Workers Hammer No. 220
Under watchful eye of military Muslim Brotherhood takes office
"Revolutionary Socialists" in bed with Islamic reaction
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard no 1005, 6 July 2012.
In the early weeks of 2011, the world watched extraordinary scenes of millions of Egyptians from virtually all social classes protesting throughout the country, braving police assaults and bullets. Mobilised under the slogan: “The people demand the fall of the regime”, they succeeded in driving out the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak, but the result was the military taking power in its own name. As the last year and a half progressed, the euphoria over the “Egyptian Revolution” has increasingly given way to the cold reality of bloody military rule, greater economic hardship and the ascendance of Islamist reactionaries: the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more right-wing Salafists.
This June, Egyptians were faced with a presidential election that posed a “choice” between candidates embodying the two most powerful and best-organised forces in the country: Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister, who stood as the military’s representative, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. While many liberals and supposed leftists complained that this election was a blow to the “democracy” established by the “Egyptian Revolution”, the outcome flowed from the politics of national unity against Mubarak that drove the protests, in which the working class never emerged as a factor in its own right but was subordinated to bourgeois political forces.
On 24 June, Morsi was declared the winner. Facing threats of corruption charges, Shafiq and most of his family left the country. Essentially, the military allowed the Brotherhood to take the presidency as a front for the continuing rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Anticipating a Brotherhood victory, the SCAF moved on the eve of the elections to tighten further its bloody grip on society. Following a court ruling pointing to electoral “irregularities”, the SCAF dissolved the Islamist-dominated and essentially powerless parliament elected last winter. It also issued a constitutional declaration curbing presidential power. Military police were granted the power to arrest civilians, including striking workers. While a subsequent court ruling overturned that and other measures, the reality is that the military was trying to formalise what already exists: more than 12,000 civilians have reportedly faced military tribunals since February 2011 and are still doing so.
Morsi took office on 30 June. On 12 August he cancelled the SCAF’s constitutional declaration and announced the sudden retirement of the SCAF’s two highest-ranking members, Hussein Tantawi, head of the armed forces, and the chief of staff, Sami Anan. Both men were showered with praise and given medals, with Tantawi receiving the highest medal in the country, the Order of the Nile. Morsi appointed SCAF members to both posts and named a third as deputy to the head of armed forces. The new head of armed forces is Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the former head of military intelligence. El-Sissi is notorious internationally for defending the use of “virginity tests” against female protesters in March 2011. The British- and US-educated el-Sissi has military contacts with the US dating back 30 years and, according to the Wall Street Journal (14 August), US officials “expressed confidence that Gen. Sissi will maintain close ties with the U.S.”
Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, has been a linchpin of US imperialist interests in the Near East and remains second only to Israel as a recipient of US military funding. The Obama administration has repeatedly called for Egypt to honour its agreement with the Zionist state, and for co-operation between the military and Morsi. For his part, Morsi has attempted to guarantee the flow of US money to the Egyptian government without running afoul of popular anti-American anger and his Islamist base. When Islamist-led unrest swept Egypt and the region in mid-September, including the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, Obama criticised Morsi for being slow to crack down. Nevertheless, on 18 September White House press secretary Jay Carney denied reports that the release of US aid to Egypt was being stalled, saying: “We provide assistance to Egypt because it’s in our interests to help them advance regional security and uphold their treaty with Israel and transition to democracy” (AP).
Bourgeois pundits and “socialist” leftists in Egypt and abroad freely throw around the term “revolution” to describe last year’s uprising. Throughout the streets of Cairo, billboards and banners put up by various political forces, including the military, sing the praises of the “January 25 Revolution”. Graffiti hails the “martyrs of the revolution”, the nearly 1000 people killed during the uprising and the many more slaughtered by the military since. But the truth must be told: this was no revolution. Thousands upon thousands courageously took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and smaller cities, driven by grinding poverty and the intense desire to throw off dictatorial rule and the many-sided oppression endemic to Egyptian capitalism. But all they were offered by the political forces leading the upheaval was another form of capitalist class dictatorship.
After weeks of campaigning and pressure to vote, more than half the electorate did not bother to participate in the SCAF’s electoral charade. The material conditions of life for the overwhelming majority of the population have actually worsened as food prices and unemployment have risen sharply. The hated police, including the Central Security Forces, have been enforcing “law and order” on the streets. Both the military and the Brotherhood have made clear their intent to restore “stability”, including by clamping down on strikes. But despite the military’s hold on power, Egypt remains a deeply unstable society.
