From Workers Vanguard No. 973, 4 February 2011
For Permanent Revolution Across North Africa!
Egypt: Mass Upheaval Challenges Dictatorship
Down With U.S. Aid to Egypt, Israel!
For Revolutionary Workers Parties!
FEBRUARY 1—As we go to press, the bonapartist capitalist regime of Hosni Mubarak—a strategically important client state of U.S. imperialism—is tottering in the face of an unprecedented wave of mass protests. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square and throughout the country, protesters chant: “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Mubarak’s appointment last week of a new set of ministers, naming longtime cronies and former military commanders as vice president and prime minister, only further inflamed opposition to his dictatorship.
Well over a million rallied in Tahrir Square today, while hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Alexandria, Suez and other cities in a nationwide stay-away strike. Tonight, Mubarak announced his “concession”: he will not seek re-election this fall(!). In response, crowds in Tahrir Square angrily chanted, “We won’t leave!”
One United Nations official estimates that as many as 300 have been killed and over 3,000 injured since protests broke out on January 25. Nevertheless, within days the massive demonstrations overwhelmed police lines in a number of cities. Countless police stations, as well as the Cairo headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), were reduced to burned-out rubble. The widely reviled police withdrew from the scene, although they have since been redeployed. The shaken government then mobilized the military—the core of Egypt’s bonapartist state apparatus—to try to control the streets. The army has officially declared that it will not fire on protesters. But make no mistake: there remains the dire threat that whatever happens to Mubarak, Egypt’s bourgeois rulers will demand fierce military repression to restore and maintain capitalist “order.”
The upheaval has drawn in virtually every layer of the society—unemployed youth, university students, workers, shopkeepers, professionals. Overwhelmingly, their demands are for Mubarak to go and for democratic elections and other reforms. The situation has also created an opening for the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, which initially abstained from the protests but called for its followers to join them on Friday, January 28. With the ports, banks and other businesses closed, the economy has ground to a halt, while prices for scarce food supplies are soaring. As for the filthy rich at the top, they’re either hunkered down in their gated mansions or flying off to Dubai.
There is no question that the U.S. and other imperialist powers have been shaken by the dramatic events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country with the largest working-class concentration in North Africa and the Near East. The arrogant imperialists, who act as though nothing can stand in the way of their rampages around the world, are now faced with threats to the survival of crucial client regimes. The Obama administration desperately seeks to quell the upheavals in North Africa and prevent their further spread. Jordan and Yemen, an outpost in Washington’s “war on terror,” have already seen mass anti-government demonstrations (dominated by Islamic opposition movements). Today, Jordan’s King Abdullah fired his cabinet. Meanwhile, student demonstrations have begun in Sudan. What is particularly remarkable about the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt is that in a region long dominated by religious and ethnic strife, they have centered on secular-democratic demands, spurred by increasingly intolerable conditions of life.
The immediate spark for the upsurge in Egypt was the mass protest movement that overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia. But there was ample social tinder ready to be ignited. With nearly half the Egyptian population scraping by on $2 a day or less, the last few years have seen a wave of militant strike activity. Unemployment was massive even before the outbreak of the international financial crisis. Rural areas, especially in southern Egypt and the northern Nile Delta, are marked by excruciating poverty, with landless peasants at the mercy of ruthless landlords. Corruption among the ruling elite is notorious. Expressions of discontent are regularly met with brutal police beatings, torture and imprisonment.
The unraveling of the Mubarak dictatorship has thrown its U.S. imperialist patrons into crisis mode. Every year, Washington pumps $1.3 billion in military aid into the regime, the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Egypt has been a linchpin of U.S. imperialist interests in the Near East, especially since 1979 when it became the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. The Egyptian regime has long served as an accomplice to the Zionist state in oppressing the Palestinian people, currently by policing the southern border of the Gaza Strip. Down with U.S. aid to Egypt, Israel! Defend the Palestinian people!
