Tahrir three years later

February 7, 2014


Three years ago, the Egyptian Revolution was fighting for its life in Tahrir Square. For 18 days and nights, the women and men of the Square faced off against President Hosni Mubarak’s security forces and thugs. In the end Mubarak was forced to follow Tunisia’s President-for-life, Ben Ali, into retirement and shame. The light of freedom spread–Square to Square, occupation to occupation. It was a historic turning point.

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets again last year to protest President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative religious group that had refused to participate in the initial stages of the revolution. This was part of a worldwide struggle against reactionary fundamentalist religion that extends to Turkey, Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, the U.S. and beyond.

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It was this global struggle that the military coup that ousted Morsi, and led to the massacre of over 800 of his supporters, was meant to stop short. Now, revolution continues, and the freedom idea lives, but the old world has tried hard to destroy it. Egypt’s newest new Constitution, passed Jan. 15 under the military rule of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, evokes only faint echoes of Tahrir. As artist Hanaa Safwat said, “The referendum is stained in innocent people’s blood. It has been built on the dead bodies of 800 people in Rabaa al-Adawiya.”


Tahrir Square saw women fighting on the front lines for their own freedom, challenging oppressive social relations in practice; under the new Constitution this becomes an abstract guarantee of equal rights. It will only mediate existing social relations rather than create new ones.

Where the essence of Tahrir was informed by the recent history of labor unrest, including mass strikes led by working women, one woman labor activist, Saud Omar, said of the new Constitution, that it “contains many of the same labor violations contained in the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 Constitution.”

Its provisions include protection for the continuing use of child labor, the use of forced labor, and restrictions on the right to form unions. There is also a provision for civilians being tried in military courts. This codifies what has already been happening, as the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is accompanied by the repression of secular activists.


The Egyptian military has reserved to itself a leading role, and General Sisi is expected to run for President. The state security apparatus, acting as mediator between the citizen and the demands of world capitalism, is a form of state-capitalism.

The Egyptian military, funded by the U.S. and Gulf states, has tried, relatively speaking, to do this with a velvet glove–when compared to Syria’s Assad or Libya’s Qaddafi. But they hold every counter-revolutionary method in reserve: at the same time that they outlaw and attack the Muslim Brotherhood, and jail other activists, the military is courting the even more fundamentalist Nour party–also funded by the Saudis.


The legacy of Tahrir Square is understood differently by the masses and the rulers. After the lessons of the Arab Spring, it is no longer possible for revolutionaries to think only in terms of what one is against, without projecting at the same time what one is fighting for. For that, philosophy is indispensable.

The oppressive powers, Marx pointed out during the Paris Commune, might be united by their common interest in counter-revolution. Lenin made the same point in his book on imperialism–the imperialist powers might fight one another to the death one moment, and be united against a revolution the next.

Issues in each country go beyond local conditions to include such universal questions as the role of state power vs. non-state social organizations, in the spirit of Tahrir Square; of the necessity for women’s freedom to be integral to the overthrow of capitalist relations; and of the absolute need for international perspectives, from the start, in revolution. Without a philosophy of revolution in permanence, these truths can be buried in the struggle against counter-revolution.

In Egypt, in Syria, everywhere, the Arab Spring has begun to inspire a rebirth of revolutionary philosophy. This is still in its early stages, and sometimes barely conscious of itself. It must become self-conscious in order to solidify and continue to develop. The heroism of the masses–who have done everything humanly possible to push forward the idea and reality of freedom–can be lost if the new and deeper understanding of our human reality the masses have created is not made explicit. If they haven’t yet been able to complete their revolutions, the masses have pointed toward a method and direction by which that completeness can develop.

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