Egypt has one of the largest, most combative and potentially most powerful working classes in the region. However, the deep reservoir of nationalist consciousness — seen in last year’s protests in the ubiquitous presence of the Egyptian flag and the refrain that the military was “at one with the people” — continues to serve Egypt’s rulers by obscuring the class divide between the tiny layer of filthy rich capitalists at the top and the brutally exploited workers and peasants at the bottom. While workers have engaged in strikes and factory sit-ins over the last decade, reaching a climax in 2011, the working class has not entered the political fray under its own banner, fighting for its own class interests.
Revolutionary Socialists: bowing before the Brotherhood
Those groups claiming the mantle of socialism in Egypt stand as an obstacle to the struggle for working-class power, dissolving the distinct class interests of the proletariat into the need for some mythical unity of “the people” in order to continue the “revolution”. Chief among them are the Revolutionary Socialists (RS), a tendency associated with the late Tony Cliff, founder of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Particularly since last year’s uprising, the RS has emerged as the most influential “far left” group in Egypt. Their statements and articles are translated and read by leftist organisations around the world.
The RS’s calls for unity of the “revolutionary forces” come down to embracing the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood. In the second round of the presidential elections the RS formally endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi, calling in a 28 May statement for “a national front that stands against the candidate of the counterrevolution”, Shafiq. This provoked some anguish in their membership, as the RS admitted in the 4 June statement “To Comrades” which continued to defend voting for the Brotherhood on the basis of defeating the “counterrevolution”. Another 4 June statement called to boycott the elections if a law barring senior officials of the Mubarak regime from running for office was not implemented. Since the main candidate associated with Mubarak was Shafiq, this was simply a backhanded form of support to the Brotherhood.
The RS’s “To Comrades” describes the Brotherhood as “an organization filled with class contradictions concealed behind vague religious slogans”. No! This is a religiously based bourgeois organisation. And nothing about its religious programme is “vague”. The stifling stench of Brotherhood influence has long pervaded Egypt. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are justly terrified about the Brotherhood victory. There is no law compelling women to wear the headscarf, yet the overwhelming majority do so out of social pressure imposed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardline Salafists. And women face an even darker period ahead. To get a taste of what the Islamists have in store, one can look at two bills put forward in the now-dissolved parliament. One, introduced by a Salafist, sought to re-legalise the horrendous practice of female genital mutilation, which is rampant despite being banned. Another sought to lower the age of marriage for girls to 14.
Late last year, Islamists launched a vicious campaign against the RS which has been seized on by state security forces and propagated in much of the bourgeois media. The Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper ran a front-page article baiting the RS as violent, while the Salafist Al-Nour Party accused the organisation of “anarchy” and of being funded by the CIA — an open call for imprisonment and worse. Yet the RS continues its fascination with the Islamists, and not just the Brotherhood. In a blog post about his group’s recent participation in Salafist-organised protests, RS leader Hossam el-Hamalawy glowingly described how the RS is “reaching out to and earning the respect of the most revolutionary wing of the Salafist movement” (11 May).
The RS’s capitulation to the Islamists, the deadly enemies of women, workers and religious minorities, has a long history, going back to the RS’s founding in the 1990s when they opposed other leftists’ hostility to political Islam (see “Pandering to reactionary Muslim Brotherhood”, Workers Hammer no 214, Spring 2011). The RS tries to justify its opportunism with the claim that the Brotherhood, because it was repressed under Mubarak, should be an ally of working people and the oppressed in the struggle against the military and “feloul ” (remnants) of the Mubarak regime. Under Mubarak, and his predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, the Islamists were repressed — but they were also fostered as a weapon against class and social struggle. In the early 1970s, Sadat unleashed the Brotherhood, with knives in hand, to crush the Communists on the campuses. Mubarak, for his part, found it useful to tolerate the Brotherhood in order to present his regime as the only thing standing in the way of Islamic rule. As Marxists, we reject the reformist framework that posits that the only “choices” are to capitulate either to military-backed forces such as Shafiq, or to Islamists like the Brotherhood. In fact, these are alternative ways of propping up capitalist rule. We look instead to the revolutionary mobilisation 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.
