Spartacist Canada No. 168
Mass Upheaval Topples Hated Mubarak
Egypt: Military Takeover Props Up Capitalist Rule
For Permanent Revolution in North Africa, Near East!
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard No. 974 (18 February), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
For nearly 30 years, he governed Egypt with an iron fist. But on February 11, after 18 days of an unprecedented upheaval capped by a wave of strikes, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was finally forced to resign as president, handing power over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Mass celebrations of millions of people from all walks of life erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and in cities throughout the country—jubilation over the seeming end of a venal and corrupt dictatorship that ruled under emergency law, imprisoning and disappearing its opponents in Egypt’s vast torture chambers.
Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, where protesters braved severe repression to topple the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt exploded beginning on January 25. Protesters courageously faced down a massive crackdown by the despised Central Security Forces that left at least 300 dead. Throughout the country—from the capital to Alexandria in the north and Aswan in the south, from industrial centers like Mahalla al-Kobra, Suez and Port Said to desert towns like Kharga in the Sahara and al-Arish in Sinai—demonstrators unleashed their fury at the regime by targeting police and security buildings as well as those belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party.
Mubarak is toppled. But the central pillar of Egypt’s bonapartist capitalist state apparatus, the military, is now directly in power. The military has announced the dissolution of Mubarak’s sham parliament and the formation of a panel to amend a constitution that has never been worth the paper it was written on. As we warned in our last article on the protests in Egypt, “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’” (WV No. 973, 4 February). Scuffles have broken out between protesters in Tahrir Square and soldiers trying to remove them. On February 14 the military issued Communiqué No. 5, which denounced strikes as leading to “negative results” and ordered workers to return to their jobs. Four days later, another military statement warned that strikers would be “confronted.”
Bourgeois oppositionists—from liberal democrats like Mohamed ElBaradei and his National Association for Change, Kefaya’s George Ishak and the Ghad party’s Ayman Nour to the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood—have all embraced the military in the interest of restoring stability. The ubiquitous Egyptian flags waving in the protests, which drew virtually all layers of society other than the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie, reflected a deep-seated nationalist consciousness. Born of a history of imperialist subjugation, nationalism has long served Egypt’s bourgeois rulers by obscuring the class divide between the tiny layer of filthy rich at the top and the brutally exploited and impoverished working class.
Today, this nationalism is most clearly expressed in the belief that the military is the “friend of the people.” From the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 Free Officers coup, which toppled the monarchy and ended the British occupation of the country, the army has been viewed as the guarantor of Egyptian national sovereignty. In fact, the military has been the backbone of one dictatorship after another since 1952. That year, it was mobilized by Nasser to shoot down textile strikers in Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria. In 1977, it was mobilized by Anwar el-Sadat to “restore order” after a two-day countrywide upheaval over the price of bread. During the recent upheaval, the army facilitated murderous attacks by plainclothes cops and hired thugs of the regime against protesters occupying Tahrir Square. Despite claiming that it did not oppose the anti-Mubarak demonstrators, the military arrested hundreds, torturing many. Down with the emergency law! Free all victims of bonapartist state repression!
Together with the police, courts and prisons, the army is at the core of the capitalist state, an apparatus for the violent suppression of the working class and the oppressed. Above all, the drive to “restore stability” is aimed at the working class. Amid the anti-Mubarak protests, tens of thousands of workers launched strikes, which continue to this day. These have included some 6,000 workers on the Suez Canal, through which 8 percent of world trade travels. However, Canal pilots continued to work, ensuring movement of ships. Thousands of textile and steel workers went on strike in the industrial city of Suez, which saw some of the most militant protests. According to the London Guardian (28 January), protesters there “seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building, then burned it down.” Cairo public transport workers have continued to strike, while, in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, strikes have spread to steel workers outside the capital, postal workers, textile workers in Mansoura and other cities as well as thousands of oil and gas workers.
