Egypt: Is revolution derailed?

Vital to build a mass party to realise aims of workers and small farmers

"Lenin said of revolutions that they demonstrate two things. The first is that the people cannot go on being ruled in the old way. The second is that the rulers cannot go on ruling in the old way” (Guardian Editorial, 4 February 2011). When the capitalist press – and they generally draw the same conclusions as each other – speak favourably of revolution, then it must be the case!

Yet the Guardian previously, along with the whole of the capitalist media, has been telling us that eruptions the kind of which we have seen in Egypt were ‘things of the past’. The collapse of Stalinism – particularly of the planned economies which existed in Russia and Eastern Europe – represented "the end of history". But first in Tunisia, now in Egypt, a mass revolutionary wave threatens the despots who have ruled the region for decades and the economic and social regimes they guard.

The domino theory, first used in relation to the contagious effects of the Vietnam revolution in Southeast Asia, has come back into vogue. This is a popular expression for an important aspect of Leon Trotsky’s great and accurate theory of ‘the permanent revolution’, which envisaged a revolutionary explosion in Russia leading to a European-wide revolutionary revolt. This actually was borne out in the movement following the October revolution of 1917 in Russia but was betrayed by the social-democratic leaders of the mass organisations in Europe.

And it is playing out again with a tidal wave of revolution that forced Tunisia’s president to flee, that has forced Yemen’s president to state he will stand down in two years time and that is lapping at the doors of other dictatorships. The Arab masses cannot tolerate their present existence; this was summed up in the slogan of ‘enough is enough’ in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The mass movement in Egypt has lost fear of the dictatorship, which was the last prop maintaining its power in the last period.

The middle-class in Egypt was also overwhelmingly in opposition to the Mubarak regime and still is, with big swathes of them participating in the explosive movements in Tahrir Square. The left-wing journalist Seamus Milne, writing the day before the above editorial in the same journal, correctly stated: "There is a revolutionary situation in Egypt, but there has not yet been a revolution.”

Why has the revolution stalled?

Why then has the revolution clearly stalled in the last few days? To be successful, a revolution – even a spontaneous uprising or insurrection as we have seen in Tunisia and now in Egypt – needs to maintain its momentum by going from one victory to another. But coming out of the dark night of four decades of dictatorship, the mass of the population has not been able to construct what Marxists call the ‘subjective factor’, a decisive leadership of a mass organisation capable of formulating an action programme to overthrow the regime and end the rule of capitalism and landlordism.

The largely spontaneous February revolution in Russia in 1917 was mainly led by workers in Petrograd who had been trained in class battles before the First World War by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, that in eight days led the movement which overthrew the Tsar. Even then, the mass of workers and peasants who flooded the political arena, through lack of political understanding, of consciousness, allowed power to slip from their grasp. It was picked up by a capitalist coalition including remnants of the old Tsarist regime.

The Egyptian masses do not as yet have a mass party as their Russian forebears did in 1917. If the revolution is to be successful, the construction of such a party is vital. All the ingredients for a mass vehicle to realise the dreams of the exploited Egyptian workers and farmers are there in the splendid movement which has already unfolded.

The demonstrations in the square, the heroic defiance of Mubarak’s police and thugs, have been truly inspiring. How precious are modern means of communication today when, incredibly, millions throughout the world can follow step-by-step the unfolding of a revolution through live broadcasts; in this country through the BBC website, which of course – surprise, surprise – Murdoch and his big business backers want to destroy.

The Mubarak regime believed that, following the first wave of opposition, they could crush the movement. But the riot police were beaten back and defeated on the Friday called the ‘day of fury’. Moreover, the army was incapable of being used against the demonstrators precisely because the ordinary soldiers in the tanks and elsewhere were not prepared to fire on civilians. This was a profound indication of the split in the state machine. Even the majority of the generals were forced to utter ‘sympathy’ with the revolution, despite many of them being linked financially through business to the Mubarak regime. They are not prepared or able to act openly at this stage.