For all their bluster today about the dangers of military rule, shortly before Mubarak’s resignation, when the army was deployed on the streets of Cairo, the RS fed nationalist illusions in the army. They complained in a 1 February 2011 statement, “This army is no longer the people’s army.” The army of the capitalist regimes of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak was never “the people’s army”. The RS even promoted illusions in the police, in a 13 February 2011 statement rejoicing that “the wave of social revolution is widening every day as new sections join the protests, such as policemen, mukhabarin [intelligence agents] and police officers”!
One man’s “social justice”
What RS members actually did on election day one can only divine. However, the RS’s cothinkers in the British SWP fully supported voting for Morsi. Shortly after the Egyptian elections at the SWP’s annual “Marxism” event in London, Anne Alexander spoke on “The role of the working class in the Arab revolutions”. Alexander, who had defended the RS’s support to Morsi in the pages of Socialist Worker, breathed not a word about it, until a speaker for the Spartacist League intervened during the discussion period.
Our comrade argued:
“In a June 16th article written by Anne Alexander, she said: ‘Voting for Morsi against Shafiq is an important step in building a revolutionary movement beyond the elections.’ No it isn’t. Telling workers to vote Morsi is a step towards making sure that workers revolution to overthrow capitalism never happens.
“In Egypt basic democratic freedoms — land to the peasants, women’s freedom, national emancipation from under the thumb of US imperialism — cannot be achieved by the national bourgeoisie. These tasks can only be resolved by the working class acting as a class for itself, independently and in opposition to all these bourgeois forces. That is the essence of permanent revolution. And you need a revolutionary workers party that will not capitulate to the Brotherhood or to the Nasserites to lead the proletariat in making that revolution.”
RS leader Hossam el-Hamalawy responded, defending the RS’s orientation to the Muslim Brotherhood:
“the bulk of this organisation consists of young students, lower-middle-class professionals, workers, some farmers, those who have illusions about Morsi. When Morsi talks about the application of the Islamic sharia, of course he has neoliberal programmes in his head. But when the worker, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and is a follower of Morsi, talks about Islamic sharia, he is thinking social justice.”
El-Hamalawy concluded that since Morsi is in power, “every single person with a problem in this country is now descending on Morsi. The organisation is going to crack soon. And that’s the best thing ever!”
Sharia — the 1300-year-old body of Muslim canon law regulating every aspect of life — is a programme of deep social reaction. In Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, it is synonymous with barbaric punishments such as beating women and stoning “adulterers” and homosexuals to death. In Muslim personal law, women are inherently unequal (as in all religion today); indeed they are considered less than fully human. Women may be beaten by their husbands, denied divorce or arbitrarily divorced by the husband simply repeating three times: “I divorce you.” Sharia codifies the Koranic strictures dictating the seclusion of women, with the veil embodying the submission of women to men and their imposed inferior status. For el-Hamalawy, however, sharia is just one man’s “social justice”.
From a self-proclaimed socialist, this is obscene. Marxists regard all modern religion as an instrument of bourgeois class rule that defends exploitation and befuddles the working people. As Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world
. It is the opium of the people.” We are dedicated to freeing workers from religion’s yoke — not strengthening it, as the Cliff tendency does. In the future socialist society, the Bible and the Koran, with their bloody misogynist proscriptions, will be nothing more than historical artifacts, their power to torment women obliterated by victorious workers revolution. But to get there requires building a revolutionary party that can win to its banner all those oppressed and downtrodden by capitalist society, crucially including Egypt’s militant women workers.
In response to our comrade’s intervention, Anne Alexander reiterated RS leader Sameh Naguib’s statement that: “You have to be clear on what the Brotherhood is but you also have to say that you stand with them. You have to unite all the forces of the revolution against the generals at the same time as continuing to build organisation.” The lesson to be drawn from subordinating the class interests of the toilers for the sake of an alliance with religious reactionaries has been written in blood by history. We need look no further than Iran.
SWP on Iran: “The form — religious, the spirit — revolution!”
