Friday, 5 July 2013

Egypt - what next for the revolution?

Tahrir square on 3 July. Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
There are many things to be said about Egypt right now. I want here to focus on the 'what is to be done?' question. There are  different views and emphases (among the left) on the matter of how the revolution can be advanced.

How can the left win the political struggle inherent in the revolutionary movement? Can the revolution become a socialist revolution? If so, how?

Strengths and limits of the movement

The strategic question rests upon an understanding of the strengths and limitations of what is already happening. There have been mass mobilisations and a militant wave of strikes. It is the self-activity of mainly working class protesters and strikers that has driven the whole process and created the context for the removal of Morsi. I heard an Egyptian commentator on the radio referring to it as "a popular impeachment of the president", stressing the revolutionary dynamic, the movement from below.

This is worth re-asserting because there are those who mistakenly perceive this week's events as a step backwards, with a one-sided view of a military coup removing a democratically elected government. Such a view is all form and no content, missing the actual dynamic of events. It fails to grasp that the army's actions are driven by (an entirely justified) fear of further mass action from below, and the threat it poses.

But there is an opposite kind of one-sided view, which is equally mistaken. This emphasises only the mass action, characterising the downfall as Morsi as a fairly uncomplicated 'second revolution' after the revolutionary movement that brought down Mubarak, and therefore a straightforward advance. This view misses something of fundamental importance: the vital issue of political direction and leadership. Every revolutionary process becomes divided and contested politically, however (relatively) unified it may be at the outset.

The immense danger is that the army top brass demobilises the revolution and directs it into the dead end of superficial reform which fails to address the deep-seated social and economic grievances of millions of Egyptians. The army is - without wanting to state the obvious - not an expression of the popular will, but an institution of the state, of the old order. The generals are subject to popular pressure, but they have acted to 'manage' the mass movement and not advance its interests.

The revolution is driven from below, but its political expression (in the removal of Morsi, arrests of numerous Brotherhood officials, etc) is managed from above. Many of those on the streets understandably celebrated the army's actions in removing Morsi, as they felt it was a consequence of their own actions, and there is a revival of the notion that 'the people and the army are one hand'. But there also appears to be some tensions in the mass movement, as many protesters recall the army's many abuses of power in the period following Mubarak's downfall and feel uneasy about allowing the generals to co-opt a popular uprising.

The coup therefore reflects both strength and weakness: the strength of a revolutionary struggle forcing the generals to act, but the weakness of a mass movement that relies on a section of the existing state to remove the target of the movement's anger.

It is necessary to grasp these contradictions, to see what is happening as a profoundly unstable process not a single coherent event. What happens is up for grabs, not settled or pre-ordained. The army elite's interests are deeply opposed to those of the mass of people, both in terms of democracy and a range of social and economic questions. The contradictions are unlikely to be easily resolved.

Politics is central  

But we need to be clear that the army is attempting to settle these contradictions in a particular direction. If this is to be resisted, what is required? It is not enough to simply say that the mobilisations must continue. Of course they must, but that doesn't address the problem. It is possible for the mobilisations to continue, but without posing a political and democratic alternative to the army elite.

I have seen two ideas in particular come to the fore in radical-left commentary. One is the emphasis on rising strike activity and the notion that a general strike can be the decisive breakthrough. An even higher level of strike action would indeed be an advance, but it would still be entirely insufficient. It does not directly challenge the rule of the army or address the question of political leadership.

Similarly, there is the idea that the left needs a mass political party. This reflects a correct understanding that the action on the streets and in the workplaces requires political expression, that on its own it will not suffice. But it would be a mistake to reduce politics to the electoral sphere, especially when the struggle is finding its primary expression on the streets and not at the ballot box. Electoral politics can be a useful strand to the revolutionary process, but it is only one strand and it won't be the decisive one.

It can easily become a detour for the mass movement - a key argument in the weeks ahead from those seeking a 'stabilising' of 'order' will be along the lines of 'leave the streets and the squares, go home and wait for elections so you can have your say through the democratic process'. This deploys the rhetoric of democracy with the aim of limiting the meaning of democracy - limiting it to putting a cross on a ballot paper. It is their version of democracy not ours - a 'democracy' that will fail to deliver real changes for the mass of people and breed further disillusionment.

