Egypt: A year of revolution and counter-revolution

As economic crisis worsens, new class conflicts loom

Follwing his recent visit to Cairo to discuss with activists and workers struggling against the rule of the military junta, David Johnson gives a balance sheet of the revolutionary events in Egypt in 2011 and looks at perspectives for 2012 following recent elections which saw big poll gains for the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egypt is like a house where the curtains have been changed but everything else is the same,” a revolutionary activist recently told CWI reporters. The January 25th 2011 demonstration started a revolutionary movement that brought down Mubarak 18 days later. The mass movement continued advancing until Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister appointed by Mubarak on 29th January, resigned on 3rd March.

Mubarak was forced to resign by his own military leaders. Taking power themselves, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in effect, carried out a military coup. They understood that if he had attempted to cling on any longer, the revolutionary movement, particularly the rapidly developing strike wave, could have swept the whole ruling class away.

Since then, Egypt has swung between revolution and counter-revolution, often with movements in both directions taking place at the same time. This reflects the weakness of the Egyptian capitalist class and their inability to stabilise their rule, while, at this stage, the working class is without either a mass party or a revolutionary party to lead a successful overthrow of capitalism.

Economic crisis growing – government blames workers

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, the fourth to hold the post this year, tearfully stated in a recent press conference that Egypt’s economy is “worse than anyone imagines.” Economic growth for 2011 is expected to be around 1.2%, down from around 5% in 2010. Unemployment is now almost 12%, compared to 9% a year ago.

Tourism accounted for over 10% of GDP in 2010, employing one in eight of the workforce. Visitor numbers fell by a third during 2011. Cairo hotel occupancy was only 40% in July, while in Red Sea resorts it was 70% in August. Global economic crisis has contributed to this sharp fall, as well as the violent scenes seen on TV. The government and its apologists, however, blame workers’ protests, for ‘putting their own agendas ahead of the greater good.’ Finance Minister Samir Radwan claimed such protests were largely responsible for the budget deficit, fall in foreign investment and tourism.

Foreign direct investment fell 93% in the first nine months of 2011 to $376 million. According to the central bank, foreign reserves have fallen to $18 billion from $36 billion dollars at the beginning of 2011. Government borrowing costs are a record high after foreign investors cut their holdings of treasury bills by $7.5 billion in the first nine months of 2011, compared with net purchases of $8.6 billion in the same period, a year earlier. The government has received an unusual source of help – the armed forces loaned it $1billion in December!

Inflation topped 10% in December. 40% of the population struggle daily to survive on less than $2. The government is under pressure from big business to tackle the budget deficit. On January 5th it announced public spending cuts of LE(Egyptian pounds)14.3billion ($2.37billion) towards its target cuts of LE20-23billion. The cuts announced will include public sector wages and energy subsidies. It is now negotiating with the IMF for a loan, the price of which will probably include cutting food subsidies, hitting the poorest. However, workers and the poor felt their power when Mubarak was forced out by the mass uprising. The ruling class will also remember fearfully the attempt of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, to cut bread subsidies that led to a mass uprising in 1977. Any government now trying to cut subsidies requires a strong reservoir of support that it can draw upon.

SCAF’s falling popularity

The SCAF junta has lost much of the support it had immediately after the ousting of Mubarak in February 2011, when the army was widely viewed as having refused Mubarak’s orders to carry out a Tiananmen Square-type massacre of Tahrir Square protestors. Demonstrators chanted, “The army and the people are one hand.” Over the next few months, it became clearer to most activists that SCAF’s hand was tightening its grip on power. Nevertheless, SCAF and its head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, still have some support, mainly from older people who see it as a source of stability.

After Mubarak’s ousting, on the back of the developing widespread strike movement, 150 new trade unions have been formed with 1.6 million members. These are independent of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which had leaders appointed by the old regime. A law was introduced in late March banning strikes but – despite many strikes taking place – it was not used until July, when five workers were jailed. A survey in July, counted 22 sit-ins, 19 strikes, 20 demonstrations, 10 protests and 4 short-term protest gatherings. The total was slightly fewer than in June, but there were more strikes. These were not only to win higher wages and secure permanent contracts, but also to clear out Mubarak’s stooges from senior management.

