Coup in Egypt: can the revolution survive?


Kieran Crowe reflects on the turn from revolution to counter-revolution in Egypt

In all the great revolutions in history, any period of struggle against an old order is followed by an attempt by that very same order to roll it back, often by donning the clothes of the revolution itself.  Two and half years since their revolution began, Egypt has now entered this new phase.  While the events themselves may not have been strictly a surprise, it would be inhuman not to view this return to repression and lethal violence as shocking. A serious question is now raised as to whether or not a return to the conditions of dictatorship can be avoided by the Egyptian masses.

After barely a year of an undistinguished period in office, the discredited Muslim Brotherhood politician, and first ever elected president of Egypt, was deposed by Egypt’s real highest authority, the commanders of the armed forces, and imprisoned. It has been an ignominious fall for Morsi, who can still rely on the loyalty of the Brotherhood, but almost no-one else in the country.  His leadership has ticked most of the boxes for being a failed administration and its achievements are as close to none at all as makes little difference.  His sole moment of triumph, scoring a few points of Israel by standing up to them over bombing Gaza in November, was negated within weeks by his ham-fisted imposition of an authoritarian constitution that dismayed millions of Egyptians who had hoped that his leadership would, if nothing else, deliver real reform in the field of political liberty.  From the pyrrhic victory of his new constitution onward the balance of forces tipped ever further and further away from Morsi and the brotherhood.

Underlying all this, but inevitably less remarked upon in the press, has been the sheer intensity of class struggle in Egypt since the revolution began.  Strikes have raged throughout the country in way that has unprecedented for generations as the mass of the Egyptian population, released from their fear of standing up to authority have begun demanding a reversal to the 30 years of declining living standards that neoliberalism has imposed.  The struggles have been highly chaotic – with new unions formed almost as they go into dispute, bosses chased out of major workplaces and experiments in workers’ self-management being made in a few places – but so far the will to struggle amongst Egypt’s workers has been both too broad and too deep for the ruling classes to contain. One report found that labour  strikes and protests had doubled since Morsi had been in power. The Brotherhood was trying to re-normalise Egyptian capitalism, resume neoliberal economic policy and bring workers’ organisation under control, they could not.  One way of looking at Morsi’s overthrow is quite simply that the Egyptian military had been willing to give the Brotherhood a go at managing and ultimately rolling back the revolution, they have since judged them to have failed and are now trying different means.


Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

The writing was on the wall for Morsi on 30th of June. This is when a sprawling coalition of forces under the loose banner of the Tamarod (“rebel”) coalition put tens of thousands on the streets protesting and submitted a petition of millions calling for the President to go. Trying to pin down Tamarod’s political orientation is pointless. It was big tent under which radicalised young people, trade unionists and parties of Egypt’s traditional left, like the radical nationalists and communists, joined with much more overly capitalist liberals like the diplomat-turned-politician Mohammed ElBaradei and, more controversially, former officials under the dictatorship, such as Amr Moussa – of whom it must be said were very odd ‘rebels’.

The breadth of Tamarod speaks to how the extent of the Brotherhood’s failure in power, but it was so broad in uniting literally anyone who was opposed to the Brotherhood, that the question what it was for was left basically open. It seems likely that the seeming ‘blankness’ of Tamarod’s agenda has been a gift to Egypt’s generals, allowing them to manipulate the movement on the streets for their own ends.

Within days, the army’s new head, Abdul Fatah Al Sisi, threw down an ultimatum announcing that Morsi could go or be removed, and by July third he had the president imprisoned and suspended the constitution. The army then seized on a number of violent incidents, which it claims were carried out by Jihadist groups with Brotherhood encouragement, to justify the redeployment of armed security forces (some of them not seen almost since Mubarak’s fall in 2011) to control the streets, as well as calling for his own demonstration to “grant” his forces the mandate to crack down on “terrorism”.  This included the resurrection of the hated State Security Investigations Service, which had formally been closed after the revolution of March 2011, as well as the bringing back of leading Mubarak era security personnel. For the Brotherhood’s part, while their political project might have descended into disaster, they had not spend ninety years organising against every kind of repression to give to up without a fight, and it is that spirit of resistance that the Brotherhood’s leadership called upon to mobilise thousands of its members to form camp-out protests against the coup.

The response of the military to the Brotherhood defiance has, of course, been to resort to a new and terrible level of killing.  While the world has not failed to notice, it must be said that the confused and somewhat mealy mouthed response from the international community would be surprising if, for argument’s sake, the images were of Chinese soldiers killing Tibetan monks – another state crime justified by the line of ‘preventing terrorism’.  Barely, if at all, armed and attacked on all sides, the members of the Brotherhood have themselves descended into some utterly reactionary attacks against Christians and their places of worship.  Sectarian attacks on Christians had been one of the first things to swept aside in the early days of the revolution in 2011 – this is a remarkably direct example of one brutality breeding another. A clear sign of a counter-revolution developing.

