Workers Hammer No. 214
Working class and oppressed facing capitalist state repression
Egypt under military rule
For a revolutionary workers party!
The downfall of strongman Hosni Mubarak was brought about by a mass upheaval involving all classes in Egyptian society, including the oppressed women and the working class in the factories who had waged strikes on an unprecedented scale in recent years. However, the upsurge resulted in the takeover of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Egypt’s military — the backbone of the bonapartist capitalist state apparatus — now holds direct power, largely with the approval of the working class and oppressed. The democratic aspirations of the masses are a potentially explosive force for further protests, thus the military rulers have been constrained to grant concessions such as putting certain figures from the old regime on trial and freezing the assets of some businessmen while promising that parliamentary and presidential elections will be held later this year.
As yet, the generals have not resorted to outright repression against the working class, relying instead on appeals to the “national interest” to end strikes. However the military council has taken aim at the tens of thousands of workers at Egypt’s Mahalla spinning and weaving factory, whose strikes played a key role in the overthrow of Mubarak. On 17 February, when Mahalla workers re-launched their strikes, the army closed the premises for three days. The following day Egypt’s ruling military council issued a warning that it “would not allow the continuation of strikes harming the economy and national security” (ahram.org, 18 February). Welcoming the army’s statement, the head of Egypt’s Federation of Investment Associations, Mohamed Khamis, said “I think people will follow the instructions because they trust the army” (ahram.org, 20 February).
In an ominous threat of coercion, on 23 March the cabinet approved a law that criminalises demonstrations, protests and sit-ins which are deemed to “interrupt private or state-owned businesses or affect the economy in any way” (ahram.org, 23 March). This effectively means all strikes and protests can be outlawed.
Despite widespread illusions that the army will not attack “the people”, on 9 March the military violently removed the remaining protesters from Tahrir Square. At a press conference a week later, many of those detained by the army described their experiences of beatings, torture and degradation of young women, some of whom were subjected to “virginity” tests. One report said: “According to eyewitnesses, thousands are still being held in the military camps with detainees packed inside the Egyptian Museum, which has been turned into a torture chamber by the army” (ahram.org, 17 March). Male chauvinist thugs violently attacked a Cairo demonstration to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, threatening women with slogans including “ the people want women to step down” and “ the Quran is our ruler ”. A few days earlier, Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority were attacked by Islamic mobs in an incident leaving 13 dead and around 100 injured. The violence erupted over a relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, which is taboo in Egypt. In a society where barbaric “honour killing” is common, according to a 15 March BBC report the woman’s father was killed by a family member for failing to kill his daughter.
The imperialist powers, who trembled during the anti-Mubarak mobilisations, have given a vote of confidence to Egypt’s military regime, which for decades ensured that Egypt was a strategic ally of US imperialism alongside Israel. British prime minister David Cameron visited Egypt in February, followed by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in March. Clinton intoned in Cairo that the people of Egypt “broke barriers and overcame obstacles to pursue the dream of democracy”. Within days French, British and US armed forces unleashed the massive bombing of Libya, with the crucial backing of Egypt’s presidential hopeful Abr Mousa who is secretary general of the Arab League. The bombing of Libya is a bloody affirmation that the sham of imperialist “democracy” is but a mask to conceal the actual relationship of the neo-colonial capitalist states to the imperialist powers: subordination.
The Egyptian military meanwhile is trying to give the appearance of a transition to “democracy”. A series of amendments to the constitution, centred on minimal measures such as limiting the president to two terms in office, were overwhelmingly approved by a referendum on 19 March. This result benefits the most conservative elements in the society — the military, former president Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood — who campaigned for a yes vote. Posters by some Islamic organisations whipped up fears that a no vote would threaten article two of the constitution which states “that Islam is the religion of the state and that Sharia (Islamic law) is the main source of legislation” (ahram.org, 4 March). Calling for a no vote were organisations that played a key role in the February mass mobilisations, such as the January 25 Youth Coalition, as well as the secular liberal organisations including the Wafd, Tagammu, Nasserist organisations and the Democratic Front. But the so-called secular parties are politically bankrupt when it comes to combating religious reaction: the January 25 Youth Coalition includes a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The liberals and their left tails are in the forefront of promoting illusions that under mass pressure and “vigilance”, the Egyptian military will usher in a period of (bourgeois) democracy. The urgent task of revolutionaries in regard to Egypt is to dispel illusions in the myth of a classless “democracy”, which politically disarms and disorients the working class and is an obstacle to building a revolutionary party in Egypt.
We print below an abridged version of a presentation given by comrade Mick Connor at a Spartacist League public meeting in London on 26 February.
