July 2013: general al-Sisi announces the deposition of president Morsi.
Last July, it appeared that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had run its course. It was displaced by a discourse of totalitarian ultra-nationalism that has left an entire nation, save for the supporters of the Muslim Brothers, enchanted with a soft spoken army general. Someone who takes it upon the armed forces to provide the Egyptians with the tender loving care the revolution has failed to provide, to paraphrase some of his own communiqués. Or so it appeared in July.
Six months later, some signs of a resurgence of the revolutionary spirit are becoming palpable. The hegemony of the discourse of “the people, the army, and the police united,” which would have been deemed a bad joke prior to June 2013 but reigned supreme among the masses hostile to the Brotherhood afterwards, is fraying. Strikes of the Egyptian blue collar workers have resumed. And a small core of committed individuals and groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists, 6 April, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and several others, who remain committed to the goal of a civil government dominated by neither the Brotherhood nor Mubarak’s old regime and his military, are still continuing on the road taken in 2011.
The repressive measures of the post-July government under the right wing economist Hazem al-Beblawi as its prime minister, and general Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (known for his defense of SCAF’s ‘virginity tests’in 2011 when he was chief of military intelligence), as its minister of Defense, are not serving it well. Failure to indicate any willingness to budge from Mubarak’s neoliberal economic policies, and increasing levels of police repression are leaving the majority of Egyptians with a bitter aftertaste. It is becoming clear to the masses that their lot will not improve with the present government or the one that would emerge following the parliamentary and presidential elections anticipated in the next few months. One can say that the objective conditions that precipitated the uprising of 2011 are still in place. The Egyptian “revolutionary situation” is as much there today as it was three years ago: But as Lenin wrote, a revolutionary situation alone is never enough to give rise to a revolution, but must be accompanied by the ability of the revolutionary class to take a revolutionary mass action strong enough to dislocate the old government. What remains uncertain is when that “revolutionary mass action” will emerge.
Betrayals, double crossings
Revolutionary change cannot be brought about by the military or under its auspices. Neither can it be delivered by a neo-liberal religious based organization that does not even shun the age-old repressive measures of the state apparatus. Clear as these facts may have been to some, it appears that Egyptians are forced to learn them the hard way. In January 2011, the deployment of the Egyptian Armed Forces to the streets in the wake of fierce and bloody battles between the police and the protesters, which resulted in the defeat of the police forces and their disappearance from the streets, brought about the cheer ´´ The people and the army are united´´. It was a sentiment that would become even more potent on February 11, when the spokesman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), announced President Mubarak’ s resignation and the council’s takeover of the government. In the following weeks, SCAF would announce that its governance would be a transitional phase during which it would oversee constitutional amendment, parliamentary, and presidential elections.
A nation celebrated and declared victory, and salutations flew in from around the world. Few were skeptic of this alliance of the military and the people, and it was these few who less than a month later returned to Tahrir to resume the sit-ins. The protestors’ demanded more transparency and a clearer commitment to the goals of the revolution, namely social justice, and a real elimination of Mubarak’s regime through the prosecution of the deposed president, senior members of his government and of the Egyptian business elite whose accumulation of wealth was augmented though corrupt dealings with Mubarak’s state. SCAF quickly bared its teeth and in the continued absence of the police, subjected the protestors to massive repression. Little was done to meet their demands and it has become clear that much of what was done to assuage the protests did not bring the revolution closer to its goals. For example, while Mubarak, his sons, and several of their cronies were arrested and charged with corruption as well as assaulting and even killing the protestors of Jan 2011, the most serious of these charges have been dropped over the course of the trials for lack of evidence. Here one should note that while SCAF’s Marshall, Tantawi, was celebrated in the first half of 2011, for having “stood by the revolution, and refused to attack the protestors,” his testimony at Mubarak’s trial did not include any references to presidential orders of attacking the protestors. The Egyptian media passed over this paradox in silence.
In the summer of 2013, Mubarak and son were released from prison as was business tycoon and former head of the National Democratic Party’s policies’committee, Ahmad Ezz, and others. While Mubarak’s minister of interior Habib al-Adly received a life sentence for using violence against the demonstrators, time has shown that the Egyptian police has not changed its policies and procedures much. Furthermore, SCAF proved no less murderous than the police as was repeatedly demonstrated in March, July, October, and November of 2011.
