Workers Vanguard No. 994
20 January 2012
Egypt: Military and Islamists Target Women, Copts, Workers
For a Workers and Peasants Government!
JANUARY 14—As the beginning of parliamentary elections approached in November, almost a year after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, mass protests demanding an end to military rule broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and across urban Egypt. Police and the army attacked demonstrators with whips, tasers, truncheons and live ammunition, killing dozens. With more rounds of elections scheduled, it is far from clear that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has any intention of allowing a civilian government to be established. Ominously, Islamists, the largest organized opposition, have swept the polls, with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood and the even more hardline Salafists winning some 70 percent of the vote between them.
Last winter’s uprising toppled Mubarak’s hated, military-backed regime, only to result in an even more open dictatorship of the armed forces. At the time, the bourgeois media and almost the entire left internationally hailed this as the Egyptian “revolution.” Since taking power, the SCAF has strengthened the police powers of the capitalist state and cracked down on social unrest. This is precisely what we warned about at the time, in opposition to widespread illusions that “the army and the people are one hand.”
The military’s repressive measures have been aimed centrally at the restive working class. Within months of Mubarak’s ouster, the regime banned strikes and demonstrations. In September, the SCAF expanded the hated emergency law to ban damaging state property, disrupting work and blocking roads with demonstrations. Between February and September, at least 12,000 civilians were tried in military courts, more than under Mubarak’s 30-year rule. With the first anniversary of the outbreak of mass protests approaching, the regime postponed the verdict in the trial of Mubarak for ordering the killing of protesters.
The oppressive conditions of life in neocolonial Egypt have generated enormous popular anger. In a country where 40 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less, many families spend more than half their income on food. In 2008, when the prices of basic foods doubled, riots broke out across the country. Today the military regime is threatening to slash the bread subsidy. Unemployment is pervasive, affecting a quarter of youth and 60 percent of the rural population. The peasantry, more than 30 percent of Egypt’s population, toils in conditions that have scarcely changed from the time of the pharaohs. Malnutrition and anemia are rampant. Most peasants are either smallholders with less than one acre, tenants or migrant rural laborers. The terrible impoverishment continues to be enforced through police-state repression. As one striking worker explained, there are no jobs, no money, no food, and those who complain about it are thrown in prison.
The leadership of last spring’s protests offered nothing to alleviate the material conditions of life for the majority of the population, instead subordinating everything to the question of electoral democracy and preaching the nationalist lie that Egyptians of all classes had common interests. As we emphasized shortly before Mubarak’s ouster, “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” (“Egypt: Mass Upheaval Challenges Dictatorship,” WV No. 973, 4 February 2011).
The industrial working class has amply demonstrated its social power and militancy, particularly in the textile industry. Strike waves continue to sweep the country. Bus drivers, textile workers, government employees and others have fought in defense of their unions and their livelihoods. But for the proletariat to emerge as a contender for power in its own right will require a tremendous leap in political consciousness. It must be broken from nationalist illusions and religious reaction and be won to the defense of all those oppressed in capitalist society. This requires the leadership of a vanguard workers party that opposes all bourgeois forces—from the military and the liberal opposition to reactionary political Islam—in the fight for proletarian revolution.
The Military and the Islamists
In the absence of a revolutionary proletarian alternative capable of addressing the felt needs of the mass of the population, the election returns are giving a measure of the grip that politically organized religion has on the downtrodden. The Muslim Brotherhood’s reactionary purpose is expressed in the slogan “the Koran is our constitution.” Promoting itself as a civilian alternative to military rule, it would dominate any government elected today. Its self-proclaimed “tolerance” for Coptic Christians is belied by its long history of organized terror. The Brotherhood’s historic aim of establishing an Islamic state has often brought it into violent conflict with the Egyptian government; nonetheless, successive regimes have encouraged the Islamists in countless ways and used them as a battering ram against workers, leftists, women and minorities.
The military, police and Islamists have all joined in recent attacks on women and on the Coptic Christian minority, which constitutes some 10 percent of the population. On October 9, protesters rallying against the burning of Coptic churches outside the Maspero state television studio in Cairo were attacked by uniformed military forces and Islamist mobs. In collusion with the army and riot police, armed thugs roamed the streets seeking out Christians, including women and children, killing more than 20 and maiming hundreds.
