By Sameh Naguib
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The Islamists and the Egyptian Revolution

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Egyptian socialist Sameh Naguib looks at the role of Islamists in the Egyptian Revolution
Issue 359

There is something of a state of hysteria in the discussions on the left and among the liberals about the Islamist movement in Egypt at present, fuelled by the fact that while we are in the first stages of the biggest popular revolution in Egypt’s history, the forces of the left are small and divided, but the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest organisation on the Egyptian political scene. This state of hysteria has increased with the entry of the Salafists and the extremist Islamist groups into the political arena.


Most of the left put the Islamists of various tendencies together in one basket, which is to say as reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. But this approach is a superficial generalisation, which does not help us to understand the contradictions in the Islamist movement. Moreover it leads to a state of confusion and a lot of frustration, because if the Islamists are really as powerfully organised as some on the left fear, then how can we confront them, and seek to win the masses around them?

It is important neither to overestimate the impact of the Islamist movement based on the experience of the million-strong protests of the revolution, nor to underestimate its dangers, especially during the coming period, but rather to understand that there are wide sections of the masses who do not support the Islamists and have a desire to know about alternatives, and that this gives the left a golden opportunity to recover its mass base, or build one where it did not already exist.

The Brotherhood in the first phase

The Brotherhood did not officially participate in the demonstrations of 25 January, and in fact advised their youth activists not to protest that day. Large numbers of Brotherhood youth activists were unable to resist the revolutionary tide, however, and took part despite the urging of their leaders. The leadership was quickly put under pressure to change its policy once it realised that the demonstrations were becoming a popular revolution, and the organisation descended into the streets in full force. However, this shift did not remove the contradictions and differences inside the organisation. When [Vice-President] Omar Suleiman invited them to talks, this provoked a sharp disagreement in the Guidance Office [leadership body], which ended with the Brotherhood accepting the invitation, and we saw their leaders sitting with Suleiman and Rifa’at al-Sa’id [a leader of the Tagammu party] under a huge picture of Hosni Mubarak. This scene did not win the leadership support among the young activists of the Brotherhood, who had fought the thugs and the state security in the streets and now forced their leaders to stop the talks while claiming that this scandalous meeting had been simply aimed at gathering information and that it had quickly been aborted.

The Brotherhood during the first phase of the revolution did not constitute a counter-revolutionary force, but neither were they able to participate in the revolution without vacillations and splits. What moved the Guidance Office was pressure from various trends within the organisation rather than participation in the revolution on the basis of principle. In particular it was the result of the incredible pressure from the Brotherhood’s youth base which had merged with the masses in the streets during the revolution.

This vacillation and contradiction are not new to the Brotherhood. The organisation’s entire history is witness to this tendency from the time of the Brotherhood’s founder, Imam Hassan al-Banna, until today. At the end of the 1940s the monarchy was able to destroy the heart of the organisation, despite its power and half a million members, by exploiting the sharp disagreements within the organisation and the vacillations of its leadership in confronting the regime. The group saw a similar crisis during the first years after the revolution of July 1952, when internal divisions and vacillating leadership allowed the Nasserist regime to destroy it.

This permanent vacillation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm, is a result of the nature of the Brotherhood as a popular religious group which comprises sections of the urban bourgeoisie side by side with sections of the traditional and modern petty bourgeoisie (students and university graduates), the unemployed and large sections of the poor. This structure remains stable at times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation, when it becomes almost impossible to reconcile the various contradictory social interests under a broad and vague religious message.

These contradictions are also reflected in the attitudes of the group towards colonialism and Zionism. On the one hand we find differences between those who want to cancel the Camp David agreement with Israel, and on the other, those who announce the Brotherhood’s commitment to respecting all international treaties. We find speeches sharply against US colonialism, while others in the Brotherhood meet and negotiate with US officials on a regular basis (one of the Wikileaks documents talks about repeated meetings and negotiations between US officials and a member of the Guidance Office, Muhammad Katatani). It is important to emphasise that this not just political opportunism, but the inevitable result of the composition of the group and its contradictions.

The Brotherhood in the second phase

Popular revolutions move quickly from one phase to another, but these phases overlap in complex ways. What began as a democratic revolution to overthrow dictatorship and corruption is rapidly transformed with the achievement of its initial goals, and an explosion of social and economic demands raises issues which are more fundamental to democracy. Here we find the rapid shifts in the positions of political forces. Whoever was revolutionary yesterday may become hostile overnight to the continuation and deepening of the revolution.

This is exactly what we saw in the case of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the referendum on the anti-democratic amendments to the constitution, which were proposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Brotherhood led a campaign for a “yes” vote which was blatant in using religion as a weapon. What matters here is not the use of religion (which is not a new tactic) but rather the alliance between the Brotherhood leadership and the army to secure approval for these amendments, which are an insult to the Egyptian Revolution.

The deepening of the revolution means that sooner or later there will be a clash with the ruling military junta, and the exposure of its real face as an integral part of the defunct regime with all its violence and corruption. This ugly face is already being revealed in arrests, torture and the crushing of demonstrations and strikes, in particular the deadly violence inflicted on the protest camp in Tahrir Square on 8 April.

