From the eye of the storm in Egypt

July 9, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi has been installed as Egypt's first democratically elected president after volatile weeks of protest and repression surrounding the two rounds of voting in May and June. But the military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), while it was unable to impose its preferred presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, still holds the sweeping powers it claimed after the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and the SCAF claimed legislative authority in its place, along with effective veto power over the writing of a new constitution and other measures.

After weeks leading up to the election when it seemed like the military might unleash an outright coup, masses of Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square and the streets of other cities in mass protest, in response to calls to action by the Muslim Brotherhood and also by radical organizations that have been at the heart of Egypt's revolution since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Egypt was a topic in many of the discussions at the Socialism 2012 conference in Chicago on June 28-July 1. One meeting featured a call-in, live from Cairo, by three founding members of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, Mostafa Ali, Laila Khoutry and Sameh Naguib. Here, we print their opening presentations.

Mostafa Ali

I WANT to thank everyone in the audience for coming to the meeting today, and I hope everyone has a great Socialism conference. We hope to also be able to attend soon.

We recognize the importance of discussing politics and theory at this great moment, when it's clear that all these momentous events are happening in the world--in Egypt, in the Arab world, in Greece, and also in the rest of Europe and in the United States. Action is absolutely important, but action has to be joined together with theory and history and politics. So I hope everyone has a great dose of theory to go back to the battles of every day in the United States.

It's also good that there are people in the audience there who have had the chance to visit Egypt and who had the chance to see some of the struggles of the Egyptian revolution--the strikes by workers, the battles of workers' strikes, the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud Street last fall and other fights over the course of the last year.

They were long battles, and every time many of us thought that the ruling class had gained the upper hand and the revolution was in retreat, when people had doubts, we were time and time again surprised by the immense potential of militancy and the deep belief of people in Egypt--poor people and workers in Egypt--in this revolution.

Thousands celebrated in Tahrir Square when Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of presidential election
Thousands celebrated in Tahrir Square when Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of presidential election (Jonathan Rashad)

Only a month ago, the whole media was questioning--along with many people who believed in the revolution--whether the revolution was over. Most people were completely surprised by the turnout in the presidential elections last May. We found out what some of us were saying, but many of us doubted--that the majority of the country, some 65 percent, said with their votes that they still supported the revolution.

We just had another very difficult battle in which again the candidate of the deep state, the candidate of Mubarak, the candidate of the military council was defeated. It's definite that with the candidate of the Brotherhood ascending to the presidency, we're entering into a new phase, into a new stage--and it's going to be a long fight.

I won't speak for too long because there are two great comrades here, some of the founding members of the Revolutionary Socialists who have spent years trying to build the socialist alternative here under very difficult circumstances--and luckily lived long enough to see the Egyptian revolution. And now, they finally will get a chance to speak to an audience across the Atlantic.

We have comrade Laila, who will read a short statement from the Revolutionary Socialists to the Socialism conference, and then comrade Sameh Naguib, who will make a few general remarks about the political situation in the country. And then, we are hoping to take some questions and answers from the audience, to have some kind of dialogue--because I know that there are many issues we face here in Egypt that people have been debating all around the world, in Europe and in the United States, about the future and the direction of the revolution.

Laila Khoutry

Dear Comrades in the International Socialist Organization:

We write to congratulate you on the holding of Socialism this year as you have done for many years to bring together some of the best revolutionary and progressive activists in the United States and the world to share the experiences of struggle at home and internationally. We are deeply sorry for not attending this important gathering as we are overwhelmed by critical struggles to stop a grab for power and a nascent military coup at this exciting time.

A month ago, at one of the many moments of ups and downs in the history of the revolution, all seemed bleak to many who support the revolution in Egypt.

At home, the ruling class seemed to have regained its firm grip on matters to the point where it was ready to install Mubarak's last prime minister as president. Around us, revolutions were taking a deep beating by entrenched ruling classes in Yemen and Syria, and stagnating in Libya and Tunisia, all with the aid from reactionary Arab regimes and Western imperialism.

It seemed for a time that Egyptian workers and those who started this earth-shattering process were exhausted and the forces of reaction had carved a straight path to the victory of counter-revolution.

Yet to the amazement of many on all sides of the struggle, millions in Egypt went to presidential polls to vote for pro-revolution candidates in May, and then stopped the candidate of the deep state in the June runoffs. For the first time since the fall of Mubarak, Tahrir was full, with 2 million happy and tearful people on the night Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the ruling military council, was defeated.

None of this would have been possible without the re-intervention of masses of ordinary people who took to the streets in the past two weeks against the generals, in a way we had not seen in months.

