Revolution #251, November 27, 2011

From A World to Win News Service

Egypt: Still out of control

Revolution Editors' Note: We thought this article on developments in Egypt would be of interest to our readers. For background on the uprising at the beginning of this year that led to the ousting of longtime U.S.-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak, see coverage at And we encourage readers to read the February 11 statement by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA: "EGYPT 2011: MILLIONS HAVE HEROICALLY STOOD UP… THE FUTURE REMAINS TO BE WRITTEN."

November 22, 2011. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. Once again events in Egypt have taken everyone by surprise, even the actors. Through a conjunction of favorable circumstances and especially through their courage and daring, the youth who were at the core of the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak have regained the initiative and struck back at efforts to continue the old regime in a new form.

Many people are talking about "Tahrir reloaded." They called last Saturday, when the youth first successfully resisted police attempts to clear them out of Cairo's main square, "day 19," a return to the 18-day revolt that began last January 25. But that Tahrir moment, the days when there was a consensus throughout Egyptian society—that Mubarak was finished—will not come again. The armed forces, which dumped Mubarak with U.S. assent, have been waging a war on the youth and made themselves that movement's main target despite initial illusions that the military might be a positive force or at least neutral. When protesters now revive the old chant, "The people want the fall of the regime," and explicitly add the name of Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Armed Forces Council (SCAF) that took over from Mubarak, it is in much more difficult circumstances, facing even more vicious battles at the beginning of the year, and with a much more divided population. And it is even more daring.

In retrospect, it may be that the last few months, when the movement fell back amid serious difficulties, should be considered as one of intense calm in the midst of a continuing revolutionary crisis rather than an ebbing of the revolutionary situation. While the revolt had lost the initiative, it is clear that a great many people remained deeply dissatisfied and were in fact becoming increasingly angry and desperate. When they saw a chance to act decisively, they took it.

That chance occurred in connection with a mass rally called by the Muslim Brotherhood meant to pressure the military regime to its own advantage. The Islamists are reactionaries seeking to use religion and religious rule to make acceptable the relations of exploitation and oppression that have made life unbearable for so many Egyptians. But their contradictions with the military regime created room for something entirely different, an ultimately successful attempt to "replay Tahrir" in the sense of a new occupation intended to bring down the new/old regime.

The November 18 rally started out with a different scene than witnessed in Cairo's Tahrir Square back in January and February, even if it was the biggest protest since then. That earlier Tahrir was marked by an almost utopian spirit of mutual aid, collective self-reliance and equality between ethnic groups, religions and even, to some extent, men and women. Photos show men, women and children present, and at the hours of Muslim prayers, some people kneeling in devotion and others standing up, all mixed together, with many people not praying. The Brotherhood, somewhat tolerated as well as sometimes repressed under Mubarak, boycotted the revolt in the crucial first few days. When the Brotherhood did come, their presence didn't change the movement's character.

In contrast, when the call to prayer came on Friday afternoon, November 18, hardly a head was left raised. There were some distinctions between the crowds brought out by the Muslim Brotherhood (especially strong among the middle classes, including doctors, lawyers, engineers and journalists) and the various Salafist groups (known for their support from the young urban poor), although these differences in class base are very approximate and often contradictory. There were a variety of views on whether the new government should be civil in form but Islamic-based, or one on the Saudi Arabian model (seen as a rich and modern country where Sunni fundamentalism rules supreme, as opposed to poor and backward Afghanistan or Shia Iran isolated by the West). But there seems to have been a shared sense that Islam should be considered the only source of morality and political legitimacy.

Among the youth groups and leftist parties that attended, most tried to literally keep a distance from the Islamist groups (each organized around its own podium and preachers) and maintain a distinct political identity focused on opposition to military trials and political repression, which the Islamists seldom talk about. There was debate about whether or not to try and occupy Tahrir Square. In the early evening, the Muslim Brotherhood and the main Salafist groups declared the event over and left. The April 6 Youth Organization, the best-known secular youth group, announced that instead of attempting to stay in the square they were calling for another demonstration the following Friday (the only day most people have off from work).

A previous attempt to "replay Tahrir" in July failed to gather enough momentum to prevent a police attack that cleared the square and then survive the month-long break for Ramadan in August. The SCAF had been forced to permit marches and rallies in Tahrir and elsewhere, but occupation, which has come to represent a challenge to the legitimacy of the prevailing regime, had not been permitted.

