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Coup puts Egyptian revolution on hold

Sasha Simic explains why your enemy's enemy isn't necessarily your friend

The nineteenth century Russian radical Nikolai Chernyshevsky insisted that 'Historical action is not the pavement of Nevsky Prospect.' He meant progress does not proceed in a straight line like that famous street in St Petersburg. History zig-zags.

But even Chernyshevsky might have been astonished at the dramatic reversal of political fortunes which played out in Egypt over the summer.

On 3rd July 2013, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt's first freely elected President and in office for just over a year, was ousted by a combination of massive street mobilisations from below and military intervention from Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf).

While Morsi was detained on a host of criminal charges including 'killing soldiers' and 'conspiring' with the Palestinian group Hamas, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed forces, and Egypt's new Minister of Defence and First Deputy Prime Minister was the man of the hour.

The removal of Morsi was initially welcomed by many secular Egyptians. But in the period which followed it has become clear that Scaf has used popular discontent against the MB to regain the prominence it lost in the revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Scaf chose not to repress the movement against Mubarak. That earned them tremendous amounts of goodwill from Egypt's streets captured in the popular slogan: 'The Army and the people one hand'.

After Mubarak's overthrow on 11 February 2011 Field Marshal Mohammed Hussain Tantawi and the 18 Generals who made up Scaf wielded effective state power in Egypt. Scaf proved as repressive and anti-democratic as Mubarak. They also resorted to increasingly violent methods of control authorising the use of live ammunition and tear gas against demonstrators in Alexandria, Cairo and Aswan in April, May, July, September, and November 2011.

By December 2011 the slogans the crowd were chanting were no longer about the unity of the Army and the People. They'd been replaced with: 'Down with the armed forces' and 'The people demand the trial of the Field Marshal'.

In this phase of the revolution the MB prospered. Despite persecution under Mubarak, the Brotherhood had established itself amongst the urban poor of Egypt through its shadow welfare system.

But the Brotherhood straddled a contradiction. Their election material promised 'to improve the condition of the workers and peasants' but their policies were a continuation of the neo-liberalism which had driven the masses to revolt in the first place.

The MB began to undermine their own mass support by chasing IMF loans and imposing austerity measures on one hand and making conciliatory gestures to Scaf on the other.

As the presidential elections loomed in the summer of 2012 the Brotherhood experienced a number of serious splits from its ranks.

But when it came to the presidential elections millions recognised what they were being offered. The choice was between Ahmed Shafiq, who represented Scaf, Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the counter-revolution against Mohamed Morsi of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party. Millions gritted their teeth and chose Mursi who won the presidency with 51 per cent of the vote.

He greeted his victory with prescient words: "I have no rights, only responsibilities. If I do not deliver, do not obey me."

Things got off to a good start. When Morsi removed Tantawi, along with the army's chief of staff and the commanders of the Navy and Air Force in August 2012 thousands of people crowded into Tahrir Square to celebrate their removal and chant 'down with military rule'.

It took Morsi just over a year to squander the mandate he was given. Morsi proved spectacularly inept in power. The economy continued to deteriorate. The price of necessities spiralled. Power cuts became ubiquitous. Every move he made or didn't make, helped alienate more sections of society from him. The 'Brotherhood-isation' of the state, the persecution of the Copts, the reliance on big business, the playing up of the relationship with the US and Israel, the closing of the tunnels into Gaza all played their part in undermining his authority.

 

A successful drive

 

The political movement against Morsi started in April 2013 with the Tamaroud 'Rebel' - campaign. This group of young revolutionaries, affiliated to the Kefeya (Enough) movement but without a political programme or machinery - launched a statement of 'no confidence' in Morsi and called for fresh elections. They began a successful drive to collect 15 million signatures for their statement by the first anniversary of Morsi's inauguration on 30 June 2013.

At the end of June 2013 the World's largest demonstration estimated at anything between 2 to 17 million people across Egypt took to the streets to demand Morsi's removal. Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, the former head of Military Intelligence and the man who publically defended the despicable 'virginity tests' which imprisoned women activists were forced to endure took control.

The events of June 2013 showed the strength of the Egyptian revolution in that it swept away Morsi. The events of June also show the weakness of the revolution in that the masses looked to the army to rule.

