Egypt is under threat from “terrorists” and “murderers”, says General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Justifying the army’s assault on the Muslim Brotherhood in August, he used rhetoric familiar from decades of repression under ex-president Mubarak. Blink, and it could have been Mubarak, with his talk of national unity and a mission to act as “guardian of the people’s will”, coupled with chilling threats about the fate of those who resist.
After troops had killed at least 1,000 Brotherhood protesters, al-Sisi’s prime minister – appointed by the general – proposed to dissolve the organisation, Egypt’s largest political movement, which had also been declared illegal under Mubarak. Where does this leave the revolution? What’s the effect on activists who have risked all to bring change to Egypt?
When the revolution began in January 2011 Egypt’s generals were appalled. For decades they had enjoyed enormous privilege – huge salaries and pensions, luxury housing, exclusive clubs and holiday homes, and access to private clubs and schools. They were also deeply involved in private business, running the army’s investments in arms production, construction, shipbuilding, oil and gas, IT, and even finance and banking. Aaccording to some economists, the armed forces controlled 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy.
Faced by the movement of Tahrir and eventually by mass strikes, the generals sacrificed Mubarak, who was forced to resign in February 2011. Efforts to reassert their authority in full have since been inhibited by the energies of the movement – in the streets and campuses, and most recently in industry. But the bankruptcy of Egypt’s political leaders has provided an opportunity which al-Sisi has now seized. His coup of July 2013 is an expression of both the generals’ determination to retain control and the glaring failure of all major parties to meet the people’s needs and aspirations.
These failures are clearest in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. In December 2011 the Brotherhood won over 40 per cent of the vote in Egypt’s first free parliamentary election. It already enjoyed mass support as a result of decades of opposition to Mubarak and for its widespread welfare activities. Its manifesto declared, “The most important goals of our election programme are addressing the issue of high prices, the elimination of poverty and unemployment”.
It undertook to provide effective public services including education, healthcare and transport, and specifically “to improve conditions of workers and peasants”. The Brotherhood declared, “We will work to bring justice to all citizens… recovery of what has been looted from state funds, reforming the tax system… and combating corruption.”
It was soon clear that the organisation had no intention of addressing this agenda. From the first, its main aim in government was to draw closer to the armed forces and to advance the interests of its leading members, among whom were many businessmen.
The very first act of the new parliament was to send a message to the then leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, already the object of popular hostility for repeated, violent attacks on revolutionary activists. “The People’s Assembly commends your historic stances in the great Egyptian revolution,” the message intoned. “You have taken the side of the people and their peaceful revolution… and as brave fighters you shouldered the burden of making this choice”.
The Brotherhood’s next move was to arrange talks with leading American officials, after which US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns praised the organisation for its commitment to “uphold Egypt’s existing international obligations” – code for an agreement to maintain relations with Washington and its allies, including Israel, and continuation of Mubarak’s neoliberal economic strategy and deals with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Brotherhood members once attracted by the organisation’s record in opposition were now leaving in droves: there were several significant splits, including a large youth group which had been a particularly dynamic element under Mubarak. Brotherhood leaders ploughed on, preparing for the May-June 2012 presidential elections. They had already infuriated many Egyptians by reneging on a firm promise in 2011 not to stand for the presidency – but now the organisation was fixated on grasping the formal levers of power.
In an insult to those who voted for its radical-sounding manifesto in the parliamentary elections it proposed to stand millionaire businessman Khairat al-Shater, a strong supporter of free-market policies who had already been involved in talks with the IMF over a new international loan, with all its implications of austerity measures and increased debt. When al-Shater was excluded from the poll by a contentious court decision the Brotherhood chose Mohamed Mursi, soon dubbed “the spare-tyre candidate”.
Mursi won a second-round run-off for the presidency but only because millions of Egyptians hostile to the Brotherhood could not stomach the alternative – Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Mursi’s proportion of the vote was significantly less than that polled by the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections – but the organisation’s leaders had learnt nothing and over the next six months seemed bent on alienating the mass of people.