However, some youth, a few hundred according to reports, decided to stay overnight in Tahrir anyway. The next morning they were attacked by the Central Security Forces, Mubarak's well-trained and organized black-clad riot police. Twice that day, in the morning and especially the early evening, the police almost succeeded in driving them out, but thousands of youth began to pour in from around the city. At first they came individually and in small groups. Later, columns marched in from assembly points at other downtown squares and even more distant neighbourhoods, both middle class and poor. The fighting was intense; at least two people were killed. The police used tear gas, clubs, electric prods, shotguns firing rubber bullets and birdshot, and standard bullets. Soldiers on the rooftops of the surrounding tall buildings threw down tear gas canisters and other deadly objects. The underground station—one of the city's two main junctions—was closed to cut off new arrivals. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning ex-International Atomic Energy Agency head who is the country's most prominent candidate for the as yet unscheduled presidential elections, came to the square. Some Islamists, particularly youth, came back.

Other demonstrations broke out in at least seven other cities. In Suez, where people had burned down the police station and other official buildings in the first days of the January revolt, the new police headquarters was assaulted. Along with Alexandria, there were also fierce protests in several smaller cities along the upper Nile.

Tahrir remained occupied Saturday night. The police attacked even more ferociously the next day, killing at least 11 more people. Hospitals reported about 1,800 injured Saturday and Sunday. Two well-known groups of football [soccer] fans ("ultras") came to reinforce the battle against the police, who have always treated them brutally. Military policemen and officers also took part in attacking people, according to some reports. But on Sunday and Monday, at times the protesters were able to take the offensive. They repeatedly marched on the Ministry of the Interior, one of the most important targets left unscathed after last January and February. Obviously they felt they had unfinished business.

Over the past months, the armed forces’ increasing use of naked violence, sometimes directly by soldiers as well as police, has certainly scared many people, but it has also made many conclude that the military's rule is the problem, not the solution—that an attempt to "replay Tahrir," this time against the army, is the only way out of a deteriorating situation.

Yet it was the Muslim Brotherhood and not the youth organizations and certainly none of the traditional "left" parties that issued the call for a "Million Man March" in Tahrir Square November 18. (As it turned out, there were closer to 50,000.) It was billed as "The Day of One Demand"—that the military give up power. This might seem surprising, since the military and Islamists have been acting as "one hand" in trying to restore stability and steer people off the streets and into the polling booths for the scheduled November 28 parliamentary elections that the Islamists expect will hand them a central role in a new civilian government.

The Muslim Brotherhood's apparent conflict with the army was precipitated when a civilian minister, answerable, like the whole government, to the generals, proposed to a meeting of the major political parties that the armed forces be allowed to dictate certain constitutional principles now, choose most of the members of the panel to write a new constitution after parliament is elected, and permanently remain above civilian interference or even budgetary supervision. The Brotherhood's electoral arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, declared this a threat to the emergence of "democracy" in Egypt. Certainly a great many people saw these measures as a crude attempt to perpetuate military rule under a parliamentary fig leaf.

At the same time, however, as the Brotherhood's secular critics point out, the proposal contained articles and procedures that might make it harder to declare Egypt an Islamic republic, restrict the Islamist parties' options and of course keep them under military supervision. While the U.S. and its Egyptian flunkies are unanimous in their belief that parliamentary elections are the only way to restore the legitimacy of state institutions, and while most observers think that an Islamist-dominated parliament is the most probable result, there may very well be contention between various forces among the Islamists and the generals.

There is another factor likely at work, although no proof has been uncovered: the U.S. During the period when the Brotherhood was negotiating with the military as to whether or not to call off the threatened November 18 demonstration and was also officially in contact with U.S. State Department representatives, American government officials began to express unhappiness with the Egyptian military's efforts to formally limit the powers of a future civilian government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "If, over time, the most powerful political forces in Egypt remain a handful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egypt will have missed a historic opportunity." (New York Times, November 16) In other words, while the U.S. might agree with the generals' project in the abstract, its officials fear that continuing brazen military rule could undermine U.S. interests, which require a government whose stability depends not just on violence but also on a sufficient degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

This doesn't mean that the U.S. plans to try to do without the nearly million-man Egyptian armed forces. They are the recipient of $1.3 billion a year in direct American funding, and the U.S. has carefully cultivated its officer corps for decades. But the Egyptian military has its own political and economic interests, including a gigantic network of enterprises under its command. Roughly 40 percent of the country's economy is estimated to be controlled by a network of military and other state-owned enterprises and private companies run by retired officers.

