Egypt: through what stage is the revolution passing?

Friday, 25 March 2011
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On March 19, Egyptians voted by a large majority in a referendum in favour of a series of amendments to the Constitution. However, it would be wrong to see the results of this vote as an endorsement of the policy of the Army Council to contain the revolution and return to capitalist normality with as few changes as possible.

Photo: Kodak AgfaPhoto: Kodak Agfa Since the overthrow of Mubarak on February 11, the ruling class and imperialism have been manoeuvring to steal the revolutionary victory from the masses. Faced with a mass movement of millions, backed by a growing wave of strikes and factory occupations, the Army high command decided to intervene to remove Mubarak in order to prevent the revolutionary overthrow of the whole regime. The last six weeks have been characterised by a tug of war between the masses, that carried out the revolution and yearn for fundamental change, and the old regime, represented by the Army Council, which wants to limit changes to cosmetic reforms.

Army council under pressure

In this struggle the masses have won some victories. First of all, on March 3, they managed to force the removal of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who had been appointed by Mubarak in his last days of power. Faced with mass demonstrations on the streets, which did not stop with the removal of Mubarak but demanded the removal of the whole regime, the Army Council was forced to appoint Essam Sharaf as the new Prime Minister. He was a former Minister of Transport who had resigned in protest against corruption and who participated in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. He was the ideal figure to appease the masses and he even went to Tahrir Square on March 4 to swear “loyalty to the principles of the revolution” in front of one million people who had assembled to celebrate the fall of Shafiq.

This was another victory for the masses, who felt their own strength and were emboldened to move forward. That same Friday night hundreds of revolutionaries in Alexandria surrounded the headquarters of the hated State Security Apparatus (SSA). The movement was triggered by rumours that Secret Police officers were destroying documents and evidence of their role in the former regime. They defended the building by opening fire on protestors and throwing Molotov cocktails at them. The Army intervened to prevent revolutionary activists from taking over the building and arrested some Secret Police officers.

News of the clashes spread like wildfire, and in the main cities of Egypt there were similar demonstrations outside the main headquarters of the SSA. In Cairo, the Army clashed with protestors who were trying to enter the main headquarters at the Ministry of the Interior. The scenes of revolutionary activists entering the same building and, in some cases, even the same cells where they had been interrogated and tortured, were amazing. The activists managed to get hold of documents and information about Secret Police officers and their activities. The revolutionary masses faced the state apparatus head on, and the ruling class could do nothing but watch, attempt to manoeuvre and retreat. Finally, the new Cabinet, like in Tunisia, announced the disbanding of the Secret Police.

The Army high command had won enormous authority amongst the masses because they were perceived as having played a key role in removing Mubarak. As a matter of fact the generals only took that step because otherwise they risked the Army being split along class lines. The masses, however, only trusted the Army in so far as the Army appeared to be on the side of the people. The demonstrations against Shafiq, and the assaults on the Secret Police headquarters, show that the masses have not adopted a wait-and-see attitude, patiently waiting for the Army Council to deliver reforms, but rather they are taking direct action at all levels to win their most pressing demands. These include the broadest and most unrestricted democratic rights, but also solutions to social and economic grievances.

Students have occupied universities demanding the removal of Mubarak appointed rectors. Workers have gone on strike and started to organise democratic and militant trade unions. The revolution has unleashed a wave of mobilisations at all levels which the Army cannot easily stop or contain. In the days immediately after the overthrow of Mubarak, the Army threatened striking workers, but the threats were ineffectual and the Army could not carry them out.

Repression and provocations

The Egyptian Army was a key part of the Mubarak regime and is still a key player within the Egyptian state. Let us not forget that Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Armed Forces Council, was Mubarak’s Minister of Defence for more than 20 years. The army needs to restore the “normal” functioning of the capitalist order and it has been taking steps to that effect.

First were the provocations against the Women’s Day demonstration in Tahrir Square, where they spread all sorts of rumours and slanders and mobilised thugs to break up the protest. The day after, on March 9, the Army, acting together with plainclothes thugs launched a violent attack against the remaining protestors in Tahrir Square. The assault was extremely violent and hundreds were detained and taken to the nearby Museum where they were subject to torture, beatings and sexual assault.

At the same time, the ruling class has been using the card of religious sectarianism in an attempt to divide the people and divert attention away from social issues. Documents seized by the revolutionaries from the SSA buildings showed the involvement of the police in the bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, in which 23 people were killed and dozens injured. There is no doubt that the state apparatus had a hand in pogroms against Coptic Christians in Helwan at the beginning of March this year. Showing the same fine revolutionary instinct for unity displayed during the revolutionary movement in January and February, the response to this incident was a well attended joint protest demonstration of Christians and Muslims in Cairo.

The Army Council needs to acquire some “democratic legitimacy” as quickly as possible. This was the meaning of the Constitutional Amendments which were also aimed at calling elections as quickly as possible. In this way, established, already existing parties will have an advantage. As a matter of fact, the whole process was thoroughly undemocratic. A commission of “experts” appointed by the Army council proposed a few amendments to the Constitution, but the Army warned that if the commission's proposals were not accepted the army would draft a new provisional constitution until a new government was elected.

Muslim Brotherhood collaborates with the regime

The organisations that played the key role in the revolutionary movement all came out against the amendments and campaigned for a No vote. However, the Army could count on the support of the Muslim Brotherhood which came out for a Yes vote and conducted an energetic campaign to mobilise its base of support along religious lines arguing that voting in favour was a religious duty.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood (which acted as a loyal opposition under Mubarak) has been crucial in propping up the continuation of the old regime under another name. “There is evidence the Brotherhood struck some kind of a deal with the military early on,” said Elijah Zarwan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It makes sense if you are the military — you want stability and people off the street. The Brotherhood is one address where you can go to get 100,000 people off the street.”