In fighting for economic demands—against poverty-level wages, casual work and constant humiliation at the hands of the bosses—the working class is demonstrating the unique position it holds in making the wheels of the capitalist economy turn. This social power gives the working class the potential to lead all the impoverished masses in struggle against their abject condition. In a country where nearly half the population lives on $2 a day or less and where such misery is enforced through police-state repression, the democratic aspirations of the masses are intertwined with the struggle against their economic conditions.
Elementary democratic rights such as legal equality for women and the complete separation of religion and state; agrarian revolution to give land to the peasants; ending joblessness and grinding poverty: the basic aspirations of the masses cannot be met without the overthrow of the bonapartist capitalist order. The indispensable instrument for the working class to take the lead is a proletarian revolutionary party, which can be built only through relentless struggle against all bourgeois forces, from the military to the Brotherhood and the liberals who falsely claim to support the struggles of the masses. Such a party must act, in the words of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, as a “tribune of the people,” fighting against the oppression of women, peasants, Coptic Christians, homosexuals and ethnic minorities.
The liberation of the productive forces from the chains of imperialism and its economic and political agents in the Egyptian bourgeoisie can come only through the conquest of power by the proletariat standing at the head of all the oppressed. This was accomplished for the first and only time with the victory of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Led by the Bolshevik Party, the working class 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 collectivized planned economy.
For Permanent Revolution!
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 technologically savvy and highly educated youth together with a literacy rate of only 71 percent (59 percent for women). Medieval minarets and modern buildings vie in Cairo’s skyline, while on its streets modern cars jostle for space with herds of goats and sheep and donkey-drawn carriages. Inhuman poverty and squalor compete with grotesque displays of wealth. The obscenely affluent enclave of Zamalek looks across the Nile at the Imbaba slum, where children drink from open sewers and at times get eaten alive by dogs and rats. Popular hatred for Mubarak was driven in no small part by the enormous fortune amassed by his family, estimated as high as $70 billion.
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 U.S. imperialism, for which Egypt is a linchpin for its domination of the oil-rich Near East. 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.
Throughout the upheaval against Mubarak, the Obama administration seesawed between expressing support for his regime—especially the “reforms” promised by his vice president Omar Suleiman, who has long played a key role in Washington’s “war on terror” rendition and torture program—and mouthing criticisms of the government. The U.S. has poured in $1.3 billion a year to arm the Egyptian military. After Mubarak resigned, Obama intoned that the U.S. stands “ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary—and asked for—to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.”
To get a taste of what Washington means by democracy, one need only look further east, to the corpses of more than one million Iraqis who died as a result of the 2003 invasion and occupation, as well as to the imperialist barbarism inflicted by U.S./NATO forces upon the peoples of Afghanistan. One need only look at the sheiks, despots and strongmen that litter the Near East, who along with the Israeli rulers act as U.S. imperialism’s agents. When Obama says he wants an “orderly transition of power” in Egypt, he means he wants a “stable” Egypt, with the military fulfilling its role in the region on behalf of the U.S.
Authentic national and social liberation requires mobilizing 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. Over one-quarter of all Arab speakers live in Egypt, a country of over 80 million that has the largest proletariat in the region. Already, protests have erupted from Morocco to the U.S. client states of Jordan and Yemen in solidarity with the Egyptian masses and in opposition to those countries’ own despotic rulers. In Algiers on February 12, some 35,000 cops descended upon a protest of 10,000 demanding the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, arresting hundreds. Mass protests have since spread to Bahrain and Libya.
In Gaza, thousands mobilized after Mubarak’s resignation, waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags and desperately hoping that a new Egyptian regime would ease their starvation. Prior to February 11, both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had labored 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 West Europe and North America, which would lay the basis for the elimination of scarcity by establishing an international planned socialist economy. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, underlined in The Permanent Revolution (1930):
“The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it. Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle on a national and international scale….
“The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”
Break with Bourgeois Nationalism!
