Socialist Worker

How to beat the regime in Egypt

A leading member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists spoke to Judith Orr about the impact of the counter revolution—and the prospects for new struggles

Issue No. 2432

Women have been at the forefront of the revolution

Women have been at the forefront of the revolution (Pic: Gigi Ibrahim)


How do you see the current situation in Egypt?

We’re facing a successful counter revolution, driven by the most repressive and violent regime in Egypt’s modern history. 

General el-Sisi’s regime is far worse than anything the toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak was capable of. He’s attacking all opposition, including the left and workers’ movement.

Since the July 2013 coup 40,000 political prisoners have been jailed, over 3,000 have been killed on the streets and hundreds have “disappeared”.  

This is not only a counter revolution, but a clear restoration of the old regime.

The acquittal of Mubarak, his sons and his top police generals has only been the last and most flagrant act of restoration.

Figures central to the Mubarak regime who were jailed for corruption are back controlling the same monopolies.

El-Sisi now has the full support of the West and Egyptian capitalists. 

It was difficult to accept the scale of defeat in the beginning, which was an understandable mistake when the coup was taking place.

It followed a massive strike wave and anti government demonstrations that were an expression a real anger against the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi’s betrayals.

The military used this anger very cleverly to shift the mood to supporting the coup. However, the present situation is only sustainable in the medium term.

It’s only made possible in the short term by Western support and a flood of Gulf investment.

 

The brutality of the counter revolution began against the Muslim Brotherhood. What wider impact has that had?

The regime claims that it’s only acting against the Muslim Brotherhood, but in reality it’s taking revenge on the Egyptian Revolution.

Its massacre on 14 August 2013 symbolised the level of repression. The regime murdered more than 1,000 protestors in several hours – that’s a scale never seen before in Egypt

Its aim wasn’t to clear a sit in from two Cairo squares – but a blow against the revolution itself. The right to occupy a square was a right gained by the revolution and el-Sisi wanted to break it – and he broke it.

There has not been a public occupation of a square in Egypt since. The police is back out in force. In January 2011 100 police stations were burned down and officers couldn’t even go out in uniforms.

You can imagine the level of vengefulness they’re using today. Yet for two reasons all this should make us realistic, but not pessimistic.

The workers’ movement has been weakened by events and its leaders’ betrayals, but it’s not been destroyed.

Workers in Helwan city’s steel mill are in the middle of a very serious strike, which is significant whatever the result.

Also the hundreds of thousands of young people who participated in the revolution didn’t just experience its liberation.

They learned how to fight the police and how to organise – and be successful. This experience will not just evaporate.

 

How successful has the regime’s use of the fear of terrorism been to legitimise its crackdown?

Most counter revolutionary or military regimes label any form of resistance as “terrorism”.

There is obviously real terrorism. When you shut down all political space for the Islamic movement, then some conclude that they have to carry arms.

But this only strengthens the generals’ hand, because the regime would like another massacre to deepen the fears of its middle class supporters.

 

What is the connection between the entrenchment of the counter revolution and the rise of the Islamic State?

The rapid growth of Isis is partly a consquence of the disasterous US occupation of Iraq, but there’s also a direct link with the failure of the Arab revolution.

The defeats created the conditions for a movement based on desperation to grow, with Arabs from across the region joining up.

This is rooted in a sense of frustration created by the counter revolution and the loss of the space they had won to express their discontent.

 

How do revolutionary socialists relate to this situation?

It’s very difficult – especially for younger members who joined through the revolution. It’s hard for them to think in the long term.

We face a long period of preparation for the next Egyptian revolution, which could take years. We need to rebuild and reorganise, and emphasise political education, in contrast to the constant carnival-like activism we had during the struggle’s height. 

But this doesn’t mean we aren’t active. We support and relate to the fights on student campuses and the outbreaks of workers’ struggles.

This is central to any revolutionary organisation’s survival, but the experience of defeat comes with a heavy price.

 

What has the last four years taught you about the process of revolution?

I’ve learned that despite its appearance, Egyptian politics doesn’t revolve around Islamism and religion. I had never witnessed how rapidly ideas change during a revolution.

I was also taken aback by how fast a revolutionary organisation can grow – that came as a nice surprise.

But you also learn the enormity of the task. You won’t be able to cope with the scale of the struggle, with just the forces gained during a revolution.

You have to build a sizable organisation before the revolutionary situation. The revolutionary left now has to win significant layers of the working class – but also the oppressed.

Many oppressed groups played a central role in the revolution.

But the regime is trying to use oppressed groups to strengthen its position. El-Sisi hardly makes a single speech without talking about the role of women.

Middle class women in particular are being used as a bastion of the counter revolution.

The Coptic Christian minority played a visibly central role in the revolution. But El-Sisi has played on Copts’ fears of being discriminated against by Islamists.

The Sinai Bedouins took part in the revolution hoping to gain the real citizenship denied to them. Yet because they weren’t politically integrated into the revolution, el-Sisi had an opportunity to use them as a scapegoat.

We also faced difficulties linking the democratic movement in Tahrir Square to workplace struggles.

While there was an interaction, it wasn’t enough to beat the Egyptian state. Revolutionary forces were tiny in comparison to the scale of the revolution and the strike waves.

We also learned about the importance of the international dimension.  

We always raised the question of spreading the Arab revolution and there was general sense of solidarity.

But we need a more concentrated effort to ensure that the revolution reaches those critical states, such as Saudi Arabia.

 

Can new struggles emerge?

The regime’s stable appearance is a mirage created by the middle classes fear of chaos and Gulf investment. But this cannot be sustained indefinitely. Egyptian capitalism’s problems have not been addressed – let alone resolved.

Police brutality and repression has multiplied 100 times. The revolution’s original causes remain – but add to that the experience of the revolution itself.

 If revolutionaries do the right sort of work, there is the possibility of another Egyptian revolution in the foreseeable future.


The Revolution was a festival of the poor and the oppressed

The Egyptian Revolution erupted on 25 January 2011 as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets protesting against Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship.  

They were inspired by Tunisia’s mass revolt, which had toppled tyrant Ben Ali only a week before. 

Millions of ordinary people felt they had the power to shape their futures. In Egypt’s capital Cairo, Tahrir Square became the Revolution’s base. 

Thousands set up a mass camp under a banner declaring, “People demand the removal of the regime.”

Tahrir was a festival of the poor and oppressed, and became a symbol of resistance around the world. 

Women played a leading role in the struggles. Muslims united with the large Coptic Christian minority, Jewish protesters and those of no faith. 

Bedouin youth in the Sinai joined the struggle for liberation. Mubarak’s thugs tried to break the revolt by attacking the square, but were beaten back. 

Then workers’ strikes tipped the balance, forcing Mubarak out on 11 February. 

The interim military regime tried to stall the revolution, but new struggles broke out after the celebrations.

A brutal military attack on Coptic protesters saw a mass outpouring of solidarity across the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most rooted opposition group, won the first parliamentary elections. 

Brotherhood supporter Mohamed Mursi also won the first presidential elections in 2012.

Yet disillusionment with the new government set in fast, as it failed to deliver on the revolution’s demands of “bread, freedom and social justice”. 

Within a year the scale of revolt was at its highest. 

These culminated in the single biggest mass protest—14 million marched on 30 June 2013 to call for Mursi to go.

Within days he had gone, but the military took power in a coup. 

The military’s victory was not inevitable. But workers’ organisation was too weak and the revolutionary left was too small to offer an alternative.

This allowed the military’s propaganda to dominate.  But it had only one aim—to mount a counter revolution which continues to this day.  


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