Egypt: “Capitalism is like a chameleon, able to change the outer shell when faced with a threat”

“The working class will rise up, at some stage, change the balance of forces and create a radicalised situation”

The following interview with Wael Towfeek of the ‘Revolutionary Left’, in Egypt, was conducted just before the 28 November elections.
 Wael discusses the situation in Egypt. As he outlines, the revolutionary process is now at a crucial stage. The overthrow of the dictator Mubarak, last February, was a major step forward and clearly showed the collective power of the masses and crucial role of the working class, following nation-wide strikes. But in the absence of a mass socialist alternative, the revolution stopped half way, without winning full democratic rights or developing to act as a mortal threat to the rule of the big bosses. This allowed the SCAF to go on the counter-offensive against the mass opposition movement, jailing thousands, torturing detainees and attempting to repress workers’ struggles.

The whip of counter-revolution, however, spurred on revolution. Mass strikes broke out in September and in November huge numbers took to the streets again, demanding real justice and democratic rights and social and economic change. The SCAF were shaken by the scale of the protests and forced to make some concessions.

On 28 November millions went to the polls. As explained on this week, while the masses do not trust the SCAF regime, they also yearn to win democratic rights following decades of dictatorship. And while the main winners in the elections are the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour, their leaders are prepared to collaborate and compromise with the generals. A new military-sponsored government will block the struggle for full democratic and social rights. As the military-controlled election process and a new ‘parliament’ and constitution fail to meet the masses’ aspirations, disillusionment will set in, including amongst many of those who enthusiastically voted this week. Class differences will sharpen and intensify. This will open up great possibilities for the principled revolutionary Left and a new workers’ party to gain mass support with a socialist programme that is linked to the daily needs of millions of workers and poor, many of whom have voted for political Islamist parties in this election.

It is essential in this situation that revolutionary socialists discuss the current stage of the revolution, the state of mass consciousness and what programme and policies are needed to develop the struggle, linking the fight for democracy and better living standards with the fight for a workers’’ government and for socialism.
The CWI believe it is essential that the independent workers’’ movement and the Left must avoid the ruling class’s trap of joining any future ’unity’ government or some ‘transitional’ body, which operates on the basis of defending the position of the generals, the whole ruling class and capitalism. Such governments cannot meet the demands of working people and are used by the ruling class as a means of trying to break the revolution and ensure the continuation of their rule. The revolutionary youth and the developing independent workers’ movement, by building their own mass party and putting forward a programme to end poverty and joblessness and to fight for real democratic rights, can win mass support. It can act as a viable alternative, in action and ideas, to the false hope offered by the Brotherhood and other political Islamist parties.

As Wael Towfeek discusses below, many on the Left are discussing a ‘united front’ of socialists, as a way to help develop the mass struggle. The CWI supports attempts to form socialist/Left alliances to stand in free elections, on an agreed programme that opposes the plans of the big capitalists and generals, and as long as the revolutionary Left is free to raise its own banner and programme and free to criticize other political tendencies. In the current situation in Egypt, the CWI believes that the most pressing need is to build a genuine ‘united front’ of independent workers’ organisations and activists from the Left, youth, student and local communities, which can only be on the basis of principled socialist policies that oppose compromising with pro-military and pro-capitalist parties or taking part in pro-capitalist ‘solutions’ to Egypt’s crisis. This would entail breaking with capitalism, casting off imperialism, and carrying through the socialist transformation of Egypt, as part of an international struggle for socialism.

Solider checks voters’ ID at polling booth, 28 Nov

Q: What is the current mood of the protesters in Egypt and what are their aims?

A (Wael Towfeek, Revolutionary Left): Today, the military council does not represent, in the minds of the protesters, the ‘defender’ of the revolution, in the way it tried to present itself back in February and early March. Gradually and after the open repression against the mass forces of the revolution, its role and position as a conspirator / plotter of the counter-revolution have been revealed. In the first few weeks after February, many people believed in the national army and saw it as being on their side in the first weeks. But because of its practices, it was soon seen as the enemy of the revolution, instead of its defender. The military Council clearly appears in the guise of the enemy of the revolution, instead of the ‘hero’ and the ‘protector’. Many battles have now taken place against the military and slogans have changed to demanding its toppling. Today, the main slogan of the day in the Tahrir Square sit-ins is "No to military rule!" and "For a civilian government!" There is a determination and insistence to bring to trial those in the army responsible for the murder of unarmed protesters– the same charge that Mubarak and his men are on trial for. This means, of course, removing them from office and bringing them to trial.