Army and the Brothers
As problems intensified over the price and availability of staple foods and fuel, Mursi made patently false claims that all was well. While he made promises about electricity supplies there were power cuts across the country: the president could not even keep the lights on in government offices in central Cairo.
In November 2012 he caused fury by abruptly issuing a constitutional declaration granting the presidency unprecedented powers. Huge protest demonstrations were a stark warning of the popular mood – but Mursi continued with a series of measures that mimicked repressions of the Mubarak era. He licensed Brotherhood gangs to use extreme violence against demonstrators while his officials removed editors of newspapers and websites that dared to express the aspirations of the revolutionary movement. Further partisan appointments of judges and local governors seemed to confirm that the president was bent on “Brotherhoodisation” of the state.
SCAF watched these developments with alarm. In 2011, with Mubarak gone, the generals had reached a deal with the Brotherhood: they would set up elections to favour the organisation, which would use its influence to passify the revolutionary movement. Despite decades of conflict with the Mubarak state, and therefore with the generals, the Brotherhood had no problem with this agreement.
Its leaders had often run populist campaigns which aimed to win the support of workers, peasants and the urban poor but they were authoritarian, deeply suspicious of the mass of the people and keen to limit the revolution. They were also under the influence of businessmen like al-Shater for whom the main task at hand was to stabilise Egyptian capitalism while favouring Islamist entrepreneurs like himself.
In effect the Brotherhood had received a mandate from the military elite, the core of the Egyptian state, to manage the mass movement. It failed spectacularly. Its leaders assumed that rule by decree – as they were accustomed to do within the Brotherhood – would bring the masses into line. In fact, Mursi’s declarations produced more anger among people already preoccupied by growing unemployment, rising prices and anxiety about bread, fuel and power supplies. During 2012 the call for “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” had become a unifying slogan for the revolutionary movement. Mursi could not even guarantee bread – and was clearly hostile to further political change. One result was that workers in particular took affairs into their own hands.
During Mursi’s year in power industrial struggles intensified rapidly. In 2012 the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) recorded 3,817 “labour strikes and economically motivated social protests”, of which most took place after Mursi’s election.
During the first quarter of 2013 ECESR counted over 2,400 such events, many on a much larger scale than in the previous year and including major strikes in the docks, on the railways and buses, and in manufacturing. Though not all were successful some involved serious retreats for employers and the state – notably a rail strike in which warnings of intervention from the army produced highly effective solidarity action.
Meanwhile the police began to show signs of fragmentation. A police strike affected several governorates and there was a mutiny among paramilitary riot police in the key Suez Canal area. When the army attempted to impose a curfew in Port Said, in which a mini-insurrection was under way against the government, it was humiliated. Instead of closing their doors, scores of thousands of people rallied in the streets.
The revolutionary movement had not hitherto challenged the core institutions of the state: now there were hints that sustained mass struggles might affect the military too. A conscript army – like the largely conscripted riot police – might be vulnerable to splits and defections, fatally weakening the state and the nexus of public-private interests it protected.
It now seems likely that a coup was under discussion for many months, with US strategists deeply involved. According to the New York Times (6 July 2013), Mursi’s officials visited Washington in December 2012 to be told by President Obama that the Brotherhood must work with other parties, as SCAF proposed, widening the government’s base with the aim of bringing the popular movement under control.
Mursi refused, and kept on refusing, even as workers’ demands became more and more insistent. Mindful of the mass strikes which had forced Mubarak’s removal in 2011, al-Sisi prepared the coup option as a preventative measure to secure the state itself.
These developments suggest that SCAF and its key allies in the US, in Israel and among the Gulf regimes had concluded that the Brotherhood was unable to manage Egyptian capitalism. In 2011 Hillary Clinton had reported to Obama that the US should work with the Brotherhood and following Mursi’s election in June 2012 the US president invited him to Washington.
Despite Islamophobic hostility from many American politicians there was no reason in principle why the US state could not collaborate with the Brotherhood – and as al-Shater and others hurried to prove their business-friendly credentials the issue became one of competence. Could Mursi contain the revolution?