Reforms and repression

During last summer, Friday demonstrations grew again. The government raised the minimum wage substantially (but only to LE700 a month – not to LE1200 demanded by trade unionists, and just for public sector workers). It announced increased spending on education and healthcare. Further privatisation was halted. Reflecting the views of a section of the ruling class, one minister, Ahmed Hassan al-Borai warned, “Before the 25 January revolution, Egypt expected a social revolution and not a political one. So now it has to carry out real reforms, otherwise another social revolution could occur.”

Frustration among activists grew due to the lack of political change, leading to some re-occupying Tahrir Square on 8 July. Many groups of activists, including Islamists, agreed to hold a joint demonstration on 29 July, demanding an end to Mubarak’s emergency law, public trials for Mubarak and his cronies, the prosecution of police officers and soldiers accused of attacking protesters during the revolution and more power for the civilian government.

However, when it became clear that the Islamist organisations were mobilising heavily for this demonstration, with many coaches coming in from outside Cairo, most youth and revolutionary groups boycotted it, returning to the square afterwards.

One million took part in the demonstration in what became called the ’Day of Kandahar’, reflecting the conservative religious outlook of many taking part. There were chants in support of Tantawi. There was also a growing layer becoming weary of demonstrations and upheaval, who yearned for some stability. Undoubtedly, there has been behind-the-scenes collusion between SCAF and MB leaders throughout much of 2011. Emboldened by this show of support, security forces attacked the occupiers a few days later and cleared the square.

Mubarak’s trial begins

At the same time, on August 3rd, the trial began of Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, the ex-Minister of the Interior and a few key cronies. The charges included ordering shooting leading to the death of 840 protestors, and corruption. Seeing him behind bars in the courtroom had an electrifying effect right across the region. The trial has just re-started after a three-month adjournment. However, the trial does not give a real opportunity to examine the record of his regime, including corrupt links with big business, backing from imperialist regimes and torture and imprisonment of opponents. A different type of trial is needed, before a democratically-elected and accountable working and poor peoples’ tribunal.

Prosecution lawyers have called for the death penalty. It seems unlikely that SCAF will allow their former commander to be executed, not least because of the precedent it would create should they find themselves in the dock in the future. (The MB is now offering SCAF a deal where they would be exempt from future prosecution if they cede power to a MB-led government.) But if the ruling elite felt that the only way to save their regime, or the capitalist system, was to sacrifice a few of their own, they would certainly do so.

On 19th August, the Israeli Defence Force killed five Egyptian border guards in a bungled attack. On 6th September, security forces attacked Ahly football fans after a match. Over 130 were injured and many arrested. A large numbers of football fans from three of Cairo’s biggest clubs united in a demonstration against the police three days later. A large group broke away to attack the Israeli embassy. The security forces allowed this to take place without intervention until the offices had been stormed and set on fire. On 16th September, SCAF announced that Mubarak’s Emergency Laws would be reintroduced, allowing arrest and imprisonment of opponents. And, as often in the region, the issue of Palestine/Israel is used to divert attention away from governments’ attacks on their own working class.

Later in September strikes grew, becoming industry-wide, including postal workers, a national teachers’ strike lasting a week and 62,000 Cairo public transport workers out for 17 days. "They’re saying the country and the ministry have no money, but we all know how much money they have and what they do with it," said one maths teacher. (Ahram20.9.11)

In October, even 12,000 low-ranking police officers struck for a pay rise and to sweep out remnants of the old regime among senior officers. This shows the potential effect on lower ranks of soldiers and police that a clear class appeal could have, coming from a mass workers’ movement, mobilised to completely sweep out the regime protecting big business interests.

