Confronting the counterrevolution in Egypt

July 10, 2014

One year ago at the beginning of July, the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood following the mass protests of the Tamarod movement. This ushered in a year of repression and reaction, directed most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, but increasingly at other dissenters, including the left forces that helped lead the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.

An estimated 41,000 people have been arrested, 25,000 people are in jail, and hundreds face mass death sentences. Tragically, the crackdown has had general popular support, in part because liberal political leaders associated with the revolution against Mubarak have sided with the military, with the disastrous reasoning that the military is the "lesser evil" compared to the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the Socialism 2014 conference in Chicago at the end of June, several revolutionary socialists from Egypt spoke about the course of events and what steps must be taken for the struggle now. We are publishing speeches from the conference session on "Revolution and Counterrevolution in Egypt" in two parts--the second speech is below click here to read the first presentation. For security reasons, we will not use the names of the speakers.

IT'S A pleasure to be here with all these revolutionaries surrounding us and asking us every day since we came here, "How is Egypt?" But I'm really sorry that we're not able to give all the answers that you expect, because there are a lot of things that we don't know, and a lot of things we have learned in the last three years and are attempting to build on.

I will start by telling out about an article I wrote directly after the fall of Mubarak, on the 11th of February. It was called "The Democracy of the Square." It was a very romanticized article. I don't recommend reading it, because it reflects the real problem we have had since the first uprising.

The article was saluting the fact that the true leaders of the Tahrir Square uprising were the demands--that the square had no leadership, and it was the demands that drove the events. And if anything was put forward to the masses of people occupying the square that did not fit with those demands, they would refuse it.

That view proved to be our Achilles heel in the months that followed. Why? Because in the 18 days before Mubarak fell, and the months and years that followed, we knew exactly what we were against, but we failed to provide a perspective for what we were calling for, for what we wanted, for what kind of alternative we were demanding--and, more importantly, how the steps needed in the short or medium term to achieve this.

Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi
Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi

The toughest questions we as revolutionaries have faced in Egypt in the past few months are: What were you for? If you were in power, what would you have done? What has the revolution been for in the past three years? These are very tough questions. I think the biggest challenge we're facing at the moment is to build a perspective around a real political alternative that people can relate to, and see as a possibility to work toward.

The previous speaker said that the counterrevolution is not as stable as many of its supporters would like to believe. The generals and the elites in society have a lot of problems.

It's very important to note here that the Egyptian people over the past three years have been trying everything that they had illusions about, and were disillusioned by these alternatives. The one idea that has not been tested is the rule of the military. The interim rule of the army for a year and a half after Mubarak was always seen as a failure, but not because of corruption. The feeling persisted that the army, as the most organized institution of the Egyptian state, could be an alternative.

So at the end of Mohamed Morsi's rule last year, after the mass demonstrations of the Tamarod movement on June 30, masses of people were looking to the army as the only way out--as the force that could save them from all their troubles.

I think the army was foolish not to bring in a civilian puppet and keep on ruling from behind this puppet--even though there were actually a lot of puppets to offer to do the job. Or maybe they were too afraid to trust any one of these puppets, because they knew they were in a very unstable situation.

But now, they will be put to the test.

PEOPLE HAVE a lot of illusions about what the army can do. There is a lot of nationalist rhetoric about Egypt and how we're supposed to defend our homeland with all that's happening in the Middle East. People say: Look what's happening in Iraq; at least the army saved us from a civil war.

But beyond that, there's the idea that the army will actually put more food on people's tables. Large segments of Egyptian society have been suffering from rising prices, high unemployment--workers have continued losing jobs over the past three years, especially those who work in tourism--factories closing and mass layoffs.

In some cases, workers struggled against this--especially in the first two years after Mubarak. But they have become exhausted. And the army promised an alternative. Sisi said that there will be a Marshall Plan to rebuild Egypt, like there was for Europe after the Second World War. When he was asked where the money was going to come from, he said, don't worry, it will come. And people accepted that.

People took his promises for granted. They expected money to come from the Gulf states. But what they didn't see, even though Sisi talked about it a number of times, was his promises to continue austerity. He did say money would come in from the Gulf states, as long as there was a stable environment to attract foreign investment, which meant cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and on the revolutionaries as well. But he was also talking about austerity measures.

Maybe people thought they would get a little of both--a rebuilt economy and austerity. But, guess what: After one month of Sisi's rule, only the austerity measures have appeared--the money from the Gulf states hasn't.

The Egyptian army has announced that it will donate 1 billion Egyptian pounds from the companies it controls to help the economy. As if this wasn't money that belongs to us--but yes, they were generous enough to open their wallets and give us the money. But what people are starting to realize is that if the army is donating money to the economy, that means the money isn't flooding in from the Gulf.

