Egypt: Revolution in progress
Kieran Crowe discusses the prospects for Egypt’s ‘revolution in progress’
When we come to look back on the early 2010s, one image that is certain to leap to our collective memories will be the Egyptian revolution and its symbolic beating heart, Tahrir Square. Egypt was not the only country in the world, or even the region, to have a revolutionary upheaval in the fateful year of 2011, of course, but I believe that Egypt’s is the most important insurrectionary movement in the world today.
This is in part because Egypt itself is a country whose destiny is significant far beyond it’s own borders – it is home to the biggest capitalist economy and working class in the Arab world and one the biggest in Africa. It is also because the role of that working class has been critical to every stage of the process: in Egypt the struggle between capital and labour is reaching heights of confrontation we have scarcely seen for decades.
Televising revolutions: A Recurring problem for the capitalist
The mainstream media in the West favours two interpretations of the Egyptian revolution, neither of which are exactly fraudulent, but are mutually contradictory and that manage to capture almost exactly none of the key dynamics.
The first of these is the ‘liberal’ or ‘Twitter revolution’ narrative – broadly the youth of the nation, having been exposed to lovely democratic ideas via the medium of the internet and therefore took to the streets to demand a Western political system of their own.
It is an attempt to slot Egypt into the comforting category of the “Colour Revolutions” that we were all supposed to be in favour of in the previous decade: polite political uprisings that sought only to create governments more in line with the norms of the Global North, no talk of threatening capitalism or imperialism here, thank you.
The second, the ‘Islamist extremism’ version, is just as crude but serves the opposite purpose: scaremongering the West to believe that all that has really happened is the dictator Hosni Mubarak has simply lost an age-old battle to impose secular rule on a country riddled with religious fanatics who are now poised to transform Egypt into Afghanistan.
What both these superficial analyses rely on is removing the powerful imagery of mass protests and street battles from a discussion about Egyptian society and the history of the movements involved.
The roots of a revolution
Since the foundation of the modern Egyptian state by the anti-British colonial revolutionary General Gamal Nasser, Egypt had been run on a rigidly top-down military command style, a model that extended from the top of society; with a very blurry lines running between heads of business, the state, the Government and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF); right down to the factory shop floor as conscript soldiers were stationed outside and sometimes even doing the labour. But the economy had been changing. Since the 1980s, the Egyptian ruling class had been shifting from a largely statist, what might even be called ‘state capitalist’, economy toward neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism had the same effects for working class and peasant Egyptians as its had for the masses everywhere else: they were getting squeezed, severely. Channels for expressing dissent in Egypt were almost non-existent at the turn of the millennium, although this didn’t prevent a spate of large, completely illegal, demonstrations taking place against Israeli aggression against Palestine and the Western invasion of Iraq. These demonstrations would have been a formative political experience for many thousands of young Egyptians.
Working-class organisation suffered from the same control from the top as all the other institutions in society. The state owned and controlled an extensive network of workers’ unions that were utterly subordinated to the needs to Egyptian capitalism. Attempts by a few very bold groups of workers began to pave the way for a different kind of workers organisation. Perhaps surprisingly, the group that is seen has having made the earliest breakthrough were previously some of the most hated people in the nation: the tax collectors.
In 2007, having struggled for years against low-wages, hazardous conditions and corrupt tax evasion by the wealthy, a courageous group led by Kamal Abu Aita (now a left-wing MP in the Egyptian parliament) organised a strike and sit-in protest at the Ministry of Finance in Cairo, literally round the corner from Tarhir Square. The demo was a first for seeing workers come out collectively on the streets and al;so seeing men and women protesting together as equals. The employer was forced to concede a 340% (no, really!) pay rise and the workers established Egypt’s first genuinely independent trade union since the start of the dictatorship. This was joined two years later when militant action by Cairo bus workers created an independent transport union.
April this year saw the five-year anniversary of the a particularly crucial precedent to the present uprising. A mass strike the sprawling Mahalla textile complex. The cotton industry is a major component of the Egyptian economy and vast numbers of people are employed in huge factories that dominate whole towns. Life in these towns had been becoming more tense for decades and in April 2008, the dam to working-class resistance burst severely. Textiles workers, already hit by falling real wages and privatisation were then confronted with a cut in the in vital state bread subsidy.
Fearing real starvation, thousands of workers downed tools and occupied factory buildings. The authorities responded with a violent crackdown that both failed to break the strike and exposed their own desperation. Mahalla suddenly became the cause celebre of Egyptians who opposed the dictatorship and a number of solidarity and youth networks were established to support the workers.
These new networks, organisations and unions were destined to play crucial roles in just a few years time. It also worth mentioning that far from there being counterposition between a politics of political protest and a politics of workers organisation, there was always an intimate relationship between the street and work place as the Egyptian masses gradually grew closer and closer to the Day of Rage.
Beyond protests and strikes
There were probably only four functioning unions independent of the state structure in 2010. In the Revolution these coalesced and independent union federation, soon joined by emerging groups of workers. By May 2011, the new federation estimated 500 new unions of various sizes had formed. Two years on, the number is in the thousands and extends to all the major sectors of the economy.
