The coup by Egypt’s top court on June 14, which dissolved parliament and re-imposed the military’s power to police the streets just days before the presidential election run-off, has shocked the nation and the world. It is a desperate attempt by the regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to reverse the democratic gains won by the Egyptian people through their revolutionary uprising in early 2011.
The decision to reassert military authority came in response to a new wave of mass protests. First, SCAF rigged the first-round of presidential elections to allow its favored candidate to proceed to the deciding vote. Then, the courts’ outrageous refusal to find deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his cronies guilty of ordering the mass murder of protesters during the revolution sent hundreds of thousands into the streets again.
Confronted by these protests, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose party dominated parliament, gave in to their pressure and promised to re-try the old regime’s leading figures for their crimes. This broke the deal between the MB leaders and SCAF, in which the MB had promised that it would protect the military in return for a share of power in governing the country. With parliament suddenly amplifying the masses’ demands rather than stifling them, it was no longer a useful tool for the military rulers.
The Egyptian ruling class and its imperialist overlords need a powerful military state to protect their assets and keep the masses down. And SCAF needs some form of political cover for its continued rule – just not a parliament dominated by a party that people expect to carry out the revolution’s demands. There were widespread illusions in the MB-led parliament, even though the MB is led by wealthy capitalists and vacillated in response to the 2011 uprising, because of the MB’s years of opposition to the dictator.
At this juncture, the masses lack a leadership that wants to see another revolutionary uprising. So SCAF hopes to be able to work behind the scenes with the Brotherhood and other bourgeois forces to reconstitute some form of pseudo-democratic governmental facade under its domination. But the masses’ continued revolutionary fervor may yet challenge their plans.
As we will explain, we revolutionary Marxists believe that Egypt’s current political crisis expresses the fact that under conditions of deepening economic crisis and imperialist domination, the masses’ basic demands for democratic freedoms and justice are a threat to Egypt’s capitalist ruling class and the imperialists who sponsor their state. The ongoing struggle for such demands is exposing their bourgeois leaders’ inability to deliver on them. Only when the masses find a leadership dedicated to the seizure of power by the workers and poor people themselves, in the form of a revolutionary working-class party, will they be able to escape the dead end their revolution has found itself in.
Since it ousted Mubarak as a concession to the masses’ revolutionary movement in February of last year, SCAF has ruled the country but it has been unable to quell the ongoing popular struggles that the revolution unleashed. Its initial attempt to ban protests and strikes was immediately disregarded by millions. The popularity of the revolution, from the impoverished masses of the slums to the growing independent trade union movement and the rank-and-file soldiers of Egypt’s conscripted army, has meant that SCAF feared that any attempt at a counterrevolutionary crackdown would trigger an even greater revolt.
That is why SCAF, with the encouragement of its paymasters in Washington, has spent over a year trying to work out a deal to concede a degree of political power to the Brotherhood, in return for guarantees that the MB would protect the military’s state power and economic interests from the masses. The MB had accumulated great influence through years of charity work and opposition to the dictatorship. This meant that it was well placed to ride the revolution to a share of power with the military and use its influence over the masses to encourage them to compromise on their revolution’s demands. The trouble for both SCAF and the MB has been that the masses, empowered by the experience of the revolution, have not cooperated with this plan.
Last year the Brotherhood was elected to a commanding position in the new parliament. In January, its parliamentarians circulated legislation that would have given regime officials immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during the 2011 revolution. But after security forces engineered the massacre of pro-revolution soccer fans in Port Said in February, mass outrage forced parliament to abandon this legislation. The MB parliamentary leadership’s capitulation to the masses’ demand to re-try Mubarak and his cronies was the final proof to the ruling military that the MB could not be trusted with dominant power in a civilian government.
It would be a mistake to think that the military wants to continue to rule the country directly, however. They know that the masses’ revolutionary spirit has not been broken. They still fear that widespread repression will trigger a new revolutionary uprising. SCAF hopes that a civilian government can be created that will be sufficiently accepted by the masses so that it can restore order and put an end to the continuing waves of protests and strikes.
It cannot be ruled out that the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, could be awarded victory in the presidential election. Freed from the pressure of an elected parliament, he might be better able to negotiate a deal to protect SCAF’s interests. That seems highly unlikely, however. Rather, it appears that SCAF thinks that a victory by their candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, would guarantee their interests in the process of the formation of a new civilian government and writing of a new constitution. So far the MB’s top leaders are indicating that they are prepared to go along with this.
The day before the coup, Al Ahram reported that the Brotherhood’s top leader Khairat El-Shater and other senior MB figures had met with SCAF officials and signaled that they were ready to accept Shafiq winning the presidency. “Deep down, nobody is expecting Mursi to win,” said an MB source, “We don’t want to get into a confrontation, but ... we want a strong presence in the next government.” Thus when the constitutional court announced its dissolution of parliament, Mursi declared “I don’t see what’s going on as a military coup,” made no call for the masses to rally in parliament’s defense and indicated that the presidential elections should go ahead.