Women were targeted soon after the military takeover. Thugs who were mobilized around slogans such as “the people want women to step down” and “the Koran is our ruler” violently attacked a March 8 International Women’s Day demonstration in Cairo. In an act of calculated humiliation, women arrested at a protest the next day were forced to undergo “virginity” tests. Now, the image of a young woman, some of her clothing torn off, being dragged through the streets by military thugs in a December protest has become symbolic of the public degradation of women. This earned the regime a slap on the wrist from its U.S. patron, with Hillary Clinton commenting that such conduct “dishonors the revolution.”
In December, the Islamists launched a vicious campaign against the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) that was 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 organization of “anarchy” and of being funded by the CIA, setting it up for state repression. It is in the interests of the whole working class to defend the RS and to defeat such slanderous attacks, which are meant to send a message to all leftists and the workers movement as a whole.
Along with its cothinkers of the international tendency founded by the late Tony Cliff, the RS countered the attack by organizing a public defense campaign. At the same time, they were taken aback that the Muslim Brotherhood had joined in the witchhunt against them: “The attack on the Revolutionary Socialists by prominent Brotherhood members sparked outrage because the RS played such a central role in defending the Brotherhood at the height of Mubarak’s campaign against the Islamists” (socialistworker.co.uk, 26 December). In the mass protests last year, the RS embraced the Brotherhood as allies in the struggle against dictatorship, even posting on the RS Web site a statement by the Brotherhood, complete with the Brotherhood’s emblem of crossed swords cradling the Koran. Even when the RS itself is the target, these inveterate tailists have continued to pursue an alliance with the forces of religious reaction.
In March, the military government issued a law regulating the formation of parties. With the pretense of defending secularism against the Islamists, the law targets organizations of the working class as well as those that seek to represent women and oppressed minorities. It reasserts a reactionary 1977 ban on parties that are based on “religion, class, sect, profession or geography” or are established “on account of gender, language, religion or creed” (“The Main Features of the Amended Law on Political Parties 2011,” www.sis.gov.eg).
As we wrote last year in a polemic against the RS and its international cothinkers, we reject the “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” (“Pandering to Reactionary Muslim Brotherhood,” WV No. 974, 18 February 2011).
The three major electoral blocs—those representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and the bourgeois liberals—have all taken aim at the working class in their election campaigns, explicitly condemning strikes. While the widespread strikes and protests of the last year have given leftist organizations an opening to operate more publicly, the situation has also made clear how the reformist organizations act as an obstacle to the fight to build a revolutionary party that champions the working class, poor peasants and all the oppressed.
The Democratic Workers Party (DWP), which is associated with the RS, promotes itself as representing the interests of the working class. Along with other left organizations and prominent figures like feminist author Nawal El-Saadawi, the DWP has called to boycott the elections in protest against the military regime’s brutality. The DWP’s program makes no pretense of socialism, instead demanding “the establishment of a parliamentary republic” (International Socialism, 28 June 2011). This is simply a call for a species of bourgeois government.
In promoting the call for a parliamentary republic, the reformists falsely tie the democratic aspirations of the population to the class rule of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. In Egypt, where successive parliaments have served as fig leaves for military dictatorship, the desires of the masses for political democracy, including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, are just and deeply felt. However, the burning needs of the Egyptian masses—from fundamental democratic rights to women’s emancipation and eradicating the desperate urban and rural poverty—cannot be addressed except by uprooting the capitalist order and establishing a workers and peasants government. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin wrote:
“The dictatorship of the proletariat alone can emancipate humanity from the oppression of capital, from the lies, falsehood and hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy—democracy for the rich—and establish democracy for the poor, that is, make the blessings of democracy really accessible to the workers and poor peasants, whereas now (even in the most democratic—bourgeois—republic) the blessings of democracy are, in fact, inaccessible to the vast majority of working people.
—V.I. Lenin, “‘Democracy’ and Dictatorship” (December 1918)
Imperialism and the Mask of “Human Rights”
The imperialist rulers are past masters at cloaking their bloody depredations in the rhetoric of “human rights” and “democracy.” Bourgeois liberals, the supposedly “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) and the reformist left have done their bit to embellish this image. In Libya, the imperialists carried out the terror bombing that led to the ouster and assassination of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi under a “humanitarian” banner, with the authorization of the United Nations. Cheerleading for the “Arab revolution” against dictatorship, much of the reformist left internationally fell into line with the imperialists’ campaign, hailing the Libyan “rebels” who were willing tools for the NATO attack. The RS enthused over rebel-controlled “liberated Libya,” where “all the institutions, including the courts, military forces, police and prisons, are under the popular democratic control” (Center for Socialist Studies, 4 March 2011).