Again, the counterrevolution is not as stable as it supporters wish it was. It has failed to build a political base. Sisi does not have a political party. The men who surrounded him on his road to ruling Egypt have been battling with one another, each one building their own organization that they hope can become the party of el-Sisi. So Sisi has the support of the masses for now, but he doesn't have a political party. So if and when the masses decide to turn their back on him, Sisi won't have anyone to defend him except the army itself.

The rosy promises of making people's lives better are starting to evaporate. People used to believe that we had power cuts in the summer because of the incompetence of the Morsi government. But now we are suffering from power cuts that are even worse--when we're at work, when we go shopping, when we're at home.

This is what the people are discovering now about Sisi and the army. When he talks about a budget that will cut the deficit, that means they will have to raise the price of fuel. That will mean higher prices all around, and the people won't be getting what they're looking for.

THAT'S THE counter-revolution. But does this mean that since our enemy is weaker, we are doing better? Unfortunately, this is not true.

The problem is that in the past three years, we've been very clear about what we don't want. We don't want the repression of the police, we don't want the corruption of the Mubarak regime, we don't want the old faces of crony capitalism. We knew what we were protesting against.

And we kept on protesting. Every time there was an issue, we headed to the streets and protested. And each time, at the end of the protests, we didn't get what we wanted, but we generally managed to stop what we didn't want.

Because that has changed, we face challenges in three areas.

There is the question of protests in the streets, which still take place. On the one hand, this does affect the stability of the counterrevolution. But in this area, the revolution is not gaining much at the moment. Every time we go to protest, we lose more of our comrades--more of our dear friends who end up in jail. And more of the lawyers who are trying to get them out of jail, instead of challenging the anti-protest law from November 2013.

Then there is the question of elections and political developments. We have the groups that took part in giving critical support to the left-wing candidate in the presidential election, Hamdeen Sabahi. This appealed to people who were quite scattered--for many people who were asking the question "What should we do?" this was actually something to offer to them.

We couldn't build enough on that sentiment because we didn't have time and because of all the propaganda against Sabahi and in favor of el-Sisi. Plus, there are many people who were very angry at Sabahi because when he decided to stand against the Brotherhood, he ended up siding with the state.

But when you look ahead to parliamentary elections, there will be scattered groups of revolutionaries who are willing to keep on doing what they started on January 25 and even before. These scattered groups are in different parties and campaigns that belong to the left or center left or even some liberal parties--and they need a clear political platform. They need to be able to fight inside their parties against all the opportunist leaders, and they need to be able to identify themselves to others.

The best thing about the results of the presidential election that Sisi won massively is that the 3 percent who didn't vote for el-Sisi realized there are others who aren't happy with what's happening--they got the message that they're not alone. They aren't a large group, but at the end of the day, they aren't alone.

The challenge is how to organize this sentiment. How can we provide a political alternative? How can we develop a leadership that can fight for an interim program that really represents the people?

Last, there is the question of the economic struggle. There are not major strikes and demonstrations right now, but there is the potential for more to develop. We've been seeing small sparks--or maybe I'd rather call them fireflies in a dark tunnel, but they are something. And these are things that we need to relate to--and not ignore them because they aren't big enough yet to be the light we hope to see at the end of the tunnel.

THESE ARE some of the challenges and problems we're faced with. We are dealing with a huge setback for the revolution. I don't like to use the word defeat, because I think it's too early to say that, but the past year has been a huge setback. In Egypt today, we are facing a huge propaganda machine that accuses all of us of being a fifth column, of being spies, of being terrorists.

I think the role of revolutionaries--and I'm not talking only about socialist revolutionaries here, but at least radical democrats who still have the revolution in their heart--is to try to bridge the gaps between these different, scattered groups who are trying to stand against the state in one way or another, and give them something to relate too. I'm not talking about a revolutionary party--it's too early for that--but at least a platform with clear demands, through which these people can define themselves.

We want to put forward a platform that can actually say to the people that we don't only oppose the return of authoritarianism, but we are calling for a radical democracy and social justice, and this how we're thinking of getting there.

In every loss, there is something to be gained. In every battle that we lose, we learn a lesson. I think that if we really believe in the masses, we have to believe that the masses can learn from their mistakes. They've learned a tough lesson, and there's a break in the resistance. But I really hope that in a few months, or even a few years, when we return to the streets again--let's hope that we can--we will know better where we went wrong, and we will try to build on that basis.

That's my hope. If it's real or not, only time can tell.

But we're part of a world that is changing in this very moment--part of a world that's fighting neoliberalism and fighting imperialism in the Middle East. The final result of what we started in Egypt doesn't depend only on what we are doing there. It depends as much on what you're doing here. So keep doing what you're doing--because we need you.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor

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