This then compelled Mubarak to mobilise the ‘whip of the counter-revolution’, in the form of the defeated police, the thugs from the slums, and current and ex-policemen who had disappeared from the streets in the previous period, to attack the demonstrators on Wednesday 2 February. What unfolded then was an element of civil war in which Mubarak’s forces were beaten back. Yet when the balance of forces was clearly in favour of the demonstrators, when the Mubarak regime was hanging by a thread, the advantage was not pressed home, for instance, by a march on Mubarak’s palace to forcibly evict him from power.

In a situation like this, even if the multi-millioned workers and middle-class turn to the streets to realise their goals, unless it leads to a conscious plan to overthrow the dictatorship, it can represent – even like a successful general strike – merely a demonstration of folded arms. The demonstrators, quite correctly in a sense, were intoxicated with the very expression of their power in what was almost a festival atmosphere. But the initial success was not pressed home. A successful insurrection could have evicted Mubarak from power, thus opening a new, more serious and determined phase of the revolution. Moreover, all the powers nationally and internationally of the possessing classes were bent on exerting pressure ‘not to go too far’.

While there were many similarities with Tunisia in the elemental sweep of the movement in its first stage, there were and are important differences in the Egyptian revolution. In Tunisia, the ruling class, both in the country and internationally, were taken aback at the sweep of the movement, with the police and army initially swept aside. Ben Ali, his family and some of his cronies were forced to flee into exile, otherwise they would have faced summary revolutionary justice at the hands of the irate Tunisian masses. Egypt, however, is the heart of the despotic regimes which disfigure the Arab world. It is a country of 80 million with an army numbering at least half a million, the tenth largest in the world.

Mubarak regime drawing to an end

But even this ‘powerful’ army could have been broken and may still be. It mirrors in its construction Egyptian society itself. It is drawn from the working class, the peasantry and the poor in general. 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Mass unemployment, which has spiralled throughout the region, led us in October last year to make the following prediction: “Seismic shifts in this country are on the agenda. The 30-year reign of the Mubarak government is drawing to an end. In fact, many commentators compare the current situation in Egypt to what existed before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. The recent strikes are a symptom of the growing mass discontent… A mass uprising could blow the regime away… But a new strongman from within the regime could rule the roost – such as the present head of internal security [Suleiman] – after Mubarak disappears from the scene” (CWI world congress resolution on World Relations).

A bold revolutionary appeal would have split the army in two, and can still, as we witnessed in the Tunisian revolution. But in order to guarantee that the army will come over to the side of the revolution, it is necessary to make a class appeal to its ranks. Declarations of ‘love’ for the army are not enough. Standing behind the ordinary soldier, even those in the tanks who were clearly sympathetic, are the officers armed with guns and other repressive instruments who would be ready to shoot those who actively consider going over to the revolution and a movement to immediately unseat Mubarak.

Moreover, the Mubarak regime, unlike Tunisia, is absolutely central to the maintenance of the interests of imperialism – including the Israeli state – and of every despotic regime in the region. Mubarak himself is perceived as the ‘Berlin Wall’ of Arab dictatorships. If he were toppled, particularly in a direct revolutionary uprising, the contagious effect that this would have would be catastrophic for the possessing and ruling classes in the region. Hence, once they realised the old regime could no longer be preserved, imperialism and domestic reaction in Egypt desperately worked to construct a ‘cold transition’ in order to consolidate the situation and prevent any further revolutionary developments.

The danger posed to them immediately is seen in the continuing turmoil in Tunisia and particularly the wave of strikes and struggles developing from below. The masses, not content with the overthrow of Ben Ali, now wish to realise their social demands. The situation is no different in Egypt or throughout the region. As one commentator expressed it: “The 25-year-old unemployed today has become the strongman" (FT, 4 February 2011), and it is the ‘street’ that up to now has dictated the pace of the movement. The youth are providing the motive force of the revolution. In North Africa, those between the age of 15 and 30 constitute one third of the population. Therefore the social grievances which will accumulate even more under the diseased capitalist regimes in the region will fuel the further development of the revolution, notwithstanding the appearance or the present stalemate.

The Egyptian ruling class, in consort with American imperialism – which appeared in the early stages as utterly helpless in influencing events – is pressing for a ‘caretaker’ regime around vice-president Suleiman, with the prospect dangled of elections later. They will be furthered in their aims by the self-appointed groupings, largely made up of middle-class figures, and the inclusion of representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and some small organisations, drawn in to negotiate suitable ‘arrangements’.

