In Egypt, the army’s candidate Abdel al-Sisi has won a ‘landslide’ victory, polling between 93% and 96% of the votes. True, the elections were widely boycotted, and only 46% of the electorate went to the polls (government estimate) and the main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned; true this election was in fact an out and out farce comparable to the one that Bashir Asad organised in war-shattered Syria on 3 June (and even Asad only polled 88.7% of the vote!). But just as the sectarian divisions in Syrian society have led many – such as Christians and members of the Alawite sect that the Asad family belongs to – to support Asad’s brutal regime out of fear of what would happen if he lost the civil war, so in Egypt the fact that many ordinary people continue to support the rule of the army is also a product of fear.
Fear of the repression and corruption incarnated by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government that came to power in the elections that followed the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011. Fear of the crime in the streets that has grown appreciably worse since the decline of the mass movement that ousted Mubarak. Fear of the jihadist version of Islam which was gaining influence under the cloak of the ‘moderately Islamist’ Muslim Brotherhood. It was this climate of fear which led even many of those who had participated in the 2011 movement – which had been directed against Mubarak’s army-based regime – to turn back to the army in the hope that it would guarantee a minimum of order.
This order, of course, is also based on the same ruthless repression which kept Mubarak in power for so long, and which sustained the brief rule of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The clearest proof of this was the mass death sentence handed out last March to over 500 Brotherhood supporters who took part in a demonstration which resulted in attacks on people and property, and the death of one police officer.
Such blatant manipulation of the courts, whether or not the deaths sentences are carried out, is designed, like all forms of state terror, to drum home the message that any form of rebellion against the state will not be tolerated.
For the moment the message is getting home: the social revolts and the workers’ strikes of 2011 have fallen silent.
In 2011, these movements were seen as part of an ‘Arab spring’, an outbreak of hope, where people could leave their fear behind and come together in their thousands in the streets, facing the forces of repression (not only the police and the army, but also the criminal gangs unleashed on the demonstrators by the regime). Massive strikes centred round the huge textile factories and other industrial concentrations affirmed the power of the working class and were a decisive factor in the decision of the ruling class to ditch Mubarak. The revolts centred in Tunisia and Egypt were an inspiration to a rebellion across the divide of war, in Israel, and to the ‘Indignation’ which motived the mass demonstrations and assemblies in Spain, the Occupy movement in the USA, and the street rebellions in Turkey and Brazil in 2013.
But these revolts never escaped the profound ideological illusions of those who took part in them. They were in essence the response of a new generation of the working class, faced with a capitalist system mired in an insoluble economic crisis and with a future of insecurity, unemployment and austerity. These revolts saw themselves as revolutions, even as part of a world revolution, but they were the product of a proletariat which has largely lost its sense of identity as a class, forgotten its real history and its traditions of struggle. The participants acted in their hundreds of thousands, but they still largely saw themselves as citizens, individuals, not as part of an associated class.
‘Democracy’ is the logical expression of this outlook of the atomised citizen: one man, one vote, enter what the French call the ‘isoloir’ the polling booth/isolator to elect a capitalist party to manage the capitalist state. And this was the great goal that was offered to, and largely accepted by, these movements, with only a small minority arguing that the assemblies where people came together to discuss and take decisions could be the basis of a new form of power, like the soviets of 1917 – one which left the ‘democracy’ of bourgeois parliaments in the dustbin. On the basis of this abdication to democracy, dictators like Morsi and al-Sisi may vie for government office, but the state power they serve remains intact.
Today the dreams of the Arab spring have been rudely shattered: in Egypt which has become a sordid contest between power-hungry factions, in Libya which is collapsing into the rule of local armed gangs, with the chaos spreading south into Chad, Mali and beyond; in Syria, above all, which has become an almost unimaginable nightmare, where Asad rules over a country that has been bombed to ruins, and where the ‘opposition’, increasingly torn between ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ Islamist factions, offers the grimmest possible alternative. In Ukraine, a series of events which were superficially modelled on the Arab spring was immediately engulfed in nationalism and integrated into the reviving imperialist rivalries between Russia and the western powers. In Europe and the USA as well, the struggles against the impact of the capitalist crisis have gone into retreat. Small wonder that so many have succumbed to despair, where the hope of changing the world is dismissed as a fairy tale.
But this is not the first time that the class war has gone underground. The proletarian revolution takes its time. It does not obey an immediate calendar, or respond machine-like to a certain level of economic indicators. Those who stand for the genuine revolution against world capitalism have the task of drawing out the lessons of past defeats so that the revolts of the future do not repeat the same mistakes – not least, the fatal error of believing in the bourgeois sham of democracy.