Ironically enough, the most concrete gain of the continuous protests against SCAF was the expedition of the plans to transfer the government to an elected president, an especially bitter irony because while the brotherhood was nearly absent from these street protests, amid claims of complicity and secret dealings with SCAF, the organization finally emerged as the biggest winner with the election of President Mohammed Morsi in June 2012. The broad base of the coalitions that came together to oust Mubarak in Jan/Feb 2011 and the lack of a hierarchical organization among them, two characteristics that helped produce the uprising, were among the reasons why these revolutionaries were the ones that lost at the electoral process. Morsi would spend a year in office, a year in which it would quickly become evident that he was more interested in courting Mubarak’s deep state than in strengthening the connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and the other forces of resistance to the former regime. Examples were an amnesty to General Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister, former head of SCAF, a promotion of its member and chief of military intelligence, general Sisi, to Minister of Defense, an obsequious speech in praise of Egyptian police on the second anniversary of the revolution on Jan 25, 2013, and a complete unwillingness to budge from established neoliberal economic policies of the last four decades. Eevidence of the latter was the government’s announcement of plans to continue borrowing from the IMF, privatizing government enterprises and further seduction of foreign capital investment through tax breaks and investment friendly legislation. Needless to say, such plans conflicted with any aspirations of setting minimum and maximum wages, empowering worker’s unions, and even adjusting the tax structure. An absence of clear signs of commitment to these aspirations was justified by the need to first “put the country back on its feet,” with a focus on stability and regaining the higher levels of GNP that have dropped since 2011.
The (anti -Morsi) National Salvation Front at a press confgerence. Left to right: Sabbahi, Al-Baradei, and Amro Moussa, former minister of Foreign Affairs under Mubarak. (Foto AP)
Conflict over Identity
Morsi’s year in office should have been characterized by popular pressure for his government to pursue the revolution’s aspirations for a break with Mubarak’s regime and its neoliberal policies, for the prosecution of those who have oppressed and pillaged the country for three decades. However, the few who voiced such demands were drowned in a media orchestrated campaign to vilify the Brotherhood and their president in the most Islamophobic of terms. The Brotherhood and its supporters were demonized as “Islamists” whose goal it was to take over, not only the country, but the entire region. An inane and chauvinistic discourse of pride in Egypt’s secularism, diversity, multiculturalism, and modernity, and the endangerment of all these great characteristics by the Brotherhood’s rise to power dominated the country’s “independent’' media, primarily its television. Here it should be noted that even a cursory look at the ownership of this media would reveal that the last thing are is independent, and that in the service of the people’s revolution they will never be. One of the largest and most widely viewed television channels, certainly one that has spearheaded the anti-Mursi campaign, is owned by Naguib Sawiris (net worth $2.7 billion according to Forbes), owner of the country’s largest telecommunications company. Former military officer, Suliman Amer, whose fortune was originated from the building of luxury residential resorts amid claims of corrupt means of securing the land at less than market value during Mubarak’s era, owns another popular channel with the ironic name of “Tahrir”.
Benefiting from the frustration of the majority of the population over the continued economic crisis and indeed a lack of political vision and aptitude within Mursi’s government, the Egyptian media derailed the revolution into an inane conflict between secularism and Islamism, a derailment that was aided by a mix of myopia and opportunism on the part of the leaders of the opposition to Morsi’s government. Morsi’s opposition crystallized into an alliance between Sabbahi, an avowed Nasserist in favor of state controlled economy, and al-Baradei, a liberal whose party program advocates liberalization of the market and a western style democracy. The alliance became the nucleus of a front whose members were a hodge-podge mix of prominent figures, including some who had served in Mubarak’s regime.
Naturally, the “pathetic front”, as it was called by Sameh Naguib in the editorial of the Revolutionary Socialists’ quarterly “Awraq Ishtirakiyya"(No,23, June 2013)could only articulate a single grievance against Morsi’s government: They are Islamists, a threat to our secularism. “The front helped transform the conflict into one over identity, between a civil current represented by the front and an Islamist front represented by the Brotherhood and their allies among the Salafists,” wrote Naguib. “Then the liberals gave the Brotherhood another free gift through their alliance with the remnants of Mubarak’s regime and their constant demand for the intervention of the military,” a demand which the Revolutionary Socialists categorically rejected. Continuing in the same editorial, Naguib articulated the conundrum of what transpired as the mass protests of June 30. All the opponents to the Brotherhood will participate in these protests, but these forces have qualitatively different goals, wrote Naguib, adding that supporters of Mubarak’s old regime will be there in addition to the liberal bourgeois opposition that only wants to replace the brotherhood but not continue the revolution. The revolutionaries will also be there, but for them ending the Brotherhood’s rule is not enough of a goal. Rather the goal is to pursue the revolution of 2011, to prosecute Mubarak’s men in the military, the police and the business elite and to replace the current state with another that directly represents Egypt’s workers and peasants and the poor and responds to the people’s demands for dignity and social justice.