The Libyan “rebels” comprised a collection of defectors from the Qaddafi regime, monarchists, Islamic fundamentalists, former CIA assets, tribal chiefs and others. They gave a pretext for the imperialist bombing, acted as the ground troops for the imperialists and carried out pogroms against black African immigrants in the territories they had seized. In a statement issued the day after the imperialist bombing began, the International Communist League put forward a perspective of proletarian internationalism, giving no political support to Qaddafi but calling on “workers around the world to take a stand for military defense of semicolonial Libya.” We added: “From Indochina and the Korean peninsula to the U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan today, the ‘democratic’ imperialist rulers wade in the blood of millions upon millions of their victims” (“Defend Libya Against Imperialist Attack!” WV No. 977, 1 April 2011).
Egypt was and remains a top recipient of U.S. military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. At the same time, provoking bitter complaints from the SCAF, the imperialists have also cultivated “democratic” opposition groups to give a humanitarian guise to their operations and to influence protest movements. And now that the Islamists are riding high on their electoral victory, the Obama administration has held high-level meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to forge closer ties.
Since Mubarak’s overthrow, the U.S. has given more than $40 million to Egyptian “human rights” groups. In December, Britain announced plans to double the amount of aid it gives to NGOs in the Near East. A major sponsor of NGOs around the world is the United Nations, which itself was set up to give a humanitarian veneer to the depredations of imperialism, particularly American imperialism. The NGOs, sanctioned by and receiving funding from the imperialists, are hardly independent from their bourgeois sponsors.
Showing how little tolerance it has for political activity even when it is backed by its own imperialist patrons, Egypt’s military regime raided the offices of 17 NGOs on December 29. These included the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, linked to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, as well as the notorious CIA conduit Freedom House. After the U.S. State Department announced it was “deeply concerned” and threatened to cut military aid to Egypt, the regime promised to return all of the seized materials and allow the NGOs to return to normal operations.
A 14 April 2011 article on the “Arab Spring” in the New York Times reported that “the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans.” One vehicle for this is the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which has advised “pro-democracy” activists on overthrowing regimes that are in the imperialists’ crosshairs, from Zimbabwe to Iran to Venezuela. In Egypt, the role of organizations such as CANVAS is to steer mass protests in directions acceptable to the imperialists.
CANVAS describes itself in the vaguest of terms, stating that it does not receive funding from any government and that “our agenda is educational, not political” (www.canvasopedia.org). But CANVAS’s purpose is amply illustrated by its history. It was founded by Slobodan Djinovic, the head of Serbia’s largest private Internet and phone company, and Srdja Popovic, a former member of parliament. Both were leaders of the Serbian student opposition group Otpor, which received funds from imperialist conduits such as the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA front, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, another CIA conduit. Otpor spearheaded the protests that toppled Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in the fall of 2000. These protests amounted to a continuation by other means of the 1999 NATO “human rights” bombing campaign against Serbia, carried out under the pretense of defending the Kosovar Albanians. The April 6 Youth Movement, hailed in the bourgeois media for its role in the Egyptian “revolution,” modeled its logo on Otpor’s and used CANVAS’s materials to train its membership.
April 6 is part of the Revolution Youth Council (RYC), a bloc that formed last winter and claimed to speak on behalf of protesters in Tahrir Square. The RYC also includes representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of “democratic” oppositionist Mohamed ElBaradei. The U.S. International Socialist Organization, former affiliates of the Cliff tendency, hailed them as “Egypt’s young revolutionaries.” Both April 6 and the RYC have demanded that the SCAF hand power to a “national salvation government” headed by ElBaradei, who announced today that he was withdrawing from the presidential race, saying that the military was not about to hand power to elected rulers. ElBaradei has proved his usefulness to the imperialists: While head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, he led the charge to investigate Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
For Trade Unions Independent of the Capitalist State!
In the decade leading to Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian proletariat 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 state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the only legally recognized union body, whose predecessor was established by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957. For over two decades, it was customary for the federation’s president to serve as the Minister of Labor. Acting as the Egyptian dictatorship’s lieutenants within the labor movement, the ETUF leadership refused to approve strikes, sabotaged workers struggles and informed on militants, setting them up for repression.
Since Mubarak’s fall, a number of new trade unions have flourished. According to historian Joel Beinin, “Some independent unions—like the Cairo Joint Transport Authority union of bus drivers and garage workers and the RETA [Real Estate Tax Authority] workers’ union—are quite large and command the loyalty of a great majority of the potential bargaining unit. Others have only fifty to one hundred members in factories employing hundreds or thousands” (“What Have Workers Gained from Egypt’s Revolution?” Foreign Policy, 20 July 2011). The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), founded last January, has been feted by the tops of the AFL-CIO and the British Trades Union Congress, labor bureaucrats who act as the agents of their imperialist ruling classes, as well as by reformist “socialists.”
