North Africa, West Asia

Let’s remember where this all started

The uprising in 2011 was brought about by socio-economic grievances coupled with state repression. The question is; has any of this changed?

Rana Magdy
25 January 2014

Let's go back in time. Since 1952 Egypt has been governed by authoritarian regimes. Hosni Mubarak (1981 – 2011) was the longest standing ruler, or dictator, since the monarchy was ousted. He was also the first to witness the mass mobilisation of millions across the country. Although a wave of protests, all fundamentally in opposition to the status quo, had started in the 2000’s, 2011 saw the biggest eruption, armed with both bravery and a new awareness.

Numerous observers of the Egyptian uprising attributed the revolution’s success to the Internet; a Facebook page titled “We are all Khaled Said”. This page was created in 2010 to spread awareness of the brutal murder of a young man from Alexandria, to call for people to stand up to government repression and injustice. Khaled was killed by two policemen for supposedly having evidence incriminating the police in a drug deal. His death can be interpreted as a ‘trigger’ to be added to a longer list of ‘symptoms’ related to the increasing cost of living, social inequality, injustice, state repression, humiliation and corruption.

Khaled’s death affected many people, old and young, as there was a general feeling that this could have happened to their friends, themselves, their children or grandchildren. His death initially triggered the mobilisation of masses in condemnation of police brutality. However, the movements continued because the dissatisfaction was not limited to the actions of a repressive police apparatus, but was also a response to the effects of neoliberalism. 

Mubarak & the “global city”

In the years leading up to 2011, the Mubarak regime adopted numerous economic reforms and policies that solely served the interests of those in power, the ruling elite. Furthermore, the 2008 financial crises and the rising costs of living that ensued can be considered as part of the slump that numerous governments could not recover from.

Saskia Sassen in The Global City discusses how inter-state systems in global cities have changed in the last decade; how the role of the state has decreased as the role of capital in the global financial system increases.

This description of the rollback of the state is applicable to what has been taking place in Egypt since the early 1990s. Mubarak was only concerned with the enhancement of his own social base. He and his cronies strove to become players in the global economy, conversely failing to recognize the costs such an endeavour would exact from the population.

After an agreement was signed in 1991 with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), not only were state-owned companies privatized, but the circle of those in control of them was shrinking to the ruling elites, who from time to time occupied high positions in the government.

Many ministers appointed in the mid-2000s promoted corruption on an unprecedented scale; they sold significant portions of the public sector for their personal benefit and decreased public investment in agriculture, land reclamation, housing, education and health. 

Furthermore, in order to maintain control, Mubarak attempted to secure the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) - Egypt’s ruling party since 1976 - and its hegemony over Egypt’s parliament. This started as soon as he finished his first term in 1987. With the NDP in control of the majority of seats, as Hellyer puts it; “power was confined within a small elite that possessed an aura of near invincibility and was perceived to be immovable.” 

A study on the consequences of privatizing state-owned enterprises in Egypt showed that employment had decreased significantly in 69 firms between 1994 – 1998 resulting in hundreds of thousands losing their jobs. Another report stated that a manufacturing firm, after having a work force of 24,000 in 1980, reduced it to 3,500, when the privatization projects under Mubarak began. Furthermore, in order to respond to increasing economic demands, pressure for further implementation of liberalisation projects in the early 2000s was increasing. 

Laws were adapted and implemented to serve the interests of those in power, in ways that served their own as well as the investor’s interests, neglecting the rights of employees. For example, in 2003 a law was passed stripping private-sector workers of their basic rights for the negotiation of the length of their contracts, salaries, working hours, overtime compensation, vacation or lunch breaks, let alone health and injury insurance.

Furthermore, a large segment of the labour force are casual workers, getting by on a day-to-day basis. This in turn provides no sense of security and places people in a constant state of fear and worry. People feared to stand up for their basic rights; living in a “state of emergency” allowed the government to violently crush demonstrations, ban publications, search, arrest and detain any dissident voices indefinitely without trial.

To further consolidate its endeavours, the government issued a law in 2002 banning any organization related to independent trade union activity (Article 11 of Law 84 of 2002), further stifling any outlet capable of expressing workers’ grievances. 

These examples are an indication of the kind of environment the Egyptian government was nurturing. Workers were at risk of losing their jobs and only source of income. They did not have unions they could turn to for assistance or prospects of further employment. Koenraad Bogaert sums it up perfectly

“neoliberal reforms reflected a profound shift from state-developmentalism toward intrinsically authoritarian modalities of neoliberal government. As a result, authoritarianism in the region has been transformed by the ways in which the interests of ruling domestic elites and (global) economic elites became increasingly intertwined. This gave rise to new arrangements where ‘market requirements’ determined and justified the (authoritarian) modality of government”.

