Interview with Wael Towfeek, socialist activist in Cairo

The world woke up on Thursday morning, 6 December, with news of events in Egypt. Six were killed and hundreds wounded in the horrific scenes of opposition activists being detained and tortured by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the last weeks, Egypt, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, has seen a mass opposition movement growing against the new regime and mass mobilisations against the new constitution, imposed by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The CWI strongly condemns the repression and torture, including the murder of journalist, Husseini Abu Deif, and the kidnapping and systematic torture of activists by members of the Muslim Brotherhood as seen in the recent mass protests. We stand in solidarity with the workers’ and poor people’s opposition and the continuing revolution for freedom and social justice. We call for the immediate release of all activists.

The CWI stands in solidarity with activists in the face of oppression and poverty and for the continuing revolution of the masses of workers, the poor and activists against the regime of businessmen and against right-wing political Islam and its bullying reactionary forces. Below, we interview (slightly edited version of Arabic published piece) a Cairo socialist and workers’ activist, Wael Towfeek, from the Revolutionary Left. While the CWI would not necessarily agree with all of the views of the Revolutionary Left, the interview conducted with Wael Towfeek before the recent referendum in Egypt, gives an important picture of recent events from within the Egyptian activist Left.

The reactionary MB, now in power and in an alliance with big business owners who supported Mubarak, are carrying out the same policies of repression and attacks on democracy and trade union rights, as did the Mubarak regime before the revolution. The MB leadership has been exposed to the masses in the region and all over the world as a party that has an agenda defending the interests of employers, and they have shown their inability to provide any real change to the conditions faced by the Egyptian working class and poor masses.

The reactionary nature of this government has now been revealed as well as its willingness to use thugs to suppress and torture leftist activists. Recent events show once again the need to build an independent mass workers’ movement and a political workers alternative to challenge the ruling class and to break with capitalism.

How would you describe the situation in Egypt?

In a few months only, the Mursi regime became repulsive, helpless, a failure and weak. Besieged by the opposition forces wanting to topple it, the regime is now seeing the evaporation of its Nahda (Renaissance) project which was cheered much before its start, but was only empty election propaganda.

The president and his cohorts have been installing loyal supporters in state institutions and in important positions in the media, the ministries and the councils. But these “preachers of grace” completely lack skills in management, and like with the president himself, politics were soon replaced with religious speeches and rhetoric, and the situation was analysed with ethical sentences and resonant phrases, with followers being attracted on the basis of this approach.

The economic crisis has continued to take grip of everyone and the regime did not provide any revolutionary action to resolve the crisis, instead aiming to ‘solve’ it by setting up boxes to collect donations for charity. But the small and big capitalists, who are the ones who can afford donations, are not willing to donate money to such an authority, especially when faced with relative economic stagnation.

The MB regime has not solved the crisis of capitalism and does not offer any solutions to the problems of the masses whose conditions are only getting worse…So the situation is boiling and sharp. There is a power struggle and the battle is one of life or death with mass mobilisations and pressure from the opposition that could determine the position of the Muslim Brotherhood. There has been a tangible impact as a result of the mass opposition movement shown in the call for a referendum on the constitution, made by Mursi. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new Egyptian capitalist rulers, clinging on to power and seeking more control and hegemony, find themselves without the support from wing of their own class and the old state apparatus of Mubarak, and facing popular anger which is mounting and eating into its electoral prospects.

On 21 November, the presidential spokesman came out to announce to the people a new constitutional declaration. The declaration included the question of pensions and re-trials, and clauses giving absolute immunity to the decisions of the president. This means immunity to any challenge by any other authority, particularly the republican courts, and an end to courts questioning any issue related to a decision taken by the president or any issue related to the formation of the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council.

But following this announcement, the ground has been shaken underneath the president, and rather than boosting his powers, the declaration has isolated him and made him vulnerable. It has divided the state and its authorities into rival wings and isolated the MB who have now found themselves in the face of popular anger directed entirely against their rule. The MB decided to fight the battle with their own forces and with some of their supporters, so they began a street battle which saw fighting between MB members and angry crowds in many different provinces, without the interference of the police or the army to protect the MB or its headquarters. Tahrir Square remained inflamed with anger despite the numbers of people killed and wounded. These battles have been fought by people fed up with poverty and oppression and no longer hoping for solutions from the elites.