Having declared the Mubarak regime “stable” at the onset of the protests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was compelled to shift her approach as the upheaval spread, intoning about “the universal rights of the Egyptian people.” Demonstrators were hardly assuaged, with many holding up tear gas canisters with “Made in the U.S.A.” labels for reporters. Washington is now talking about an “orderly transition.” Meanwhile, it’s finalizing “plans to evacuate thousands of US nationals to ‘safe havens’ in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus” (Financial Times, 31 January). A much-touted “transitional” figure is Mohamed ElBaradei, a bourgeois liberal who helped work out the 1978 Camp David Accords that normalized relations between Egypt and Israel and later headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, where he helped ensure that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was disarmed in the face of U.S. war preparations.
Working Class Must Take the Lead
What is urgently posed in Egypt today is that the powerful proletariat—the only class with the social power to overturn the brutal and decrepit capitalist order—emerge as the leader of all the oppressed masses. The current upsurge comes amid a years-long strike wave that historian Joel Beinin described as “the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century” (The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, February 2010). His study tallied an average of 194 strikes and sit-ins per year from 2004 through 2008, nearly four times the rate of the previous three years.
The spike in factory occupations, strikes and demonstrations started in 2004 when the government stepped up the pace of privatization of state enterprises. The spearhead of this movement has been the workers at Mahalla al-Kobra textile mills, the country’s largest industrial complex with some 40,000 workers. In April 2008, as people groaned under soaring food prices, a planned strike was headed off by a massive show of police force. This touched off two days of rioting in which three people died by police fire. After the government granted the workers a bonus, a close adviser to Mubarak haughtily and fatuously told the Washington Post (27 September 2009): “Once you give more money to those people, it’s over.”
Mahalla al-Kobra workers walked out on the very first day of the current protests, directly opposing the regime for the first time since the start of the strike wave. Workers in Suez, a port city and oil refining center, have also been out from the beginning. Police there showed no mercy in trying to smash the protests. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times (31 January), Mansoura Ez-Eldin cites a message from a friend describing Suez as a war zone: “Its streets were burned and destroyed, dead bodies were strewn everywhere.” But the city’s working-class residents fought back.
The often exemplary militancy of Egyptian workers has repeatedly run up against the treachery of the regime’s bought-and-paid-for officials of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), who are integrated into the capitalist state apparatus. At the 1957 founding of the federation that would become the ETUF, its entire leadership was appointed by the regime of bourgeois-nationalist strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. For over two decades, the president of the ETUF usually doubled as Minister of Labor. Today, virtually every member of the ETUF executive committee is a member of the ruling NDP; ETUF president Hussein Megawer was head of the NDP parliamentary bloc and currently chairs the parliamentary Committee on Manpower. Last week, he instructed union officials to head off any labor demonstrations. As police were shooting protesters down on January 25, the ETUF issued a statement congratulating the Interior Ministry in celebration of “Police Day”!
In the course of the recent strike wave, Egyptian workers have acted in defiance of the regime’s “labor lieutenants.” Because strikes must by law be approved by the ETUF leadership, every one that took place was illegal. Often the workers elected strike committees to provide leadership, commonly raising the demand for independent unions. This points to the potential for broad organs of working-class struggle to emerge out of the current political turmoil, such as factory committees and workers defense guards as well as neighborhood committees to oversee the distribution of food and to organize self-defense against the police thugs and their criminal accomplices. All this underscores the need to fight for the independence of the working class from the capitalist state and all bourgeois political forces.
For a Leninist Vanguard Party!
As in Tunisia, what is necessary in Egypt is the forging of a revolutionary party that can lead the fight for a workers and peasants government. Such a party would be, in the words of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, a “tribune of the people,” fighting against the oppression of peasants, women, youth, homosexuals and ethnic and religious minorities.
A Leninist vanguard party would champion women’s emancipation in Egypt, where “honor killings” and female genital mutilation are common practices, especially in the rural areas where some 60 percent of the population lives. It would also actively defend the rights of the Coptic Christian minority, which suffers discrimination and violent persecution at the hands of the state, abetted by pogromist incitement by Islamic fundamentalists. In December, when Copts protested against the government’s refusal to allow them to set up a church in Cairo, two were shot dead by riot police. This gave a green light to the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve that killed 23 people. Joint protests by Copts and Muslims against the bombing were attacked by riot cops.