Army back on the streets - Egypt 2013

Army back on the streets

Army and the People

In those early great demonstrations in Tahrir Square in 2011, when troops were deployed to attack the protesters a call went out “The People and the Army are one hand!”.  Naturally, this was and is a hopelessly naive statement, one rooted in the nationalist idea, inherited from the time of General Nasser, that the army could act as a sort of steward for the ideals and aspirations of the nation as whole. But the difference between 2011 and 2013 is clear. Two years ago these words were in part a weapon against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), as the conscripted soldiers baulked at the thought of gunning down ordinary woman and men, no different from their own families.  The very real fear SCAF had that their grip on the very structure of the military was one of the major factors in deposing Mubarak in the first place, and has guided much of their tactics since then.

With their new found struggle against “terrorism”, in the form of liquidating the Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF finally think they have found a way to sell violent repression back to the people, without raising tensions inside the ranks of the army rank and file. On a propaganda level, it is currently delivering for them.  Their transitional government, pulled together from various groups inside Tamarod, has mostly towed the line, turning a blind eye to huge death tolls of Brotherhood supporters, calling for patriotic support for the military and telling the rest of the world not to interfere.

The use of old-school nationalist rhetoric by many military supporters is in many ways rather bizarre: since it is the SCAF, not the opposition, that are funded by the Americans and Al Sisi himself has been praised by Egypt’s two primary military rivals (and states that are bulwarks of imperialism) Israel and Saudi Arabia. ElBaradei and few others have resigned from this ‘transitional’ government, but sadly many more key figures remain within, inevitably resulting in people who had been leading the revolution until just a few months ago to now being attempting to manage and contain it.  So, due the logic of the people and the army being one hand, we see the sad sight of Left Nationalists demanding the US keep sending the military aid and trade union leaders suggesting that strikes are a Muslim Brotherhood plot against the nation.

The army has not yet moved against organised workers with the same force, but it is moving.  In the Suez canal zone, canal workers have been physically attacked and steel workers have been arrested, charged with sedition, which could carry heavy prison sentences if they are convicted.  The SCAF will gain confidence to start breaking workers’ organisation, but it can not do it overnight or simply switch off strikes that have been raging for a long time.  Ultimately, SCAF still have the same problem regarding the economy that the Muslim Brotherhood had: neoliberalism is necessary for them to have normal business relations with the rest of the world, but it will deliver a settlement that will peacefully resolve.


Solidarity with the Revolution

There are already signs that SCAF may not yet succeed in reversing the whole revolutionary process.  Despite the massive pressure and ‘anti-terrorist’ propaganda, there are early signs of people organising to stop the butchering of Brotherhood members and other targets of state violence.  The unions have not universally agreed to suspend all industrial action to give the army a free hand and have continued to organise in many sectors.

Here in Britain, the Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network has put together an urgent solidarity statement for activists to share and sign.  This will be taken to the Egyptian embassy on Wednesday. You can find it here.

The news from Egypt at the moment is frightening, with a real return to a sense of fear and a presence of security forces that most Egyptians had hope would be a thing of the past.

What we can still do here is show the courageous people who have been on the demonstrations, taken part in the strikes and spoken out against the dictatorship that we have not forgotten them and their fight against authoritarianism and neoliberalism is our fight to.




  1. August 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm · Reply

    The “violent incidents” referred to here are SCAF/regime fabrications (Sisi is taking a page from Assad’s playbook on that):

    The notion that SCAF fears or ever feared mutiny in the ranks is fanciful. In the piece I submitted to the ACI website (cross posted at The North Star) for discussion, I found zero evidence of individual defections or mutinies in 2011 or after even though the military has been killing demonstrators all along, a stark contrast to what happened in Libya and Syria in 2011. SCAF ousted Mubarak to cut their losses, not because a rank-and-file revolt or socialist revolution were brewing.

    Another thing we need to have a hard-headed assessment about is the state of the industrial struggle. Sure, the number of strikes and disputes doubled, but did the workers win in all, most, or none of those conflicts? I find the talk here a bit glib.

    There are a number of important questions/lessons that the far left internationally should be trying to figure out here: 1) assessing the failure of the Egyptian far left to grow in numbers or in influence 2) whether/how to work with/against Islamist forces 3) the whole question of democratic versus socialist revolution, the distinctions and relationship between the two 4) the utterly counter-revolutionary role played by bourgeois liberals and radicals like El Baradei and Hamdeen Sabahi as well as the Revolutionary Socialists (they weren’t alone) who initially hailed the July 3 coup as an advance only to express buyer’s remorse weeks later even though its reactionary character was apparent from the outset 5) how to escalate the pressure on SCAF internationally, maybe initiate a boycott, divestment, sanctions campaign or link it up with existing one for the Palestinians (which took three decades to emerge).

  2. Kieran Crowe
    August 22, 2013 at 9:09 am · Reply

    You raise some questions that are certainly valid – but I am going to have to take some issues.