Strike days exploded as soon as the revolution commenced and remained consistently huge. Egypt’s economy has been severely shaken by the conditions of the revolution and the ruling class demand that workers and peasants pay the price. For the workers, keeping the fight going is not just a release of anger, it is an urgent question of survival. There are fights over pay, there are fights privatisation, there have even been fights over the army’s attempts to conscript young working-class men: a recent dramatic example saw the SCAF back down over conscripting main line workers when the metro workers threatened to come out in solidarity – SCAF saw the threat of a general transport strike and blinked.
Clashes between workers and this most senior and menacing section of the ruling class are increasing and escalating: the military are in no mood to relinquish their previously unquestioned domination of Egypt and have even been trying to extended their octopus-like grip over society’s institutions. Civilian dockworkers, for instance, having been striking directly against military employers ever since, in a truly bizarre example of neoliberal absurdity, the Government privatised the port and the army’s commercial arm bought it with a loan from the Gulf states!
What is truly fascinating, though, is when working struggle outgrows mere strike action and starts to move to a next stage – what George Orwell famously called the sight of workers “in the saddle”. It would be wrong to say any Egyptian workers organisation genuinely went into struggle with a vision of collectivising and self-managing their industries from the outset, but it certainly true that in the creative process of fighting for a better life and work, experimentation with this has begun.
An early example existed in the health sector – doctors and other hospital staff simply took the battle to remove “Little Mubarak” managers to its logical conclusion: ousting their discredited and corrupt management and electing a new one. The idea of workers controlling their own labour is always most persuasive as a natural outgrowth of their ongoing struggle against capital, but also benefits from being linked to a wider political struggle. In proud Mahalla, the now veteran textiles militants became so confident that they responded to the imposition of new President Morsi’s roundly reviled constitutional changes by announcing that they could rule themselves as an independent republic. In Port Said, the political anger against death sentences passed against victimised football fans fused with the rebellion of port and Suez Canal workers to create a civil insurrection that caused the state’s forces to get physically removed from the streets: a citizens’ police force has even been established by the rebels. How serious is this? The world’s second most strategically critical waterway is not under firm state control!
These scenes represent a fundamental and inspiring break with capitalist order that should be an inspiration to revolutionary socialist across the entire world. We need to thoroughly examine and understand the process by which workers can start to see themselves not just as opposition force, but the leading force in society.
The question of power
There is no guarantee that the revolution will prevail – the Egyptian ruling class has not been defeated yet, but it is a crisis of such depth and seriousness that the possibility is genuinely facing them and there is not yet an agreement amongst them as to what to do.
As was widely predicted, the immediate political beneficiary of political opening in Egypt was its most long-standing oppositional force, the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are wearing a crown of thorns. The Brotherhood was, for many decades the only large organisation of any description that opposed the state without either getting crushed or co-opted by it. It expressed very genuine dissatisfaction with the rigidity and restrictiveness of Egyptian society, filtered through an Islamic language that appeared fresh if only because the mantels of nationalism and socialism were monopolised by General Nasser’s heirs, making them seem not to be alternatives.
The Brotherhood also had an extensive network of volunteer and welfare projects that became increasingly important as the state shut down, cut and privatised the progress institutions from Nasser’s era. During the long period of opposition, this enabled the Brotherhood to build up a massive base from across Egyptian society, but also caused it to become a much more diverse organisation than its highly conservative founders would have desired to build. The revolution has carried the Brotherhood into power, almost against their will. The Brotherhood’s leadership failed to back the original Day of Rage and tried to stop their activists from engaging with Tahrir square.
When large numbers of young men from the Brotherhood joined the revolutionaries in the fight against pro-Mubarak gangs in the “Battle of the Camels”, they were doing to in direct contravention of orders from their leaders. And, since the revolution began, the organisation has been riven with the fundamental contradiction that while they maintain a largely unwavering opposition to strike action, their members in the unions have frequently been amongst the militants and not the scabs. The party’s membership has split every which way, with reactionaries breaking away to demand more repression and conservatism than the Government can deliver and progressives become utterly disillusioned with the experience of the Brotherhood in power. Attempts by the Brotherhood to mobilise their members for counter-revolutionary purposes of attacking demonstrators and strike breaking have so far completely failed, for the simply reason that their base was never prepared for this purpose and is unsuited to it.
Brotherhood President Morsi has a clear set objectives – stabilise the economy according to the demands of the International Monetary by containing the masses and normalise a parliamentary democracy under an Islamic colouring by persuading the khaki ruling class to accept a new civilian bourgeious leadership. He can not deliver any of this at all. The cuts and restructuring required buy international capitalism are being fought back by worker’s resistance faster than he can implement them. His attempts to give himself quasi-dictatorial powers via the new constitution backfired severely and only further undermined his claims to be a ‘unity’ leader of the nation. Attempting to fall back on the repressive arms of the state is simply not an option for him – these are loyal to SCAF, not the Brotherhood, and want nothing less than a restoration of strict military rule without the irritation of Islamist politicians. SCAF has proved on a number of occasions that it is just as opposed to independent Islamist organisation as it is to everything else: they are just as happy using live ammo to kill Islamist protesters as striking workers, much to the shock of the Islamists.
