Interview: “This infuriates the masses”—how Palestine and economic chaos fuel rage against Egypt’s dictatorship

Issue: 183

Mohamed, Musa and Laila

It is 13 years since the Egyptian Revolution removed dictator Hosni Mubarak and initiated over two years of continuous workers’ struggles alongside a process of democratisation. That process was brought to an end in July 2013 by a military coup and counter-revolution headed by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the Egyptian president.

Today, there is continuing heavy repression of protest movements and workers’ struggles in Egypt, but the murderous Israeli attack on Gaza has also seen the emergence of intense rage, with the el-Sisi regime failing to challenge the slaughter due to Egyptian state’s long-term commitment to acting as a key pillar of the United States’s hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the harsh state response to protests, demonstrations have nonetheless broken out at various points since the Israeli onslaught on Gaza began in October 2023. Although these outbreaks of resistance have been curtailed by the police response and the fear instilled in ordinary people by the regime, they nevertheless show that there is a possibility of the populations of the Arab states neighbouring Israel challenging their regimes’ slavish support for US foreign policy aims in the region, including the continued repression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state.

As well as being confronted by indignation over its tacit support for Israel, the regime also faces deepening anger over Egypt’s domestic economic problems. International Socialism spoke to three revolutionary activists in Cairo—Mohamed, Musa and Laila—about Egypt today. They discussed the regime, workers and the prospects for the left. They also spoke about the support of the European Union for the Egyptian state’s crackdowns on migrants trying to reach Europe, the role of Western and Gulf investment in propping up the government, and the potential weaknesses of el-Sisi’s rule.

International Socialism: Can you describe the dimensions of the social and political crises in Egypt?

Mohamed: The situation here in Egypt is complex. There’s an unprecedented economic crisis, like nothing in our lifetimes. At the same time, there’s huge rage over Palestine as well as intense repression, producing great pent-up anger among millions of people.

When Israel’s attack on Gaza began there was a day of demonstrations, and many people were arrested. Some are still in prison, and all public protests have since been met with repression. Universities, which for decades were the site of protests against the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, are like graveyards.1 There have been protests at the syndicates—the unions for professionals such as lawyers and journalists—but most have taken place inside the buildings, which is an indication of how serious the situation has become.

Musa: We did have solidarity demonstrations outside the Journalists’ Syndicate every week, but even these have been suppressed. Initially, lawyers across Egypt also held solidarity events, but these too have come to an end.

Laila: In fact, there was recently a very important demonstration of women on International Women’s Day. This caught the police by surprise. Some 50 women demonstrated in support of Gaza in front of the Palestinian Women’s Association. And we’ve also had an important strike at the Mahalla al-Kubra textile mill, which has the largest industrial workforce in Egypt.2 Women led this dispute—I think it’s a sign of things to come.

Mohamed: Pressure on the mass of people is rising constantly. The proportion of the population living beneath the poverty line has doubled over the past ten years. Tens of millions of people live on under $2 a day. And there’s been a huge increase in unemployment, especially among people with higher education—some 40 percent of graduates can’t find a job. There are thousands of people who’ve studied law and can’t get jobs, except perhaps as a clerk. It’s a true “Third World” situation.

The Egyptian currency has collapsed. When el-Sisi came to power in 2013, one US dollar could buy about six Egyptian pounds. Now a dollar buys 50 Egyptian pounds. This has huge implications, as Egypt imports most of its food needs. It’s the world’s biggest importer of wheat and very vulnerable to changes in prices on the global market. The cost of most foods has rocketed up by an average of 40 percent over the past year.

The economic crisis is closely associated with el-Sisi’s “out of control dictator” agenda. He’s been building a new capital city in the desert east of Cairo, which is likely to cost at least $60 billion. This is a true vanity project: a huge expenditure while the majority of people struggle to survive from day to day. El-Sisi has also ordered a railway to connect Cairo to this new city, and this is being built by German multinational Siemens at vast cost. Meanwhile, the national rail network is in a state of decay. It is used by millions of people every day, but it is currently falling apart, and there are hundreds of accidents on it each year.

Where is the money coming from for all this? The state is hugely indebted but has recently received grants and loans from the EU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Arab Emirates.3 This shows how vital Egypt is for its allies. El-Sisi has become especially important for European governments that want to control migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Many migrants from Africa and the Middle East come through Cairo on their way to the coast, where they hope to travel across the sea to Europe. El-Sisi polices these movements and is rewarded by the EU, with which he’s effectively in a partnership.

In March this year, the United Arab Emirates announced a massive $35 billion of investment in Egypt, mostly in private initiatives such as tourism development and real estate on the Mediterranean coast. The Emiratis got all sorts of rights—as if it had bought up the area wholesale. But this deal will not feed the people.