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On 17 December last year, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was selling fruit and vegetables in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. He was forced to work as a street vendor, because like countless other Tunisian youth he was unable to find any other employment. For years he had been abused and harassed by the police, ostensibly for not having a permit to sell. On that day they confiscated his goods and beat him. In protest at this treatment Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. He died of his injuries on 4 January.
The death of this young man was the spark that lit the blue touch paper across the Arab world, leading to the downfall of the dictator Ben Ali, which was the catalyst for the sequence of events that has been unfolding in the past weeks across North Africa. The most spectacular and important of these events was the millions-strong protests in Egypt, preceded and capped by a wave of strikes, which finally succeeded in toppling the hated strongman Hosni Mubarak — a strategically important ally of US and British imperialism. Mubarak had ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.
The present situation in Tunisia and Egypt provides an important opening for the working class and its organisations to come to the fore, and for the construction of revolutionary workers parties to fight for socialist revolution. While the fall of the bloody dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has rightly been greeted with jubilation by the workers and oppressed, the brutal system of capitalist exploitation and oppression remains intact. In Egypt, power was handed over to the military, the central pillar of the repressive state apparatus. Particularly because there are massive illusions in the army, we warn that the army will not hesitate to use its repressive power against the working class in struggle if capitalist rule is threatened.
The upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt drew in virtually all layers of society, excepting only the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie closest to the regime. It is notable that despite the history of religious and ethnic conflict in the region the protests have centred on secular-democratic demands, spurred by the increasingly intolerable conditions of life. Workers are demanding bread and freedom. But the situation has also created an opening for the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood.
With the dictators overthrown what happens now? There is no automatic progression from these upheavals to a socialist revolution against the capitalist order. Winning the most fundamental necessities of life — decent jobs for all, healthcare and education — requires the working class to emerge as the leader of all the oppressed — the unemployed youth, the impoverished peasant masses, the urban poor and the women — and to fight for power in its own name. Our task as Marxists, through our propaganda, is to popularise the programme of socialist revolution, which alone can address the felt needs and aspirations of the masses. The fight for socialist consciousness, and for a programme that will achieve the emancipation of the workers and the oppressed in North Africa and the Near East, means overcoming many obstacles.
Chief among those obstacles today is pervasive nationalism as was seen in the large number of Egyptian flags on the protests. A key task of revolutionary Marxists is to combat nationalism, which is always antithetical to the interests of the workers. Nationalism is used by the bourgeoisie to obscure the class divide between the tiny layer of obscenely wealthy capitalist exploiters and the vast majority of impoverished workers and peasants.
Nationalism in Egypt is expressed in the belief that the army is the “friend of the people”. But whose army is it? The military regime has denounced workers strikes and told strikers to go back to work. Not surprisingly therefore, the army takeover has been supported by all wings of the bourgeois “opposition”, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
In all capitalist countries the army, along with the police, judges and prison guards constitute the core of the bourgeois state, an organ of class oppression to maintain through violence the rule of the exploiters. To win state power the working class will have to smash the bourgeois state apparatus, including by splitting the army along class lines — the conscripts versus the bourgeois officer corps — winning the soldiers to the side of the working class.
Illusions in the army are a deadly danger to the working people and the oppressed but they run very deep. Egyptian nationalism was born of British imperialist subjugation and humiliation — the British had occupied the country from 1882. In 1952, a group of military officers known as the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the monarchy and ended the British occupation. Since that time the army has been viewed as a guarantor of national sovereignty, particularly against the Zionist state of Israel.
Nasser, a bourgeois nationalist, claimed to be leader of a mythical “Arab socialism”. His success in peddling this myth was aided by the treachery of the Stalinist Communist Party, which supported him. In fact Nasser aimed to crush the combative Egyptian working class and within a month of seizing power he delivered a massive blow to the workers movement. When a textile workers strike broke out in Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria, Nasser had two strike leaders hanged on the factory grounds. The Communist Party was banned and strikes were outlawed. Undeterred by the murder and imprisonment of their own comrades, the Stalinists continued to support Nasser, finally liquidating into his Arab Socialist Union in 1965.
The role of the military in Egyptian politics has remained the same under the subsequent dictatorships of Anwar el-Sadat and then Mubarak. While Mubarak was hated and despised, there are considerable illusions even today in Nasserism, due largely to the betrayals of the left.
For a revolutionary vanguard party!
