The roots of the counterrevolution

July 9, 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 sources of dissent, 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--for the crime of opposing the military's move against Morsi and its ongoing reign.

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 first speech is below; click here for the second presentation. For security reasons, we will not use the names of the speakers.

I'M GOING to share with you some thoughts on what has been happening in Egypt in the past three years, where we are now and why.

The starting point is that Egypt's revolution is currently suffering what we must call a big defeat, unfortunately. It might not last for many years, but this is the case now.

Even the democratic aspects of the revolution, which may be seen as the main aspect of the revolution, have not been fulfilled. If we compare what happened in Egypt to what happened in countries of Latin America or countries of Eastern Europe that experienced similar upheavals, we find that these other countries reached some settlement that created a kind of bourgeois democracy, while in Egypt, even this has not been fulfilled.

We're not talking about the defeat of the socialist revolution in Egypt--we're talking about the defeat of even the democratic aspect. This should be explained and understood, because some people were saying that Egypt and the other Arab Spring countries might at least reach some kind of democratic form of governance, even if it doesn't spread to the social aspects--but even this seems to be failing.

An Egyptian woman protects an injured youth from a security forces bulldozer dismantling a protest camp
An Egyptian woman protects an injured youth from a security forces bulldozer dismantling a protest camp

TO START with, we, of course, know that revolutions are hated by the ruling elites. They are, generally speaking, caught by surprise--they aren't, in most cases, ready for revolutions. If we look at how these elites react to revolutions, we find certain similarities--there are different ways to react, depending on the objective situation, the nature of the ruling alliances, the level of class struggle and the level of the organization and consciousness of the subaltern classes.

One reaction might be repression--the attempt to crush the revolution. This is what we saw, for example, in the cases of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes, repression sometimes is carried out with the help of foreign forces. This is currently what we're seeing in Bahrain, for example--it's an example of outright repression of a revolt, with the aid of foreign forces.

Another reaction is for the ruling elite and the ruling classes to crumble and disintegrate completely--in particular, when the means of repression, the army and the police, falter and disintegrate. This is what took place in the example of the Russian Revolution. Something similar happened in Iran in 1978, but the consequences were different because, of course, of the role of the working class and its organization and the presence of a revolutionary socialist party, the Bolsheviks.

Between outright repression and complete disintegration, there are a variety of things that can take place. Perhaps the ruling class will be divided between two sections--not due to a fundamental difference, but a difference in how to deal with the situation.

In Egypt, the reality was that the ruling class was unable to crush the revolution in the first instance. In the famous 15 days in January and February 2011, from the first real mass protests to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, what happened was that the police crumbled altogether, and the army generals thought that it was impossible to crush the revolution. They opted for repression for a few days, but recognized when this failed.

But they did not crumble. They failed to repress the revolution, but they did not disintegrate or falter altogether. We did not see the army dissolve, like what happened in Iran or in Russia. Something in between repression and disintegration happened--the core of the state apparatus, which, especially in a country like Egypt, is most of all about the army, decided to back off a little, to retreat a little, and to try to coopt the revolution.

That was proof to me that the revolution in Egypt was strong enough to make the army retreat--even in a country with a long history of repression. But the army only took two or three steps backward to coopt the revolution--they didn't really change their course or way of doing things. They only retreated tactically.

For them to retreat meant to try to cooperate with the biggest force with a social and political base in the country--the Muslim Brotherhood. If they were unable to repress the revolution, then they would have to cooperate with the biggest opposition force, one with a mass following that can win elections. Elections would be the way to dissolve the revolutionary upheaval.

THAT WAS the strategy, and in those days, what we heard every day from the army and its leaders, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and from others across the established political spectrum, was that the revolution ended on February 11 with Mubarak's downfall. So go back home, go to your normal lives, and wait for elections, because that's the way for things to be carried out in this country. This was their message.

Early on, the army issued an anti-protest and an anti-strike law. It wasn't carried out because the revolution at that time was strong, but the military issued the law at that time, and the Muslim Brotherhood enthusiastically backed it.

The conception was that the revolution was only to get rid of Mubarak--nothing more. But the Egyptian revolution went beyond these limits. The contradiction of the revolution was that it was strong enough that it couldn't be easily crushed, but it was too weak to be able to take power for itself.