El-Sisi’s regime serves corporate capital, but there is also greater and greater involvement from the military. Many of the mega-projects involve military companies that have a symbiotic relationship with private capital, and the officer corps of the armed forces gets all sorts of benefits aimed at keeping it loyal: housing, clubs, holidays. Again, the mass of people sees none of these benefits.

International Socialism: How is el-Sisi addressing discontent among Egyptian people over the economy and the Gaza crisis?

Mohamed: He is responding with repression and through the creation of a culture of fear. There are no meaningful forms of self-expression; for example, there are no meaningful elections. During the period of Mubarak’s dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood provided a form of opposition.4 It sometimes engaged in public protest and regularly contested elections. The Brothers had a mass organisation, although always under the control of a leadership that struck deals with the regime. El-Sisi has crushed the Brotherhood, first in massacres that followed the coup in 2013 and then by continuous repression—the prisons are full of its members. Some members have survived in exile, living in states such as Turkey and Qatar.

The Brotherhood has been important in Egyptian history. In the 1930s and 1940s, together with the Communists, it led anti-colonial struggles against the British. During the Sadat and Mubarak eras, it had millions of supporters. Of course, after the revolution in 2011, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi was elected Egypt’s president.5 El-Sisi is determined to destroy the Brothers, and he takes revenge by imprisoning and torturing even the families of its former members. People in every village and every town have been persecuted. The Brotherhood was a mass national organisation, and thus this repression reaches every part of the country.

There are no political parties with any effective base. Mubarak used to have the National Democratic Party and thin networks of support nationwide.6 El-Sisi has nothing except for loyalist groups in the parliament. There is no intermediary or “buffer” between the regime and the people. El-Sisi’s allies have created the Nation’s Future Party, which has a majority of seats in parliament. It was set up by military intelligence and is financed through the state. It backs el-Sisi’s economic agenda—more neoliberal “reforms”—and his commitment to a strong and centralised state, which is seen as necessary to avoid further revolutionary upheavals.

El-Sisi’s thinking seems to be that Mubarak’s set-up produced revolution, so today he won’t give any space to the people. His repeated message is: “I’m saving Egypt from chaos. You might be unable to eat, but I keep you safe.” This infuriates the masses.

Among ourselves we laugh and say that Mubarak was a “good democrat”. Of course, Mubarak was an appalling dictator, but, under el-Sisi, even more people “disappear” into jail and are sometimes never seen again. One poor guy got three years in prison for drawing Mickey Mouse ears on an image of the president on his Facebook page. During the revolution in 2011, over half of all the police stations nationwide were burned down; people took their own revenge on the state and its violent methods. El-Sisi says, “Never again!” He’s organising to prevent another uprising.

International Socialism: Doesn’t el-Sisi’s strategy leave a political vacuum that’s potentially dangerous for him? Surely, having no intermediatory political layer between his regime and the mass of Egyptian people makes his rule potentially unstable.

Laila: Exactly! He wants the “vacuum” to be occupied by the state, but this means there’s no one but him to take responsibility for the deepening crisis.

International Socialism: How do things stand with Egypt’s minorities such as the Coptic Christians and the Nubians? Symbolic displays of unity between Egyptian Muslims and the large Coptic Christian minority were a key feature of the 2011 revolution, but attempts to divide the two groups seem to have been a key tool of the counter-revolution. What about refugees from countries such as Sudan, where a civil war is currently raging?

Mohamed: The regime uses the minorities in its own interests. There’s organised hostility towards them, especially to Sudanese people and to refugees. El-Sisi has repeatedly used the Copts to legitimise his attack on the Muslim Brotherhood; he says, “I am the defender of the Christians. If the Brothers had their way, they’d burn down your churches.”

This is nonsense, but it is also part of a wider effort to use racism as an instrument of the regime’s ideological control. It is important because between ten and 15 million Egyptians are Christians, which means they comprise at least 10 percent of the national population. El-Sisi also points to events in Sudan, saying that the revolution there represents chaos whereas he stands for good order.7 He implies that Sudanese people—and there many in Egypt—are threatening and unwanted.8

However, this racism is not the key means of assuring the regime’s control. El-Sisi has had to create a bigger and bigger network of informants, with people in every workplace, every campus and every neighbourhood. It looks like something from a Latin American dictatorship in the 1970s, with el-Sisi playing the role of “El Generalissimo”.

International Socialism: Independent unions became important during the last years of the Mubarak regime and played an important role during the revolution—what has happened to them?

Musa: The independent unions have been shut down, so now all unions are controlled by the government. Workers are told it is illegal to pay subscriptions to the independent unions, and employers are forbidden from dealing with them. Key union leaders have been arrested. Most attempts to organise strikes have been crushed. That’s why the strike in February at the Mahalla textile complex was so important. It lasted for a week and involved thousands of workers. It was a partial victory and a sign that workplace organisation has not been completely destroyed.