The present situation in Egypt provides an extraordinary opening for Marxists to put forward a series of transitional demands that link the current struggles of the working class and the oppressed to the conquest of proletarian power. But virtually the entire left internationally has offered nothing but empty cheerleading for what they dub the “Egyptian Revolution.” This is exemplified by Workers World Party in the U.S., which, as the military took control of the country on February 11, headlined: “WWP Rejoices with the Egyptian People.”
In Egypt, the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) group, which is inspired by the late Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party in Britain, issued a statement on February 1 calling on Egyptian workers to “use your power and victory will be ours!” But this is not an appeal for the working class to fight for power. On the contrary, the RS dissolves the power of the working class into the classless demand for “all power to the people” and the call for a “popular revolution.” While declaring “Down with the system!” the RS identifies that system as the Mubarak regime rather than the capitalist order. Left out of the statement is even the mere mention of the word “socialism.” Nor is there a hint of opposition to the liberal bourgeois democrats like ElBaradei, the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood (see article, page 9) or the pervasive nationalism that serves to bind the exploited and the oppressed to the Egyptian bourgeoisie. In fact, the RS appeals to crass Egyptian nationalism, declaring, “Revolution must restore Egypt’s independence, dignity and leadership in the region.”
Amid rampant illusions in the military, the RS complained, “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.” Now these reformists are even promoting the despised police, rejoicing in a February 13 statement 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”! So deep are the RS’s illusions in the benevolence of the capitalist state that they embrace the butchers, rapists and torturers of the regime, the very forces that have long terrorized the population, that murdered at least 300 protesters in recent weeks and that helped organize the February 2 assault on Tahrir Square.
Working Class Must Take the Lead
The Egyptian youth who initiated the “January 25 Revolution” have been hailed by one and all, from bourgeois oppositionists to the state-run media that had, until the fall of Mubarak, denounced them as foreign agents. Among these mainly petty-bourgeois youth, a good number had been animated not only by their own grievances but particularly also by the restive Egyptian proletariat, which for the last decade has engaged in a wave of struggle that included over two million workers participating in over 3,000 strikes, sit-ins and other actions. These were carried out in defiance of the corrupt leadership of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was established by Nasser in 1957 as an arm of the state.
At bottom, the petty bourgeoisie—an intermediate class comprising many layers with disparate interests—is incapable of advancing a coherent, independent perspective and will necessarily fall under the sway of one of the two main classes of capitalist society: the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Among these militant youth, who showed incredible courage in taking on the Mubarak regime, those committed to fighting on behalf of the downtrodden must be won to the revolutionary internationalist program of Trotskyism. Such elements will be critical to forging a revolutionary party, which like Lenin’s Bolsheviks will be founded through a fusion of the most advanced workers with declassed intellectuals.
In opposition to a proletarian revolutionary perspective, the reformists of the United Secretariat (USec) present bourgeois democracy as the pinnacle of struggle. In a January 2011 article posted on the Internet titled, “In Tunisia and Egypt the Revolutions Are Underway,” the USec demands “opening a process of free elections for a constituent Assembly,” presenting this as part of a “programme of a democratic government that would be at the service of the workers and the population.”
There will be no government that “would be at the service of the workers and the population” without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. As Lenin wrote in his December 1917 “Theses on the Constituent Assembly”: “Every direct or indirect attempt to consider the question of the Constituent Assembly from a formal, legal point of view, within the framework of ordinary bourgeois democracy and disregarding the class struggle and civil war, would be a betrayal of the proletariat’s cause, and the adoption of the bourgeois standpoint.” We are for the workers and peasants driving out government rulers appointed from above. We demand an end to the ban on political parties and call for a revolutionary constituent assembly based on universal suffrage. The achievement of this demand requires a popular insurrection to overthrow the military regime. At the same time, Marxists must fight for mass, inclusive working-class organizations 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. Throughout the strikes carried out over the past decade and during the current upheaval, workers formed strike committees and other bodies to coordinate their actions. These organs of struggle directly pose the need for trade unions independent of the capitalist state and all bourgeois forces. Today, there is a palpable basis to advance a perspective of building broader organizations of the working class. These include joint strike committees, drawing in workers from different striking plants; workers defense guards, organized independently of the military, to defend against the regime’s thugs and strikebreakers; popular committees based on the working class to take charge of distribution of food and goods in the face of shortages and black market corruption.