Tahrir Square is now more ‘mature’ than it was in January. There is now more self-awareness and confidence amongst protesters. There are ongoing debates over the way forward. Some propose the formation of a temporary ‘presidential council’ which can start implementing a process of transferring power to a democratically-elected civilian government. And there is debate around whether to demand that the military Council transfers its powers to a body chosen by the forces of the revolution, or whether this body imposes itself through elections or authorization by revolutionary forces and just to ignore the military’s authority. Some believe in the formation of an ‘interim government’, to be imposed on the military council, which would have full powers.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Military Council

And debate is still ongoing over what approach to take in relation to the official ongoing elections and the generals’ conspiracy to continue with the SCAF rule, with the support of political Islamists. A large section of the protesters accuse the Brotherhood and the Salafis of complicity with the military and of betrayal for their anti-‘second intifada’ [‘second revolution’] stand. There is a call by the forces of the revolution to boycott the elections, although the military has threatened to fine 500 pounds to those who do not participate in the elections.

It is to be noted that the section of the revolutionary forces which fought the most and sacrificed most martyrs and had the highest number injured in the five consecutive courageous days of battle against internationally banned chemical bombs, live bullets, guns and even armored vehicles and machine guns, are the youth of poorest slum areas, the marginalized layers, and the lower sections of the middle classes. But they are mostly not organized and their political culture has been borne out of events and discussions in the Square, which include a culture of radical trends. Unfortunately, other than symbolically, organised labour forces have, so far, not entered the arena of confrontation during the second intifada. The poor, unorganised masses are the main forces involved in the protests today. But it is expected that the working class will rise up, at some stage, and will change the balance of forces and create a more radicalised situation. This is especially the case after the recent launching of attacks by big business against independent trade unions. A number of independent trade union leaders are now waging a campaign against vicious attacks against workers and also against independent workers’ organizations. They are also demanding the dissolution of the old council of the official union federation and its replacement with a new independent commission or non-‘yellow’ trade unionists and workers’ leaders to prepare for workers’ elections.


Q: What is the general mood of the Egyptian people today?

In time of revolutions, the general mood changes and shifts rapidly. The military wanted to portray the second intifada as a conspiracy against the elections and against stability, and succeeded, to some extent, on the first day of mass protests in confusing the masses and attracting some sympathy to their position. But the scenes of the brutal murders near Tahrir Square, the severe aggression towards those arrested, and the insults towards even the bodies of the martyrs turned the mood of masses towards sympathizing with and even giving solidarity to the protesters. The uprising spread to many other provinces. On the third day of clashes, nearly half a million protesters took to Tahrir Square. The fourth day saw a million-strong protest, a million men and women, of all ages, in Tahrir Square alone. In addition, other squares in other provinces, which were involved in heavy fighting against the military, saw mass protests. This was what forced the military to stop its severe repression. The generals feared being defeated by this growing wave. This in turn encouraged the protesters to lift the ceiling of their demands and to insist on the overthrow of the military and for power to be transferred to the revolutionary masses.  

Q: What about the workers’ struggle? Are there strikes today?

In the last two months, strikes were spreading and workers were demanding better living and social conditions, and this included all sections of the working class. On some days, there were 10 to 15 simultaneous workers’ protests and sit-ins. There was a mood of anger and opposition to the SCAF regime. But during the latest sit-ins in Tahrir Square and other squares, apart from some individual workers’ leaders, the labour movement was not directly involved, including new independent trade unions. There was one exception – the 500-strong demo organised by independent unions that marched to Tahrir Square, last Friday.

Placard reads "Workers of Egypt, Unite"

However, we must recognize that workers have not yet realized the importance of their role and the importance of intervening to lead the masses to triumph. This may be explained by the conditions of dictatorship that the working class went through over the last decades, which affected the class’s self-awareness and organization. So, if the working class does not rise during the current situation and the revolutionary struggle falters, this will mean difficulties for the mass movement, even if it wins some limited reforms.

Q: Is the Left calling for strike action? What is the approach of protesters to the current elections?

A number of Leftist forces such as the "Revolutionary Left", "Revolutionary Socialists" and the "Independent Workers Union” have been calling for general strike, but this call has not yet received a response from workers. The positions of the protestors on the current elections varied. Some called for participation in order not to leave the situation open for the forces of the rightwing and leaving the seats exclusively to them. Others called for a boycott of the elections, as they are conducted under the supervision of the military authority which has shed the blood of Egyptians. The most revolutionary forces see the generals as those leading the counter-revolution and attempting to stifle the revolution and liquidate the revolutionary situation as preparation to restore the corrupt and exploitative regime, under new names and new faces, and under the protection and participation – or dominance – of the generals.

Q: How are workers approaching the elections?

The ruling power in Egypt has been able to spread the rumour that it would implement fining those who boycott elections, estimated to be at 500 Egyptian pounds. This may affect electoral turn-out and see even those not interested going to vote. But, in terms of the working class, as a whole, the attitude towards elections is not clear. But there is a lack of confidence among the majority of the Egyptian working masses in any election proceedings. For more than fifty years, the Egyptian ‘parliament’ has not reflected the views or wishes of the Egyptian masses. Elections to this body were crudely and clearly falsified, over and over again. They look with great skepticism towards any candidate for parliament.

