come from Washington and London: “if the regime is responsible”, “if it can be shown that the government has organized the attacks” or “if it has done nothing to prevent it”. And so on and so forth.
Everybody knows who was behind the bloody assault on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. Yet Obama, Cameron and Ban Ki-moon put on a hypocritical act, pretending they do not know who is responsible. They place the victim on the same level as the assailant. And even if the government of Egypt is found to be responsible, what do you propose to do? The answer is clear: nothing at all.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman, said on Wednesday: “If any of the violence is instigated by the government it should stop immediately.” He urged “restraint on all sides”. This is hypocrisy at its most repulsive. Until yesterday the movement in Egypt was entirely peaceful. The masses who gathered in Tahrir Square have acted in an orderly and disciplined manner. They protected the treasures of the National Museum from looters. They directed the traffic. They have even cleared litter from the streets.
Yesterday these peaceful demonstrators were viciously attacked by armed thugs, organized and directed by Mubarak’s secret police. This vicious attack was entirely unprovoked. Imagine the following scenario: a vicious bandit who is armed to the teeth attacks an unarmed man in the street and tries to kill him. The victim of the unprovoked attack tries to defend himself by kicking and punching. Then a policeman appears and does nothing to stop the attack but issues a stern lecture advising both unarmed victim and armed assailant to “show restraint”. What would we say of such behaviour?
The violence is making life increasingly difficult for Mubarak’s former friends internationally and among those Egyptians who had accepted his pledge to step down in September. Along with the United States, France, Germany and Britain have also urged a speedy transition. Their minds have been concentrated by the international effects of the events in Egypt – both economically and politically.
Oil prices have climbed on fears the unrest could spread to other authoritarian Arab states including oil giant Saudi Arabia or interfere with oil supplies from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. Brent crude surpassed $103 a barrel on Thursday.
Meanwhile the revolutionary tide is flowing in all directions. On Thursday, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in the Yemeni capital Sanaa demanding a change in government and saying President Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer on Wednesday to step down in 2013 was not enough.
For all these reasons the imperialists need stability in the Middle East. But how are they to get it? That is the question! From the beginning the US has been struggling to find a coherent response to events that are changing by the day, even by the hour. In reality the strongest power in the world has been reduced to the role of a helpless onlooker. An article in today’s Independent by their correspondent in Washington, Rupert Cornwell, carried the interesting title: Washington's strong words underline US impotence.
It says: “In reality, those words merely underline the helplessness of the administration, at this point reduced to watching TV like everyone else, and keeping its fingers crossed about how events unfold – in Egypt most immediately but also in other friendly countries in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”
Obama does not dare call on Mubarak publicly to resign because of the effects in these other states. He is obliged to speak in carefully calculated code. "An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," the US President said, hours after the Egyptian leader had spoken on Tuesday. The operative word was supposed to be "now". This was supposed to make clear where Obama stood.
But nobody on the streets of Cairo got the message. Even worse, Mubarak immediately called his bluff by calling out his supporters on the streets to attack the protesters. If anything, the latest weasel words of Obama are more shameful and repugnant than the openly reactionary policy of Bush. The protesters’ "passion and dignity" was "an inspiration to people around the world", the President declared. "We hear your voices."
Somebody said last night that even the language could not be translated into a comprehensible Arabic. That is hardly surprising, since it can barely be understood in English. The purpose of diplomatic language in any case is not to convey ideas but to disguise them. The problem Obama has is that it is very difficult simultaneously to hunt with the hounds and run with the hare.
Every American administration has supported, armed and financed the Mubarak regime. Obama and Clinton are no different to Bush and Reagan in this respect. They all backed this faithful ally of America and Israel. They were all silent about the numerous crimes of his brutal regime. Clinton in November 2010 said: "The partnership between the United States and Egypt is a cornerstone of stability and security in the Middle East and beyond, and we look to Egypt for regional and global leadership on a wide range of issues. This is a relationship rooted in mutual respect and common interests and a history of cooperation and a shared vision for the future."
Today Tony Blair, Bush’s chief partner in crime in Iraq, had this to say about Mubarak:
"Where you stand on him depends on whether you've worked with him from the outside or on the inside. I've worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians so this is somebody I'm constantly in contact with and working with and on that issue, I have to say, he's been immensely courageous and a force for good." My emphasis, AW)
These words were spoken after the murderous attack on the demonstrators. It shows that the record of the European governments in the Middle East is no better than that of the USA. They are all complicit in these crimes and their hands are equally stained with blood.
A crafty politician, Mubarak is hoping that the White House will tacitly put up with the crackdown in the hope that stability can somehow be maintained in Egypt and the other states in the region. But this is a vain hope. It would only delay the inevitable, and would enormously increase hostility to the US in Egypt and across the region.
Granted that America’s policy makers are not particularly bright, even the stupidest among them must dimly grasp the fact that it is not good policy for Washington to sacrifice its long-term interests for the sake of short term and illusory gain. Thus far, anti-American slogans have not played a big role on the streets of Cairo. But that could change very quickly.
No matter what happens in the next days and weeks, the Egyptian people will never forget the crimes of Hosni Mubarak. His name will forever be branded with infamy. And they will never forgive or forget those western governments who to the very last provided support and aid to the hangmen in Cairo. The very words “democracy” and “human rights” in the mouth of Obama and his European counterparts stink of hypocrisy.
For a revolutionary programme!
While the imperialists talk of an “orderly transition” the counterrevolutionaries are shooting down people in the streets. By daylight there was a lull, with troops with tanks still looking on. But by mid-morning groups of pro-Mubarak gangs were seen moving again toward the Square with knives and sticks. Reuters reports that Mubarak supporters opened fire on protesters, killing at least five people.
The firing began around 4 a.m. (0200 GMT) while hundreds of anti-government protesters camped out in the square. The authors of this new crime are well known. A senior U.S. official also said on Wednesday it was clear that "somebody loyal to Mubarak has unleashed these guys to try to intimidate the protesters".
It is no use begging the army to intervene to stop the murders. It is even more futile to appeal to the “international community”, that is, to the same western governments that have been behind Mubarak and his regime all along.
There is a power in society that is stronger than any state. That power is the people. But it must be organized. When the police were taken off the streets in order to cause chaos and disorder, the people set up committees to protect their areas from criminal elements. The same idea must now be taken up and generalized: form defence committees everywhere!
The threat from the counterrevolutionary gangs of criminals can only be answered if the people are armed for self defence. Pacifism is no use when confronted with armed thugs. It is necessary to arm the people! If they attack you with sticks and stones, arm yourselves with sticks and stones. If they attack you with Molotov cocktails arm yourselves with Molotov cocktails. If they attack you with guns, arm yourselves with guns.
The only way to defeat the counterrevolution is by stepping up the mass action and carrying it to a higher level. That means organizing an all-out general strike. Deprive the regime of transport, petrol, telephones and post, light, heat and water, and you will soon show them that the working class is more powerful than all their armed thugs and policemen put together.
An all-Egypt general strike would show who really has the power in the land. In order to organize it in the most effective manner it is imperative to set up elected committees for the defence of the Revolution in every factory, street and village. The revolutionary committees should link up on a local, regional and national level. This would be the embryo of a future democratic people’s government – a real alternative to the rotten dictatorial regime.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the experience of the last few weeks it is this: the people can trust nobody but themselves: trust in your own strength, your own solidarity, your own courage, your own organization.
London, 3 February 2011