“War on Terror”
That the calls for military intervention drowned its opponents through a mass frenzy against the Brotherhood, and that those who emerged as the winners of this intervention were none other than the representatives of the old regime is now neither a secret nor even news. The bulk of those who were opposing the Brotherhood in the name of the revolution are now eerily silent. The Egyptian ministry of Interior in its full pre-2011 glory is back. Mass arrests, street shootings, torture and non-legal detentions are now part of Egyptian every day life, all in the name of a George W. Bush like “war on terror.” Egyptians today are making the same mistake that Americans made in 2001, giving up civil liberties and critical mindsets in the hope for an ever-elusive security. The pseudo-civil government that has been put in place under the auspices of General al-Sisi has secured the complacency of most of the Egyptian public as it goes through its witch-hunt for the leaders of the Brotherhood, and the massacres against its supporters, through the all too familiar mantra: You are either with us or with the terrorists.
Even activists who are clearly not allied with the Brotherhood, who were public heroes only yesteryear today face repression, albeit less severely than the “Islamists”, with little or no public outrage. Alaa Abd al-Fattah, an activist and blogger who was imprisoned during Morsi’s year in office, has been in police custody since the end of November following an unlawful arrest from his home. No charges have been pressed. In December, three activists, Ahmad Douma (also imprisoned under Morsi), Ahmad Maher, and Mohammed Adel (leaders of the 6 April movement), received three-year prison sentences on trumped up charges of assaulting police officers. Hundreds more have been arrested, detained, harassed and released, without a legal record of such actions. On December 18, the police raided the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), arrested all those present and led them, handcuffed and blindfolded, to a police station where they were harassed for several hours and then released. Reports of such acts of intimidation have become too many to even record.
Workers on the textile factories in Mahalla on strike,. February 2011 (Al-Masry al-Youm)
One important kind of revolutionary activity that has been instrumental in Egypt’s revolutionary struggle and remains active today is the workers’ movement. Not surprisingly, reports on this movement have been scarce and corrupted in the Egyptian media. From the Western media they are absent altogether, as these seem to be keen on the representation of the Egyptian struggle as a revolt against state corruption and repression and a quest for a western-style democrac. A representation that is at odds with even the most basic slogan that has dominated all protest actions: “Bread, freedom and social justice,” with its emphasis on the basic needs of the poor and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
The 2008 workers’ strikes at Mahalla, one of the country’s largest centers of textile industry and a complex with more than 20,000 workers, must be acknowledged as the pre-cursor of what transpired in 2011. The strikers’ demands showed a remarkable development by moving away from ones that would benefit the Mahalla workers specifically to a demand for a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds for all workers, in both the public and private sectors alike. This demand has continued to be on the agenda of all workers’ movements since then, and it was only a few months ago that the government was compelled to partially respond to it (As it stands, it is granted for the workers in the public but not the private sector). The Mahalla workers’ strike was the nucleus for the call for a general strike on April 6 of the same year, a strike that was partially successful and became the springboard of the organization 6 April, which has since been instrumental in all the protest movements with over 70,000 members. According to the counts of ECESR, the workers’ protest movements numbered 447 in 2008, 487 in 2009 and 530 in 2010. Many of those movements showed the same kind of development in their demands that characterized the 2008 Mahalla strike, calling for the right to form independent unions, to prosecute and change corrupt management, in addition to the typical demands for higher pay and a few of them were carried out non-manual labor, another important development in the movement. One fact that often gets ignored is that Mubarak stepped down on February 11, less than 24 hours after the workers of Mahalla, together with those of the Iron and Steel Industry in Helwan (12,000 workers), and others in Suez, Alexandria and Cairo called for a workers’ open strike. The change of government in 2011 only caused the workers’ protest movements to stop for two months, and by March 2011, the counts were up again. According to ECESR, in 2011-2013, the total number of workers’protests was higher than the number of protests in the ten previous years, in spite of a smearing campaign in the mainstream media that accused the protesters of being unpatriotic and focused on their own demands rather than the well-being of the nation as a whole. More importantly, the workers’ demand continued to exceed higher wages or better work conditions. They also demanded changes of administration, especially in the public sector where there has been a deliberate effort during Mubarak’s rule to overlook mismanagement and corruption within the administration of public sector, which would then be sold to private investors at low prices. A long struggle by workers in a linen textiles factory recently forced a court order that reversed one of those privatization efforts that had left the factory in the hands of a Saudi investor.