This victory will usher in a new phase in the revolution, and many more struggles will come. We will be fighting on new terrains, since the political equation will change with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency. And we have a lot to learn on how to deal with the opportunities and difficulties ahead of us.

In all these months, we relied on the solidarity that international left forces have provided to the Egyptian revolution--from demonstrations against military trials to protests against the latest coup attempts--as material support. The International Socialist Organization was key in building support to all those fighting in Egypt at every turn of events.

Most of the audience might not be aware that the articles of the U.S. Socialist Worker, which we translate into Arabic and publish every week, have helped us clarify ideas and build a stronger socialist and left alternative in Egypt. The analysis of your writers, especially Lee Sustar, Alan Maass and Paul D'Amato, provide many in Egypt with powerful tools in educating comrades in the ins and outs of revolutionary politics.

Your translation of our regular statements in your paper provides us with a crucial venue to reach wider audiences hungry for a left voice from Egypt. Moreover, your coverage of world events, including the momentous struggles in Greece, as well as your coverage of critical workers' and anti-racist battles in the United States, are invaluable resources to us here.

We are fully aware that our battle here against a local ruling class is ultimately a fight against the forces of Western imperialism, and especially the U.S. ruling class and its key regional representatives from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Therefore, we fully appreciate the centrality of your struggles to build a socialist alternative in the United States to the success of building a revolutionary alternative internationally.

Comrades, no one should doubt for a second how critical it is to be involved in the day-to-day struggles to build a socialist alternative and a large influential revolutionary organization ahead of revolutions.

Many among the revolutionary forces in Egypt learned this lesson of what a difference a sizeable and well-trained revolutionary group makes--we learned it all over again here after 16 months or revolution. The shape of the past period would have been quite different had there been a mass socialist organization rooted in workers' struggles in Egypt at the time of the downfall of Mubarak.

We therefore face the challenge of building such an alternative in the midst of tumultuous times--and it is no easy task to learn how to swim when one finds themselves in the eye of the storm. But we have great hopes for the future thanks to a reservoir of militancy and a desire for social justice among the masses of ordinary people in Egypt; in Sudan, as we saw recently; in Greece, as we have seen over and over again; and workers everywhere.

Yet we know our fate is tied to the fate of Arab revolutions and the struggle of workers internationally from Greece to your Chicago teachers. So we take great inspiration from the struggle of the International Socialist Organization and all the American and international comrades you brought to Socialism 2012, and all those building a revolutionary alternative everywhere.

We sense that the sacrifices and martyrs that ordinary people have contributed in the struggle for a better world, from Egypt to Tunisia to Syria, have been inspirational for many in the West. However, we are certain that your struggles in the West--your fights, your victories--will not only inspire us on this side of the world, but will help put all of us over the top.

Sameh Naguib

Hello comrades, greetings from Cairo. I hope you're having a great conference.

I'm speaking to you at a very critical moment in the Egyptian revolution. On June 14, the generals who are actually ruling the country attempted the beginnings of a complete coup d'etat. First, by putting forward their candidate, Ahmed Shafiq--an ex-general and close ally and friend of Mubarak, as the candidate for presidency. Then by putting forward draconian emergency laws--actually laws much worse than the older emergency laws that were in place under Mubarak--allowing intelligence officers and military police officers to arrest people without charges. And then, by changing the constitution with an addendum that made the president, whoever won the presidency, basically powerless.

These attacks were, at least for now, defeated. What happened was a mass mobilization in all the main cities, all the main squares of all the main cities in Egypt, bringing together hundreds of thousands of people--and in the last days, millions of people on the streets. They wanted to make sure that, first of all, Shafiq, the military's candidate, was defeated and was not allowed to take over power--and secondly, to push back the constitutional changes that the army has pushed.

The victory of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is a great achievement in pushing back this counterrevolution and pushing back this coup d'etat. For now, this is a real victory for the Egyptian masses and a real victory for the Egyptian revolution.

This might not seem clear on the surface of things. Many people, especially in the West, and also over here, have an Islamophobic attitude that does not allow them to see the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. So many people here, even on the left, could say that there's no real difference between Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shafiq, the candidate of the military--that they're both counterrevolutionary forces, and the victory of any of them is a victory of the counterrevolution and a defeat for the Egyptian revolution.

Now this is a complete mistaken view of what is actually happening and of the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamists in Egypt and the Arab world. The Islamists are reformists. They took part in the revolution and at the same time tried to make deals with the generals who are ruling Egypt.

Whenever there is the threat of counterrevolution, the Islamists will run toward the masses--will mobilize the masses in the hundreds of thousands against the military regime. Whenever there's a threat from below, whenever the masses seem to be breaking the hold of the Muslim Brotherhood, then they side with the military regime, with the generals, in trying to hold back the masses.