Although the EFITU is not directly run by the Egyptian state, it is not politically independent from the capitalist rulers. Beinin approvingly reports that the EFITU and other organizations filed a court suit calling on the military regime to dissolve the ETUF and seize its assets, which the military did. This was an open invitation for the bosses’ state to attack not only the ETUF unions but the workers movement more broadly, serving to renew labor’s ties to the state. The development of a new, class-struggle leadership in the unions—one that would fight for strong industrial unions independent of the capitalist state—is a crucial part of the struggle to build the revolutionary workers party that is urgently needed.
Bankrupt Nationalism Breeds Religious Reaction
Born of a history of imperialist subjugation, Egyptian nationalism has long served the country’s capitalist rulers by obscuring the class divide between the tiny layer of filthy rich at the top and the brutally exploited and impoverished working class. Rather than struggling to break the working class from these illusions, left organizations including the RS have bolstered them. Harking back to the 1950s-60s, when the left-nationalist strongman Nasser wielded substantial influence in the Near East, the RS proclaimed, “Revolution must restore Egypt’s independence, dignity and leadership in the region” (see “Egypt: Military Takeover Props Up Capitalist Rule,” WV No. 974, 18 February 2011).
Nasser’s bourgeois regime, which continues to be idealized by the Egyptian left today, came to power in a military coup during a period of mass protests and strikes that followed World War II. Military forces led by Colonel Nasser overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk in 1952, followed shortly afterward by the departure of British troops. While Nasser won wide recognition as an “anti-imperialist,” especially with the nationalization of the Suez Canal, Egypt remained an impoverished country ultimately subordinated to imperialism.
Nasser succeeded in stabilizing the rule of the capitalist class, in part through concessions—such as a partial land redistribution, raising wages and expanding access to health care and education—but most characteristically through brutal repression. To consolidate his rule, Nasser suppressed the Communists, imprisoning, torturing and killing them. But even as he brutalized them, the Stalinist Communist Party continued its class-collaborationist support to Nasser, liquidating into his Arab Socialist Union in 1965. The Soviet Union provided economic and military aid to Nasser’s regime, allowing him a degree of independence from imperialist control that would not be possible today.
The bankruptcy of both secular nationalism and Stalinism, forces that were once dominant among the poor and oppressed in the region, fed the dramatic rise of political Islam. Generously funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the Islamists, even while nominally banned, built a mass base in large part by providing charity and social services to masses of people to whom the bourgeois state has nothing to offer except abject poverty and police repression. American journalist Mary Anne Weaver described her experience in Cairo’s Imbaba slum:
“The Islamists, led by the Brotherhood, had built their own social and welfare system here, rivalling that of the state. [The hardline Islamist] Gama’a-controlled ‘popular’ mosques had set up discount health clinics and schools, day-care centers, and furniture factories to employ the unemployed, and they provided meat, at wholesale prices, to the poor. Despite an aggressive $10 million social program launched by the government at the end of 1994, the Islamists’ institutions remained generally far more efficient and far superior to run-down government facilities.”
—A Portrait of Egypt (1999)
Today the Islamists are once again trying to establish a base among the organized working class, where they historically have had little support. In 1946, when they did have a hearing among a layer of industrial workers, they played a strikebreaking role. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed major strikes in the Shubra al-Khayama textile plant while its newspaper spread anti-Communist and anti-Semitic poison. When the strike leaders were arrested during a strike in January of that year, the Brotherhood condemned them, saying they were “members of communist cells headed by Jews.” During a June strike in the same plant, the Brotherhood “informed the police of the names and addresses of the strike committee” (Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile ).
Cliffites and Islam: Feeding the Hand That Bites Them
The RS and its cothinkers in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have gone out of their way to bolster illusions in the Muslim Brotherhood, promoting it as a potential ally of the working class in the fight against imperialism and capitalist oppression. In an article titled “Comrades and Brothers” published in Middle East Report (Spring 2007), RS spokesman Hossam El-Hamalawy boasted that his organization “pushed for close coordination” with the Brotherhood and praised its “brotherly spirit.” Half a year ago, in an article printed in the SWP’s Socialist Review (June 2011) titled “The Islamists and the Egyptian Revolution,” Egyptian Cliffite Sameh Naguib complained about the “state of hysteria” among the left and liberals over the resurgent Islamist movement. Naguib went so far as to denounce those “lured into debates over Article 2 of the constitution, which enshrines Islam as ‘the religion of the state…and Islamic law as the principal source of legislation’.”
