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Egyptian coup demonstrates the need for a workers’ party

The mass movement that erupted onto the streets of Egypt’s cities on 30 June 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi was just as much an expression of popular anger and the continuing revolutionary will of the Egyptian masses as were the protests that brought down the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak on 25 January 2011.

It was no less legitimate on account of the presence in its ranks of a few so-called “feloul” (remnants and supporters of the old Mubarak regime) than were the January 2011 protests on account of the presence some Salafists and a part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank and file.

And Morsi’s removal on 3 July 2013, by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was no less a coup than Mubarak’s removal by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi on 11 February 2011. It was certainly no less intended to frustrate the popular will, by pre-empting the threat that the people on the streets might bring down Morsi’s government through their own collective strength and with their own methods.

This time, however, Egypt’s generals had learnt their lesson. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), under Tantawi, sought to placate the people in revolt in order to salvage what it could of the army’s privileges and power, under the cover of elections and a managed transition to a militarised “democracy”. Sisi’s coup, by contrast, has struck a blow against the Egyptian army’s historical enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to bring the revolution to an end altogether. SCAF is as much an enemy of the masses who came out onto the streets in June 2013 as Morsi’s government was. It may yet prove to be more deadly.

The new regime’s decision to release Mubarak from prison, the reappearance on the streets of the formerly discredited police and security services, the declaration of a state of emergency and the killings of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood-led protesters by the army’s special units all demonstrate that SCAF, far from “defending the revolution” against the Islamists (as some pro-army liberals and secularists would have it), has cast itself in the role of the revolution’s gravedigger.

The importance of leadership

These events demonstrate in the clearest possible terms the fatal weakness of the revolutionary movement that began in January 2011, one that many on the international left celebrated as a strength: its lack of leadership.

A diverse movement confining itself to simple, negative slogans (“the people demand the downfall of the regime”), but lacking at its core a mass working class party able to articulate the objective interests of the masses that it had awakened to political life, proved capable of bringing millions of people into action. It even proved capable of “bringing down” two presidents in succession. But on neither occasion was it capable of transferring political power into the hands of the revolutionary people. In the absence of such a party, power, or the prospect of power, passed naturally into the hands of the only forces organised and coherent enough to wield it: the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.

Despite the myth of the “Facebook revolutions”, real, mass organisations inevitably came to the fore. The absence of a revolutionary working class party allowed reactionaries to fill the breach. The “Arab Spring” gave way to a political winter.

The Muslim Brotherhood backlash

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership – slow to join the protests against Mubarak despite the presence in them of many of its own supporters, quick to support calls for “dialogue” even before Mubarak’s removal, and equally quick to lend its support to the SCAF-led political process and constitutional referenda – was always more enthusiastic about the prospect of a Turkish-style military-Islamist alliance than the generals themselves were.

Having chosen to support SCAF’s attempt to impose an undemocratic and deeply flawed constitutional process aimed at freezing out most of the forces that made the 25 January revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood naturally thought that it had earned its just reward for its services rendered in the form of Morsi’s election as president.

Seeking to secure his position, and that of those parts of Egypt’s capitalist class on whom the Muslim Brotherhood depends for support, Morsi then moved to attack the real democratic gains of the revolution: the rights to protest, to strike, to organise and to express political opinion.

In addition to sectarian attacks by the Brotherhood’s supporters on Coptic Christians and Shi’a Muslims, the Morsi government’s failure to release the hundreds of revolutionaries still held in prison by the military and its imposition of the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the Egyptian people ensured that its initial popularity soon gave way to mass opposition.

Around 17 million people took to the streets against Morsi’s authoritarian rule, more than had protested against Mubarak, and this time around penetrating into the rural regions in Upper Egypt that had previously not seen major protests. People once again demanded the fall of the regime and the continuation of the revolution.

The generals, however, saw in this an opportunity for revenge for Mubarak’s overthrow. And they were aided by an unholy alliance with older bourgeois liberal figures, like Mohamed ElBaradei, and the newer leaders of the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement, for whom the idea of using the military to oust Morsi was a natural strategy, rather than a dangerous betrayal of the revolution.

The revolutionary fight continues

Everyone who stood against Tantawi and Morsi to defend the gains of the 25 January revolution must now also stand in its defence against Sisi’s junta, and demand an end to all repressive measures and the release of all political prisoners, including Morsi and his supporters.

It should be clearly understood that the army’s attempt to crush the Muslim Brotherhood’s mass base is merely a prelude to the use of a new round of elections, just as fraudulent as those that brought Morsi to power, to mask the restoration of a military dictatorship.

Equally, it should be clear that the leadership of the struggle for democratic rights, for free and fair elections, women’s rights and the rights of Egypt’s minorities, cannot be entrusted to political forces that defend the capitalist system, whether “liberal” or Islamist, or for that matter to the apparently more radical youth organisations that act as their satellites. The “civilian” components of Egypt’s capitalist class, liberal and Islamist alike, have proven to be far too weak and far too afraid of the people to effectively challenge the power of the army. Only a force completely independent of them will be capable of doing that.

And the biggest obstacle that it will have to overcome will be the repressive institutions that the 25 January revolution left in place, protected first by SCAF and then by Morsi. The revolution cannot go forward until the hold of the generals over the rank and file of Egypt’s conscript army has been broken decisively by the action and appeals of the exploited classes from which its soldiers are ultimately drawn.

The statement that “the army and the people are one hand” will only have any real meaning once the soldiers refuse orders to fire on the people, remove the officers who issue the orders and establish a new form of discipline by electing new officers, accountable to elected soldiers’ committees in the barracks. But as the continuing tragedy in Syria demonstrates, this breaking of the army will only be possible if the masses – and the youth in particular – try to arm themselves in self-defence, to impress upon the soldiers the need to choose sides.

And in turn, this will mean that Egypt’s working class – the backbone of the revolution – will have to establish its leadership over the other popular classes that constitute its natural allies, by creating permanent councils of elected and immediately recallable delegates to represent the workers, youth, women, students, farmers and urban and rural poor that have been drawn into struggle, thereby enabling them to reach out and draw in many millions more.

For a revolutionary party of the working class

It has been the absence of any such institutional expression of the will of the revolutionary masses, one that could form an alternative source of power to that of the official institutions of state that has meant that the democratic gains of the revolution have had to be defended time and time again from the encroachments of the old state apparatus. It will take such institutions to establish these gains beyond challenge.

And in turn, these institutions will not be able to stop at these objectives. To secure “dignity” and social justice, those other objectives that first brought the people onto the streets, they will need to combine at a national level and struggle alongside the revolutionary soldiers for the creation of a government of the workers and peasants. Beginning with the confiscation of the vast empire of commercial and industrial enterprises owned or controlled by the military and its placemen, it will also need to nationalise the banks, the factories and the land.

That is to say, the Egyptian revolution, beginning with the tasks of establishing representative democratic government, will have to pass on from these tasks to the tasks of overthrowing capitalism. This will not happen spontaneously, as the result of an unconscious process, but will require the socialist groups and the emerging workers’ movement with its independent unions to form a party capable of articulating these goals and winning the mass of the workers and the exploited to fighting for them. This is what we mean by the strategy of permanent revolution.

By Marcus Halaby

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