They have all the contradictions of the main reformist movements that appeared in social democracies in the West. They cannot play a fully counterrevolutionary role, they cannot side with the generals completely, because then they would lose their mass base. They could not mobilize the masses to the end--they could not push the revolution to the end--because then they would lose their bourgeois backers, who show that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is fully part of the Egyptian ruling class.

This contradiction was clear in the two speeches that Morsi gave after his recent victory. He gave one speech in Tahrir Square in front of a million people in which he presented himself as a leader of the revolution and as a defender of the rights of the martyrs, of the rights of the martyrs' families. He presented himself as the man who will continue the revolution. He even used the phrase "the revolution continues" several times during his speech. He said that the people in Tahrir and the people in the different squares across Egypt are the real rulers of Egypt.

Now the same man, the same day, gave a speech at Cairo University. This speech was attended by Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Military Council and his aides and all of the generals on the SCAF. Even people from the old regime attended that speech.

In that speech, he said that everything will be as before. He tried to say that investments will be safe, that people should not strike, that people should not go on demonstrations, should not blockade the roads--that we should all stand as one hand together, that we should have great respect for the military, including for its generals, that we should have great respect for the police, including the police generals who were sitting there.

So the same man, in two different speeches, gave completely different messages, to two completely different audiences.

This contradiction does not mean that Morsi is insane, or that he doesn't know what he's talking about, or he's just double-faced. It means that the Muslim Brotherhood is a contradictory organization. The Muslim Brotherhood, because it has a mass base, because it has much of its support in the Egyptian working class and also the Egyptian poor, has to bend to the will of the masses to a degree.

But at the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, because it has a bourgeois leadership, because it is a reformist organization, will try all the time to balance this pressure from below with the pressure that comes at them from above. Only in understanding these contradictions can we understand Morsi's victory as both a victory for the Egyptian revolution and a challenge to revolutionaries.

Because the point now is to push the reformists to expose their real contradictions. We know that Morsi is not going to go against neoliberalism. We know that Morsi is not going to complete even the democratic part of the revolution. We know that Morsi is going to make deals with the military. We know that Morsi will only come back to Tahrir nd will only mobilize the masses if there's a real threat from the counterrevolution.

That is not enough to push the revolution forward. To push the revolution forward, we have to show the masses to what extent the reformists can't take the movement forward. We have to put forward new revolutionary leadership, new revolutionary organizations, that base themselves on the great working class militancy that has been part of this revolution in order to lead the revolution forward--both its democratic side and its anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist side.

In this struggle, we need theoretical and political clarity more than ever. The Revolutionary Socialists are a very small group in comparison to the mass organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, but despite this fact, we have been able to create an audience of thousands and tens of thousands among the base of the Muslim Brotherhood that will, when they see the limits of Morsi, will see the necessity for coming closer to the Revolutionary Socialists and the radical left in general.

Now we cold only do that by being part of the movement that included Islamists. We could only do that because we were on the squares--we were on Tahrir Square, defending Morsi's victory in the election. Many people on the left, especially ultra-leftists, have been very critical of us for being in the square for that momentous occasion. For them, I suppose staying at home would be the most revolutionary thing possible. For us, that is complete nonsense.

For us, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the young Islamists, with the young revolutionaries of all persuasions, in order to show them that we are the most steadfast in this revolution, that we are at the front lines and that we will continue this revolution to the very end.

Only by clarifying these issues, only by standing very firmly against Islamophobia and against all these myths about the Islamists being simply counterrevolutionaries--or in some instances, people call them fascists and so on--only by exposing these ideas to be basically Stalinist or liberal ideas, very far from our revolutionary tradition; only by showing that can we break the hold of the Islamists on the masses and break the hold of Islamophobia, especially in the West.

I've been reading articles about Morsi's victory in the Western press, including some of the leftist Western press, and for them, this is a new dark stage of the revolution. The revolution is dead, and why is the revolution dead? Because the Islamists have won.

As if the victory of these Islamists in the elections has not created massive expectations among the working class and among sectors of the oppressed people. These are expectations that these same reformist Islamists will not be able to carry out--will not be able to fulfill. And it's only by placing ourselves in the midst of this battle that we can push our revolutionary agenda forward, by tying in the social revolution and the anti-neoliberal revolution, with the democratic revolution.

Only through this kind of action can we push the agenda of seeing the working class being the only leadership capable of taking this revolution forward--even in accomplishing its basic democratic demands.

Transcription by Sarah Levy.

Further Reading

From the archives