So after the army took power following Mubarak's removal, and after the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with the military and tried to channel people's energies toward a plan for formal democratic elections, people went beyond this. They continued to act and protest in the streets.

But let me be clear here--the continuation of protests in the streets all through 2011 wasn't because a majority of the masses didn't believe in the limits of a formal bourgeois democracy--they did believe in that. This was a contradiction in people's consciousness--between the confidence of what was won during the 15 days and after, which made them feel they could change things through protests, and another part of their minds that told them that elections also count for something.

And, of course, I'm not talking about the masses of people in a vacuum. They were acting and behaving and thinking in the context of political struggle between different forces--most of them, if not all of them, saying that elections represent the solution in Egypt.

So there was this contradiction. People were enthusiastic about elections, but they continued to move forward with their protests. As time went on, the protests in the streets reached the point of pressuring the military junta to yield power--to give up at least some of their powers to an elected government that would be led by Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the Muslim Brotherhood was unable to deliver what was needed to meet people's expectations. The basic problem, I think, for the Muslim Brotherhood, is that--just as was the case in the Weimar Republic in the early 20th century in Germany--it was unable to deliver stability and a consolidation of the bourgeois order.

Why was it unable to do this? There are several reasons. One is that the Brotherhood was caught between the demands of their popular base and the need to appease the ruling elites. They remained too close and to reliant on their popular base that demanded change, so they couldn't carry out measures of repression and austerity strongly enough. But at the same time, they weren't willing to dissociate themselves from the ruling elite of the old state.

That meant that the Muslim Brotherhood--like any reformist, or here we can say opportunist, force--needed its popular base but also needed to be in alliance with the ruling elite. This caused them to be pulled in different directions and unable to be a strong new power that returns things to the old way of doing things, even if in the new form of a bourgeois democracy.

AT THIS point, in June and July of last year, after two and a half years of revolutionary activity and instability, and one year of the Mohamed Morsi as the president, wider sections of the masses felt weary and fatigued--especially among the petit bourgeois, who aren't in regular jobs or secure enough economically.

These wider sections of society started to feel that the revolution would not deliver--on the contrary, that it would cause more and more instability, which meant more economic hardship for them. The popular, social base of the revolution was being weakened, day after day. The Muslim Brotherhood was not delivering, wider sections of the masses were turning pessimistic about the revolution, and the remaining core of the masses who were still committed to progressive change were coming under siege by elements representing the most reactionary parts of society.

The end result of all this was that the old order--the old state and the army--realized that it was the right time to go on the attack again.

They had to test the situation to decide--and the Tamarod, or "Rebel," movement was a way of testing. I'm not saying that this was something fabricated by the security forces or something, but it's now commonly accepted and even openly admitted that the movement collaborated with security forces and the army from early on, before the mass demonstrations on June 30.

The end result was that the military concluded that there are wide sections of the masses, the most backwards sections, who were ready to rally behind a call for stability, even if that meant the return of the army and the return of the old order. By this juncture, the balance of forces was really on the side of the old order.

One of the most important aspects of all this is that the core of the revolutionaries and the part of the mass base that is more progressive among the whole population did not find a political leadership that would have put them in the position of being able to push things in a different direction toward the continuation of the revolution.

Among the leading figures among liberals and nationalists--in particular, Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi--when they organized against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government, they did so with the strategy that they would have collaborate with the army and the police and the remnants of the old regime against Morsi.

So the overall situation of the revolution was getting harder, but at the same time, the liberal nationalist leaders of the opposition to Morsi and the opposition in general had a political program and strategy that was pushing the masses further to the right. As a result, the section of the masses that wanted to fight more and move forward was disarmed politically. The end result was that the balance of class struggle and political struggle turned in a new direction after the demonstrations of June 30.

I would like to make one final point, which is that the only good news in this bad situation is that even the counterrevolution and the old order are not in a very strong position. They themselves have lost the old way of doing things--the old system of repression and control. They haven't until now been able to develop a new system, so there is infighting between them. And because, of course, we are living in a neoliberal world, with all its problems, they will not be able to deliver economic solutions that will satisfy the people.

We are, yes, facing outright counterrevolution--but the counterrevolution itself is faced with major problems. I'm not saying that the masses will suddenly one day forget about everything that has happened in the past three years and turn back to being revolutionary--that would be simplistic. But I'm saying there are spaces of hope that we should build on.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song

Further Reading

From the archives