Spartacist Canada No. 168
Pandering to Reactionary Muslim Brotherhood
Cliffites on Egypt
The ouster of Mubarak after years of dictatorship has lifted the lid on Egyptian society and its many contradictions. The tremendous mobilizations of unemployed youth, students, women and workers have created space for the left and working class to engage more openly in political activity—an opening that is directly threatened by the military takeover. At the same time, the upheaval has provided an opening for the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement.
While many protesters say that they would oppose the Brotherhood coming to power, in the absence of a viable revolutionary proletarian alternative it could win a hearing among the desperate masses. This is not least because it provides clinics, schools, charities and other social services for slum dwellers that the bourgeois state fails to provide. A mass movement, the Brotherhood is heavily entrenched among professionals, students, peasants in rural areas and other petty-bourgeois layers as well as the lumpenproletariat of the impoverished urban slums. In the last parliament, despite state repression and electoral rigging, the Brotherhood had 88 seats compared to the 34 seats for all other opposition parties combined.
Because of its historic hostility to workers struggles, the Brotherhood has not made significant inroads into the working class. But it has found allies in its attempt to win support among workers and youth. The opportunist Revolutionary Socialists (RS) group in Egypt—heavily promoted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, a section of the international tendency founded by the late Tony Cliff—has been fostering suicidal illusions in the Brotherhood. The RS tries to invest these obscurantist clerical forces with “anti-imperialist” credentials and has pursued alliances with them over several years. No one should be fooled by the Brotherhood’s claim to fight against “all forms of injustice, tyranny, autocracy and dictatorship,” as a statement of theirs published in the London Guardian (8 February) proclaims. Whether or not it is currently in any position to make a bid for power, the Muslim Brotherhood represents a deadly danger to the working class, the Coptic Christian minority, all secularists, gays and especially the brutally oppressed women of Egypt.
The RS is so fascinated by these reactionaries that it posted on its Web site a February 5 statement by the Brotherhood, complete with the Brotherhood’s emblem of crossed swords. In a reminder of the criminal betrayal by the opportunist left internationally in the 1978-79 upheaval in Iran, when these groups supported the mullahs led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the RS today is championing anti-Semitic Islamic reaction in Egypt. Capitulation to Islamic forces or any other form of religious reaction is antithetical to secular humanism, not to mention the liberating goals of socialism.
In an article titled “Comrades and Brothers,” published in Middle East Report (Spring 2007), Hossam El-Hamalawy, a self-described socialist journalist, boasts that the RS “pushed for close coordination” with the Brotherhood and praises its “brotherly spirit.” The RS joined with the Brotherhood to form the National Alliance for Change in 2005, organizing joint demonstrations. El-Hamalawy notes: “The rapprochement between Islamists and the left continued when students from the Revolutionary Socialists’ Tendency, Muslim Brothers and some independents formed the Free Student Union (FSU) in November 2005, with the aim of acting as a parallel organization to the government-dominated student unions.”
The RS fatuously claims that the Brotherhood has “contradictions” that socialists can exploit. As our Canadian comrades wrote when the Cliffites [the International Socialists] used the same argument to support the introduction of sharia courts (!) in Canada, “The contradiction in religion lies in the fact that human beings created religions, only to have their creations rule over them like a Frankenstein monster. It is obscene to have to debate with ostensible Marxists whether clerical reaction should be supported. Marxists regard all modern religion as an instrument of bourgeois reaction that defends exploitation and befuddles the working people” (see “Sharia ‘Socialists’,” WV No. 861, 6 January 2006) [also published in SC No. 147, Winter 2005/2006].
In March 2006, the RS issued a pamphlet by the Center for Socialist Studies, The Muslim Brothers: A Socialist Perspective. The pamphlet opens with a denunciation of the Egyptian Stalinists for characterizing the Brotherhood as “a political enemy of the left that must be fought at all levels.” El-Hamalawy’s 2007 article echoes this theme, stating: “Most independent leftist organizations in the 1980s and 1990s hewed to a line on political Islam similar to that of the Egyptian Communist Party,” which translated into an alliance “with the Egyptian secular intelligentsia—and with Mubarak’s regime.”