Many will no doubt follow Mursi’s advice and vote in the elections this Saturday and Sunday. But the Brotherhood’s acceptance of the dissolution of parliament should make clear that a vote for Mursi will be a vote in favor of passively accepting SCAF’s coup, not a vote against it. Demands have been raised for Mursi to withdraw from the elections -- they are correct. Already, protests by MB youth against their leaders’ initial acceptance of the coup forced Mursi to add new angry rhetoric, while still encouraging his supporters to go to the polls. Such protests can split the organization further, with sections breaking with the leadership to rejoin the struggle on the streets. If the Brotherhood continues to insist on participating in the elections, it will be exposed in the eyes of more and more of its supporters as unwilling to stand up to the military. If it gives in to those demands, on the other hand, it can be forced to build further mass protests against military rule.
A strong campaign to boycott the elections, with mass protests that leave no doubt that vast numbers of Egyptians do not accept the military’s attempt to get a phony electoral approval for their coup, will be the best way to start to organize the next phase of mass struggle against the military’s attempts at counterrevolution.
There was already the need for such a campaign before the coup. Six months ago more than 10 million voters awarded the MB a commanding position at the head of a strong Islamist majority in parliament. But the bourgeois Islamists failed to use their newfound power to address the masses’ most urgent concerns, like the need for jobs and an answer to rising prices, and they refused to challenge SCAF’s continued rule. In the first round of presidential elections, millions expressed their judgement of the Islamists’ failures. The Brotherhood’s Mursi received barely half as many votes as its parliamentary candidates had six months earlier, and the largest number of voters supported candidates challenging the MB from the left. In particular, millions voted for the left-Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, propelling him to the top of the polls in Cairo, Alexandria and most other urban areas. Although Sabbahi has explained that he “hopes to establish a state-capitalist Egypt,” his populist appeal as the son of poor peasants, and his promise to put working-class and poor people first, won him enough support to put him just four percentage points behind the MB’s Mursi.
The military’s vote-buying and ballot box-stuffing raised their candidate Shafiq into second place, excluding Sabbahi from the deciding round. Big protests by Sabbahi supporters against this injustice were an important prelude to the massive protests against the verdicts in the trial of Mubarak and his cronies days afterwards. With millions of voters being denied the right to see their candidate challenge the Brotherhood from the left in the final round of voting, we believe revolutionaries should have encouraged those disenfranchised voters to give organized expression to their outrage in the form of an active boycott campaign. Indeed, in view of the Egyptian ruling class’s desire to create a civilian capitalist government to stand in the way of continued mass struggles, we think revolutionaries should have seized the opportunity to deny such a government an air of legitimacy.
By the eve of Egypt’s revolution last year, Mubarak’s regime had alienated all the classes of society outside the military state and its crony-capitalist allies. The urban middle class was frustrated by the military’s stifling dictatorship and the private capitalists of the Muslim Brotherhood were still kept from the halls of power, their movement repressed. For decades the world capitalist economy’s global stagnation had been pushing Egypt’s rulers, like governments everywhere, to implement ever deeper austerity measures, cutting back government spending on social welfare and privatizing state industries. This shrunk the Egyptian dictatorship’s base and reduced the networks of patronage it used to buy support. So just when the increasingly desperate poverty of the masses was driving them toward revolution, the regime found itself less able to resist them than ever.
The first protests against Mubarak were called by middle-class liberal and left-wing groups who agreed on little more than the goal of democratic reform. Few imagined that the masses of working-class and poor people would join them in such numbers and push Mubarak’s regime to the brink, or that workers would launch the nationwide strike wave that finally convinced the military to throw out the dictator in order to save the dictatorship. But when those millions did rise up, they did not do so for purely abstract ideals of democracy. The revolutionary slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!” signified that the struggle for political and personal liberty was inseparable from the masses’ desperate need to escape lives mired in poverty and diminishing opportunity.
Without an alternative revolutionary working-class leadership prepared to show the masses the way forward to the overthrow of military rule, capitalist political forces led by the Muslim Brotherhood were able to come to the head of the movement. With a basic interest in continuing to profit from the exploitation of the working class, the MB and all other capitalist political forces are interested in maintaining Egypt’s military state that keeps the masses in check. They do not want to overthrow the military; they wish to join with it in ruling over the masses. The problem for the capitalist forces attempting to hijack the masses’ revolution is that they can only stay at the head of the masses by claiming to stand for their demands, but they can only join with Egypt’s military ruling class by betraying those demands.