Sectarianism incited

A church was attacked in Aswan, sparking a protest march to the Maspero state TV centre in Cairo on October 9th. In marked contrast to the Israeli embassy demonstration, the mostly Christian crowd was violently attacked by security forces. Around 27 were killed, several having been run over by armoured personnel carriers deliberately driven into the crowd. Yet state-controlled TV appealed to people to take to the streets to help protect the armed forces! Following this attack a well-known blogger, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, was arrested and charged with inciting violence against the security forces and sabotage. He was eventually released after ten weeks, having refused interrogation by military prosecutors, but still faces the charges. Military trials of civilians and torture still continue as under Mubarak, with thousands imprisoned.

SCAF announced that they would retain control over the armed forces budget, rather than the new parliament when elected. They also reserved the right to appoint a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution. These moves sparked a massive demonstration in Tahrir Square on November 18th, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists participated – the first real challenge their leadership had made to SCAF. Since then, statements by MB leaders have become more critical of SCAF, although not calling for an immediate end to military rule. This is a sign of future tensions, despite the Islamists’ leaders and SCAF’s general co-operation during 2011.

The Islamists left the Square at the end of the afternoon of the 18th. Activists reoccupied it demanding an end to military rule. They were bloodily attacked over the following five days by the army and security forces, leaving 70 killed, some suffocated from unusually strong tear gas. Hundreds were injured. Showing the potential strength of workers’ action, five customs officers blocked the import of seven tonnes of tear gas from the USA.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf resigned to be replaced by Ganzouri, prime minister between 1996-99. A sit-down protest outside the Cabinet Office developed against this representative of the old regime.

Further brutal attacks by military and security forces on these demonstrators on December 16th left at least another 17 dead. Among the shocking scenes was that of a female demonstrator dragged along the ground being repeatedly kicked by security personnel, exposing her bra. An angry march of 10,000 women took place a few days later in protest – the biggest women’s demonstration in Egypt’s history. There is a long record of women demonstrators being harassed by security forces. Notoriously, last February and March some were subjected to ‘virginity tests’ after arrest.

The nearby Institut d’Egypte, housing thousands of historic books, was set on fire. How the fire started remains unclear. It has been used to portray the demonstrators as wishing to destroy Egypt’s heritage. (A professor from the American University of Cairo – across the road – has written that he did not even know these books existed and that hardly anyone had access to them. It seems few fire precautions were in place and the fire brigade was initially kept away.)

But in response, retired Major General Abdel-Moniem Kato, who advises the armed forces on ethics and morals, said the “protestors should be burnt in Hitler’s ovens” – a thinly veiled reference that they were serving an Israeli agenda. There is a growing attempt by SCAF to smear all activists – and by implication, the revolution itself – as serving foreign interests. The police raid on 17 ‘Human Rights’ NGOs at the end of December reinforced this message, as some were financed by the US and German governments, and US political parties. (Of course, Egypt’s armed forces also receive $1.3 billion a year from the US government!)

As in all revolutionary periods, ‘great fears’ sweep through society. Many people are increasingly fearful of the growth of SCAF’s power and restoration of remnants of the old regime. SCAF aims to divert attention by blaming foreigners for instigating violence and instability. The Middle East’s history of colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation is fertile soil for such fear to develop.

Election boycott

These attacks from the regime – the whip of counter-revolution – have served to further radicalise the activists. However, the gap between them and the less active masses is widening, as seen during the elections taking place since late November. Following the attacks on Tahrir Square, most activists there favoured a boycott of the elections. They correctly argued that the election process was under the control of the military and that the new parliament did not have real powers. Some said that if the Popular Socialist Alliance had announced that they were boycotting the election, instead of just suspending their campaign, they would have immediately gained 15,000 new members.

But while this may have occurred, a vital task is to point the activists towards the large numbers who saw this as their first opportunity to participate in relatively free elections. Many less active workers and poor intended to vote in the elections. Many also abstained, some put off by the deliberately confusing procedure. Turnout in the first round of voting covering a third of the country including Cairo was 52%, although this fell in later rounds. There was a threatened LE500 fine for not voting.

