Hundreds of thousands, even millions, have come out to protest against all manner of ills: in Turkey, the destruction of the environment by unrestrained ‘development’, authoritarian religious meddling in personal lives, the corruption of the politicians; in Brazil, transport fare increases and the diversion of wealth into prestige sporting events when health, education, housing and transport are left to fester – and the corruption of the politicians. In both cases, the initial demonstrations were met by brutal police repression which served only to widen and deepen the revolt. And in both cases, the revolts were spearheaded not by the ‘middle classes’ (for the media, that’s anyone who has a job), but by the new generation of the working class, who may be educated but have little prospect of finding stable employment, who may be living in ‘emerging’ economies but for whom a developing economy means mainly the development of social inequality and the repulsive affluence of a tiny elite of exploiters.
In June and July it was again the turn of Egypt to see millions on the street, returning to Tahrir Square which was the epicentre of the 2011 rebellion against the Mubarak regime. They too were driven by real material needs, in an economy which is not so much ‘emerging’ but stagnating or even regressing. In May, a former finance minister of the country and one of its leading economists warned in an interview with The Guardian that “Egypt is suffering its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, In terms of its devastating effect on Egypt’s poorest, the country’s current economic predicament is at its most dire since the 1930s”. The article goes on to say that:
“Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced a drastic fall in both foreign investment and tourism revenues, followed by a 60% drop in foreign exchange reserves, a 3% drop in growth, and a rapid devaluation of the Egyptian pound. All this has led to mushrooming food prices, ballooning unemployment and a shortage of fuel and cooking gas… Currently, 25.2% of Egyptians are below the poverty line, with 23.7% hovering just above it, according to figures supplied by the Egyptian government”.
The ‘moderate’ Islamist government led by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (backed by the majority of the ‘radical’ Islamists) has rapidly proved itself to be no less corrupt and cronyist than the old regime, while its attempts to impose its stifling Islamic ‘morality’ has, as in Turkey, created huge resentment among the urban young.
But while the movements in Turkey and Brazil, which are in practice directed against the power in place, have created a real sense of solidarity and unity among all those taking part in the struggle, the situation in Egypt is faced with a much more sombre prospect – that of the division of the population behind rival factions of the ruling class, and even of a bloody descent into civil war. The barbarism which has engulfed Syria is a graphic reminder of what that can mean.
The democratic trap
The events of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt were widely described as a ‘revolution’. But a revolution is more than the masses pouring onto the streets, even if that is its necessary point of departure. We are living in an epoch where the only real revolution can be worldwide, proletarian and communist: a revolution not for a change in regime, but for the dismantling of the existing state; not for a ‘fairer’ management of capitalism, but for the overthrow of the whole capitalist social relationship; not for the glory of the nation, but for the abolition of nations and the creation of a global human community.
The social movements we are witnessing today are still a long way from achieving the self-awareness and self-organisation needed to make such a revolution. They are certainly steps along the way, expressing a profound effort by the proletariat to find itself, to rediscover its past and its future. But they are faltering steps which can easily be derailed by the ruling class, whose ideas run very deep and form a huge obstacle in the minds of the exploited themselves. Religion is certainly one of these ideological obstacle, an ‘opiate’ which preaches submission to the dominant order. But even more dangerous is the ideology of democracy.
In Egypt in 2011, the masses in Tahrir Square demanded the resignation of Mubarak and the fall of the regime. And Mubarak was indeed forced to go – especially after a powerful wave of workers’ strikes spread across the country, bringing a new level of danger to the social revolt. But the capitalist regime is more than just the government of the day. On the social level it is the whole relationship based on wage labour and production for profit. On the political level it is the bureaucracy, the police and the army. And it is also the facade of parliamentary democracy, where the masses are given the choice every few years to choose which gang of thieves is going to fleece them for the next few years. In 2011, the army – which many protesters thought was ‘one’ with the people – stepped in to depose Mubarak and organise elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, which drew massive strength from the more backward rural areas but which was also the best organised political party in the urban centres, won the elections and has since worked very hard to prove that changing the government through elections changes nothing. And meanwhile, the real power remained what it had always been in Egypt, and in so many similar countries: the army, the only force really capable of ensuring capitalist order on a national level.
When the masses surged back to Tahrir Square in June they were full of indignation against the Morsi government and the daily reality of their lives faced with an economic crisis which is not merely ‘Egyptian’ but global and historic. But, even though many of them would have had the opportunity to experience the true repressive face of the army back in 2011, the idea that the ‘people and the army are one’ was still very widespread, and it was given new life when the army began to warn Morsi that he must listen to the demands of the protesters or else. When Morsi was overthrown in a relatively bloodless coup, there were big celebrations in Tahrir Square. Did this mean that the democratic myth no longer held the masses in its grip? No: the army claims to act in the name of ‘real democracy’ which has been betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and immediately promises to organise fresh elections.