The emergence of such organizations, culminating in workers councils, would pose the question of which class rules society. Acting as a pivot around which millions of toilers are united in their struggles against the exploiters, workers councils, such as the soviets that arose during the Russian Revolution, would be organs of dual power, vying for power with the bourgeoisie. It is only when the working class comes forward as a serious contender for power that the conscript base of the army, overwhelmingly drawn from the working class and peasantry, can be split from the bourgeois officer corps and won to the side of the proletariat.
For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
While protests in Egypt have centered on secular and democratic demands, images of the protests show repeated sessions of prayer—not only Islamic but also a Coptic prayer in Tahrir Square on Sunday, February 6, “The Day of the Martyrs.” Religion is omnipresent in Egypt, promoted by Islamists, the Coptic church and the government, whose line can be summed up as: if they can’t have food, let the people have God. This deep religiosity weighs like a stone on women, whose conditions of life have worsened over the last several decades. Any socialist organization that does not take up the fight for women’s liberation in Egypt is a sham and an obstacle to human liberation.
The women who came out to Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt were more often than not wearing the headscarf. More than 80 percent of women in Egypt wear the headscarf—not by law but by force of a social norm based on obscurantism—much to the consternation of many of their mothers, who decades earlier fought to take it off.
Women’s oppression goes to the heart of Egyptian society. Together with the prevalence of religion, it is rooted in the country’s backwardness, which is reinforced by imperialist subjugation. Egyptian law codifies this oppression. 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 (in which a man can divorce his wife by simply saying, “I divorce you”). Abortion is illegal, 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.
Though illegal, female genital mutilation is rampant, and equally so among Muslims and Christians. According to the United Nations, 96 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone genital mutilation. “Honor killings” are also rampant among Muslims and Christians, although statistics are impossible to find as these murders are either unreported or reported as suicides. A brief glance at Egyptian films and television will show such barbarism to be a highly valued and well-respected tradition. Egyptian law has mitigating exceptions to punishing murder, allowing judges to reduce sentences for men who kill women as a result of “crimes of passion.”
The courageous Egyptian socialist and feminist Nawal El-Saadawi has written numerous works on the oppression of women in the Near East. In her 1980 classic, The Hidden Face of Eve, she spoke of the entrenched obsession with “honor”:
“Arab society still considers that the fine membrane which covers the aperture of the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl’s body, and is much more valuable than one of her eyes, or an arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much at the loss of a girl’s eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity. In fact if the girl lost her life, it would be considered less of a catastrophe than if she lost her hymen.”
At the same time, women are 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. One of the most dramatic of these was the December 2006 textile strike in Mahalla al-Kobra. More than 20,000 workers went out. And it was the women workers who led the strike, walking out as the men continued working. Protesting outside the plant, they started chanting, “Where are the men? Here are the women!” This had the intended effect, as the men joined them, launching one of the biggest strikes Egypt had seen in years.
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. As Trotsky stressed in a 1924 speech, “Perspectives and Tasks in the East,” “There will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker.”
The Bankruptcy of Egyptian Nationalism
Egyptian rulers have long played on the fact that, uniquely in North Africa and the Near East, the country’s modern borders are similar to its ancient ones. This supposedly supports the claim that the Egyptian nation goes back to the dawn of civilization. In reality, Egyptian nationalism is the product of the modernizing work of early 19th-century Albanian Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali, who created the first secular schools, established the first national army and laid the basis for the emergence of a domestic bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, Egypt remained in thrall to the European colonial powers.