Mounting evidence suggested that he could not. Strikes and protests over jobs and fuel multiplied and in April 2013 a new campaign began to mobilise thousands of activists against the president. Tamarud (Rebellion) asked Egyptians to sign a petition calling on Mursi to stand down in the name of the revolution, fixing 30 June – the date of his inauguration as president in 2012 – for protest demonstrations nationwide.
The campaign was extraordinarily successful: within weeks millions of people had signed, revealing the depth of feeling nationwide about a president now seen as an autocrat who had betrayed the revolution. Tamarud had been started by radical activists but soon attracted others, including opponents of the Brotherhood with their own ambitions.
Among them were feloul – “remnants” of the Mubarak era including loyalists of the old regime – and members of state security. By June it had become clear to some of the campaign’s original supporters that it was increasingly compromised. When Tamarud established a June 30 Front to co-ordinate protest against Mursi, Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists did not participate.
June 30 proved to be a day of mass mobilisation on which it was evident that Mursi and the Brotherhood were politically isolated. Three days later SCAF suspended the constitution and removed the president. As he was taken to prison, leaders of Tamarud were receiving celebrity treatment – meeting al-Sisi and leading figures of the main opposition parties at military intelligence headquarters.
Just how they went from the streets to star status has yet to be fully established but it seems clear that the campaign was used opportunistically by those hostile to the mass movement. Billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris, once a close ally of Mubarak, has admitted that he used all his influence to swing support to the campaign.
He told Reuters, “The Free Egyptians party, the party that I founded, used all its branches across Egypt to [gather] signatures for Tamarud… Also the TV station that I own and the newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, were supporting the Tamarud movement with their media… It is fair to say that I encouraged all the affiliations I have to support the movement.”
Sawiris was not the only political leader who saw an opportunity to weaken old foes in the Brotherhood. The National Salvation Front (NSF) is a coalition of 35 secular parties formed in November 2012 to oppose Mursi’s constitutional declaration.
Some contain activists ostensibly committed to the revolutionary movement; others are vehicles for feloul, including Mubarak loyalists. Its key figures are Mohamed El Baradei of the Destour (Constitution) Party, Ahmed Moussa of the Conference Party, and Hamdeen Sabbahi of the Popular Current Party. From the moment the NSF came into existence they proved wholly ineffectual, feuding within the Front while they sought to advance party interests and their personal ambitions.
Sabbahi was of special importance. He achieved prominence in 2012 by running Mursi close in the first round of the presidential elections. Proposing to further the revolution by enacting economic and social reforms, he won a majority of the vote in Cairo and in each and every major industrial city in northern Egypt, prompting great excitement and expectation among workers and the urban poor.
In entering a coalition with feloul, however, he forged an alliance with proven enemies of the revolution. Increasingly isolated from the movement in the streets and workplaces, he was silent on key issues of the day, confusing and demobilising his many supporters.
A lifelong Nasserist, Sabbahi is wedded to the idea that the army should lead a unified people. This approach also dominates NSF parties in the Stalinist tradition, notably the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, influenced by remnants of the Egyptian Communist Party which in the 1960s liquidated in favour of military rule. These parties have also been united by their hostility to the Brotherhood, animated in part by an Islamophobia that has long dogged the Egyptian left, having led earlier generations of communists to ally with the army against an imagined “fascist” threat from Islamist currents.
NSF politicians could not wait to join the new government appointed by al-Sisi in July. Mohamed El Baradei became deputy president, Hazem al-Beblawi of the reformist Social Democratic Party became prime minister and Ziad Baha Eddin, also of the Social Democratic Party, became deputy prime minister. Kemal Abu-Eita, leader of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) and a member of the Popular Current Party, became minister of manpower.
When the army massacred Brotherhood protesters in Cairo and other cities only El Baradei had enough principle to resign. Other ministers, including all those associated with the NSF, affirmed their commitment to work with a military command that had blood on its hands.
According to Hamdeen Sabbahi, who had once been attacked and jailed by Mubarak’s police, “The army and the police are patriotic state institutions. They are all at war against terrorism”.