 Q: Will the movement grow and develop?

The movement has already grown and evolved. There is a wider resistance to the police and the military, and a wider determination to defeat them. The number of participants in the protests last week grew on the third day of the second intifada and the protests spread further and faster across the provinces. Illusions of peaceful change have been crushed for many people. There is now a more advanced, more mature and a higher level of awareness among the participants in the protests. There is greater caution towards the maneuvering of the opposition parties. The protesting masses surrounded the parliament, last week, and the cabinet was besieged to prevent them from imposing one of the last symbols of the regime, Ganzouri, the new ‘prime minister’ – an old Mubarak stooge. The vitality of the Egyptian revolution is amazing and promising, despite being in real need of the emergence of a revolutionary organisation able to channel this vitality in the right direction.

Tahrir square, 27 November

Q: How can the independent workers’ movement develop?

The Egyptian Left, with all its tendencies, is still not living up to the needs of the moment. Some Left forces prefer an alliance with the non-Left forces and do not go into alliances or joint action with the other Left-wing forces. Sectarianism is still prevalent. We now need to create a united socialist front to deal with the tasks of the moment. We need to unify the fragmented efforts and to create a ‘socialist block’ that is able to influence the course of events. This block or front will need to immediately move in the Left, towards workers in struggle, to speed up the mobilization and organization of Egyptian workers, both in the trade unions and to build new workers’ political organisations. Appealing to workers to organize in trade unions only, without urging them to organise political action, would be a grave mistake that could lead to the defeat of the revolution.

We have been focusing on building independent trade union organisations of workers. There are important political and trade union tasks when organising Egyptian workers imposed upon the revolutionaries by the course of events and must be dealt with. Independent trade unions have been slow to develop and are hesitant, as they are newborn and also born into a difficult climate. But the need to build new independent unions is essential to assist workers to victory.

Q: What alternative is the Revolutionary Left putting forward?

This question is very difficult. As socialists, we can say that our main strategy has to be the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a socialist system. We have been discussing the revolution in our literature / theoretical material all along. A few years ago, some people outside our group spoke about the revolution as an impending event, but they estimated it to occur for only a duration of a few months to the point that one of them stressed setting up soviets immediately. These people became disillusioned – the masses at that time were not yet taking to the streets against Mubarak, the regime was under pressure but still held together. The Egyptian revolution surprised all of the state apparatus, and even surprised the most radical opposition groups. It is one thing to discuss or to propagate for the revolution but to deal with a real revolution, its dynamism and complexities and shifts, is something else entirely. The revolution does not wait for ideal conditions to occur, and mass uprisings can happen even for the apparently ‘simplest’ reasons. The transformation of the uprising into a victorious revolution that not only overthrows the regime but also imposes a new system, is not simple.

In relation to the triumph of a social revolution, events keep demonstrate that the theory of Lenin is still perfectly valid. It is not enough for the masses to be spontaneous and impulsive, no matter how strong and determined they act. It is not enough to have a crisis in the system or cracks within it. Capitalism is like a chameleon, able to change the outer shell when faced with a threat, and will take the colour of the new threat being posed. The existence of a revolutionary leadership and the revolutionary organization of the masses is a decisive condition for victory of the revolution. This condition is not present in the current situation and is still to be realised. This is why the Egyptian revolution is subject to the vagaries and fluctuations of spontaneous and impulsive events, and is also susceptible to being diverted by maneuvers by the regime’s alternative ‘parties’ operating amongst the opposition, such as the liberals or Islamists. And despite the increased awareness and caution of many protesters and workers towards the political elites and their opportunism, it is still inevitable that the movement encounter difficulties because of the lack of a revolutionary organization that can attract the masses in a radical direction, can assist in the development of appropriate tactics, call for independence from regime’s forces and ‘alternatives’, such as the centrists and reformists.

In our view, a united front of socialists, committed to principled revolutionary politics, will partially solve the problem of the lack of a strong revolutionary organisation. This is a tactic which we fight for among the groups on the Left; for united forces of the Left on a programme of action, based on the clear view of the current situation and the tasks posed, to aid the development and radicalisation of the mass movement, politically and organisationally.

There was an initiative to create a party for workers, but it fell below the requirements of the current situation. We did not think the name, the Democratic Labour Party, at a time when reactionary forces were on the scene, during a revolutionary process, was adequate. In addition, the top-down approach made the initiative very unsuccessful. On our own, we are unable to make a difference to the course of events or to undertake the task of organizing the wider revolutionary forces of the revolution. The same applies to the other forces of the Egyptian Left. Therefore, a united front of socialists, more than ever, is needed and is a matter of life and death for the Egyptian revolution and for socialism.

We will do all we can to develop revolutionary propaganda and to assist in organizing workers and countering the propaganda and methods of counter-revolution and the forces of opportunism, and participating in the struggles imposed by the course of events; although that is not enough to win the Egyptian revolution.

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December 2011