Repression began immediately. Morsi and seventy-seven leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested and imprisoned. Over fifty Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed when protestors marched on the Security HQ in protest at the arrests.

Then there was an odd period of calm as the new regime bedded itself in and it became clear that the West were untroubled by the transfer of power.

At the end of July the interior ministry announced the resurrection of several controversial police units associated with Mubarak's dictatorship. A new state of emergency was declared. On 13th August, the interim President Adly Manasour appointed 18 new provincial governors, many of them former military officers and security officials under Mubarak. They replaced all Muslim Brotherhood officials. In addition 'experienced' police officers from Mubarak's day were brought back into active service.

It was the catalyst for the massacre of Wednesday 14th August when the State ended six weeks of unauthorized sit-in at al-Nahda Square and the Rabaa Mosque in Cairo in a blood-bath.

A spokesman for Egypt's health ministry put the death toll at 638 of which 595 were civilians and 43 police officers. At least 3,994 were injured. The Muslim Brotherhood insisted the actual death toll was nearer 2,000.

The once discredited Army had the backing of most of the secular left in its attack on the Brotherhood. A spokesman for Tamroud went on television to demand that the police and army should attack all members of the MB mobilising for the 'Day of Rage' on Friday 16 August with 'firmness and no compromise'. The state obliged killing over 60 in supressing the anti-Scaf demonstrations.

The period since the repression of mid-August is strangely reminiscent of the Mubarak era. The state of emergency is back. A night-time curfew has been initiated and enforced with lethal force. The army have arrested most of the Muslim Brothers leadership and is using the media to label them as 'terrorists' as it prepares to outlaw the organization.

In addition Scaf is whipping up nationalism and targeting critical foreign media as 'biased'. It's encouraging racism against Syrian refugees and Palestinians. Meanwhile the courts have released key players from the previous dictatorship including Hosni Mubarak himself.

Yet this is not full-blooded counter-revolution. This is not Chile in September 1973.

There is another power in Egypt which Scaf have to deal with before it can declare the revolution 'over' - the organised working-class.

The levels of class struggle in Egypt are impressive. In 2012 the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) recorded 3,817 'labour strikes and economically motivated social protests'. During the first quarter of 2013 it counted over 2,400 such protests. There was an average of 450 strikes and protests each month between July and December 2012. Between January and March 2013 they rose again, with an average of 800 separate events each month.

In February 2013, 1,200 dock workers at Ain Sukhna port on the Red Sea coast maintained a 16-day strike to secure jobs. In April 73,000 rail workers undertook the largest stoppage in the sector for over 30 years. There have been similar developments in manufacturing and public services, including in sectors totally new to collective action, like the musicians and staff at Cairo Opera House!

This is the key to the progress of the Egyptian revolution: the power of the working-class. The revolution has been made against what neo-liberalism had done to the lives of the people of Egypt. In 2000 the World Bank estimated 16 percent of the population existed on less than $2 a day. In 2011 that number had grown to 40 per cent. Twenty-five per cent of the Egyptian population spends half its income on food.

Samir Radwan, finance minister in the months following the fall of Mubarak understood the magnitude of the problem even if he had no answer to it: "You are talking about nearly half of the population being in a state of poverty."

Morsi squandered 80 years of the goodwill the MB had accumulated by adopting most of Mubarak's economic agenda. His replacement seems to have learnt nothing from Morsi.

In May Al-Sisi said: "Nobody solves their problem with an army, and armies should be kept out of political problems." By June Sisi had forgotten his own advice. He will fail as Morsi failed as he is also a neo-liberal and represents a neo-liberal institution. Scaf members have a 20- 25% stake in the economy. They are big players in Egypt's neo-liberal economy. To stabilize their own power-base they have to take on and beat the workers.

That won't be easy. On 1st August it took the 27,000 textile workers at Malhalla just eight hours of strike action to win a number of demands relating to wages and conditions.

There is evidence to suggest Scaf is preparing a showdown with organised labour. The leaders of striking steel workers were detained in August and the Egyptian labour lawyer Haitham Mohamedain was arrested and detained himself when he intervened on their behalf.

Scaf have emerged from the events of the summer re-vitalised. But Egyptian workers remain mobilised on an unprecedented scale and are potentially the most powerful class on the continent.

The revolution is not over yet and everything is up for grabs.