Long before that, in the seminal International Socialism (Autumn 1994) article “The Prophet and the Proletariat,” SWP leader Chris Harman went to some lengths to present political Islam favorably for seeking “to transform society, not to conserve it in the old way” and for “anti-imperialist slogans and some anti-imperialist actions which have embarrassed very important national and international capitalist interests.” This was the criminal line taken by the bulk of the left internationally in supporting Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces in the mass upsurge in Iran in the late 1970s against the bloody, U.S.-backed Shah. The result was the beheading of the militant working class, as Communists and other leftists were butchered, women were further enslaved, and national and other minorities were brutally repressed by the new Islamic regime.
While the SWP can fill reams of paper with nonsense about the Brotherhood’s “anti-imperialist stance,” Islamists, including the Brotherhood, have historically been the willing tool of imperialism against Communists, modernizing nationalists and secular liberals. Following World War II, U.S. imperialism promoted and funded the Brotherhood as part of its Cold War drive against Communism. This was one expression of the policy described in 1950 by John Foster Dulles, who would later serve as Eisenhower’s Secretary of State: “The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it.”
The Cliff tendency has a long history of siding with the forces of Islamic reaction, including cheering the mujahedin—anti-Soviet “holy warriors”—in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The imperialists funneled vast quantities of arms and money to these Islamist terrorists in the largest CIA operation in history. The Muslim Brotherhood provided a major contingent of the mujahedin, whose jihad against a Soviet-backed, modernizing nationalist government was sparked when the regime introduced such reforms as lowering the bride price. In the first war in modern history in which the status of women was a central issue, the Soviet Red Army battled Islamic fundamentalists who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and killed teachers who taught young girls to read.
We hailed the Red Army in Afghanistan. Its presence opened the possibility of extending the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution to Afghanistan, just as those parts of Central Asia that were incorporated into the Soviet Union progressed centuries beyond the medieval conditions that prevailed in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988-89 was a betrayal by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy that left the country mired in backwardness and internecine bloodletting. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was the precursor to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
Although deformed by the parasitic rule of a bureaucratic caste, the Soviet Union represented the dictatorship of the working class. When the USSR was destroyed through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, the SWP welcomed this, proclaiming “Communism has collapsed” and adding “It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991). A grave defeat for working people and the oppressed internationally, the end of the Soviet Union has meant a more dangerous world, where U.S. imperialism has a free hand and forces of religious and social reaction have grown stronger.
The Bolshevik Revolution was a defining event of the 20th century. The working class took state power, leading the peasantry, national minorities and all of the oppressed in overthrowing bourgeois rule, sweeping away as well the tsarist autocracy and the state church. It established the dictatorship of the proletariat, liberating the working people from capitalist exploitation. The Revolution confirmed the theory of permanent revolution developed by Leon Trotsky in 1904-1906. Trotsky had projected that, despite its economic and social backwardness, Russia was already part of a world capitalist economy that was ripe for socialist transformation, requiring proletarian revolution not only in backward countries like Russia but especially in the advanced capitalist states. The workers in Russia, who were small in number but strategically concentrated in large industry, could come to power before the country had undergone an extended period of capitalist development. Moreover, the workers in Russia would have to come to power if Russia was to be liberated from the yoke of its feudal past.
As Trotsky wrote in 1929 in The Permanent Revolution:
“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses....
“The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property.”
In the same work, Trotsky stressed that “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.”
In articles on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt a year ago, we raised the call for a revolutionary constituent assembly along with a series of democratic demands while centrally stressing the need for the working class to establish factory committees and other organs of dual power. As a result of subsequent discussion, the ICL rejected on principle the call for a constituent assembly, which can be nothing other than a form of bourgeois state. As we wrote in “Tunisian Elections: Victory for Islamic Reactionaries” (WV No. 993, 6 January): “Our understanding of the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie, in the semicolonial countries as well as the advanced capitalist states, means that there can be no revolutionary bourgeois parliament. The call for a constituent assembly consequently runs counter to the permanent revolution.”