The imperialist finance system, speaking through the IMF, has often complained that foreign investment would be better served by more "private"-sector opportunities. The U.S. once encouraged Hosni Mubarak's son and appointed successor, Gamal, because he sought to expand, at the military's expense, the "private" capital sector now championed by civilian presidential candidates such as ElBaradei. (Actually, in an economy organized according to the laws of capitalism, both state-owned and "private" capital are effectively private in terms of putting narrow, particular interests above the general interests of society.) The U.S. and the Egyptian military can't do without one another, but that doesn't mean that their interests are identical.

As for the U.S. and the Islamists, the American government's attitude seems to be "maybe." No one can say exactly where an Islamist government might lead, and U.S. officials are certainly aware of potential problems with an Islamic government bordering Israel. But the U.S., which kept Mubarak in power for three decades and clung to him almost to the end, does not have a lot of options. If Egypt slipped out of American domination, that would be a disaster for U.S. interests in the region and the world.

The basic question being fought over in the squares and streets is who will govern Egypt: Islamists, generals or those who declare themselves loyal to "human rights; and in what form, through a military junta, a parliament and civilian president, or an emir (religious political leader). These are very important questions with deep, long-term implications. But who governs and the form of governance doesn't settle the question of the content of rule—the class or classes that hold political power, and consequently the way society is organized economically and politically, for what purpose, and what ideology is promoted.

It is vital to understand that the common demand for an end to military rule covers opposing possible outcomes representing mutually antagonistic interests. The question is whether open military rule comes to an end in a way that encourages or discourages people's struggles to go further.

Even if the entire military-appointed government of the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, a former Mubarak figure, were replaced in an effort to appease the revolt, it's likely that the military would still call the shots. Under any circumstances, no matter which civilian might become prime minister and eventually president, the armed forces would have the ultimate say, as well as control of powerful economic, social and political levers. After all, on what armed power would any other government rest?

This situation would not be changed by the resignation of the minister who suggested that the new constitution formally sanction continued military control, as the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties demanded, or even the resignation of all the ministers, an idea considered so extreme that these parties did not dare demand it Monday morning, but became a real possibility by Monday night. The SCAF may seek to "replay Tahrir" in its own way by jettisoning whoever necessary to keep from being overthrown.

ElBaradei is now proposing the replacement of the SCAF-appointed government with a government of national unity composed of all the major political parties, including the Islamists and people like himself. (According to Al Ahram, the April 6 Youth organization has endorsed this proposal.) It is also noteworthy that the SCAF's recent decision to accept IMF funds (and therefore decisions) sparked little controversy among these parties. However real their differences, they are all ultimately amenable to the global, imperialist-dominated economic system and power relations.

As long as the army is not dismantled by revolutionary force, it will continue to be the backbone and pillar of any regime. The Islamists may have their own interests and agenda, but they definitely plan on ruling with the army, not against it. (In another act of blatant hypocrisy, when their maneuver to use the streets to their advantage backfired, they called for an end to all street demonstrations. A prominent Brotherhood leader who came to Tahrir with a handful of supporters on November 21 was booed out of the square.)

To many people, the best-case outcome would be a government chosen by majority rule through elections. This is especially understandable in a country that has never known anything but monarchy and a military rule where the occasional opposition candidates not in the regime's pay often ended up in jail or exile. But even with real elections, parliamentary democracy is perfectly compatible with and often the best form for the dictatorship of the exploiting classes. The formal equality of citizens before the law masks and gives full play to the enormous inequalities that characterize Egypt at least as much as any other country.

Further, Egyptian experience of the last nine months is rich in examples of how a revolt unsanctioned by elections can draw ordinary people into political life and allow them to change basic things through their actions, and how the experience (and promise) of elections can strip them of their conscious, active role. It has also highlighted the limitations of a spontaneous revolt that doesn't seek state power.

The Muslim Brotherhood now argues that the latest clashes were encouraged by provocateurs to force the cancellation of the imminent elections. But maybe one factor in the current upsurge is that many people have already decided that they can't expect anything good from this electoral process, even if they haven't lost hope in parliamentary democracy in the abstract.