One lesson that the post July 3 government learned that Morsi’s had not, is that the workers’ movement must be appeased. (It is my personal impression that President Morsi may have confounded the workers and the poor, and thought that he does not need to appease the former on account of the Brotherhood’s base among the latter). Thus, it was among the new government’s first and most surprising decisions to offer a seat in the cabinet to a labor activist, Kamal Abu Eita, previously chair of the first independent federation of labor unions, formed in 2010, a man who had for years agitated against the regime. Second, came the granting of the demanded minimum wage of 1,200 pounds for workers in the state run industries. Yet much to the surprise of the government, the workers’ struggles continued and their protests seem to stop in one complex only to begin in another. On August 12, an army tank showed up, along with other security forces at the sit-in of the Suez Steel workers to end a strike andarrest its leaders.
Several smaller strikes and workers protests followed, and in November the Iron and Steel workers once again picked up the baton. This time union leaders adopted a new strategy. Rather than a strike, the call was for the occupation of the management headquarters, and the demands were not only related to wages and work conditions, but also included a complete overhaul of the complex’s management policy. The Iron and Steel factory, they explained, is one of a kind in the country and as such represents one of the strategic national industries. It was conceived in the 1960’s as part of a complex, which also produces the coke coal required for its operations. Under Mubarak’s government, however, the coke factory was allowed to export its output, leaving the iron and steel factory able to run only one of its four furnaces. This in turn resulted in reduction of the number of the factory workers from the original 25,000 to the current 12,000. Although the workers’ protests began with the demand for the payment of an annual bonus, which had been withheld in 2013, the demands quickly escalated to a change of management and a government commitment to run the factory at full capacity. After 23 days of the sit-in, and multiple negotiations with the aim of convincing the workers to compromise and accept partial solutions, the government agreed to all the workers’ demands. Unfortunately, the struggle of the iron and steel workers exposed Abu Eita, the leader cum minister and showed that the government had succeeded in coopting him and securing his allegiance to its policies. But, to co-opt a leader is not to co-opt a movement. The victory of the iron and steel workers is quite significant. It is not going to bring about a change of the regime or the success of the revolution. Yet, it is one of many indications that Egypt’s revolutionary situation will continue and that the country’s proletariat consciousness has grown.
Another important workers’ movement that must be mentioned is that of the Noubaseed corporation, Noubaseed was founded in 1976 as a state-run company for the production of seeds and fertilizers and grew to produce 60% of Egypt’s seeds for agriculture. In 1988, it was sold to a Saudi investor, but in the wake of the January 2011 revolution, investigative reports were presented to the Egyptian judiciary with evidence of illegal transactions, including illegal acquisitions of land on the part of the Saudi investor. The investor, ‘Abdallah al-Ka’ky” in turn decided to close down the company, withdraw its accounts from the bank, and present the case to an international court. Mubarak’s legislation had given foreign investments such powers against both the workers and the state. In response, company workers took over the entire production process, quite successfully and with the help of experts from the ministry of agriculture and the local population of the Noubariyyah district, where the company is located. These days, two years later, the current government is moving towards a reconciliation with the Saudi investor and a agreement to drop charges against him and avail him of the company. The workers are protesting for the return of Noubaseed to its original status as government owned. The story of Noubaseed is another proof of a rising consciousness among Egypt’s workers. It is this consciousness that today is the flicker of hope in a very bleak landscape.
There is no doubt that after the dust settles and the nation’s fascination with the soft-spoken general subsides, it will become clear that Egypt’s revolutionary situation has not changed, that the consciousness of its revolutionary class has grown, and that the ruling class will not to be able to maintain the old ways. But as Lenin reminds us:
It is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.
Obviously, the majority of Egyptians have been trying to topple the old regime for three years now. It remains to be seen whether they will succeed in the foreseeable future.
(Dr Noha Radwan is Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at UC Davis, Berkeley)