SCAF however, is paralysed by its own contradictions. The option of using brute force to simply massacre their way out of trouble has been consistently toyed with, but never actually utilised. Huge numbers of men are kept under arms, but the majority of these are conscripts and whether their loyalty to their officers really extends as far as carrying out the mass killings that would be needed to put down the revolution is not something the generals are at all confident of. Shadowy groups of “Officers for the Revolution” have been established at various levels, strike action has taken place amongst military police and there is very genuine fear by SCAF that the unity of the army will break in a catastrophic way if they attempt counter-revolution. In any case, just like the Brotherhood, their actual goal is the restoration of Egyptian capitalism, which will be even less achievable if they are effectively burning whole cities like Mahalla and Port Said to the ground.
How can the revolution proceed?
Can the Left in Egypt form an alternative government. At the moment, no, but that situation can shift quickly in the right conditions.
The traditional Egyptian Left did not attempt to opt-out of the revolution as the Muslim Brotherhood initially did, but has struggled to relate to it effectively and consistently. There is still something of a divide between the vibrant new networks that have arisen out of struggle and the traditional parties. This is a direct result of the circumstances and perspectives that Left carries over from General Nasser’s time.
When Nasser came to power, ousting the old pro-British monarchy, carrying out massive nationalisation and modernisation and directly confronting European imperialism and Israeli aggression, the Left got behind him. The dominant Left organisation, the Communist Party, was thoroughly wedded to Stalinist ideas about socialism being created from above as a gift of the state – Nasser seemed to be playing this role and the Party even went as far as to effectively liquidate itself into Nasser’s organisation. In this way, the Left became entangled ideologically and physically in the state, a problem it has struggled to overcome ever since. Socialist and nationalist political figures continued to exist, but where a toothless opposition to the Government, which became highly problematic as the progressive elements of Nasserism were systematically destroyed from the late 1970s onward. Part of the reason the Muslim Brotherhood became the primary opposition in Egypt is that the Left had largely abdicated the role.
The trajectory of a figure like veteran left nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi is case in point. Sabahi had been a rare consistent voice of opposition against neoliberalism for many years under Mubarak. He was one of many candidates in the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections, but enjoyed a sudden rise to much greater prominence in the first round of voting when millions of working class voters who had previously supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections switched to supporting him, angry at the Brotherhood’s lack of commitment to the revolution’s goals.
Sabahi finished a narrow third, almost knocking the counter-revolutionary Shafiq out of the second round (this would have been an interesting crisis for the Egyptian ruling class and the imperialist powers, but it is most likely that Morsi would still have won the second round).
Ideologically, this was highly important shift, but so far not one that Sabahi and his confederates have capitalised on. Ridiculously, Sabahi is now in a coalition that includes a number of very murky figures from the Mubarak era who would have been literally plotting his demise a mere two years earlier. The Left in Egypt suffers from the fundamental problem that it is behind the movement and the class politically and needs to reinvent itself, looking to the power of workers, not the state, to achieve socialist and anti-imperialist goals.
Bringing the revolution to the world and the world to the revolution
The point of talking about the Egyptian revolution is not simply to admire from afar. We have much to learn from the creative processes that are taking place in Egypt, but we can also engage in forms of active support.
I am involved in the Middle-East and North Africa Solidarity Network (MENA), that was launched in 2011 after a group of trade unionists from London went on a solidarity visit to Cairo for the first May Day demonstration since the revolution began, which I was lucky enough to be part of.
Since then, we have been working to link workers’ organisations in Egypt and other states in the region with unions in Britain. We have organised many useful events with trade union branches and trades’ councils and set up a number of direct link-ups between workers in dispute internationally, which has been extremely popular with workers in Egypt, Bahrain and many of the other places we have made contact with.
It is really important that we establish a genuinely solidarity from below here in Britain. The British Empire, of course, once formally ruled Egypt as a so-called ‘protectorate’. Now British imperialism continues, but mainly via much more surreptitious means. It’s not just the Egyptian ruling class that can use union bureaucracies for their own purposes – the TUC, for instance, has given firm support for solidarity that involves a powerful and central arm of the British government, the very Foreign and Colonial/Commonwealth Office that once ruled the country, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a government-owned think-tank chaired by a Tory MP. These are odd allies for the labour movement anywhere, but the imperial legacy adds a sinister dimension. This is also without mentioning the huge debts that the Britain seems to think are somehow owed to it by the Egyptian people. A corrupting ‘solidarity from above’ is a real threat to the revolution and by extension, opposition to neoliberalism around the world.
If you would like to find out more about the work of the MENA network then visit the website and get your trade union branch or local trade union council to affiliate.