A few of the revolt's intellectual participants do question parliamentary democracy as a viable or even desirable alternative to the military. Some "moderate" Islamist arguments in favor of the so-called supremacy of elections are instructive in this regard. They reason that since the majority of Egyptians are practicing Muslims, then it is only right for the country to become an Islamic state. This might be considered just more hypocritical opportunism—after all, these forces intend to do everything in their power to set the terms of debate in the most manipulative and coercive manner and have never relied solely on persuasion—but there is a real, inescapable point here: the majority can be fooled, and certainly what the majority might think at any given moment doesn't necessarily correspond to the fundamental interests of the vast majority of people. Those who fought to overthrow Mubarak and have continued the revolt have not always had the visible broad support they wanted.

The fact is that in Egypt, not only would parliamentary democracy be a form of the dictatorship of the exploiting classes in which the interests and deepest desires of the people do not bear any weight in basic decisions, but it would be doubly empty because life in Egypt is ultimately determined by the interests and decisions of the imperialists, the powers whose twin instruments of subjugation are their military and the global market.

To take just one example: although the Nile valley and delta where most Egyptians live is among the world's most fertile land, imported wheat and other foodstuffs are cheaper than domestic production and the world market has crushed Egypt's agriculture. Consequently, the country has become the world's biggest wheat importer (American "aid" ensures that it is bought from the U.S.). To pay for this central component of people's diet, the country must depend on revenues from the Suez Canal (without which the military and bureaucracy would never have become so swollen), the export of gas (Egypt sends gas to Israel while Egyptians cook with fires or use inconvenient and dangerous propane tanks), tourism (which requires a docile population) and especially the export of people (the money sent home by Egyptians forced to work abroad). Dependence on these sectors is an obstacle to an all-around development of the economy, including employment. There are so many people hungry for work in the Nile Delta that China and Iran, in addition to the Western powers, have set up factories there to exploit cheap Egyptian labor.

Changing the country's subordinated development and its disastrous effects on every aspect of the lives of the people, including their day-to-day existence and their culture and thinking—not to mention getting rid of all the other exploitative and oppressive relations in Egyptian life—cannot conceivably happen without a thoroughgoing revolution, the forcible overthrow of the power of the exploiting classes and the establishment of a whole new kind of regime led by a party that has the goal and a plan for freeing Egypt as part of ending exploitation and oppression on a world scale.

Making a revolution in any country, including Egypt, is unthinkable unless a section of the people led by such a party can successfully navigate through a complex mix of favorable and unfavorable factors. But the current complexity of the Egyptian situation contains positive factors that are rare in the history of any country. The people's enemies have not been able to resolve a political crisis that has festered since January and now become acute. So far they have not been able to restore the legitimacy of their institutions of domination or establish new ones. If they have vacillated in choosing a course of action, it is because any choice they make entails the risk of inflaming this crisis further. For instance, beating and shooting demonstrators has been anything but a solution for them, but stopping that might allow the people's anger to boil over. Serious compromises to the people's struggle might give the rebels a taste of victory that leaves them hungry for more, now or at some later point, especially if these concessions fail to fulfil their expectations.

The persistence of youth and others—despite a difficult period in which there has been more passivity than street action, especially among the less well-off sections of the people—has proved to be a mood creating factor throughout society. It is true that this "Internet elite," as an Egyptian politician sneeringly labeled them, has not always been able to rouse the broader masses. Yet they have been a major element in preventing the military and Islamist forces from consolidating their hold and keeping alive the possibility that broader masses could once again intervene in determining the country's future, as they did during those 18 days in January and February.

As of now, a wide variety of youth, not only "the Internet elite" but also working class students and young men and boys of the lower classes in general, have become uncontrollable. They are actively supported by many thousands of other men and some women. In fact, they have won enough sympathy and support that millions may consider them more in touch with their interests and even more legitimate than the ruling regime. Their courage in the face of repression is such that many have adopted the habit of writing the phone number of their next of kin on their arm in case they are found dead or unconscious—fear doesn't stop them. The solidarity is such that amid the tear gas people have formed long lines to donate blood at two mobile stations set up in Tahrir Square.

The factors that brought about that first Tahrir moment—the inability of the ruling classes to rule in the old way and the willingness of a large section of the people to risk death rather than continue living in the old way—remain unresolved and continue to interact.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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