There is clear evidence of this deal. When the new Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, addressed the crowd in Tahrir Square, he was flanked by Mohamed el-Beltagy, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was also part of the commission which drafted the constitutional amendments. This de facto alliance between Mubarak’s NDP, the Army Council and the Muslim Brotherhood should come as no surprise. Some of the documents retrieved by revolutionaries from the Secret Police files reveal how leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood made deals with Mubarak’s regime about how many seats they would get in the rigged elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not want the revolution to take place. They did not call for it, and when it happened, they participated cautiously, so as not to lose their base of support. Now that it has taken place they are positioning themselves to gain a share of political power in order to defend the economic interests of the businessmen who lead the organization. What is truly scandalous is that some left groups, even calling themselves Marxists, were prepared to work together with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, thus giving them pro-poor, opposition and even “anti-imperialist” credentials.

While bourgeois politicians Amr Moussa and El Baradei opposed the constitutional amendments, they did so not out of any concern for democracy, but rather because early elections would damage their chances, as they have not yet been able to organise their own political party machines.

Referendum results

Queues to vote. Photo: Kodak AgfaQueues to vote. Photo: Kodak Agfa In the end 14 million voted in favour and 4.1 million against the amendments (77% against 22%) with a turnout of over 18 million. However, these results do not tell the whole story. There were varied reasons for voting in favour. For many this was in fact the first time they felt they had voted in a genuine democratic election and turnout was much higher than during the fraudulent elections last year (over 40% voted now as against perhaps 10% last year). They felt any changes would be better than the Army deciding on a new constitution. To add to the confusion, the amendments seemed to be one step in the direction of curtailing the power of the President, his term limits and his emergency powers. For some, voting for these amendments was a way of removing the Army from politics. There is also an element of trust in the Army as the institution which is seen by many as having played a key role in “removing Mubarak and avoiding a bloodbath”.

Even so, significant numbers voted against the amendments in the main urban centres, where the revolution has had a bigger impact, such as in Cairo where there was a 40% no vote, Alexandria 32% and other industrial centres where the No vote was above the national average.

On the back of these results, the Army Council has again attempted to move against demonstrators in general, and striking workers in particular, with the proposal of a new decree-law on March 23 which according to Al Ahram newspaper “criminalises strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins that interrupt private or state owned businesses or affect the economy in any way.” The decree-law also established severe punishment to those who “call for or incite action, with the maximum sentence of one year in prison and fines of up to half a million pounds”.

The revolution is still alive

However, those who argue that a counter-revolution has already taken place in Egypt are mistaken. Workers, students, the poor, have only just recently participated in mass revolutionary direct action which led to the overthrow of the hated Mubarak. They are not going to allow their rights to be taken away without a struggle. Ali Fotouh, a transport worker quoted by Al Ahram put it this way: “Egypt is now a free country, no law will repress us. This law will be rejected, this time not through a rigged parliament but in Tahrir Square. They have to understand this is where we have our legitimacy.” On the same day that this proposed decree was announced, hundreds of transport workers gathered at the Press Syndicate in Cairo to announce the formation of an independent Transport Workers’ General Union.

This is just one example amongst hundreds of the newly found confidence of the working class. Workers played a key role in the revolution and are now getting organised. Their strength is shown by the national strike of oil workers which lasted for three days and won all their demands, including the removal of the minister. That incident shows the real balance of forces.

The weakness of the working class in Egypt lies in the fact that it does not yet have a political voice and a revolutionary leadership with enough support and roots in the movement. A campaign is being launched for the setting up of a Democratic Labour Party. Significantly, transport workers also announced their participation in it. Whatever the shortcomings of the programme of this party, what is important is the fact that workers feel the need to participate in politics through their own party. As Marx said “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”.

Through the experience of their struggle for better wages and conditions, for democratic rights, for collective bargaining rights, against police repression, etc, the workers will learn. The feeling of unity and euphoria which always characterises the early stages of a revolution will give way to an inner differentiation within the revolutionary movement.

The same was the case after the February revolution in Russia in 1917. The masses had overthrown the Tsar, but in the first instance, the reformist parties dominated the movement and they handed over power to the Provisional Government, appointed by the departing Tsar and headed in the first instance by Prince Lvov. The government was composed mainly of Constitutional Democrats and Octobrists, who had been the Tsar’s loyal opposition. The genuine revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, found themselves in an extreme minority, and even amongst their ranks there was extreme confusion about the way forward, with sections of the leadership even capitulating to the Provisional Government.

Through their own experience, the Russian masses realised that the Provisional Government was unable to fulfil the basic demands of the revolution: peace, bread and land. In fact, the Provisional Government was even unable to bring about genuine democracy through the convening of a Constituent Assembly. In the period between February 1917 and October 1917, the Bolsheviks, through patient explanation and agitation for the demands of the revolution, managed to win a majority of the masses and came to power.

In Egypt, as in Russia in 1917, the basic demands of the people – full democracy, a decent minimum wage, jobs, housing and land – can only be achieved through the overthrow of the whole of the old regime, not just through the replacement of Mubarak with some other bourgeois politician. What is missing in Egypt is precisely a revolutionary leadership like the Russian Bolsheviks, with sufficient roots in the factories and in the working class neighbourhoods. Egyptian revolutionary socialists are faced with the same task, that of patiently explaining to the workers and the revolutionary youth that the only way to win the demands of the revolution is by the taking of power of the working class.