In fact there has been a significant wave of workers strikes over the past few years, notably in 2007. Over two million workers have taken part in more than 3000 strikes, sit-ins and other actions in the past decade, largely in response to privatisation which has brought increased misery to the working people. The strikes have been spearheaded by workers at the Mahalla al-Kobra textile mills, the country’s largest industrial complex with a workforce of 40,000 workers, including a large number of women. Mahalla workers walked out on the first day of the anti-Mubarak protests, directly opposing the regime for the first time. Around 6000 workers on the Suez Canal also went on strike. The Canal is one of the world’s strategic waterways, with around eight per cent of international trade passing through it.
The proletariat is the only class with the social power and historic interest to overthrow the capitalist system. That requires the working class to be transformed from a class in itself — simply defined by its relationship to the means of production — to a class for itself, fully conscious of its historic task to seize state power and reorganise society.
The indispensable instrument for the working class to take the lead is a revolutionary, proletarian vanguard party which would defend the rights of all the oppressed and downtrodden — women, Coptic Christians, ethnic minorities, homosexuals. A strategic task of a Leninist party is to champion women’s emancipation in Egypt, where women’s oppression goes to the heart of society. Religion in Egypt is omnipresent and, like all religions everywhere, weighs heavily on women. Religion and social oppression are rooted in backwardness and reinforced by imperialist subjugation.
The oppression of women in Egyptian society is codified in law. The Constitution declares: “The State shall guarantee coordination between woman’s duties towards her family and her work in the society” and “the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)”. Polygamy is legal, as is repudiation (by which a man can divorce his wife simply by saying “I divorce you”). The woman, of course, cannot repudiate her husband. Abortion is illegal in Egypt, with very few exceptions, and by law a woman is subordinate to her father or husband. Egyptian law treats adultery by a man and by a woman as two very different things, the latter being far graver.
“Honour killings” and female genital mutilation are common practices, especially in the rural areas where some 60 per cent of the population lives. This is the case in both Muslim and Christian communities. While female genital mutilation is supposedly illegal, and the mosque authorities have pronounced a fatwa against its practice, according to the United Nations 96 per cent of women in Egypt between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone this barbaric operation. Egyptian socialist and feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawi begins her book “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World” with an anguished description:
“I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and I did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few minutes ago.”
Women’s oppression is rooted in the institution of the family and in class society. It can be eradicated only after a revolutionary workers state has collectivised the economy and laid the material basis for replacing the family through the socialisation of child-rearing and education. The fight for women’s emancipation will play a vital role in the struggle for socialist revolution in Egypt.
Women are increasingly a crucial part of the working class, where they have played a leading role in the strikes over the last decade, especially in the textile industry. The Egyptian woman may be the slave of slaves, but she is also a vital part of the very class that will lay the material basis for her liberation by breaking the chains of social backwardness and religious obscurantism through socialist revolution.
A Leninist party would also defend the rights of the Coptic Christian minority, which suffers discrimination and persecution at the hands of the state, abetted by pogromist Islamic fundamentalists. In December two Copts were shot dead by riot police after protesting against a decision that forbade them to set up a church in Cairo. This brutal repression by Mubarak’s thugs gave a green light to the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve that killed 23 people.
For permanent revolution!
A regional power in its own right, Egypt is nonetheless a neocolony whose brutal and murderous bourgeoisie is tied — and cannot but be tied — by a million strings to world imperialism, which benefits from the exploitation, oppression and degradation of its masses. For decades, the main prop of the Mubarak regime was US imperialism, for which Egypt is a linchpin for its domination of the oil-rich Near East. Every year Washington pumps $1.3 billion in military aid into Egypt — more than anywhere except Israel. Beginning with Sadat’s rule, Egypt has been a strategic ally of Zionist Israel and in recent years has aided in the starvation blockade of the Palestinians in Gaza, including by sealing the border in Sinai.
Egypt is a country of combined and uneven development. Alongside modern industry there is a vast landless peasantry under the thumb of ruthless landlords. The country has a small layer of highly educated youth who are technologically savvy. But the country’s literacy rate is only 71 per cent, and only 59 per cent for women.
Authentic national and social liberation requires mobilising the proletariat in revolutionary struggle against the imperialists and the domestic bourgeoisie. A proletarian revolution in Egypt would have an electrifying impact on workers and the oppressed throughout North Africa, the Near East and beyond. In Gaza, thousands mobilised after Mubarak’s resignation, waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags and desperately hoping that a new Egyptian regime would ease their starvation. Prior to 11 February, both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had laboured to suppress any solidarity demonstrations. A socialist revolution in Egypt would open a vista of national and social liberation for the oppressed Palestinian masses, and, extending a hand of working-class solidarity to the Hebrew-speaking proletariat of Israel, would help lay the basis for shattering the Zionist garrison state of Israel from within through Arab/Hebrew workers revolution.