The strike expressed the anger of workers who expected to be paid the new minimum wage that the government had announced. But then it became clear this would not be paid to government employees, including the Mahalla workforce. Over 7,000 Mahalla workers went on strike after women workers took the initiative, just as in 2007, when, in a historic strike at the mill, women led the dispute. In February, workers were interrogated and threatened with jail but the action continued. After five days, the government was compelled to enter negotiations for fear that the Mahalla action would prove “contagious”, affecting other workplaces across the country.

International Socialism: So, how do people on the left manage to operate and to survive?

Mohamed: Some people from the left who were active during the revolution have been demoralised, reacting to defeat and el-Sisi’s crackdowns with depression—and worse. But some older activists who stand in the Marxist tradition have survived. They’ve been able to understand the events and to prepare for revolutionary upheavals of the future.

The regime has imprisoned some key activists—several were in prison for years, but most have been released. Their long-term experience is invaluable, especially because young people are now looking to the left for ideas and explanations: what happened during the revolution? What were its successes and failures? Do we need another revolution? What would that be like?

We need to address these issues convincingly, and this requires a high level of political discussion, and an understanding of revolutionary history, of strategy and of tactics.

Laila: We try to relate to any and all movements of opposition. In the syndicates, for example, we engage with those who are furious about Egypt’s stance on Gaza—and who feel the shame of millions of people that Egypt remains passive in the face of the genocide. Great care is needed to avoid exposing people to the security services. At the same time, we have a responsibility to engage with people moving to the left.

International Socialism: What about others on the left, such as the nationalists who played a role in the revolution? The Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, for example, stood in the 2012 presidential elections.9 What’s happened to people like him?

Mohamed: The nationalists have lost all credibility and are barely evident on the political scene. Last year, Sabahi went to Damascus to meet with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, hugely damaging his reputation. At the present moment, these people do not play a significant role.

We are in a difficult place but the regime faces huge problems. The economic crisis is so intense that further struggles are likely, especially as el-Sisi can’t rely on support from the IMF, the EU and the Gulf states forever. As time passes, more and more people, especially young people, are looking for strategies to remove the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the issue of Gaza is on everyone’s minds. People want to express their solidarity, but el-Sisi prevents even this. People look at Gaza and the role of the Islamists, whom the Israelis have been unable to defeat.10 For some Egyptians, despite the earlier failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islam looks sexy again.

The main issue for us on the left is the general crisis of the Egyptian system. The revolution of 2011 was an expression of the crisis of capitalism; now that crisis is more advanced, and el-Sisi is likely to be challenged economically and politically. We have to be ready.


1 Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser as Egyptian president in October 1970, remaining in office until his assassination in October 1981. He moved away from many of the tenets of Nasserism, embarking on a process known as “Infitah” (opening), which involved unlocking the economy to allow in private investment—as well as signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sadat was killed in an Egyptian Islamic Jihad attack on a military parade, partly as a response to his rapprochement with Israel. Mubarak succeeded Sadat, remaining in power until the 2011 revolution.

2 The Mahalla al-Kubra complex, operated by the state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, saw massive workers’ protests during a strike wave in 2006-7. Workers there also took action during the 2011 revolution.

3 In March this year, the World Bank and IMF delivered loan packages of $14 billion to Egypt, increasing existing programmes that had been predicated on the liberalisation of exchange rates by the Central Bank of Egypt. In the same month, the EU announced an $8 billion aid package of grants and loans, some of which came in exchange for Egypt agreeing to “manage” migration issues. Over $200 million of this EU support was earmarked for “migration management”, with the objective of reducing the number of displaced people seeking to reach Europe from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other African countries. One of the United Arab Emirates’ main sovereign wealth funds, the Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company (now branded as ADQ), also pledged a further $35 billion of investment, which will be used to develop the Ras El Hekma peninsula in northern Egypt.

4 The Muslim Brotherhood dominated the Egyptian parliament in the wake of the first free elections in the country’s history, which followed the 2011 revolution.

5 Mursi was overthrown in the 2013 coup. He was imprisoned by the coup regime and sentenced to death in 2015, but a retrial was ordered. He died in the Tora Prison complex near Cairo in June 2019 while standing trial for “espionage”.

6 The National Democratic Party was founded by Sadat in 1978.

7 On the situation in Sudan, see Anne Alexander’s “Disorder reigns in Kartoum” in International Socialism 179

8 The civil war in Sudan began in April 2023, and the Egyptian government claimed that around 350,000 displaced Sudanese people had sought refuge in Egypt by November. Doubtlessly, many more will have arrived since then. Another 700,000 Sudanese people have fled to the neighbouring state of Chad.

9 Nasserists look to the radical nationalism of Nasser’s regime, which involved forms of state-led development such as government investment in the expansion of Egypt’s industrial base and the extension of state-owned industries and public services.

10 The most successful political and military formations in Gaza—Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—were originally spinoffs from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.