We revolutionary Marxists have warned from the very beginning that Egypt’s revolution could not achieve its demands for freedom and justice as long as it was dominated by bourgeois forces and constrained within the limits of capitalism. Nothing more starkly confirms this than the revolution’s failure so far to have Mubarak and his cronies found guilty for the murder of protesters during the revolution. The danger for the ruling class is that once one regime figure is punished for such crimes, it will be difficult to stop there, since Egypt’s military state has been perpetrating murder and torture on a widespread and systematic basis from the beginning. The basic demand for justice thus threatens to unravel the entire state apparatus.
The only classes of people with an interest in seeing the Egyptian revolution win all its demands are those who have nothing to lose from the overthrow of the capitalist state: the vast masses of working-class and poor people in the cities and rural areas. So far, they have been the revolution’s great source of power. Now, through their most class-conscious and revolutionary layers, the working class must come to lead the revolution. What has begun as a popular revolution of all classes must become a working-class revolution to overthrow capitalism -- or it will fail.
This is the perspective of permanent revolution, first developed by the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who observed that the Russian bourgeoisie was too dependent on the Tsar’s dictatorship and imperialism, and too afraid of the masses, to be able to lead a successful democratic revolution. He explained that, therefore, only a workers’ revolution could carry out the democratic demands that the bourgeoisie would not. This perspective was confirmed when Russia’s bourgeois revolution of February 1917 failed to deliver any of its basic demands, which were only achieved by the working-class seizure of power in October’s socialist revolution. We believe that the same fundamental dynamic exists in all oppressed nations around the world today, and in particular in Egypt.
The Egyptian revolution has its own unique conditions and problems to solve, as do the revolutions in the other countries in the Middle East. But we are convinced that certain key aspects of the Russian revolution point to how Egypt’s revolution can triumph.
One lesson relates to the role of the state’s large conscripted army. Forcing working-class and poor people into the army, organizing them and training them in the use of weapons, makes the state very vulnerable to the influence of the revolution. By spreading the message of the revolution inside the army, the Russian revolutionaries were able to win the rank-and-file soldiers to the side of the revolution, and the power of the officers and dictator collapsed. This was greatly aided, of course, by the Bolsheviks’ message that if the revolution triumphed, the soldiers would be able to rejoin their working-class and peasant brothers and sisters, but now in a society they all would control through a government determined to put the nation’s wealth to work to raise their living standards.
Another lesson is that the working-class and poor people need to create their own mass organizations – councils of delegates elected to represent every workplace, neighborhood and area, accountable to and instantly recallable by democratic vote of those they represent. The workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils in the Russian Revolution, known as soviets, arose in the course of general strikes that shut down cities to press for the masses’ demands. The councils first arose to organize the struggle, including maintaining communication, transportation and other essential services. The workers and peasants first fought for parliamentary democracy in which the people get to elect a permanent government to rule for them. But they soon saw the advantage of soviets: through them, they could rule society and transform it themselves. Combined with the armed militia of workers that was created to defend against counterrevolution, the soviets formed the backbone of the early Russian workers’ state, before isolation and imperialist attacks led to its bureaucratic degeneration and its overthrow from within by the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Indeed, the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution points to another key lesson: even a workers’ state cannot solve all the masses’ problems if the revolution remains isolated within a single country. The capitalist system and imperialist domination span the world. In order to succeed, a workers’ socialist revolution in Egypt must spread across the Middle East and North Africa and create a federation of socialist states. Such a regional revolution is also the key to the national liberation of the Palestinian people and the overthrow of the Zionist colonial-settler state of Israel.
The final and essential lesson of the Russian revolution that we would point to is the existence and role of the Bolshevik Party. It organized the most class-conscious and militant worker revolutionaries who openly put before the masses that the only solution to the crisis society found itself in was working-class socialist revolution. The capitalists’ state that defended the tiny minority of profiteers, they said, would have to be replaced with a workers’ state under the democratic control of the workers. The workers’ state would defend against counterrevolution and plan economic production and distribution in the interests of all.
By honestly and patiently explaining to the workers their proposed solution, even when the idea was regarded as impossible, the Bolsheviks were then able to go through the varied experiences of the class struggle with their fellow workers and poor people, convincing more and more of them of the need for socialist revolution, based on their own further experience of the class struggle.
The military’s coup is certainly a bad setback for the struggle. The re-imposition of martial law opens a dangerous new period in which the military has broader powers to arrest and persecute revolutionaries.
At the same time, the masses have not been defeated and SCAF still fears the return of their mass struggles. That’s one reason why they are promising new elections.
Under these conditions, we think the Bolsheviks’ method is more necessary than ever:
From far away, we revolutionary workers in the League for the Revolutionary Party of the United States cannot judge the details of the immediate situation Egyptian revolutionaries face. But we are convinced that these basic ideas can play an important role in leading workers through the current crisis and toward a new revolutionary upsurge. We look forward to deepening our discussions with Egyptian revolutionaries, learning from their experiences and thinking, and moving forward together in building the international party of socialist revolution, the party we believe the workers of the world need to finally overthrow this rotten imperialist capitalist system.