Despite a frenzied build-up – which included exhorting residents to throw subversive leaflets from their rooftops (echoing tactics used in the struggle against British colonialism), a national campaign to wear black on the big day (mourning the death of modern Egypt at the hands of President Hosni Mubarak), and polls suggesting that up to 90% of Cairo was planning to join a general strike – yesterday’s events passed with an underwhelming whimper. Shops stayed open, protests were tiny and isolated, and the only people decked out in black were the countless lines of riot police.
None of this is to denigrate the efforts of those who have worked hard over the past year to give public expression to the anger felt by Egyptians towards the corrupt, self-serving elite. And in the context of an overwhelming security presence – and the huge legal and economic risks faced by poor workers who might have wanted to take the day off work – protest organisers are arguing that yesterday was still a success. They are right to point out that if international journalists had bothered to venture beyond downtown Cairo (where the highlight was a demonstration at the Journalists’ Syndicate which mustered barely a hundred supporters) they would have seen more action, not least at the universities where police ignored a recent judicial order barring them from entering campuses, and fought running battles with dissident students.
But positive spin cannot change the fact that yesterday was a sad day for those trying to challenge the hypocrisy of Mubarak and his cronies, who preach the language of democratisation and human rights while plundering the nation’s riches and cracking down brutally on any who stand in their way. Yesterday’s date was chosen as a focus for popular discontent because it was the anniversary of an uprising last year which saw three people killed by police. In the following 12 months a dramatic strike wave has continued to sweep the country, the Gaza crisis has exposed Mubarak’s subservience to Israel and the US, and the global credit crunch has laid bare the crippling inequalities entrenched in Egypt’s IMF-sponsored rush into neoliberal economic reform. In other words, the time seemed ripe for a sustained confrontation with the government. Why then did such a confrontation fail?
The answer lies with the approach of Egypt’s so-called army of "Facebook activists", a much-hyped broth of technological innovation, media sensation and 21st century buzzwords. "Shabab 6 April" ("6 April Youth") boasted 75,000 online supporters on the eve of the action. The problem was that like most media sensations, there was a lack of substance at the movement’s core. Facebook groups might grab the attention of social-networking-hungry global news outlets, but they mean a lot less in a country where only about 10% of the population are internet users. That’s not to say the web doesn’t have a vital role to play in providing a much-needed space for political expression, but it does mean that those seeking mass mobilisations against the regime must find ways to reach out and co-ordinate with those beyond their own middle-class circles.
And this is where it all went wrong for Shabab 6 April. Last year the real dynamism behind the protests stemmed not from Cairo but from the industrial town of Mahalla – where workers from the main textiles factory walked out of the front gates and whose residents paid a bitter price for their courageous stand. This year the industrial working-class were not involved in the organisation of protests. Some trade union factions lent their support to the "day of rage" but there was no linked-up collective action. Nor did the young activists I spoke to on the day seem to think this was much of a problem. The idea of meaningful grassroots activism is notable by its absence in the Facebook manifestoes, a point which has improbably united critics of Shabab 6 April from both the left and the right. Instead grand calls for a general strike are merely issued from on high, handing an effortless propaganda victory to the government when the mass walkouts inevitably fail to materialise.
The irony of all this is that Egypt’s workers are in fact engaged in a wave of political militancy, which in recent months has seen strikes break out across every corner of the country, bringing everyone from doctors to train drivers on to the streets. On top of this, some public sector employees are for the first time escaping the trappings of the state-controlled union syndicates and instead forming their own private trade unions. A recent report suggested that Egypt will be particularly hit by the economic downturn, with half a million more jobs likely to be lost in 2009. Alongside the already fierce bubbling of social discontent, this will weaken the beleaguered Mubarak regime even further. But as yesterday made clear, it will take more than a few social networking groups to effectively capitalise on the government’s problems – something which those 75,000 Facebook group members will be soberly pondering today.