Egypt: Between revolution and dictatorship

Violent inter-religious conflict exploited by regime

A CWI member from Russia recently visited Egypt, where he discussed with Left activists, youth and trade unionists. Just before his visit, scores of people were killed in clashes between Islamists and Coptic-Christians in Imbabe. This event highlights the danger of reaction and counter revolution. Yet, as the report below shows, the revolutionary potential of the masses remains strong. The key task for activists and the revolutionary masses is to build their own strong class organisations that are based on an independent socialist programme.

At least 15 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes between Islamists and Coptic-Christians at the beginning of May in Imbabe – the poorest quarter in the country’s capital-megapolis. The fatalities were divided evenly between the two sides. Not for the first time since the revolution of 25th January, which overthrew the Mubarak dictatorship, inter-confessional conflict has shaken the country.

On Friday 13 May, hundreds of thousands of people once again gathered in Takhrir Square, in central Cairo, for a ‘Friday of National unity AND solidarity with Palestinian people’. The square was full of placards demanding an end to inter-religious conflict, for unity between Muslims and Christians in common struggle for freedom, equality, social justice and a secular state.

8 May: Coptic Christian women protest after clashes in Cairo

Just a few months ago, millions of Egyptians were united in one huge force, strong enough to overthrow the hated dictator. There were 18 days of continuous protest and conflict with the authorities, during which there were magnificent examples of Muslim-Christian unity. Why has the mood changed so quickly?

The spark for the latest conflict was a rumour that a woman, who had recently converted to Islam and was married to a Muslim, was being held against her will in a church in Imbabe. Not for the first time, rumours provoked inter-confessional conflict. The situation is made worse because in Egypt, as in many other Arab countries, there is not legal ‘civil-law’ marriage. All marriages are subject to religious law. Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, while the conservative Coptic Church is reluctant to recognize divorce. Sometimes married female Christians cannot choose to divorce. If the church refuses divorce, the woman has only one other way out – converting to Islam and then to get divorced.

But the issue just reveals deeper problems. Women still remain hostage to patriarchal laws and ‘morality’ in a society torn apart by social contradictions. The 25th January revolution succeeded in overthrowing the “symbol of the regime” but, in itself, this was not enough to solve the many social and economic problems. This requires a fundamental and deep-rooted economic and social change: including carrying out the nationalization (and renationalization) of large companies and industries, under democratic public ownership and control, with a plan to create jobs and fully funded public services, for all.

So far, the political crisis and strikes have only affected the most ‘sensitive’ sectors of the economy, especially tourism. Small businesses, which tend to be largely run by Coptic Christians, also find themselves in a difficult position. In these conditions and with a political vacuum, the radical political islamists are able to strengthen their position. Their ideas are finding an echo, especially amongst a layer of the middle class, who are struggling to survive in conditions of acute social and political crisis.

There are also a huge army of functionaries from former Mubarak regime that find themselves in a “suspended” situation. The ex-President and former Head of the Internal ministry are indicted and formerly face a death sentence, or at least long terms in prison for corruption and for illegally enriching themselves. These former apparatchiks, especially those from the lower ranks, fear for their future. It is almost unbelievable, but following the arrests of some of the high profile figures from this layer in society, there were groups of so-called “activists” demonstrating in their support and calling for a return of “respect”.

But another section of the functionaries quickly switched to the side of the revolution. They praised the “revolutionary youth” and the “military council”, that is supposedly “defending the revolution” from the “remains of the dictatorship”. It is now practically impossible to recognize these former functionaries of Mubarak’s regime amongst today’s ‘revolutionaries”.

Society unstable

Egyptian society is still very far from stable, even though for a short time the number of strikes and protests fell, particularly after the government was changed and the military called on Egyptians to “be patient”, to give time for the new government to “work” and “implement its promises”.

But the “new” government headed by the old military is trying to maneuver so as to keep the opposition contained. Yet neither ‘carrots or sticks’ – reforms or repression – are working. The authorities are trying to win over the Muslim Brotherhood opposition and even the Alliance of Revolutionary Youth. It seems they have succeeded. After all, the various rulers throughout Egypt’s modern historywere prepared to use the Muslim Brotherhood, whenever necessary, to bolster their power.

But this time the maneuvers are not having the desired effect. In April alone there were two million strong Friday meetings – the first, “Save the revolution Friday”, and the second calling for a “trial of the guilty” from the Mubarak regime and for a purge of the corrupt from the state. Under pressure from below, the authorities were forced to accept that the Mubarak family should be placed on trial.