Many of the more politically advanced workers and youth, particularly in the cities, were highly sceptical, if not cynical, about ‘elections’ called under the control and management of the military. This also contributed to the high abstention rate. But even if activists did not intend to take part in the voting, building support for an alternative requires intervention in election meetings, questioning and challenging candidates in front of their audience. Such debates also help activists gain better understanding of how to win support among the masses. The Islamist parties did not participate in the late November and December protests, concentrating on their election campaigning.

Election results

Many incidents of ballot irregularities and some of rigging were reported (increasing in later rounds especially in rural areas), but in general the elections were not the crudely fixed affairs seen under Mubarak. In November 2010, his National Democratic Party (NDP) had won 97% of the seats – weeks before the mass uprising threw him out!

The election procedure was very complicated, with party lists, individual lists (some with over 200 names on the ballot paper), reserved seats for ‘workers’ and ‘farmers’, and run-offs where individuals got less than 50%. At least ten candidates were prevented from standing, having been nominated for worker seats by new independent unions and not the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, led by Mubarak-supporters. The commonest breach of election law were the 20-30 members of the Islamist parties campaigning right outside polling stations as people went to vote. Parties without a mass membership could not do this even had they wanted to. No doubt some voters were influenced at the last moment to vote for the Islamists, but this is insufficient to explain the results.

With the results in so far for 427 seats, the MB has 193 for its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) (45% of seats). The Salafists have 78 for Al-Nour (‘Light’) (25% of seats). The two biggest Liberal blocs have 68 between them. The sixth largest group, with ten seats, is Revolution Continues, the left bloc of which the Popular Socialist Alliance is the biggest component. Its vote varied between 1-19%. In rural areas, a few former members of the NDP have been elected with new party labels.

These results do not reflect the real balance of forces, seen in the mass revolutionary movements and in the strikes last summer and autumn. An August 2011 opinion poll found that 69% did not trust any political party. With no mass workers’ party at this stage, the working class has not been able to express itself in this election as a class. Genuine independent trade unions need to develop a political voice and could play a key role in helping to establish such a party, along with socialists and other revolutionary activists.

Islamists’ successes

The MB’s Freedom and Justice Party are styling themselves on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s party of the same name (AKP), trying to present a moderate and modern image. They had 46 female candidates on their lists and were in an alliance with some small parties that included two Coptic candidates. The MB’s long record of opposition to Mubarak, their charitable and welfare programmes and being viewed as relatively incorrupt all helped explain their vote. However, their programme is aimed to appeal to business, including reducing the budget deficit and cutting subsidies. Many of their leaders come from a business background, such as ’deputy supreme guide’ Khairat El-Shater, a wealthy tycoon. They will inevitably disappoint those who voted for them with high hopes of improved living conditions.

The more orthodox Islamists, the Salafists, gained around 27% of the vote. Their support was highest in the poorest areas, neglected by the other parties. A 26-year-old plumber told the Financial Times (London), “Nour is going to clean the country up, get rid of all the corruption and robbery and get back all the money that’s gone, that went to the rich people while we got nothing. The Muslim Brotherhood is OK. But they are old, and have been trying for years and haven’t done anything for us.” (9.12.11)

Mohammad Nourallah, a Nour spokesman said, “The old regime was all criminals. And they surrounded themselves with a class that got a lot of benefits … Our supporters are the people you see in the streets, not the people who live in neighbourhoods you’ve never seen or heard of.” (Financial Times 29.12.11)

The MB is seeking coalition partners rather than govern alone. “This will be a compromise parliament for sure because we are not joining with the al-Nour Party and are hopeful to build good relationships,” said Essam al-Erian, FJP’s deputy leader. Its preferred partners would be small liberal parties, giving the regime some sort of claim to be linked to the revolutionary events, from which the MB leadership stood back until it appeared that Mubarak’s days were numbered. Such partners would also make a MB government more acceptable to capitalist governments around the world (and the IMF), to whom it would look for economic support. The Salafists will be the biggest opposition party.

Both the MB and the Salafists contain different trends and tendencies. Sections of MB youth had already split away in disagreement with the leadership’s policy of standing aside from direct confrontation with Mubarak or SCAF. Now the election for the lower assembly is over, the demand for the immediate ending of SCAF’s rule could gain massive support, although the MB leaders are more likely to continue to compromise with them.