Crucially, a proletarian revolution in Egypt would immediately face the need to extend to the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and North America, which would lay the basis for the elimination of scarcity by establishing an international planned socialist economy. In the advanced capitalist countries too the proletariat is facing the effects of the worst capitalist economic crisis since WWII. The proletariat in Western Europe and North America includes large numbers of immigrants from North Africa and the Near East, who are a human bridge to the workers in their countries of origin.
In fighting for working-class power, a Marxist party in Egypt could not simply reject the bourgeois-democratic programme. After decades of brutal dictatorship, there are deep-going illusions in bourgeois democracy. Revolutionary Marxists, applying Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, must put forward transitional demands linking the masses’ democratic aspirations to the struggle for proletarian power and its international extension.
Marxists must fight for mass, inclusive working-class organisations as embryonic organs of proletarian state power. Our purpose is to win the oppressed and downtrodden to the side of the working class, counterposing its social power and leadership to all wings of the Egyptian national bourgeoisie and struggling to break the masses from illusions in bourgeois democracy.
In recent strikes, workers broke free from the corrupt control of the corporatist union leaders. In the course of their struggles they formed strike committees and demanded trade unions independent of the capitalist state. There is a palpable basis to build broader organisations of the working class, such as strike committees, workers defence guards, popular committees to run food distribution etc. The emergence of such organisations, culminating in workers councils poses the question of which class shall rule. Soviets would be organs of dual power, vying for power with the bourgeoisie.
The myth of the “Arab revolution”
Reformist leftist groups have taken up cheering for the “Arab revolution”. In fact the “Arab revolution” is an empty phrase. The slogan was popular on the left when Nasser and Qaddafi were posturing as “anti-imperialists”. But the “Arab revolution” by definition was not a class revolution of the workers in the Arab countries against their bourgeois rulers. Instead it was directed against the Zionist bourgeois ruling class in Israel.
Nasser’s aura as an “anti-imperialist” is undeserved. He was once a bogeyman for the imperialists, but at a time when the existence of the Soviet Union as a counterweight to US imperialism allowed extraordinary latitude for bourgeois-nationalists such as Nasser to manoeuvre between the imperialists on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. Having been rebuffed by the Americans, Nasser formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. That alliance was treacherous from the side of the Soviet Stalinists, who politically supported Nasser’s bourgeois regime. Nasser later turned on the Soviets and his successor Anwar el-Sadat kicked out the Soviet advisors.
The Stalinist Communist Parties throughout the whole region sacrificed their proletarian bases on the altar of bourgeois nationalism and betrayed opportunities for socialist revolution. This has opened the door to reactionary Islamic fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood to posture as the only firm opponents of the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood represents a deadly threat to the working class, to the left, to the Coptic Christians who make up a large minority of the population, to homosexuals and especially to women. While it plays little role in the workers movement, it is entrenched in the lumpenproletariat of the slums and among petty-bourgeois layers. The Muslim Brotherhood could get a hearing among desperate masses, especially because its charitable works — hospitals etc — provide basic services that the capitalist government does not.
The bankruptcy of Arab nationalism shows the correctness of our programme of permanent revolution, based on an internationalist, proletarian perspective. We have always defended the Palestinian people against Zionist terror and likewise against the Arab rulers who no less than the Zionists are merciless enemies of Palestinian national emancipation. We say: Not Arab against Jew but class against class! That means sweeping away not only the reactionary Zionist state through joint Arab/Hebrew workers struggle, but all the reactionary sheikhs, colonels and kings throughout the region. For a socialist federation of North Africa and a socialist federation of the Near East!
The kind of party that we seek to build to lead the working class to power is modelled on the Bolshevik party that led the working class of Russia to power in the 1917 October Revolution. Led by the Bolshevik party, the working class of Russia overthrew bourgeois rule, freeing the country from the imperialist yoke, abolishing private ownership of land and freeing the myriad oppressed nations and peoples of the former tsarist empire. The achievement of these democratic tasks was combined with the expropriation of the means of production by the workers state, laying the basis for the development of a collectivised planned economy.
Facing the military and economic pressure of world imperialism, the young Soviet workers state succumbed to a political counterrevolution, beginning in 1924. A parasitic bureaucracy, led by Stalin, usurped political power from the working class and abandoned the internationalist programme of the October Revolution in favour of building a mythical “socialism in one country”. The Stalinist bureaucracy severely weakened the Soviet workers state so that it finally succumbed to capitalist counterevolution in 1991-92. Despite the subsequent disaster of capitalist counterrevolution the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky showed that workers revolution is possible and necessary. It represented a beacon for the world’s working people in their struggle to throw off capitalist exploitation and oppression. Uniquely today it is the International Communist League that fights for new October Revolutions. Join us!