There are also signs that the strike wave is picking up. On 10 May, 80-90% of the country’s doctors went on strike, leaving just emergency cover. In the first few days of May, thousands of workers in various textile and steel plants took strike action. Workers and students in the universities are demanding better work conditions and autonomy for the universities.

There is an avalanche of people joining the new independent trade unions. Even real estate agents and cartoonists established trade unions. Workers at the national airline, ‘EgyptAir’, formed an independent union and journalists are trying to gain recognition for their union.

Now the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to extend their influence by participating in the unions, as they did in the 1952 revolution.

Ruling elite acts against workers’ movement

Clearly the ruling elite feels it needs to act against this developing union threat using whatever means it can. The Imbabe events and other inter-confessional conflicts provide the regime with a way to try to cut across workers’ unity and the development of new unions. Voices call for “measures to end disorder”, to give the police the right to “shoot to kill” bandits and so on. Even a columnist in one of the main pro-revolution newspapers, ‘Al-Mysry Al-yaum’, called on the ruling military council to “not just work, but correct us… moreover if you need to execute us to maintain social order, do so”!

In a newspaper interview a political analyst declared that the events in Imbabe were possible only because of the political vacuum that had to be filled. He said he was sure that soon a powerful new political force would have to appear, with wide support, and a new “strong candidate” for President.

It seems that the ruling class feels it has no choice but to try to prepare the ground for a new ‘strongman’ Bonaparte, who can balance between the interests of the classes and between the various domestic and external pressures, using the ‘carrot and stick’ measures and divide and rule policies.

Egyptian society since the beginning of the year has seen an unprecedented growth in political activity. Egyptians joke that they can get one million people into Tahrir square on the slightest pretext. Such a level of politicization of the masses cannot but worry the ruling elite, which yearns for ‘stability’ for Egyptian capitalism. But the masses are demanding justice and even the return of all the wealth robbed by the Mubarak regime would not be enough to satisfy the needs of the people.

Objectively the Egyptian ruling elite and capitalism are in a weak position but but subjectively the old system is able to hold on. The various ‘socialist forces’, gathering around new parties, such as the ‘Democratic Workers’ Party’, the ‘Egyptian Socialist Party’, the “Socialist People’s Alliance’, and also around the Communist Party, which emerged from underground conditions, are all quite weak in comparison to the political Islamists.

Paradoxically, although none of the various political Islamist groups can claim to have been the driving force behind the revolution, they have been the ones to have gained most from the overthrow of Mubarak. The Islamists play on their reputation as having suffered under the previous regime, and the new regime is trying to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to get its support.

But not everything is going to plan. Society is deep in discussion about the need for a secular state. There is even a demand to do away with the second paragraph of the Constitution, which declares that Islam is the state religion and that the law is based on sharia law. After the events in Imbabe, the mood has hardened against the Islamists. Even the more radical Islamists were forced to condemn the attack on the church.

Islamists, who at the beginning of the revolution were prepared to drop their call for sharia law, are now fervently presenting the future of the state as being linked to Islam. But these calls are meeting with more opposition from the Left, youth organisations and liberals.

The question remains open as to whether a new Bonaparte, ‘strongman’ ruling figure, will emerge within the regime, who will “save” the country from extremists who attack churches and also from strikes that “paralyse the economy”. The Egyptian masses demonstrated that they are capable of powerful mobilisations and their political consciousness. Despite the ebbs and flows in the development of this mass consciousness, the masses will not give up their hard won gains easily. They will not bow before a new dictator, who will serve the interests of capital and imperialism.

On the streets of Cairo graffiti reads, “Down with the generals!” To guarantee and develop the gains of the revolution, the mass struggle must continue. Strong, fighting and democratic mass organisations, such as unions, need to be built and developed. Above all else, the working masses need their own independent political party, with a socialist programme, to defend and extend the gains of the revolution, to overthrow the rule of the generals and to fight for workers’ power.

The CWI says:

  • Defend the revolution: Clear out the entire old regime
  • Defend the right to strike, to protest and to organise
  • No compromise with the old remnants of the regime
  • For a government of representatives of workers, the youth and the poor
  • For the immediate elections of a revolutionary constituent assembly supervised by committees of working people, the poor and the youth

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May 2011