This was how the Bonapartist coup attempt came about and died in its infancy. Mursi resembles Louis Bonaparte only in his pettiness and weak talent, and resembles Abdel Nasser in nothing but in his restoring of the tyranny laws. The common denominator between Nasser and Bonaparte was that both were envoys of the small farmers, while Mursi is the envoy of a reactionary religious organization representing the rightwing of the ruling class. There has been a state of frustration among the masses of the revolution, but the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood in power accelerated the intensity of the conflict, and their hegemony and arrogance has helped to expose them in the eyes of the masses. The opposition in the street is growing stronger and the MB is trying to get out of the impasse.

What is the impact of these events on the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Many of their supporters have been shocked and some of them have taken a position against the leadership. But there are still many MB members who are in support of Mursi’s measures and who back the leadership which is using justifications and accusing the opposition of wanting to “touch Islam and Sharia" and of “using remnants of the former regime". They are even using the same words used by the Mubarak regime during the revolution and are labelling activists as "traitors" while trying portray themselves as the “defenders of the revolution” etc. They are mobilizing their members from all the different rural areas to assemble in the cities, while the masses in opposition are mobilizing locally in different regions. What is certain is that the practices of Mursi and the MB leadership have unveiled their true agenda to ordinary people, some of whom had voted for them to keep the Mubarak remnants out. The MB has attracted millions from the rural areas through charity and speeches.

What about the deteriorating living conditions and the mood among the poor masses in the context of Mursi addressing what he called the "ordinary citizen"?

There is little trust in Mursi’s speeches about "living conditions" among ordinary citizens and these promises have not been enough to calm the masses and end the revolutionary situation. Mursi’s regime has become shaken, unstable and is unable to impose stability so has now phased out its measures and is waiting to see the outcome of events. Rather than offering any solutions to the crises and the misery faced by the masses, Mursi has sought to resolve the crisis of regime at the expense of the masses by raising prices, cutting services and setting loose the police to kill and crush demonstrators, in addition to putting striking workers on trial.

Mursi’s regime has shown total bankruptcy and the experience of a parliament with an Islamist majority has been shocking – a parliament of amateur fools seeking to impose reactionary rules. The statements of the Muslim Brotherhood have been the most repelling to the masses with Mursi’s bright promises which seem like failed attempts to confuse the consciousness of the masses at a time when the opposition is offering alternatives such as "a minimum and a maximum wage”, for improving services, and embracing the need to increase subsidies on basic goods (rather than reducing subsidies). Mursi and the MB are biased towards big business and even on the subject of Gaza their role was to negotiate with Israel. For the people, this is an important issue and there is a feeling that the Brotherhood want to "sell Sinai to the Palestinians" as an alternative land; and this idea of an “alternative land” is an old agenda of the state of Israel.

On Black Thursday, a presidential Decree Law (No. 97 of 2012) amended the Trade Unions Act (No. 35 of 1976) and came about as a surprise when it was suddenly announced and published in Issue 47 of the Official Gazette on 24 November. The men of the new ruling party (the Muslim Brotherhood) have launched an attack and denied the rights of workers and other social groups in expressing their demands and exercising their influence, and limited their position to negotiate and gain rights. The ruling party is in total agreement with the official trade union federation that is led by the enterprises - an institution of the state and a tool for hegemony over the labour movement which seeks to oppress and dispossess the independent movement. They are most keen to retain the old trade union federation and are hostile to free unions in the same way as elements of the official trade union organization before the fall of Mubarak; a rejection of pluralism and the abolition of workers’ rights to form unions, trying to force them into one trade union organization. They refuse trade union pluralism while claiming that they are “keen on the unity of the trade union movement and fear it’s weakening”!

This 2012 amendment to the 1976 Law 97, on Black Thursday, included the exit all of those of pensionable age from the boards of the federation to be replaced by those with the next highest number of votes - from the previous election results. And if this information is not available, new members are to be appointed as an issued decision of the specialist minister.