Permanent revolution provides the only program for resolving the fundamental questions posed in Egypt and throughout the Near East today. The region is marked by abject poverty, benighted enslavement of women, the dispossession of the Palestinian people by Israel and the oppression of numerous other national and religious minorities by the Arab-nationalist and Islamist regimes. This legacy of social backwardness and oppression is reinforced by domination by the imperialist powers, whose overriding concern is control of the supply of oil. Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and site of the strategically important Suez Canal, is ruled by a venal bourgeoisie that has been a willing pawn of U.S. imperialism and, since 1979, a stalwart ally of Israel. In recent years, Egypt’s capitalist rulers have aided in the starvation blockade of the Palestinians in Gaza, including by sealing the border in Sinai.
Today, almost 60 years after the withdrawal of the last British colonial troops, Egypt is mired in some $35 billion of foreign debt. Over the past ten years, $24 billion in debt servicing payments has been bled from the country, while its debt burden has increased by 15 percent. Under the “structural adjustment programs” imposed by the International Monetary Fund, Nasser-era state control of industry has been progressively rolled back and factories sold off below cost to Mubarak’s cronies and foreign investors. At the same time, the military has retained extensive holdings, although their extent is kept secret. Journalist Joshua Hammer described them: “The military controls a labyrinth of companies that manufacture everything from medical equipment to laptops to television sets, as well as vast tracts of real estate…with command of as much as 40 percent of the Egyptian economy” (New York Review of Books, 18 August 2011).
The neoliberal “reforms” that led the World Bank to declare Egyptian agriculture a “fully privatized sector” by 2001 have vastly increased the misery of the rural population. Since the mid ’90s, tenant farmers’ rents have shot up from an equivalent of about $4 an acre annually to as high as $60, the equivalent of three months’ earnings. Some five million peasants and their families have been forced into penury after having been evicted because they were unable to pay their rent or because of state-sanctioned land grabs. Dispossessed peasants were driven into the slums and shantytowns of major cities, where they became a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic reactionaries. Resistance to the land “reform” has continued over the years: peasants have marched in demonstrations, blocked main roads, set landlords’ houses on fire and attacked government offices. The government has responded with severe repression, with police and armed gangs attacking peasants, seizing crops and occupying fields by force.
The end of legal protections on land tenure opened the way for foreign companies to purchase huge tracts. The past two decades saw a tenfold rise in agricultural exports as production shifted away from staples for domestic consumption to high-cash produce for sale in Europe. Once capable of producing enough food to feed its population, Egypt is now the world’s biggest importer of wheat, leaving the impoverished population at the mercy of the world market, which is dominated by U.S. agribusiness.
In a country where more than 90 percent of women, both Muslim and Christian, are subjected to genital mutilation, courts run under Islamic law adjudicate family disputes and “honor killing” runs rampant. For Marxists, the question of women’s liberation cannot be separated from the struggle to emancipate the whole of the working class. Women workers are a vital part of the Egyptian proletariat. They have been prominent in the wave of strikes that has swept Egypt over the past decade, especially in the textile industry. Won to a revolutionary program, they will have a leading role to play in breaking the chains of social backwardness and religious obscurantism. As Trotsky stressed in his 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.”
For Proletarian Internationalism!
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, realizing its historic potential to lead all the oppressed in a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system. Crucially, this includes the mobilization of the working class in the imperialist centers to overthrow their “own” exploiters. The capitalist economic crisis that has ravaged the lives and livelihoods of working people from North Africa and the Near East to Europe, North America and Japan only further underscores the necessity for a perspective that is at once revolutionary, proletarian and internationalist.
In Egypt, the struggle of the proletariat must be welded to the defense of the many oppressed layers in the society, including women, youth and Coptic Christians as well as Bedouins, Nubians and other minority groups. A workers and peasants government would expropriate the capitalist class, including the landlords, and establish a planned, collectivized economy. A planned economy on an international scale would open the way to develop industry at the highest level, providing jobs for the impoverished urban masses and applying the most advanced technology to agriculture.
The struggle against imperialist domination and the oppressive rule of the sheiks, kings, colonels, ayatollahs, nationalist and Zionist rulers throughout the region cannot be resolved under capitalism. There will be no end to ethnic and national oppression, no emancipation of women, no end to the exploitation of working people short of a thoroughgoing proletarian revolution that opens the road to the establishment of a socialist federation of the Near East, as part of the struggle for world proletarian revolution. To bring this perspective to the working class requires the construction of a Leninist vanguard party, which will be forged in combat against the reformist “socialists” and others who seek to subordinate the working class to the imperialists, nationalists and forces of Islamic reaction. The International Communist League is dedicated to forging such parties.