When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, the post-modern era of skepticism and pessimism in relation to positive, progressive political change was broken, albeit momentarily. The sight of thousands of people on the streets, demonstrating against corrupt politicians and their own exclusion from the system, filled many across the globe with intense optimism for the battlefield of politics in the 21st century. Not since the fall of the Soviet bloc had observers looked so rosily to the future, and many drew grand comparisons between the strikes that erupted in the Mahalla region of Egypt and the prolonged strikes led by Solidarność (Solidarity) in Poland in the 1980s.
Egypt has long been politically diverse and articulate, from the Nasserite era of Pan-Arabism to the neoliberal cronyism of Mubarak, and so of all the sites of the Arab Spring, it has attracted the grandest hyperbole in relation to real tangible political ‘change’. But who were the people on the streets chanting and demanding change? Was this a united group of unspecified ‘liberals’, brought together by an abstract desire for ‘freedom’? Or was the uprising, in fact, a very divided and diverse set of forces uniting behind a single objective for that purpose alone? The Arab Spring was a dualistic process of a burgeoning young, educated, middle class, demanding a stake in society on the one hand, and the dying embers of working class radicalism in the neo-liberal age of deindustrialization and the creation of an international flexible labour market, on the other. Whilst united for the critical point of overthrow, the post-revolt era has seen the two sides splinter and suffer electoral defeat subsequently.
Many have been quick to sew the Arab Spring into the tapestry of radical politics handed down from 1848 to 1968, with the barricades of Paris at the center. Indeed Egypt’s revolution of 2011 has hit the same ‘18th Brumaire’ problem that the French revolution did in 1848 – namely the disjointedness of radical elements in the cities and the considerably larger conservative rural population. The protests that began the revolutionary process in Cairo were orchestrated primarily by a young, educated middle class, frustrated at their unemployment or under-employment at a time when the IMF was predicting an upturn in the Egyptian economy under Mubarak. Mubarak sought to sever ties between his neoliberal clique and the middle classes, who had been bonded to the State since the time of Nasser, but this severing ultimately led to Mubarak’s overthrow. The middle classes could only be kept excluded for so long.
Much like the French radicals in 1848, the Egyptian radicals suffered a defeat in the first elections post-Mubarak, with the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whilst the Brotherhood was able to paint itself as part of the revolutionary wave, activists in the grassroots of Tahrir Square were under no illusions. What this defeat re-enforces is that middle class revolutions cannot be counted on to implement change – their interests lie too heavily in their own social standing, and it is this inward looking tendency that the Brotherhood has managed to tap into, making ground at election time by being sensitive to the disgruntlements of the new aspirational middle class. The concentration of power under President Morsi does not mean, however, that the revolution in Egypt will be reversed as Morsi entrenches his rule. But it does mean that the struggle for the victory of the Egyptian revolution will be ongoing.
This is what makes the autonomy declaration of Mahalla so significant. The “Independent Republic of Greater Mahalla” was declared on the December 7th 2012 in the aftermath of violent street battles between opponents to Morsi’s rule and his representatives, which followed Morsi’s announcement of a new constitution that was hastily pushed through parliament. 5,000 workers, after finishing their shift at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, coalesced in Shon Square. They were quickly met by pro-Morsi forces armed with shotguns and molotov cocktails, leaving more than 700 injured.
Mahalla has been at the centre of Egyptian radicalism for many years. The so-called “Industrial Citadel of the Nile Delta” has seen historic strikes such as in 2006 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, which continued into 2007 and 2008, and saw 20,000 workers strike. The strike action met severe resistance in 2008 when state security services arrested strike leaders and intimidated workers back into work. But it is at this point that the first signs of the Arab Spring can be noted – portraits of Mubarak were torn apart in the streets and anti-regime slogans resonated from the streets of Mahalla.
Mahalla highlights the disjuncture within the revolution, between the radical and more conservative strands, and the ease with which the Brotherhood has inherited the repressive elements of the Mubarak state. As a youth activist has said: “This city resisted and confronted the previous dictatorship. It helped to bring down Mubarak. We are now refusing Morsi’s dictatorship, and we will topple him if necessary”.
Whilst the calls for autonomy and workers’ militancy in the “Republic of Mahalla” are indeed significant, they are in reality, opportunistic. But what they reveal is the split at the heart of the Egyptian revolution, i.e. Between the liberal uprising of the young aspiring middle classes and the dying embers of the militant working classes in Mahalla. These classes are all entwined in the make up of post-Mubarak society, yet they are pulling in very different directions, and it will be this struggle that determines the future of Egypt and its revolution. The figure of Mubarak and the crony-regime that he built still haunts the heirs of the Egyptian state, and crucially, the Egyptian revolution itself.