We Marxists reject this bankrupt reformist framework, which posits that the only two “choices” for the working class in Egypt are to capitulate either to the “secular,” military-backed bourgeois nationalist regime or to political Islam. In fact, these are alternative ways of propping up capitalist class rule, the system which ensures vast wealth for its rulers and dire poverty for the urban and rural masses. We look instead to the revolutionary mobilization of Egypt’s proletariat, standing at the head of all the oppressed, in a fight for socialist revolution, which alone can address the fundamental problems facing the masses. We oppose the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, which bolsters their credibility and also fosters illusions in the “secular” credentials of the bourgeois nationalists while buttressing the repressive powers of the capitalist state.
The RS’s criticisms of the Stalinists for reliance on the state are a cover for its accommodation to the Muslim Brotherhood. For our part, we understand that bourgeois rule in semicolonial countries like Egypt, which groan under abject poverty and subjugation to imperialism, reinforces social backwardness and the hold of the Brotherhood and other reactionary religious forces.
A Reactionary Mass Movement
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, when there was widespread disappointment at the failure of the weak secular nationalist parties to secure Egypt’s independence from British colonialism following the 1919 uprising. Under the slogan: “The Koran is our constitution,” al-Banna preached a fundamentalist Islamism and aimed at establishing a theocratic state in Egypt. The organization rapidly grew, branching across the Islamic world from Algeria and Jordan to Pakistan.
The Brotherhood became a tool for the monarchy against its political opponents, sponsoring assassinations and mass violence against Communists and the bourgeois-nationalist Wafd party and providing shock troops to break workers strikes. After the army seized power in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser briefly embraced the Brotherhood before ruthlessly suppressing it. Anwar el-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak alternately repressed and demonized the Brotherhood or tolerated it. Sadat released Islamists jailed by Nasser and funded, armed and trained them as an effective antidote to Communists and other leftists. Emboldened by the state, Islamists turned university campuses into terra islamica. “They banned, clubs in hand, anything that fell foul of their norms,” writes Gilles Kepel in The Prophet and the Pharaoh (1993). “Couples were physically attacked for violations of upright Islamic morals; films could not be shown; concerts and evening dances could not be held.”
In 1992, fundamentalists shot dead Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda, a secular opponent of Islamic reaction. “The killing of Farag Foda was in fact the implementation of the punishment against an apostate which the imam [referring to the president] has failed to undertake,” declared the government-sponsored religious body Al Azhar to justify this heinous crime. Renowned novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whose books were deemed “blasphemous” by fundamentalists, was stabbed in 1994, five years after a leading Islamic cleric had said he deserved to die. In 2000, Islamic fundamentalists ignited riots in Cairo in opposition to the publication of a novel that they considered “heretical” (see “Banquet for Seaweed,” WV No. 770, 7 December 2001).
From Iran to Afghanistan
The RS portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as necessary allies in the struggle to bring down the Mubarak regime. The lesson to be drawn from subordinating the class interests of the toilers for the sake of maintaining an alliance with religious reactionaries has been written in blood by history. The International Communist League (then known as the international Spartacist tendency) warned from the outset of the 1978-79 Iranian upheaval that, absent a decisive break by the working class from the Islamic forces, the struggle would have a disastrous outcome.
In sharp contrast to the rest of the left’s capitulation to mullah-led reaction, our program was summed up in the slogans: “Down with the Shah! No support to Khomeini! For workers revolution in Iran!” We warned that Khomeini in power would reimpose the veil, suppress national minorities and seek to crush the left and the workers movement as ruthlessly as did the Shah. Tragically, the Iranian masses paid the price. Khomeini’s seizure and consolidation of power led to the execution of thousands of leftists, Kurds, women, homosexuals and opponents of theocratic rule in what was a historic defeat for the powerful Iranian proletariat.
