How Egypt’s Progressives Won

Paul Amar Feb 18, 2011

THE PEOPLE UNITED: Egypt celebrates the removal of the regime. PHOTO: Flickr/sierragoddessOn Feb. 6, 2011, Egypt’s hastily appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman invited in the old guard or what we could call the Businessmen’s Wing of the Muslim Brotherhood into a stately meeting in the polished rosewood Cabinet Chamber of Mubarak’s Presidential Palace.

The aim of their tea party was to discuss some kind of accord that would end the national uprising and restore “normalcy.” When news of the meeting broke, expressions of delight and terror tore through the blogosphere. Was the nightmare scenario of both the left and right about to be realized? Would the U.S.-Israel surrogate Suleiman merge his military-police apparatus with the power of the more conservative branch of the old Islamist social movement?

Images of the Suleiman-Brotherhood tête-à-tête were broadcast at a time when Suleiman’s legitimacy was increasingly shaky within Egypt, and when this sub-group of Brothers, who represent only one fraction of one faction of the opposition, was trying to make an unlikely comeback.

The commentators focusing on the Brotherhood had completely missed the real news. Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm reported that the Youth and Women’s Wings split off from the main Brotherhood organization to join the leftist April 6 Youth Movement. The men sitting around Suleiman’s table were left without much of a movement behind them.


The Muslim Brotherhood is well organized in every Egyptian city, and provide health, education, legal aid and disaster relief to citizens ignored or neglected by the state. But it is not Egypt’s equivalent of Hezbollah or Hamas.

As Mona El-Ghobashy has described, in the 1990s the Muslim Brotherhood broke with its secretive, hierarchical, shari’a-focused form. Today, it is a well-organized political party, officially banned but occasionally tolerated. In the past 20 years it has made significant inroads in parliament via alliances with other parties and by running independent candidates. The Brotherhood now fully supports political pluralism, women’s participation in politics and the role of Christians and communists as full citizens.

However, with the rise of competing labor, liberal and human-rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the “new old guard” of the Brotherhood (the one that emerged in the 1980s) has retained a focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. This faction sees moral-cultural conservatism as what distinguishes the Brotherhood from other parties, a fact it confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative, Muhammad Badeea, as leader in 2010. This turn was rejected by women and youth in the movement.

This socially conservative leaning thus brings the “new old guard” more in line with the moralistic paternalism of the ousted Hosni Mubarak government and sets it against the trajectory of new youth, women’s and labor movements.

This raises the possibility of splits in or the revitalization and reinvention of the Brotherhood, as the youth and women’s wings feel drawn toward the April 6 movement. The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the “new old guard” is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organization.

In the past 10 years the Mubarak government partially co-opted this wing of the Brotherhood in two ways. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and participate in the economic boom. Senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments and have been absorbed into the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) machine and upper-middle class establishment. Second, the government appropriated the Brotherhood’s moral discourse. Mubarak’s police state stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig herders and rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shi’a minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women and excommunicated college professors.

Egyptians have thus already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state — Mubarak’s! And they hated it.

In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicization of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from the Brotherhood’s activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.


The Muslim Brotherhood used to represent frustrated, marginalized elements of the middle class. Now a wide range of secular (but not anti-religious) groupings represent emergent economic patterns within the country. Moreover, these groups are swept up in a whirlwind of new political-economic energies coming from investors from Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Israel, Dubai, China, Turkey and Brazil, as well as the remittances of Egyptian professionals who found employment in the emirates’ development boom.

Within this new multi-dimensional globalization, in which East-West divides and postcolonial patterns are radically remade, the military presents an interesting economic mediator and success story.

Prevented by the 1979 Camp David peace treaty from going to war, the military instead used its sovereignty over huge tracks of desert and coastal property to develop shopping malls, gated cities and beach resorts, catering to rich and middle-class Egyptians, local and international consumers, and tourists.

The military’s position vis-à-vis the uprising is complicated. It hated the capitalists around Gamal Mubarak who sold off national lands, assets and resources to U.S. and European corporations. But the military also wants tourists, shoppers and investors for its multi-billion-dollar resorts and venues. The military identifies very strongly with representing and protecting “the people,” but also wants the people to go home and stop scaring away the tourists. The military will continue to straddle this position in interesting ways for years.

Suleiman’s General Intelligence Services are nominally part of the military, but are institutionally separate. The intelligence sector is dependent on foreign patrons, primarily Israel and the United States, and is viewed skeptically by Egyptians. But the actual Army and Air Force are grounded in the economic and social interests of national territory.

The army’s role in countering Suleiman’s lust for repression was crucial to saving the uprising. On Feb. 4, the day of the terrifying police/thug brutality in Tahrir Square, commentators noted that the military was trying to stop the attacks but was not being very aggressive. We have since learned that soldiers in the square were not provided with bullets. Suleiman had disarmed them for fear the military would side with the protesters and use the ammunition to overthrow him.

Bullets or no, the military displaced the police and took over security in public spaces in Cairo. Residential areas saw the return of a 21st-century version of futuwwa groups. As Wilson Jacob has described, in the 19th century futuwwa were icons of working-class national identity and community solidarity in Egypt. Futuwwa were organized groups of young men who defended craft guilds and working-class neighborhoods in Cairo. But the futuwwa reborn on Feb. 1 are called Peoples’ Committees and include men of all classes and ages and a few women with butcher knives, too. They stake out every street corner, vigilant for police and state-funded thugs who would try to arrest, intimidate or rob residents.

