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Huge protests, strike wave topples Mubarak

November 19, 2011
Sunday, February 13, 2011
By Tim Dobson
Tahrir Square after Mubarak resigned on February 15.

In a world-shaking event, after 18 days of constant street protests, the Egyptian people’s revolution won a huge victory when dictator Hosni Mubarak finally resigned on February 11.

On that day, designated the “Day of Departure” by protesters, an estimated 20 million people (out of a population of about 80 million) were reported to have taken to the streets.

They defied a regime that had tried to crush the movement in blood. More than 300 people have been killed by security forces or pro-regime thugs since the uprising broke out on January 25.

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Earlier in the week, there were fears the revolution was stagnating or even declining in the face of Mubarak’s refusal to go. But huge protests took place across Egypt on February 8 as the pro-democracy movement took the offensive once more.

The Sydney Morning Herald said on February 9: “AFP journalists … confirmed it was the biggest gathering yet in a movement which began last month.

“Witnesses in Egypt’s second city Alexandria said a march there also attracted record numbers.”

The AlMasryAlYoum said the protest in Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square in Cairo surpassed 1 million people.

The huge protests were a response to a speech by Egyptian vice president and long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman that made it clear the regime was not willing to accept the demands of the protesters.

The February 8 New York Times said Suleiman “does not think it is time to lift the 30-year-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. He does not think President Hosni Mubarak needs to resign before his term ends in September.

“And he does not think his country is yet ready for democracy.

“But, considering it lacks better options, the United States has strongly backed him to play the pivotal role in a still uncertain transition process in Egypt.”

The effect of the February 8 protests was almost immediate. Protesters marched on Parliament house and tried to storm the building. When repelled, they settled for blockading and setting up camp outside the entrance.

ABC Online said on February 10: “An army general who ordered the protesters outside parliament to disperse and go back to Tahrir Square was met by chants of ‘we are not leaving, he is leaving’.

In a significant development, a strike wave swept Egypt the next day. Three independent trade unions began an indefinite strike combined with economic and political demands on the regime.

The strikes involved factory and textile workers, steel and iron workers, teachers, workers in the health ministry, workers in the military factories and even journalists working for state-run media.

The New York Times said on February 9: “In the most potentially significant action, about 6,000 workers at five service companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority — a major component of the Egyptian economy — began a sit-in on Tuesday night.”

Striking iron and steel workers demanded: the end of the regime; the dismantling of the union federation controlled by the ruling party; the “confiscation of public sector companies that have been sold or closed down or privatised … and formation of a new management by workers and technicians”; and the “formation of a workers’ monitoring committee in all work places monitoring production, prices, distribution and wages”.

The Associated Press said that day: “For the first time, protesters were forcefully urging labour strikes despite a warning by Vice-President Omar Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are ‘very dangerous for society and we can’t put up with this at all’.”

Such calls have especially come from the April 6th Youth Movement, which was formed in 2008 in solidarity with striking labourers in Mahalla.

AP said many workers were “motivated to strike when they heard about how many billions the Mubarak family was worth”.

The British Guardian said on February 4: “President Hosni Mubarak’s family fortune could be as much as [US]$70bn (£43.5bn) according to analysis by Middle East experts.”

The regime continued to try to hold out. At least five people were killed and 100 wounded on February 9 when police opened fire on protesters.

On February 10, however, the strike wave spread further. Public transport workers went on strike, and about 24,000 textile workers struck in Mahalla.

Lawyers, doctors, public transport workers and energy workers joined the strike.

As protests and strikes built throughout the day, Egypt’s Supreme Military Council met to discuss “necessary measures and preparations to protect the nation”. It released “Communique No. 1”, which said the military would “support the legitimate demands of the people”.

Many took this as a sign that, under pressure from the army, Mubarak would step down. Speculation reached fever pitch when Egyptian state television announced Mubarak was to address to the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square went silent as they waited for Mubarak’s expected resignation.

Silence turned to rage when it became clear Mubarak was refusing to go. When Mubarak spoke about all that he had done for the country, thousands held shoes in the air in a sign of disapproval.

Mubarak’s speech, described by the Angry Arab News Service (AANS) as the “dumbest speech ever delivered by a dictator”, appeased no one.

The next day, Tahrir Square quickly filled to capacity after afternoon prayers. With no room in the square, some protesters marched on the state television office and the presidential palace to join protests that began the previous night.

Huge protests occurred in every big city in Egypt. There was a heavy military presence in the streets, as the Supreme Military Council met again.

Protesters waited to see if the military would live up to its words that it was “with the people”. The mood was again expectant and one protester wrote on Twitter: “This is the third Friday of our revolution. The first was bloody, second was festive and third should be decisive.”

Signs emerged that Mubarak’s reign was truly on the brink.

Al Jazeera reported during the day: “An army officer joined protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square say[ing] 15 other middle-ranking officers have also gone over to the demonstrators.”

At the state television office, activist Alaa Abdel Fatah told Al Jazeera: “The army have now given up and are letting the protesters control the flow of people around the state television building.”

The newly appointed general secretary of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party also resigned.

At 6pm Egyptian time, Suleiman addressed the nation with the words everyone was waiting for: Mubarak would step down. The president’s powers would be transferred to the military command to oversee a transition.

Jubilation broke out throughout Egypt – reporters on television couldn’t be heard due to the sheer noise. People power had beaten a dictator backed by the most powerful nation on Earth and who had ruled over them for three decades.

The army is widely respected in Egypt, but there is mistrust of many of the generals who were close to the Mubarak regime. The widespread feeling in among Egyptians is it was they who forced Mubarak out and it was their revolution.

Whatever comes next, Mubarak’s resignation is a big step forward — as is the apparent sidelining of Suleiman, who is infamous for heading Egypt’s torture program.

AANS said: “The biggest victory is that … Suleiman is out of the picture now. Israel/US/Saudi Arabia were hoping that he would be the extension of Mubarak until some other clone of Mubarak is found.”

The impact of Mubarak’s fall on the already explosive Arab world remains to be seen. The Egyptian revolution was inspired by the overthrow of a dictatorship in Tunisia. But Egypt is much more central to the Arab world — and therefore to the interests of the US and Israel.

Already, the Hamas-led government in Gaza has called for the Egyptian government to open its border with Gaza to ease Israel’s crippling siege — a move that would be hugely popular among Egyptians.

But the most immediate impact is on the consciousness of Egyptians. A 35-year-old Egyptian teacher told the February 5 Guardian: “People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared.

“We are not afraid of his system any longer and when we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again allow ourselves to be scared of a government. We will not be afraid to say when we think the president is wrong or the government is bad.

“This is the revolution in our country, the revolution in our minds.

“Mubarak can stay for days or weeks but he cannot change that.”

This attitude was reflected on the streets of Egypt after Mubarak’s resignation. Amid the scenes of wild jubilation, many protesters said they would not leave until they got some guarantees from the new government. Near the top of the list is a guarantee Mubarak will face trial for his crimes.

Egypt will never be the same again.

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