The strength of Egyptian nationalist mythology is also seen in the adulation of the rule of left-nationalist strongman Colonel Nasser, including by many on the left. Central to the deep popular faith in the military is the fact that Nasser’s regime marked the first time that Egyptians ran the country since the Persian conquest in 526 BC. Since Nasser took power in 1952, every Egyptian ruler has come out of the military.
The Egyptian army is also the only Arab army to have inflicted a black eye on the Israeli military, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (after suffering a humiliating defeat in 1967). In speaking of how the army is “no longer the people’s army,” the Revolutionary Socialists group wrote in its February 1 statement, “This army is not the one which defeated the Zionist enemy in October 1973” (the war actually ended in a stalemate). In fact, the 1973 war, like the 1967 and 1948 wars, was nothing more than a battle between two regional powers for their own interests, in which the proletariat had no side. In contrast, the international working class was duty-bound to militarily defend Egypt against imperialist attack during the 1956 war launched after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.
As for Israel, there is no question that the Zionist state is the brutal enemy of the Palestinian masses, and we demand the immediate withdrawal of all Israeli troops and settlers from the Occupied Territories. But so are the Arab rulers, who have the blood of tens of thousands of Palestinians on their hands. The social and national liberation of the Palestinians requires not only the sweeping away of the Zionist state but also the overthrow of the capitalist Arab rulers in Jordan, where half the population is Palestinian, and elsewhere in the region. We understand that it will be no easy task to break the Hebrew-speaking proletariat from the grip of Zionism. But any view of Israel that rejects the perspective of Arab/ Hebrew workers revolution dooms the Palestinian masses to their national oppression.
Support to Arab nationalism has led to the bloody defeat of workers movements throughout the Near East, not least in Egypt, where Nasser came to power with the support of the Egyptian Stalinists. Upon coming to power, Nasser sought to appeal to the U.S. but was rebuffed; he then turned to the Soviet degenerated workers state for financial, military and political aid. At the same time, to consolidate his rule, he suppressed the Communists, imprisoning, torturing and killing them. But even as he brutalized them, the Communist Party continued to support Nasser, liquidating into his Arab Socialist Union in 1965.
Behind this abject capitulation was the Stalinist schema of “two-stage revolution,” postponing the socialist revolution to an indefinite future while in the first “democratic stage” the proletariat is subordinated to an allegedly “anti-imperialist” national bourgeoisie. History shows that the “second stage” consists of killing communists and massacring workers. Millions of workers who looked to the Communist parties for leadership in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere were betrayed by their Stalinist misleaders. In Egypt, such betrayal was sold as support for Nasser’s “Arab Socialism.”
In fact, “Arab Socialism” was a myth, amounting to capitalism with heavy state investment. It was designed to suppress the proletariat, which had engaged in substantial struggles in the post-World War II period, including against British occupation. The role Nasser saw for workers was captured by his statement: “The workers don’t demand; we give.” In exchange for the proletariat’s passivity, Nasser instituted several reforms, raising wages and reducing unemployment. But eventually, state investment dried up, and there was no longer much to “give.”
After Sadat came to power in 1970, the Communists sought to reorganize. Sadat responded by unleashing the Muslim Brotherhood to effectively crush them. He also expelled Soviet advisers (after having used Soviet weaponry to fight Israel in the 1973 war) and instituted the “open door” policy of economic liberalization, cutting food and other subsidies as a way to address economic stagnation. This was taken further and deeper by Mubarak and his neoliberal program of mass privatizations. Contrary to popular illusions, Mubarak did not represent a break from Nasserism, but rather its legacy. Under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, Egypt remained subjugated to the imperialist world market and its dictates. The real difference between Nasser and Mubarak is that while the former was a genuinely popular bonapartist ruler, the latter was widely despised.
If the powerful and combative Egyptian proletariat is to come to the fore at the head of the oppressed and fight for its own rule, it must be broken from its nationalist illusions. What is urgently posed today is the building of a workers party, section of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International, that will fight for a proletarian Egypt, part of a socialist federation of the Near East.