Workers and the left
The army’s assault on the Brotherhood was a counter-revolutionary initiative. Backed by a new State of Emergency declared by al-Sisi, the army returned to the streets, free to use massive force against protestors, to seize and imprison at will. According to Egyptian NGOs, almost 2,000 people were arrested after the army attacked the Brotherhood in August.
Many leading members of the organisation have been jailed, including Mursi and al-Shater. Although the Brotherhood is for the time being the main target of both physical and ideological attacks, it is clear that SCAF intends to discipline the revolutionary movement as a whole. Prime Minister al-Beblawi says he intends to ban the Brotherhood – an organisation that for decades was the only effective opposition to successive military regimes and has recently won parliamentary and presidential elections.
This opens the door to attacks on any organisation or group of activists of which SCAF does not approve. In the case of the workers’ movement, Abu-Eita has wasted no time using his ministerial position to spell out what is expected by the new government. In an ominous warning, he says: “Workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production.”
Abu-Eita’s move from the picket line to the presidential palace is a marker of the grotesque failure of the NSF and in particular of its reformist elements. It is only 18 months since, on the anniversary of the revolution, crowds filled Tahrir Square with the slogan “Down with the armed forces”. Now those who claim to represent the movement politically are working hand-in-glove with a military machine which for decades was at the heart of the Mubarak state. This alliance provides the key explanation for the recent turn of events.
Military intervention was prompted by recognition on the part of SCAF that the revolutionary movement was widening and deepening. In channelling popular anger towards the Brotherhood, it could rely on the whole NSF bloc – social democrats, nationalists, communists and feloul. A radical alternative was needed – one focused on furthering mass interests and direct democracy. Some industrial struggles had advanced in this direction through integration of local strike committees and attempts at collective self-management.
They had not developed sufficiently, however, to provide a coherent alternative to reformist influence. The revolutionary left, in the form of the Revolutionary Socialists and informal networks of youth activists, had grown rapidly but did not have the political weight to redress this balance.
The need for an independent party focused on the project of working-class self-emancipation has seldom been so clear. In the political battles to come it will be essential to draw the lessons of recent debate on the Egyptian left – notably that the state cannot be appropriated in the interests of the masses and that those who focus on this project are invariably drawn towards ruling-class agendas.
Struggles will continue, not least because nothing has changed in the circumstances of the mass of people: indeed, as Egypt’s economic crises deepens, mass actions over bread, water, fuel, power and a host of other issues are certain to continue.
Notwithstanding Abu-Eita’s call for workers to increase production, in late August 10,000 workers at the Mehalla al-Kubra textile mill – a historic centre of industrial struggle – took strike action to demand payment of bonuses and dismissal of both the company’s chief executive and the local leader of the state-run trade union. With troops standing by the strike continued. 7
SCAF has delivered a serious blow to the revolutionary movement – but struggles go on under circumstances far more favourable than those before January 2011. Tens of millions of Egyptians have participated in mass actions; independent unions have emerged to organise in thousands of workplaces; political parties and networks have proliferated; and new media have flourished.
Activists often assert that they will never return to the Mubarak era. The issue at hand is how to advance forms of organisation and of political leadership that can cement the gains of the revolution and provide an alternative to the capitalisms of Mubarak, al-Sisi and those who wish to emulate them.
In November of last year, there was a brief moment of light amid the darkness that was 2020. Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. Just as the weekend and the eight-hour-day are now regarded by many as a given, future generations may be in disbelief that...
On 4 November last year, when many of us were watching the aftermath of the American presidential election, the US formally left the Paris Climate Agreement. Written in 2015 at the United Nations’ COP21 climate conference in Paris, the agreement is often considered to be the most significant document of international climate cooperation. Back then,...
To say 2020 was dramatic would be an understatement. The world situation has been completely transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the inadequacy of governmental and state responses. As we head into 2021 it feels like we are entering uncharted territory. To make specific predictions would be unwise. But the Covid-19 crisis raises fundamental questions...