Thus the state’s guarantor, the army, again intervenes to ensure order, to prevent the discontent of the masses turning against the state itself. But this time it does it at the price of sowing deep divisions in the population. Whether in the name of Islam or the name of the democratic legitimacy of the Morsi government, a new protest movement is born, this time demanding the return of the regime or refusing to work with those who have deposed it. The response of the army has been swift: a ruthless slaughter of protesters outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard. There have also been clashes, some fatal, between rival groups of demonstrators.
The danger of civil war and the force that can prevent it
The wars in Libya and Syria began as popular protests against the regime. But in both cases, the weakness of the working class and the strength of tribal and sectarian divisions quickly led to the initial revolts being swallowed up by armed clashes between factions of the bourgeoisie. And in both cases, these local conflicts immediately took on an international, imperialist dimension: in Libya, Britain and France, quietly supported by the US, stepped in to arm and guide the rebel forces; in Syria, the Assad regime has survived thanks to the backing of Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah and other vultures, while arms to the opposition forces have flowed in from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere, with the US and Britain in more or less covert support. In both cases, the widening of the conflict has accelerated the plunge into chaos and horror.
The same danger exists in Egypt today. The army has shown its total unwillingness to loosen its effective hold on power. The Muslim Brotherhood has for the moment pledged that its reaction against the coup will be peaceful, but alongside Morsi’s ‘you can do business with me’ brand of Islamism are more extreme factions who already have a background in terrorism. The situation bears a sinister resemblance to what happened in Algeria after 1991 when the army toppled a ‘legally elected’ Islamist government, provoking a very bloody civil war between the army and armed Islamist groups like the FIS. The civilian population was, as always, the main victim in this inferno: estimates of the death toll vary between 50,000 and 200,000.
The imperialist dimension is also present in Egypt. The US has made some gestures of regret about the military coup but its links to the army are very long-standing and deeply implanted, and they are not in the least enamoured of the type of Islamism proclaimed by Morsi or Erdogan in Turkey. The conflicts spreading out from Syria towards Lebanon and Iraq could also reach a destabilised Egypt.
But the working class in Egypt is a much more formidable force than it is in Libya or Syria. It has a long tradition of militant struggle against the state and its official trade union tentacles, going back at least as far as the 1970s. In 2006 and 2007 massive strikes radiated out from the highly concentrated textile sector, and this experience of open defiance of the regime subsequently fed into the movement of 2011, which was marked by a strong working class imprint, both in the tendencies towards self-organisation which appeared in Tahrir Square and the neighbourhoods, and in the wave of strikes which eventually convinced the ruling class to dump Mubarak. The Egyptian working class is by no means immune from the illusions in democracy which pervade the entire social movement, but neither will it be an easy task for the different cliques of the ruling class to persuade it to abandon its own interests and drag it into the cesspit of imperialist war.
The potential of the working class to act as a barrier to barbarism is revealed not only in its history of autonomous strikes and assemblies, but also in the explicit expressions of class consciousness which have appeared within the demonstrations on the streets: in placards proclaiming ‘neither Morsi nor the military’ or ‘revolution not coup’ and in more directly political statements like the declaration of ‘Cairo comrades’ published recently on libcom:
“We seek a future governed neither by the petty authoritarianism and crony capitalism of the Brotherhood nor a military apparatus which maintains a stranglehold over political and economic life nor a return to the old structures of the Mubarak era. Though the ranks of protesters that will take to the streets on June 30th are not united around this call, it must be ours- it must be our stance because we will not accept a return to the bloody periods of the past”.
However, just as the ‘Arab spring’ took on its full significance with the uprising of proletarian youth in Spain, which has given rise to a much more sustained questioning of bourgeois society, so the potential of the Egyptian working class to stand in the way of a new bloodbath can only be realised through the active solidarity and massive mobilisation of the proletarians in the old centres of world capitalism.
One hundred years ago, in the face of the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg solemnly reminded the international working class that the choice offered it by a decaying capitalist order was socialism or barbarism. A century of real capitalist barbarism has been the consequence of the failure of the working class to carry through the revolutions which it began in response to the imperialist war of 1914-18. Today the stakes are even higher, because capitalism has accumulated the means to destroy all human life on the planet. The collapse of social life and the rule of murderous armed gangs – that’s the road of barbarism indicated by what’s happening right now in Syria. The revolt of the exploited and the oppressed, their massive struggle in defence of human dignity, of a real future – that’s the promise of the revolts in Turkey and Brazil. Egypt stands at the crossroads of these two diametrically opposed choices, and in this sense it is a symbol of the dilemma facing the whole human species.