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 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.