In Iran in 1978-79, the Shi’ite clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in subordinating to its reactionary agenda a powerful wave of opposition to the hated Shah. The pivotal event in the Iranian upheaval was a major strike wave, most importantly by the strategic oil workers, in the last few months of 1978. Big wage settlements did nothing to stem the upsurge, which paralysed the economy. Initially these strikes were not subordinated to the Islamic opposition and did not support the call for an Islamic Republic. From his exile in France, Ayatollah Khomeini sent a top aide to try and get the strikers to disband their independent strike committees and subordinate themselves to the “Islamic movement”. Instead of resisting this, the Iranian left worked to fuse the left and right oppositions to the Shah in the name of “unity”.
Khomeini took power with the wholehearted support of the leftist parties, in a “revolution” cheered by virtually the entire left internationally. Once in power, Khomeini imposed sharia law. Women were required to wear the hijab in public, with those who flouted the edict being subject to 74 lashes or a year’s imprisonment. Lashings and amputations were applied by the courts, and women convicted of adultery could be stoned to death. Meanwhile the Khomeini regime embarked on the mass slaughter of the Baha’i religious minority, Kurds and other national minorities. Trade unionists were thrown into prison, their organisations smashed. The “reward” for Khomeini’s erstwhile supporters on the left was imprisonment, torture and execution by the Islamists’ anti-Communist “Revolutionary Guards”.
The Cliff tendency hailed the victory of the Islamists. As Khomeini stood at the cusp of power in early 1979, its US and Canadian newspapers rejoiced with the headline: “The form — religious, the spirit — revolution!” The week after the mullahs triumphed, the British Socialist Worker’s headline exulted: “Iran: The glory”. Today the SWP mostly tries to disappear their own role in 1978-79.
Not so us. Our organisation, then called the international Spartacist tendency, put forward a revolutionary Marxist line at every stage in the Iranian crisis, from the mass demonstrations in 1978 to the strike wave that paralysed the economy to the fall of the Shah and consolidation of power by Khomeini. Our call was: “Down with the Shah — No support to Khomeini! For workers revolution in Iran!” We warned that the triumph of Khomeini’s forces would lead to a regime no less bloody and despotic than the Shah’s and emphasised the deadly danger to women, proclaiming: “No to the veil! For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!” For our intransigent opposition to the reactionary religious leadership of the Iranian opposition, our comrades around the world were vilified not only by clerical thugs but by leftists acting at their behest. In Britain, the SWP joined others to exclude us physically from anti-Shah demonstrations.
In opposing Khomeini, we emphasised the vital necessity to fight for revolutionary proletarian leadership independent of and in opposition to the bourgeoisie. In 1979, we summarised the argument of Khomeini’s fake-socialist supporters in the West as follows: “In order to overthrow the shah, Khomeini had to unleash popular forces which he cannot control and which will prevent him from carrying out his program. In the political chaos which must follow the shah’s fall, the left will gain over Khomeini” (“Why they supported Islamic reaction”, Spartacist Britain no 11, May 1979). Substitute “Mubarak” for “the shah” and “Muslim Brotherhood” for “Khomeini” and you find the SWP/RS’s arguments today. They did not play out well in Iran.
For permanent revolution!
At bottom, there are two alternatives for Egypt’s toiling masses: either impoverishment and intense social oppression under one form or another of bourgeois rule, or working-class rule and the extension of socialist revolution throughout North Africa and the Near East and to the imperialist centres. As Leon Trotsky explained in developing his theory of permanent revolution, in countries of belated capitalist development, the bourgeoisie is too weak, backward and dependent on imperialism to achieve the modernisation and all-round development of those societies. As we wrote in “Egypt: Military and Islamists target women, Copts, workers” (Workers Hammer no 217, Winter 2011-2012):
“The liberation of the Egyptian masses requires the overthrow not simply of the military but of the capitalists, landlords, Islamic clergy and imperialists who profit from the grinding oppression of the populace. The power to do this lies in the hands of the working class, whose consciousness must be transformed from that of a class in itself, fighting to improve its status within the framework of capitalism, to a class for itself, realising its historic potential to lead all the oppressed in a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system.”
The capitalist economic crisis that has ravaged the lives and livelihoods of working people from North Africa to Europe, North America and Japan only further underscores the necessity for a perspective that is at once revolutionary, proletarian and internationalist. To realise this perspective, the crucially necessary factor is proletarian leadership. The task is to build revolutionary workers parties based on political independence from all bourgeois forces and committed to the fight for a world socialist order.