Yet there are different visions of democracy and the revolution has articulated a more radical, far-reaching notion, which encompasses the mass action of the people and extends to the workplaces. This is what terrifies the elite, including the generals who moved against Morsi, and they will use the narrow 'democratic process' precisely to defeat broader and deeper notions of democracy.

We should also remember two other things here. There is now widespread mistrust of political parties in Egypt, as expressed in the movement against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi. And there is the problem of unity, with the proliferation of numerous different parties of one stripe or another. If the revolutionary movement is to develop a political alternative to the army and those 'pro-reform' elements of the ruling class, it must rapidly develop its own forms of organisation - rooted and embedded in the movement of the streets, the square and the workplaces, not separated from it and diverting energy away from it.

Popular assemblies - the missing ingredient

There is no fixed blueprint for what this will look like, no exact model from earlier struggles elsewhere that can be replicated. It is, however, a need that naturally arises in every serious mass revolutionary movement: how can the people organise and represent themselves in order to advance their struggle? In every major revolution there has been some sort of form of democratic, popular organisation, most famously the soviets in the Russian revolutions of  1905 and 1917 but there are many other examples.

The level of mobilisation in Egypt has been - and continues to be - remarkably high, even by the standards of revolutions. It is significant that the process has continued and, more than two years after Mubarak's demise, it is possible for mass action to happen on such a scale as we are seeing now. It should also be noted that the revolution has addressed (and continues to address) social and economic questions, and it continuously involves militant strike action.

This all provides a strong basis for the Egyptian equivalent of the soviets, yet there has been relatively little in the way of such developments. That has to change if there is to be hope for the revolution. Who is driving the political direction of the revolution? It can only be the people actually doing the protesting if they develop their own democratic forms. If there is a vacuum here, opportunist elements (from the generals to moderates like ElBaradei) will move to fill it.

This question can be viewed at a number of levels. Above all, there is the simple fact that the growth of revolutionary assemblies is essential if there is to ever be a challenge for state power, i.e. if the revolution is to confront not only one particular form of capitalist rule, but the whole structure.

But there is an urgency to the task that derives from more mundane, day-to-day matters. Numerous demands are arising in the course of struggle. The movement's participants correctly grasp that their own activity is essential to winning those demands. However, what is not yet clear to many is that their own political organisations are necessary to amplify the calls for those demands, to co-ordinate the struggles, and to articulate a more or less coherent political alternative to the moderate elements promoted by a jittery ruling class.

It is in the course of constructing such alternative sites of political organisation, discussion and co-ordination that the popular will can find an expression which does it justice. This is how people's interests can be advanced rather than curtailed. It is, fundamentally, a question of class - the army's power is part of a capitalist order which preserves the wealth of tiny minority, at the expense of the majority, regardless of the changes in political order. Egypt's working class needs an alternative rooted in its mass protests and strike waves.

A political struggle for the future

Popular assemblies are, furthermore, the only way to ensure the activist minority connects itself to the many millions of Egyptians at home, at work, going about their daily business. Even when demonstrations are on the sensational scale seen in the last week, it is still a minority of the population.

Democratic forms are required which not only organise and co-ordinate the protesters, but which link them to many millions of people who are sympathetic but not actively involved. This is no idle fantasy when you consider the scale and depth of this revolution.

Such a development could even win over many of those currently still supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood - which, lest we forget, has previously been the dominant political tendency in the country and still retains a fragile but real social base. The more left-wing and politically independent elements in the revolutionary movement have to contest political leadership with both the Brotherhood and the elite moderates positioning themselves as advocates of the popular movement. They can potentially win the support of some of those traditionally supportive of more moderate political forces.

For socialists in the revolutionary movement, there is no greater or more urgent task than helping to create such a broad political alternative. The left is historically weak in Egypt - and is currently dwarfed by the scale of the mobilisations - but this is the challenge now.


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