The crying need in Egypt is for the masses to establish their own independent forces and organisation. The improvised committees to guard against the wave of robberies and violence (which have obviously been inspired in part by members of the regime) can become the basis of a real, mass, armed, democratic force, in order to defend not just neighbourhoods but also individuals who could still be arrested and tortured by the secret police. Neighbourhood committees and councils in the factories should be immediately organised in order to give a voice and organisation to the masses.

Immediate dissolution of Mubarak’s vicious security apparatus which has tortured and imprisoned thousands of opponents of the regime and will continue to do so if left intact!

For the prosecution of those who have suppressed the Egyptian people and systematically looted the wealth of the country, before a court composed of genuine representatives of the workers and poor farmers!

Release all political prisoners; no prosecution of those participating in the revolution!

For a revolutionary constituent assembly

It is in the interests of the Egyptian masses that free and fair elections should be held but no trust should be put in figures from the regime or their imperialist masters to stage such elections. A revolutionary constituent assembly, convened by a mass movement of the Egyptian workers and small farmers, is the only solution. For a workers and farmers’ government on a democratic socialist programme! Elections to be overseen by mass committees of the workers and poor!

The immediate abolition of unemployment through a programme of public works, wage increases and the development of independent trade unions devoted to fighting for the interests of the masses, are absolutely urgent. Above all, the dispossessed and voiceless masses of Egypt need their own political weapon. Therefore, the most advanced, politically conscious layers of the working class should come together for the creation of a new mass party of the working class.

The capitalists internationally and their cohorts in Egypt are attempting to frighten the working class with the spectre of unspeakable ‘revolutionary excesses’ if they don’t tail-end the representatives of capitalism, particularly the so-called ‘liberal’ capitalists. The terror of the French Revolution has been invoked. The fear of a new Iran has been raised. The prospect of a dictatorial Islamist regime – led by the Muslim Brotherhood – has also been to the fore in the propaganda of reaction.

The reality is – as with Pakistan, an already established Islamic state – that political Islam, now on the right in the main, does not have majority support either now or is likely to in the immediate future. In Pakistan, despite the horrors of Islamist terrorism, the Islamists have never received more than about 10%-15% in elections. It is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt will receive more than 10 or 15% of the vote in free and fair elections. Robert Fisk, the Independent’s reporter, put the Brotherhood’s membership at 125,000. Moreover, there are incipient class divisions in their ranks, revealed as the revolution proceeded. The older, more senior sections of the Brotherhood tried to hold back the movement but the youth came out and fought alongside the rest of the mass movement to overthrow the dictatorship.

The revolution in Egypt has inspired working people and the poor everywhere. Moreover it has smashed the idea of ‘Arab exceptionalism’, fostered largely by Western capitalist ‘experts’, that ‘democracy’ was okay in the ‘developed’ world but was not for the Arab masses. These downtrodden victims of the Mubarak dictatorship of capitalism and landlordism have set an example to workers everywhere, including in the ‘developed’ world. The revolution is not at an end, it has only just begun.

‘Gateman’ of the revolution

Sometimes when a dictatorship is overthrown, the ruling class is able to shuffle the pack and replace the discredited despot with a more ‘liberal’ figure from its ranks. This happened in Spain in 1930 when Berenguer replaced the dictator Primo de Rivera. However, Berenguer was merely the ‘gateman’ of the Spanish revolution, which unfolded over six years between 1931 and 1937.

No revolution ever exactly replicates what has gone before. But Egyptian landlordism and capitalism, in the form of its own ‘gateman’, Suleiman, will no more prevent further revolutionary explosions than did Berenguer in Spain 80 years ago. The fundamental social problems which provoked the uprising remain unresolved, which guarantees further upheavals.

The forces of revolution and counter-revolution will be tested in the next period. Egypt is a tremendous example to working people everywhere of how to act against capitalist injustice. It will take the most determined mass movements to defend what they have got, to improve their lot and to open up the prospect of undreamed of plenty. This is only possible through the establishment of a democratic socialist Egypt linked to a socialist confederation throughout the region.

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February 2011