During the renewed anti-Soviet Cold War of the 1980s, the U.S. imperialists massively armed and organized the Afghan mujahedin “holy warriors” against the Soviet Union, using as a pretext the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. We hailed the Red Army, whose intervention opened the way to the liberation of the Afghan peoples, especially the miserably oppressed women. We called to extend the gains of the 1917 October Revolution to the Afghan peoples. In the first war in modern history in which women’s emancipation was a central issue, the Red Army battled the murderous imperialist-armed and -financed Islamic fundamentalists, who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and killed schoolteachers who taught young girls to read (see “The Russian Question Point Blank,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 29, Summer 1980). We denounced the Kremlin Stalinists’ 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops as a betrayal of women and the oppressed Afghan peoples.
From their inception as a political tendency in Britain in the 1950s, the trademark of Tony Cliff and his followers was pro-imperialist anti-Sovietism, encapsulated in their slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” In Afghanistan in the 1980s, this merged with their tailing of Islamic fundamentalist forces. They lusted for the bloodying of the Soviet Army and prettified the mujahedin cutthroats as fighters against imperialism. The U.S. Cliffites of the International Socialist Organization declared: “Just as socialists welcomed the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, we welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalin’s heirs” (Socialist Worker, May 1988). The Soviet pullout was indeed the precursor to the final collapse of the USSR itself. And, to be sure, the Cliffites cheered the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet degenerated workers state—a historic defeat not only for the peoples of the former Soviet Union but also for the international working class.
Myth of Islamists’ Anti-Imperialism
Keeping pace with the rise of political Islam in the wake of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, in 1994 the British SWP published a major article in International Socialism titled “The Prophet and the Proletariat” by the late Chris Harman, a leading Cliffite theoretician. Harman coined the opportunist slogan “With the Islamists sometimes, with the state never” and treated Islamic fundamentalist “mass movements” as radical petty-bourgeois nationalist formations which “have taken up anti-imperialist slogans and some anti-imperialist actions.”
The notion that the Islamists are anti-imperialist flies in the face of history. During the Cold War, the American imperialists consciously sought to harness the deeply anti-Communist Islamic reactionaries as a force against the Soviet Union as well as secular nationalist regimes. In Egypt, Islamic reactionaries worked hand in hand with the imperialists and the Saudi monarchy to destabilize the pro-Moscow nationalist regime of Nasser. Muslim Brothers were put on the CIA payroll. And for the anti-Soviet operation in Afghanistan, the CIA’s largest covert operation ever, the Brotherhood provided a major contingent of the mujahedin, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now a high-ranking leader of Al Qaeda. Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made clear that U.S. imperialism can do business with the Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Tailing the Muslim Brotherhood today certainly does not prevent the Cliffites from keeping open the option of capitulating to “secular” Arab nationalism. An article in the British Socialist Worker (5 February) notes that “Nasser’s brand of secular Arab nationalism still has many supporters inside Egypt” and eulogizes the bourgeois strongman Nasser as an anti-imperialist, writing: “As president between 1956 and 1970 he stood firm against imperialism and transformed Egypt.”
Here the Cliffites are retailing the illusions in Nasser and the mythical “Arab Revolution” that the Stalinists fostered for decades. In reality, Nasser came to power largely with the aim of crushing the struggles of the combative working class. Neither the “secular” nationalism of Nasser nor Islamism can overcome the depredations of imperialism or provide solutions to any of the fundamental problems besetting the working class and oppressed in Egypt today. What’s needed is a revolutionary workers party to lead the proletariat in a struggle for socialist revolution against the military bonapartists, the religious fundamentalists and all bourgeois political forces, opening the road to the emancipation of women and the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited.
—Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 974,