As a result the only options left were collective action and strikes. The Mahalla textile workers strike of December 2006 can be considered as one of the sparks of such movements, which actually resulted in demands being met.

Numerous strikes across the country erupted in the months to follow, all demanding bonuses they had been promised and better wages. Although some managed to achieve their desired goals, they did not come easily. Many leaders of the strikes were arrested, tortured and sexually harassed as police forces used violent tactics of oppression to intimidate and discourage others from following in their footsteps. 

But the success of a number of these strikes was also proof to many that collective action could achieve results; that there is power in numbers. The above examples are a clear indication that workers were facing injustice in the face of the ruling regime. Similarly, in 2012 Egypt saw the highest number of strikes, signifying that no real changes had taken place since the uprising.

Here to serve

However, these were not the only grievances. Under Mubarak’s rule personal freedoms came at a cost; anyone in opposition was silenced and, at times, at risk of being arrested and jailed with no access to a fair trial. Mubarak had acquired substantial liberty to have his opponents convicted in military trials, he also shut down newspapers and professional syndicates that didn’t sing his song, and jailed human rights activists and journalists. Sound familiar?

In order to remain in control, police forces were given full discretion to use whichever tactics they felt appropriate to control the masses. Those people who were unfortunate enough to come face to face with “the system”, were humiliated and violently repressed, which in turn led to frustration and suffering. Police increasingly harassed people on the street, taking them in for questioning for no apparent reason, searching them and demanding bribes.

Furthermore, state-controlled gentrification programmes for urban development threatened the livelihoods of numerous Cairo dwellers, especially if the area they resided in had become an attractive location for new housing or commercial developments. Public land was being sold cheaply to investors and the state ensured it was a partner in the development of any project, thus channelling the revenues of such endeavours back to the ruling elite.

Numerous families were uprooted; leaving their communities, taking their kids out of their schools – if they could afford to enrol them in the first place -, re-located far from their jobs, etc…in many cases, joining Cairo’s underemployed poor. This shift from public to private urban development further entrenched the marginalization of the masses.

In the meantime, private gated communities were being built for the rich and in some cases, these new developments would erupt in, or in close proximity to, neighbourhoods that lacked access to basic services, such as clean water, electricity and infrastructure. 

This further exacerbated the already poor living standards of many of the urban dwellers, as Henri Lefebvre wrote “urbanization is central to the survival of capitalism.” As one study in 2001 predicted “this situation could result in grave socio-political consequences in the near future”, which it did.

Government expenditures 

In Egypt, however, jobs and housing are not the only challenges people faced and still face; education and health are other major causes for concern for the majority of the population.

Although primary through to secondary education is supposedly free; a review of state welfare in Egypt since the implementation of SAPs showed that public spending on education had decreased, whilst private tutoring has become practically obligatory, further burdening the poor. 

Furthermore, whilst education became an attractive investment, the percentage of private schools rose by around 52 per cent between 1991 and 2001. Those who did manage to get their children through school and pushed to get them through university, in the hopes that they could then earn a better living, were disabused once they attempted to enter the job market. 

After families spent all their savings on private lessons to get their children through school, they found that it made little or no difference. In general, education across all levels has been cited as being very poor in quality. This also fed into a very undermotivated and frustrated youth, deprived of their dreams. 

The government’s expenditure on subsidies declined throughout Mubarak’s reign; food-subsidy expenditures of total government expenditures decreased from 15 per cent in 1980 to 6 per cent in 2000. Although public health services were supposedly free, after the implementation of SAPs, the poor appear to be paying more on health than they did previously; as the government seems to have deliberately allowed the deterioration of some health services in order to encourage people to go to the private sector.

The question is…

Has any of this changed? Are steps being taken to address the core grievances? Do we want to nurture another Mubarak-esque regime? How many people have died since 2011? And how many of those died under SCAF, Morsi and the current interim “military-backed” government?

In January 2011 a segment of those protesting had not suffered nearly as much as others. However, the vast majority were young Egyptians who had only lived under the rule of one and the same dictator since the day they were born. Whether people had been victims of state repression or not, they bore witness to the atrocities committed and stood up for what they believe is right, setting their grievances with one another aside, finding power in their numbers, for a bigger cause: “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” The people collectively demanded radical transformation. 

So, let’s not forget why this revolution erupted in the first place.

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