Given the threat of sexualized violence from the police/thugs, there is a gender dimension to this uprising. Huge numbers of women participated in the revolt. Then the police/thugs started targeting women, molesting, detaining and raping them. When the police were driven back, the military and the futuwwa groups took over and insisted that “protecting” the people involved excluding women and children from public spaces, particularly Tahrir Square. But women in this revolt insist they are not victims who need protection, they are the leading core of this movement. On Feb. 7, women’s groups, including the April 6 movement, anti-harassment, civil rights groups and the Women’s Wing of the Brotherhood, reemerged in downtown Cairo by the hundreds of thousands.

On Jan. 28 the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party burned down, and with it his substantive authority was turned to ashes. The rising military and national-capital interests then buried those ashes on Feb. 5. On that day, they ensured that Gamal Mubarak would resign as head of the NDP’s Political Office. In his place, Dr. Hosam Badrawi was named the new Secretary-General of the party.

The choice of Badrawi reflects the direction the winds are blowing. Badrawi holds the dubious honor of founding Egypt’s first private-sector HMO in 1989. All Egyptians are constitutionally guaranteed access to free, universal healthcare. But Mubarak, under orders from the IMF, made draconian cuts to the public health service beginning in the 1980s. Badrawi has championed the privatization of healthcare, and created a national private healthcare industry with significant capital and legitimacy. This industry is threatened by global competition and describes itself in nationalistic, paternalistic tones. Serving as a vehicle for foreign investment, Gamal Mubarak posed a threat to national businessmen like Badrawi. Badrawi is also a former director of the NDP’s human rights organization, a particularly contradictory job to hold during a time of mass repression and torture.

Naguib Sawiris, the self-proposed chair of the “Transitional Council of Wise Men,” is similar to Badrawi. A patriotic, successful nationalist businessman, Sawiris heads the largest private-sector company in Egypt, Orascom. This firm has built railways, beach resorts, gated cities, highways, telecom systems, wind farms, condos and hotels. He is a major regional financier. He is also the banner carrier for Egypt’s developmentalist nationalists.

On Feb. 4 Sawiris proposed the Council of Wise Men to oversee Suleiman and the police and to lead Egypt through the transition. The council would be a so-called “neutral, technocratic” body that would include Sawiris, along with a couple of non-ideological members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s businessmen’s wing, some strategic-studies experts, and a Nobel Prize winner. Not Mohammed ElBaradei, the peace laureate and opposition leader; they found an Egyptian laureate in organic chemistry instead.


By early February a coalition emerged of nationalist businessmen allied with a military that also acts like nationalist middle-class businessmen. This group ejected the “crony globalizers” and “barons of privatization” surrounding Gamal Mubarak and finally Hosni Mubarak himself.

Would this group then cement its hold on power with Suleiman as its hammer? No. Other social forces are also at work. They are well organized. Legitimacy, organization, new vision and economic power are in their hands. The new nationalist business-military bloc cannot develop the country without their participation and mobilization.

This uprising began gradually with the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt, especially during the last two years, and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilized every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women of all ages and youth of both genders.

tanks for the help: Egyptians wonder if the military will give up power. PHOTO: Matthew CasselThe passion of workers who began this uprising stems from their centrality to new development processes. Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country with new factories being built in a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up, and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate and into manufacturing, piece goods, informatics and infrastructure.

All over Egypt factories have been reopened or newly built. And the shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Persian Gulf, developers use Bangladeshi, Philippine and other expatriate labor. But Egypt usually uses its own workers.

Many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile and piece-work industries are women. Inside large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo and the cement-block constructions of the villages are workshops full of women making purses and shoes and putting together toys and computer circuit boards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the April 6 movement in 2008.

They began the organizing process that led to this current uprising, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz’s passionate YouTube video. Ms. Mahfouz, a political organizer with an MBA from Cairo University, called people to protest on Jan. 25. Many Cairenes answered her call and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets in the slums of Cairo on Jan. 24, the day before the mass protests began. The rest is history.


The economic gender and class landscape of Egypt’s micro-businesses has been politicized and mobilized in dynamic ways. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. As Julia Elyachar has argued, in the place of food subsidies and jobs the state offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and loan-shark operations.

Sexualized brutalization of youth and women by the police became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. The micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police state. No one here praises the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. The economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. The movement became a national force two years ago with the police murder of a youth, Khalid Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet cafe that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him. He refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull while the whole community watched in horror.

Police demanding bribes, harassing micro-businesses and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice. The landscape of internet cafes, small workshops, call-centers, video-game cafes, microbuses, laundromats and small gyms constitutes the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. The “Facebook Revolution” is not about people mobilizing in virtual space. It is about the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilizing the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

During the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, the “bazaaris of Tehran,” the medium-sized merchants and shop owners, served as the crucial “swing vote” that moved the Revolution from a socialistic uprising toward the founding of an Islamic Republic.

In Egypt, the social and political force of women and youth micro-entrepreneurs will lead history in the opposite direction. These groups have a sophisticated view of the moral posturing of some Islamists, and they have a clear socio-economic agenda, which appeals to the dynamic Youth Wing of the Brotherhood. The progressive groups have a linked network of enterprises, factories, identities and passions. They would go to any length to prevent the reemergence of police brutality and moralistic hypocrisy that have ruled them for the past generation. The women and youth behind these micro-businesses, and the workers in the new factories seem to be united.
Micro-entrepreneurs, new workers groups and massive anti-police brutality organizations do not share the same class position as Sawiris, Badrawi and those in the Council of  Wise Men. Nevertheless, there are significant overlaps and affinities between the nationalist development-oriented groups, the newly entrepreneurial military, and the well-organized youth and women’s social movements. This confluence of social, historical and economic dynamics will ensure that the uprising does not get reduced to a photo opportunity.

Paul Amar is Associate Professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Cairo Cosmopolitan and the forthcoming Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics and the End of Neoliberalism. A version of this article was originally published by

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