A key task for revolutionary Marxists is to combat the widespread nationalist ideology that is evident among the protesters waving Egyptian flags and embracing the army as the supposed friend of the exploited and the oppressed. Many rank-and-file soldiers of the conscript army have fraternized with demonstrators, even allowing them to paint anti-Mubarak graffiti on their tanks. But it is the military brass—subsidized and trained by the U.S. imperialists—that is calling the shots.
Illusions in the army run deep in Egypt, where military officers led by Nasser overthrew the despised British-backed monarchy in 1952. While Nasser, with the support of the Stalinist Communist Party, would lay claim to leadership of a mythical “Arab socialism,” he aimed from the beginning to crush the combative working class. One month after coming to power, Nasser seized on a textile workers strike in Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria to deliver a dramatic blow to the workers movement. Two strike leaders were hanged on the factory grounds, the Communists were banned and strikes were outlawed. Subsequently, Nasser turned on his Communist supporters with a vengeance, rounding up almost every known leftist in the country.
Even as their comrades were beaten to death or left to die for lack of medical aid, the Stalinists maintained their political support to this bonapartist ruler, officially liquidating into his Arab Socialist Union in 1965. Stalinist parties throughout the Near East and North Africa sacrificed their proletarian bases on the altar of bourgeois nationalism, betraying historic opportunities for socialist revolution. This opened the door to reactionary Islamic fundamentalists like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—a deadly enemy of women, Copts, secularists and leftists—to posture as the only firm opponents of the unbearable status quo. While suffering severe repression, the Muslim Brotherhood has also been tolerated, and at times promoted, by successive Egyptian regimes. Mubarak has often silenced his opponents by claiming that if not for him, the Brotherhood would rule Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood plays little role in the workers movement but is heavily entrenched in the lumpenproletariat of the impoverished slums and among professionals and other petty-bourgeois layers. Many protesters today say that they would oppose the Brotherhood coming to power. Nevertheless, its emergence in the protests points to the threat that it could win a hearing among the desperate masses. The need to politically combat the forces of Islamic reaction was highlighted by the events in Iran in 1978-79, when the Shi’ite clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in subordinating to its reactionary agenda a powerful wave of opposition to the hated Shah that included the organizations of the working class.
After having been supported by virtually every left group in Iran, Khomeini unleashed a murderous wave of terror against worker militants, leftists, Kurds, unveiled women and homosexuals. Uniquely on the left, the international Spartacist tendency, predecessor to the International Communist League, declared: Down with the Shah! Don’t bow to Khomeini! For workers revolution in Iran! In regard to Egypt today, we say: Down with Mubarak! No to ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood! Workers to power!
It is vitally important for leftists and proletarian militants to study the example of the Bolshevik Party, which provided the necessary leadership for the working class in Russia in 1917. As soviets (workers councils) re-emerged with the fall of the tsar in the February Revolution, Lenin’s Bolsheviks raised the call “All power to the Soviets,” opposing any political support to the bourgeois Provisional Government. Amid rapidly growing opposition to the slaughter of working-class and peasant soldiers in the interimperialist World War I, soviets spread to the peasantry, which was in open rebellion against the landlords, and into the military as well. Under the influence of the organized working class, the soldiers councils served to set the worker and peasant ranks of the military against the bourgeois officer corps. Following the Bolshevik-led October Revolution, the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers deputies became the organs of the new proletarian state power.
As elaborated in the accompanying article on Tunisia, revolutionary Marxists, based on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, must put forward transitional demands linking the masses’ democratic aspirations to the struggle for proletarian power and for its international extension. Out of the ferment in Egypt, the International Communist League seeks to cohere the nucleus of a Leninist-Trotskyist party, the indispensible instrument for the victory of proletarian revolution.