The Egyptian Revolution is teaching us what we had at best learned from books before. It is showing that revolutions are vast complex processes that embrace both advances and retreats.
This is very clear from what has happened since 30 June. Then we saw a broad coalition of opposition forces mount gigantic street protests that mobilised an estimated 14 million around Egypt.
This movement did succeed in bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government of president Mohamed Mursi. But the agency of his overthrow was the Egyptian army.
The army has moved quickly to consolidate its rule and to bring back elements of the “feloul”—the remnants of the old regime of Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in February 2011.
On 26 July hundreds of thousands answered the call of the commander-in-chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to demonstrate in support of the new government’s campaign against “terrorism”—their name for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Watching el-Sisi preening himself on TV in dark glasses like a Latin American general from the 1960s and 1970s one can easily imagine that a full-scale counter-revolution is underway. And this is undeniably a danger, as elements of the old State Security apparatuses are sent back into action.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the army can mobilise hundreds of thousands.
Tony Cliff, founder of the Socialist Workers Party, used to say that every picket line represented a struggle between militant and backward workers. This is true on a much vaster scale in revolutions.
The dominant event of the past few weeks was 30 June, not 26 July. Mursi’s overthrow represented the advance of the revolution. Previously the movement had been concentrated in the cities. But the protests against Mursi’s hamfisted mixture of neoliberalism and authoritarianism reached deep into the Egyptian countryside.
Twice in two and half years the revolution has claimed the head of an unpopular president but with the army acting as the executor of the popular will—in part to forestall a radicalisation of the mass struggle.
The army’s role is a sign of the weakness of all organised political forces in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only capitalist party with an organised mass base.
But Mursi blew it, antagonising the revolutionaries and leaning on forces that turned on him—the army and the White House. US secretary of state John Kerry has praised the army for “restoring democracy”.
The opposition politicians in the National Salvation Front are an opportunist shambles who united only to demand that the army mount a coup. Tamarod—the activist coalition that initiated the campaign to remove Mursi—also tailed the army until the latest massacre of Brotherhood protesters.
The weaknesses of the opposition forces reflect the absence of a mass party of the anticapitalist left. The Revolutionary Socialists have performed wonders, but they are too small to lead the millions now in motion in Egypt.
So the army has stepped in as the only institution that seems capable of offering capitalist stability in Egypt. But this is only an appearance. What ruined Mursi was trying to implement the neoliberal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund during a cruel economic crisis.
Since his fall there has been an upsurge in strikes despite the fact that the military have made Kemal Abu Eita, a leader of the independent unions, labour minister.
A strike at the Mahalla textile factory—one of the birthplaces of the revolution—was settled in eight hours. Like their predecessors, the generals will be caught between the hammer of the crisis and the anvil of the workers’ movement.
Like earlier great revolutions, what is happening in Egypt is a giant learning process. First the masses overthrew Mubarak. Then they turned against the generals who removed him.
Now, after trying and rejecting the Brotherhood, they are back with the generals. This won’t last.
But to stop revolutionary politics in Egypt continuing to move along this cyclical path the most advanced workers and youth will have to forge their own political instrument—their own party.
As the counter-revolutionary forces regain their confidence, solving this problem is becoming increasingly urgent.