In September, I also caught up with Basem Osman & Amr Bahaa in Cairo, two young members of the Egyptian Socialist Party, and discussed their experiences during the uprising against Mubarak and the nature of Egypt's revolution.
Ted: Why did you join the ESP?
Basem: For decades since 1924, all socialist & communist parties worked underground – even during the Nasser years. After the revolution of 25 January, we've had our first chance to work in public since 1924. Now there are four main leftist parties: The Popular Alliance, the Democratic Liberals, the Communist parties & the Socialist Party.
I chose the Socialist Party. Why? One reason is that we don't have factions who fight within the party on who can be the boss of the party. Of course we have different opinions, but we are one group. Another is that the Socialist Party has a lot of known leaders and activists from the Mubarak era, who are known as the activists who stood in front of Mubarak – including some who, in 2003, created the movement Kefaya (Enough!) which opposed the Mubarak regime.
The Socialist Party doesn't talk about revolution – we don't want to make a revolution by force. We are talking about democracy, building trade unions for labourers, for farmers, in industry, for students. Some other parties talk about armed revolution, but it wouldn't work here.
Ted: What was your experience of the January 25 uprising?
Basem: The 27th and 28th of January were the two most important days of the revolution, for one reason. On the 27th, we had an invitation to take our demonstrations from Tahrir Square and downtown to all the neighbourhoods, to involve poorer communities as well as activists. We were around 6000 then, and we called for everyone to participate on the next day. Friday the 28th of January was the day of anger – so we were calling on people to participate then, to come to the anger day and end the regime, to go out from Friday prayers at the mosques and go to demonstrations.
On Friday, I went to pray at the mosque and afterwards met with my friends from the neighbourhoods; from our street, we were twenty people, but after 15 minutes, there were 4000 people, all ready to do anything to end the dictatorship. We went through the main street to Giza square, where the brotherhood was praying; on that street we were 150,000. Here the police fired tear gas and tried to stop us, but after 1 or 2 hours we overcame them and the police fled.
We walked all the way to Tahrir Square – and for myself I didn't see the police anywhere between Giza Square and the headquarters of the National Democratic Party; we found them and attacked them there. I don't believe in armed revolution, but the NDP headquarters is a huge building, which is very conspicuous; I see it every day when I go to work and so do many people, it's very central, and when we see it we feel so bad – it's a symbol of the regime. So when we saw it on 28 January, everyone just wanted to burn it. At my home I have papers from the building signed by Safwat al Sharif, one of the highest members of the party.
After attacking the NDP headquarters, we continued on our way to Tahrir square and one of my friends was injured. We had to go to another party, one of the oldest leftist parties in Egypt; none of my friends belonged to them, but they had offered food and drink, and they had doctors there. After an hour, someone came and asked for help, as protesters were being shot with real bullets, not just rubber ones but live ammunition. We went back to Tahrir Square, but while we were on our way we came across police again on the street, I was injured, and that was the end of the day for me.
Ted: Commentators in the west have called these the Facebook and Twitter revolutions. Would you say that is true, as an activist from a poorer neighbourhood?
Basem: I've been a political activist for 3 years. We've spent too much time calling for political actions & revolution through Twitter and Facebook – we called people every time, but people never heard us & never came. We would only get 2-300 people attending demonstrations – the usual political activists. I think that the Tunisian Revolution inspired people everywhere, gave people hope, and after that they were ready to demonstrate. Even my family, who normally didn't know anything about politics in Egypt, were asking me, "Are you going to the demonstrations on the 25th of January? We want to go."
But for myself, before January 25 I didn't think it would work – just like every other time, we would go, maybe 4-500 people, and the police will arrest a lot of us. But on this day, all of us were surprised – I thought I would go to Tahrir Square and just see my friends, but there were 3000 people in the square. It was the first time I'd seen a demonstration of that size! We didn't think it would continue, but at 1am the police attacked the demonstration, injured and arrested many of us, and the rest of us escaped. But when we fled, we didn't all go to our homes – most of us went to the poor neighbourhoods in Cairo like Abdeen, Shubra – very poor neighbourhoods – and when the police attacked again, many of my friends hid in the houses of ordinary people and told them about the demonstrations. I think this was as important as Facebook or Twitter in building the revolution.
Ted: Do you think most young people are supportive of changing society and building a new democratic socialist vision?
Basem: Of course. All of the young people have known no other president than Hosni Mubarak. Everyone in society – Islamists, leftists, those who have never been involved in politics – we can all see the problems in society – huge unemployment, we can't afford to get married, we can't do anything. So everyone can see the need for change, for real democratic change.
Amr: Young people can see other countries, other cultures – especially through the internet, we can see the opportunities that people have, the ways they are treated by their government. So young people ask "why can't we have a better life in our country?"
Ted: With the protests during the uprising against Mubarak's rule and ongoing demonstrations since, are Egypt's youth beginning to build up ideas about how to change society?
Basem: You can see in the regular Friday protests in the square, with thousands or hundreds of thousands of protesters, that a lot of young people are radicalising and building their knowledge about politics. When you're talking to people in the street, they want to know – what does socialism mean, what does communism mean, political islam, liberalism, democracy – they want to know. For the first time in our country's life, people want to know. This doesn't mean that most people support radical ideas yet – many are leaning towards the Muslim Brotherhood – but they want to know about everything.
Amr: The Muslim Brotherhood has been working since 1928, all other parties had no resources to participate and build their ideas amongst the people, which helps to explain why people are looking to the Brothers. However, after January 25, we have cracked that wall between us and the people. But we still have a lot of activity to do in building our party – especially in winning young people to help grow our party.