Growing gap between activists and masses

Many from the poor masses perceive middle class liberal activists as from “neighbourhoods you’ve never seen”. The liberals’ almost exclusive concentration on democratic demands and secularism gets little echo among those struggling daily to feed their families. In an opinion poll in late April 2011, 65% said they did not know which party they would vote for if an election were to be held the following week. Only 2% said they would vote for the MB. While this result should be viewed with caution, it is clear that the gap in outlook between many Tahrir activists and the masses in the poor districts of Cairo and elsewhere has grown since then. Organising Friday protests on the theme of “Constitution First”, for example, has not appealed to the majority of those who participated in the January and February 2011 revolutionary movements. Two thirds of those who did so told the same opinion poll that the main reasons they had taken part were low living standards and lack of jobs.

This growing isolation of activists has emboldened the state and the MB to launch attacks in recent weeks on the NGOs and the Revolutionary Socialists (RS), the Egyptian section of the International Socialist Tendency. In late December a leading MB lawyer complained to State security prosecutors that the RS was planning to overthrow the state by violent means. Three leading RS members were named and the security forces have questioned another prominent member.

This is a serious threat to the left in general – not just the RS – including the most militant trade unionists and student activists. The RS worked with the MB a few years ago. Now they complain that the MB is being used as a “tool of the state” and appeal to its memory of being oppressed by this same state machine.

It is vital for the socialist movement to undermine support for both the MB and the Salafists. This cannot be done by appealing to the leadership of these organisations, or by falling into the trap of debating Islamism and secularism (portrayed as atheism to many practising Muslims). Instead, a programme aimed at poor and working class supporters of the Islamists, demanding jobs, decent pay, housing, good education and free healthcare is needed. A mass workers’ movement is required that could fight for this programme and unite Muslims and Copts, men and women, young and old around it. The Islamist parties would fracture along class lines if this were built with a revolutionary leadership explaining the need to sweep out the capitalist system responsible for poverty and oppression.

Socialist revolution needed

The need for a second revolution is becoming clearer to many who took part in the 25th January 2011 uprising and the many demonstrations and battles since. But what sort of revolution is needed, and how can it be achieved? The first revolution has only ‘changed the curtains’ – the political representatives of the ruling class, which has kept its wealth and power.

A second revolution is needed to take into public ownership and place under democratic workers’ control and management all the big companies, banks and large estates. The economy could then be planned for the benefit of the majority instead of the tiny elite that grew wealthier under Mubarak and still maintain their riches under SCAF.

Working class power in the developing strike wave of February 2011 ended Mubarak’s struggle to hang on. Some of that power has been seen in the year since, although no workers’ party has yet been able to draw together activists in the trade unions, socialists and the masses. A programme could rapidly gain support that meets the needs of the masses on the pressing issues of jobs, low pay, lack of good quality affordable housing, free healthcare and education. A democratic socialist planned economy would use the wealth produced by the majority for the benefit of all, instead of having it stolen by the capitalists and their military and political defenders.

A genuinely democratic socialist society would have nothing in common with the bureaucratic dictatorial regime that eventually produced Mubarak. The popular neighbourhood committees that started to develop after January 25th, together with democratic workplace committees, could redevelop and expand on the basis of new revolutionary upsurges and be the basis for genuine democracy, linking these together at local, regional and national level. A democratically elected constituent assembly could draw up a constitution that would defend the rights of all, including religious and national minorities.

In the course of fighting for such a socialist programme, the balance of forces in society would change. All defenders of the existing order would increasingly be forced together in opposition to the growing movement of the masses, led by the working class. Such a movement would overcome sectarian divisions and result in a completely different assembly to that which has just been elected. A majority government of workers and poor would act in the interests of the majority in society.

At the same time, the deepening global economic crisis is undermining support for capitalism around the world. If the working class develops a decisive revolutionary socialist leadership, seriously struggling to take power in Egypt, it would ignite further revolutionary movements, laying the basis for a socialist Middle East, North Africa and world.

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January 2012