The MB ignores the new workers’ organisations which were formed after the revolution as "independent unions", and have now proposed these amendments that allow the MB to control the federation of trade unions in Egypt – the “official union" – and its property estimated at tens of millions of Egyptian pounds which should be owned by the workers. So claiming to be getting rid of the remnants of the former regime, this amendment is getting rid of those only over the age of sixty. We have been demanding this for years but our demand has been to prosecute these people and not just get rid of them. The MB say they want to get rid of the corrupt leaders by getting rid of those over the age of sixty, but they do not seem to mind keeping corrupt leaders under that age! The amendments also allow the ‘workforce minister’ to appoint leaders to the union committees and therefore ensure control and power over the federation by replacing old leaders who were pro-Mubarak with MB members.

What about liberal opposition forces and the leadership of the businessmen who are raising slogans of ‘freedom’ in their struggle for power today, but are willing to suppress the labour movement when they reach power to defend their profits?

The Liberals are part of the struggle against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, while their immediate interests are the interests of capitalism. But there is a feeling of horror about freedom and rights being repressed by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. There is a real fear felt also by sections of the bourgeoisie.

The workers’ movement is still strong and is taking important steps to organize itself, but at the moment is not organized politically. Organised workers are playing a solidarity role with the opposition against the Brotherhood. Thousands of ongoing workers’ protests are taking place today and are standing side by side with the freedom and rights movement. Moreover, the Koota steel factory workers union has just won a victorious struggle and taken over the running of the factory, forcing the Attorney General to issue a decision that gives them the right to self-management of the plant. This is an example that we use as a successful experience to spread to other workers and to offer a model of action and encourage other sites to pursue self-management.

What is the programme of the Revolutionary Left during this period?

Our present tasks are: the strong participation in the battle to oust the president and the constitution; to give maximum attention and put effort into organising, raising awareness, and preparedness of sections of the popular masses led by the workers; raising and building support around the radical demands in the battle including the demand for “an elected constituent assembly from all popular layers, the people’s right to control in all areas, the right to organise, demonstrate, strike and protest without limitations, the confiscation of the money of the former regime and ‘capping’ of private ownership.

Certainly, toppling the president will not represent more than an important step in the conflict. It will not mean the victory of the revolution. But the popular masses are still not ready - in terms of preparedness and organization - to impose a revolutionary alternative. So the ruling class still has the opportunity to provide a liberal alternative that is acceptable to save its system unless this is cut off by the masses if they are to engage in the final battle against the reformist bourgeois alternative of El Baradei, Hamdeen or an alliance between them.

What steps is the RL putting forward in the trade union movement and the freedom movement, to link up into one mass workers’ movement with a political workers’ programme, and build its own alternative mass party?

We put forward the need for a workers’ alternative and workers’ party by pointing to several elements, including the companies that have been privatized, and the need for workers’ management. And this is how we link the crisis of the system and its inability to solve problems to the need for a workers alternative and socialism.

What is the strategy presented by the RL to the workers movement to get organized politically and take power from the hands of the reactionary forces?

This is a revolutionary period and the Left has to call on workers to take the opportunities without planting illusions in multiple stages in the conflict where consecutive capitalist regimes arise with different faces but one goal and that is to defeat the working class.

The trade union movement has been facing obstacles after the MB government-launched attacks on the leaders of independent trade unions, weakening the unions as they lost some of their leaders.

Still, the task of organizing the masses, raising awareness and the level of readiness is a necessary condition for a decisive victory over the system as a whole. This is a task that will only preoccupy the most radical forces and not the nationalists or liberals who would not put it on their agenda but would rather see it with much fear and suspicion. They only want the angry masses to lift them onto the seats of power and not for the organized masses to take power themselves.

We put forward a workers’ plan / project and this is a struggle towards a workers’ party. We talk about the workforce, the production process and the fight against the capitalist system. We put forward a workers’ programme inside the opposition where there are Leftist leaders who are close to our ideas and with them we are building a socialist front.

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