When working class people fight to transform society, they also begin to transform their own ideas. That’s why Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued revolution wasn’t just necessary to smash the capitalist state, its police force, its military and other repressive bodies that keep down those who challenge the system. Only through a revolution, they wrote, could working class people rid themselves of the “muck of ages”—reactionary and bigoted ideas— and “become fitted to found society anew”. By being part of a collective struggle against a common enemy, deeply ingrained sexist, racist and other bigoted ideas can begin to fall apart.
What Marx and Engels identified about revolution is as true today as it was in their time in the 19th century. This process was on show in the Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution, which swept across the Middle East and north Africa a decade ago.
A common misconception is that the countries electrified by the wave of popular uprisings are exclusively Muslim. But this is far from the case. They tend to have diverse faith groups, including different Christian denominations. As a long-time target of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the Coptic Christians in Egypt endured violence, discrimination and harassment both from the state and bosses.
The Egyptian Revolution posed a serious challenge to the oppression of the Coptic Christians, and other minorities such as Nubians. During protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Coptic Christians linked arms in the midst of state violence to protect Muslims while they observed prayers. And Muslims stood at different entrances to the square to protect the Christians while they prayed.
Solidarity and unity with the Copts weren’t just limited to the squares, but flowed through workplace struggles as well. Workers struck, occupied and protested at their workplaces together—Muslim and Christian, women and men, and others. The divisions that existed between workers broke down in the process of revolution as people united against their real enemy—Mubarak and all the “Little Mubaraks” in the workplaces and state institutions.
The unity forged in the struggle against the Mubarak regime empowered those minorities to fight not just against the exploitation they shared with Muslim workers, but against their specific oppression as well. That’s why, when the ruling class and regime loyalists attempted to restore the old order, they tried to reinflame those divisions and target oppressed minorities. One of the worst examples was the the Maspero Massacre on 9 October 2011. It came as the military, having been forced to dump Mubarak that February, was trying to reassert control. Troops gunned down a demonstration of largely Coptic Christians and those who stood in solidarity with them, brutally killed dozens and injuring hundreds. Afterwards, to incite sectarianism against the Copts, the regime claimed that they had been attacking the army.
Despite this, many people saw through the regime’s attempts and continued to stand in solidarity with their Christian sisters and brothers against repression. They now knew the power of unity—and, for many, the revolution was only just beginning despite the fall of Mubarak.
Experiencing the revolution made people imagine a different type of society from the one they’d known under military rule. The atmospheres in the workplaces and in the squares gave a flavour of those possibilities as people collectively took control. The centrality of women in both these spaces brought forward the fight for women’s liberation as well. Egypt had enshrined in its constitution women’s double burden of housework and childcare, which it termed the “reconciliation of her work in society and her duties in the family”.
This push from the state to control and limit women in public life fuelled the common sexual harassment and violence women face on the streets. Yet, when revolution erupted in January 2011, this began to change. Egyptian revolutionary socialist Gig Ibrahim described to Socialist Worker newspaper at the time, “Discrimination against women and sexual harassment has been entrenched in mainstream Egyptian culture. It’s treated as a joke. Everywhere we go we face verbal harassment. It would happen as I walked to the supermarket or travelled to college. All women, whatever their age, whatever they wear, have experienced this.
“But from the beginning of the revolution, and throughout the 18 days I spent in Tahrir Square, I did not face sexual harassment once. There were thousands of us sleeping in tents, alongside strangers. Yet it was like we were all friends and family. I felt completely safe.”
Women were more than an equal part of the revolution. They were pivotal—not just in the squares and the demonstrations, but crucially in the workplaces as well. What tipped the balance and forced Mubarak out on 11 February, were mass strikes. A key sector in the strike was the textile industry, particularly in the town of Mahalla Al Kubra with its predominantly women workers.
But it wasn’t just women who understood the crucial role they had played in the revolution. The ruling classes of Egypt and other countries in the region understood this as well and used sexual violence systematically to intimidate women away from the streets. It was often carried out by paid thugs of the Mubarak regime and gangs supportive of the ruling National Democratic Party. Ultimately, however, counter-revolutionary forces’ attempts to scare women away from being part of the uprising failed. Women of all backgrounds—Muslim or Christian, veiled or not—continued to join demonstrations in the squares and the protests and strikes in the workplaces. Some protesters organised defence groups to protect women from gangs that were attempting to snatch them from the masses and rape them.
These examples of solidarity is why Marxists celebrate struggle. It doesn’t just raise working class people’s material conditions—as important as that is—but changes consciousness. The central role of women in the Egyptian Revolution raised specific demands for women and reclaimed public spaces that had otherwise been unsafe for them. But, more significantly, it raised the confidence of those women workers and their fellow revolutionaries in their collective struggle. It’s through this process that workers can develop a collective class consciousness. They see their power to run society themselves without any need for their “betters”, for people rather than for profit, ridded of exploitation and oppression.
In 2013 General Abdul Fateh el-Sisi and the military felt strong enough to go on the offensive and drown the revolution in blood. However, the problems that led to the uprisings in Egypt and throughout the Arab Spring haven’t gone away—from shortages of resources, poor wages and conditions or deepening inequality between a tiny minority over a vast majority. Struggle therefore will happen—what isn’t guaranteed, is their shape and outcome. And the memory of the Arab Spring lives on and can feed into these future revolts. The 1905 Russian Revolution, for instance, didn’t overthrow the Tsarist dictatorship. But it gave workers a taste of their power as they set up their own democratic organisations, the workers’ councils (soviets), to direct the struggle. Twelve years later in the 1917 Russian Revolution, workers in alliance with the peasantry overthrew the whole ruling class and began running society through soviets that they had set up once again.
When we mark the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, it’s not merely to celebrate. It’s to draw lessons for future revolts and uprisings that socialists hope for and work towards. And that lesson of how ordinary people’s ideas can suddenly change remains as relevant as ever in Egypt, Britain and the world over.
Nadia Sayed is an activist and member of the Socialist Workers Party in East London.