    First of all, the fact that SCAF have headed off breakdowns in military discipline does not mean they do not fear them. You are right that formal mutinies have not happened, but the early warning signs were there: there have been strikes in numerous military-run institutions, mainly armaments factories, but also among sections of the military itself such as among the military police in early 2011. These are necessarily contradictory, any strike amongst the repressive forces of the state will be, but SCAF claims the right to execute these people has not hither to done so – this does not speak of an army command that is fully confident in its continuing authority. The structure of Egypt’s vast military is key here: the generals are a uniformed bourgeoisie with a massive stake in Egyptian capitalism, bottom tier of Egyptian soldiers are conscripts. In a revolutionary situation, which no-one denies this has been tensions are not just likely, but inevitable.

    Whether the violence that SCAF has used as cover is ‘false’ or not is pointless to speculate on, though I think it likely that disaffected Muslim Brotherhood members could well become attracted to individual acts of violence as a result of their organisation’s present woes, and I think it is certain that many of them will get driven into (or back into in some cases) armed struggle if the Brotherhood is liquidated as an organisation.

    I am unsure how you define a ‘hard-headed’ analysis of class struggle in Egypt: the Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network has extensive range of reports in English, and some of these are certainly clear victories, here is a story of one very recent one:

    No-one has argued that the explosion of the labour movement in Egypt is a socialist revolution, but rank and file revolt has certainly been a reality, as has the fact that this revolution is essentially anti-neoliberal from the outset, and that’s what the ruling classes are finding so difficult to contain.

    The questions you raise at the end are uninteresting, but were really what I wanted to avoid over-focusing on, not least because I am not in touch with and do not speak for any group or party in Egypt itself. The Egyptian Left, as I have written elsewhere, has in fact grown, but continues to be dominated by variants of the Communist or Arab Nationalist traditions, which were always essentially statist and reformist. The predominance of reformism and nationalism is hardly unique to Egypt. The newer Left currents, and certainly those that are actively resisting the attacks on the Brotherhood, have really only emerged as significant forces in the struggles running up to the revolution and are in the process of transforming from semi-clandestine groups into open organisations with large memberships. This is not an easy transition and one few people alive today can speak from experience about.

    Lastly, on the subject of experience, I do think the onus for socialists outside Egypt primarily is to provide solidarity for activists (you are right to say we must find ways to pressure SCAF) in the country and secondarily to make sense of the events to understand how they will impact on the rest of the world. I do not think that either of these things start from a point of denouncing people, often in very difficult conditions, as counter-revolutionary because they have pursued courses of action you do not support. Revolutions are learning processes, and the people in them change as much as they change the world. They are in that process, and I (and probably you, though we do not know each other) are not. Presupposing that we have perfected revolutionary programmes to hand down to the people of Egypt is at best arrogant and rather smacks of the ineffectual ‘revolutionary’ posturing that gripped much of the Left in the Global North throughout the later 20th Century. I think this website aims for a bit more of a sophisticated approach than that.

    • August 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm · Reply

      The only strikes by soldiers/cops in Egypt that I am aware of were reactionary attempts by the fulool to bring down Morsi and the nascent bourgeois-democratic regime such as this:

      If you have examples from 2011, I would be interested in reading about them.

      I raise this because it’s very dangerous to overestimate the fragility of the state apparatus — I would say that it’s very coherent, capable, and stable based on the available evidence. Talk of mutinies and defections is leftist fantasy politics masquerading as class analysis. As far as anyone knows, the far left and broader revolutionary forces in Egypt have not even tried to engage in propaganda or agitation directed at the armed forces much less forming cells of supporters in military/police units.

      You write: “I am unsure how you define a ‘hard-headed’ analysis of class struggle in Egypt: the Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network has extensive range of reports in English, and some of these are certainly clear victories, here is a story of one very recent one”

      Strike reports are well and good, but hard-headed analysis is more like: how many disputes ended in wins, losses, draws? Did people win raises or not in many/most of these cases? Are these struggles primarily defensive (reactions to boss attacks) or offensive (workers simply demanding better conditions without over boss provocation)? Strike statistics are useful in that they document the sharpening of class antagonisms, but they don’t tell us the crucial thing: who is winning the class war?

      There’s really no posturing in my article nor do I “denounce” RS for the “crime” of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. The point is to learn from them, or profit by them, and it is that that is entirely lacking in the left’s current discussions on Egypt. Quite a few Marxist forces hailed the July 3 coup as a “second revolution” or a step forward and not many have gone back and revisited how and why that was wrong. John Riddell has a good article along these lines:

  3. bill j
    September 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm · Reply

    What’s missing from the article is any sort of perspective for the way forward. What’s clear from the miltiary coup is that any form of however circumscribed democracy is impossible in Egypt.
    If the revolution is to go forward it has to overthrow the military. Democratic reforms are only acheivable through the smashing of the state or in other words, permanent revolution.

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