The Brotherhood and the army

What was the Brotherhood’s position in relation to this? During the huge demonstrations that morning the Brotherhood had been out in force, pushing strongly for the Supreme Council to speed up prosecution of the symbols of the old regime, in particular Mubarak. However, once a part of the crowd, including a group of junior army officers, decided to continue a sit-in overnight, the Brotherhood mounted a desperate defence of the Military Council’s position, even to the extent of repeating the same lies that troops and security forces who stormed the camp in the early hours did not open fire with live ammunition. Day and night the Brotherhood has parroted the same lines about the army’s patriotism and its leadership, about how there is a “red line” around the army, about its work “protecting” the revolution and that any movement against the army is a betrayal of the revolution.

In a statement on the Brotherhood’s website we find the following section: “The army is trying to preserve a degree of discipline among its ranks, and it is right to do so, for if it cannot maintain its own discipline it cannot protect the people.

“At present the army is the only organised force in Egypt, and it is not in our interests to weaken it, nor will we let anyone else weaken it. We know who is working in this way, and what their goals and intentions are. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to see the success of the revolution, and we are fully aware that the position of our great army in relation to the revolution is one of the principal factors in its success. For the army has said to the people since the first moment ‘you can express your views freely and demonstrate during the day, but not during the night-time curfews, which have been reduced more than once to only 3 hours’.”

In relation to the social deepening of the revolution with the great wave of strikes which were triggered by the uprising, the Brotherhood took the same position as the government and the Military Council, demanding “a return to work to save the Egyptian economy. The Muslim Brotherhood calls on all sections of the Egyptian people to keep the wheels of production and development turning. Demonstrations for sectional demands, albeit a fundamental right, are detrimental to production and damage the economy, particularly as the revolution is linked to keeping the motor of the economy turning. Citizens must feel that their sacrifices in the search for a dignified life were not just empty talk, so that the Egyptian people can prove that they are capable of a further achievement beyond the revolution, in other words, to lift Egypt out of its economic crisis.”

These positions are, of course, not restricted to the Brotherhood. Liberal forces are also participating with great enthusiasm in the same double campaign – absolute support for the military council and a hysterical campaign against workers’ strikes under the banner of “Keep the wheel of production turning”. Amr Hamzawy, one of the stars of liberalism, even called for the formation of groups of young people and public personalities in order to spread propaganda against strikes among the workers. A wide range of intellectuals and revolutionaries of yesterday are inciting for smashing strikes with the cooperation of the army, as part of these campaigns against the second phase of the revolution.

Many leftists consider the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists as two sides of the coin, but this is not true. Yes, there is a Salafi section within the Brotherhood, and yes, there are ideological similarities between them, but this should not make us ignore the specificity of the phenomenon of Salafism and its current role in the attempts to sabotage the revolution. Salafists are currently the Islamic wing of the “baltagiyya”(the counter-revolutionary thugs who attacked protesters in Tahrir Square) and their relationship to the security apparatus of the former regime is much more important than their relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Since 2006 the Mubarak regime allowed the creation of Salafist satellite channels, which have been airing their poisonous views since that time, broadcasting a permanent stream of reactionary anti-Christian, anti-woman propaganda, as well as agitating against Muslims who do not share their views, in an attempt to drag the masses back to the Middle Ages.

Channels such as Al-Rahma and Al-Nas have become practically propaganda tools for so-called Salafist preachers such as Muhammad Hassan, Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini and Muhammad Yaqub, allowing them to spread their views among wider layers of young people. They have succeeded in creating a wide popularity for these reactionary and dangerous views (there are currently 91 Facebook groups following Muhammad Hassan alone). These channels have become the most watched in Egypt.

All this is taking place with the encouragement and cooperation of the army which is encouraging the Salafists not only to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood but also to organise the religious face of the counter-revolution. No wonder then, that there were escalating attacks on the Copts and their churches even before the revolution, nor is it strange that there are currently campaigns by the Salafists and the security forces to create a climate of counter-revolution.

Some on the left today see the political forces as being divided into secular and Islamist camps. Some of these leftists have also been lured into debates over Article 2 of the constitution, which enshrines Islam as “the religion of the state…and Islamic law as the principal source of legislation”. This was a precious gift to the Islamists who used these discussions to create a state of panic as if Islam itself was in danger because a discussion had been opened about Article 2.


Of course, the left must defend its principles with regard to the separation of religion from the state, and in defence of a secular state, but we also have to know when and how to enter the battle, and with whom. Secularism itself, as an abstract principle with no connection to the interests of the working class and poor, is meaningless, and in fact defence of secularism on such a basis only serves the Islamists.

The current phase of the revolution requires work to expose the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the public as a prelude to its overthrow, as it remains part of the old regime. This work requires deepening the social side of the revolution, by helping to create forms of organisation at the base of society which can play a role in the struggle to achieve the demands of workers and peasants. This is also a phase in the revolution which will see the Brotherhood and the liberals move from the ranks of the revolution to the counter-revolution, but it will be a phase full of twists and divisions which the left must be able to make use of, in order to confront the counter-revolution. And at the same time as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Liberals take these positions, the remnants of the security organs of the old system will be using their thugs and the Salafists to create a climate of chaos in collusion with the military junta.


The current phase will be very difficult and its success requires a clarity of vision about the different political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals, as well as contradictions and divisions and crises that await them when the true face of the leaders of the army is revealed.

As long as the masses remain revolutionary, and hopeful for a better tomorrow and a decent life, and as long as the left works in building mass organisations from the independent trade unions to the popular revolutionary committees and radical political organisations, the enemies of the revolution will not be able to deceive the masses and the political forces at present allied with the military (at the head of whom stands the Muslim Brotherhood) will fracture.

Sameh Naguib is a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt. He will be speaking at Marxism 2011

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