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Egypt: is the revolution over?

By: 
James Clark

January 26, 2014

Egyptians and their allies demonstrated in cities around the world on January 25, the third anniversary of the start of the Egyptian Revolution. Some rallied to back the current regime. Many more rallied to call for its overthrow. Inside Egypt, there were also protests, but they were violently attacked by the military and riot police, and quickly dispersed. Hundreds have been arrested and dozens killed. The third anniversary of Egypt’s revolution marks its lowest point since protests broke out against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak three years ago. It also marks the end of a year of contradictions.
 
In the first half of 2013, tens of millions mobilized against President Mohamed Morsi, leading to record protests on June 30. Three days later, former defence minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup, hijacking the revolution. The second half of 2013 was marked by bloodshed and repression, initially targeted at the Muslim Brotherhood, but now directed at all the regime’s opponents.
 
The events of the last six months in Egypt are the unmistakable signs of counter-revolution, the regime’s attempt to reverse the revolution’s gains since 2011, and to de-mobilize the movement that led to June 30. Just weeks after the coup, the regime massacred thousands of unarmed Egyptians, mainly Brotherhood supporters, signalling that protests will no longer be tolerated. Since then, the regime has continued its attacks, while expanding its wrath against any and all dissent.
 
Setback
Without a doubt, the situation is grim: the coup represents the biggest setback for the revolution since it began. Does this mean it is over?
 
Far from it: revolution is a process, not an event. It develops unevenly, ebbs and flows, advances and then retreats. It is always characterized by contradictions, which continuously affect the terrain of struggle and provide opportunities for resistance, even in the most difficult circumstances.
 
These contradictions became more obvious in 2013, and inform the central debates about the current context: What is the relationship between the June 30 protests and the July 3 coup? What is the nature of the current regime, and why does it enjoy popular support? Is it possible to resist the coup and renew the revolution? How can solidarity activists support Egyptian revolutionaries?
 
Pro-coup
The starting point for this discussion is the relationship between June 30 and July 3. Since these events, there have been two general responses. The dominant response inside Egypt, and among a section of the international left, has been to back the coup, claiming that the military intervened to save the revolution from the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of Egypt’s left shares this perspective, some of it based on Islamophobia towards Islamist organizations, some based on the military’s appeal to the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist hero who led the Free Officers’ Movement in 1952.
 
This perspective sees the coup as the legitimate response to Egyptians’ demands for Morsi’s removal, and the mobilization against Morsi in the lead-up to June 30 as a mandate for the coup. El-Sisi makes the same claim himself. In addition, this perspective frames the current struggle in Egypt as one between liberalism and Islamism, with the military on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
 
Anti-coup
The second response, which enjoys less support both inside and outside Egypt, has been to oppose the coup, although its opponents do so for contradictory reasons. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters see it as the overthrow by liberal, secular elites of a democratically elected president. In this sense, they frame the struggle as their opponents do: as one between liberalism and Islamism. Others on the left see it as a counter-revolution, the military’s attempt to restore its control of the Egyptian state and to crush all dissent.
 
Even among this group, there is disagreement: some back the call for Morsi’s restoration, while others oppose it. Like the Brotherhood, those who back Morsi’s restoration generally (but not always) dismiss the June 30 protests, and the mobilization before it, as either misguided, illegitimate or a foreign conspiracy. Those who still back Morsi’s removal, while remaining opposed to the coup, see the protests as the culmination of a genuine mass mobilization that expressed a growing radicalization among the Egyptian people and a deepening of the revolution – despite the coup that followed it.
 
It is this last position that helps explain the relationship between June 30 and July 3. Instead of conflating the dates as part of one seamless process, it sees them as the interaction of two competing and contradictory movements that have developed at the same time.
 
June 30
In this light, June 30 represents a legitimate expression of mass anger against the crimes of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during their short time in office. Of course, this anger does not justify the extreme repression that followed the coup, and all activists should oppose the violence directed at Brotherhood members and supporters. But the violent actions of Egypt’s Armed Forces should not detract from the impressive mobilization of tens of millions of Egyptians, many of whom did not participate in the 2011 protests against Mubarak.
 
Furthermore, the call for Morsi’s removal, at least for most Egyptians, was not an appeal to the military to lead a coup; rather, it was evidence of Egyptians’ growing confidence that they could overthrow two presidents in as many years, and of the enduring appeal of the revolution’s demands for “bread, freedom and social justice.” In the months before June 30, Egypt boasted among the highest rates of strike and protest in the world, with Egyptian workers increasingly taking the struggle to their workplaces. Indeed, a general strike was planned for the days after June 30, but it was scuttled by the coup.
 
July 3
By contrast, the military’s intervention on July 3 is not only an opportunistic response to the June 30 protests, but also the culmination of a longer-term process inside the Egyptian state: the struggle by Egypt’s Armed Forces to re-assert its supremacy since the fall of Mubarak, at the expense of Egypt’s secret police and security apparatus, which have historically competed with the military for control and influence. More importantly, it signalled the military’s shift from a strategy of limited cooperation with the Brotherhood (to contain the revolution and de-mobilize its supporters) towards a strategy of co-optation and repression (to harness Egyptians’ rising anger and direct it towards the Brotherhood and away from the state).
 
This explanation of the relationship between June 30 and July 3 has been most developed by Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RS), who participated in the mass mobilization against Morsi – as part of the broader struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice” – but who have also campaigned against the coup and its repression of Brotherhood members and supporters. Taking the same position, a revolutionary front has developed that opposes the military’s seizure of power, but also opposes the return of a Muslim Brotherhood government. More a coalition of individual activists than organizations, this movement rejects any alliance with the regime, which it sees as leading a counter-revolution, allying instead with the struggles of ordinary Egyptians: in their workplaces, on the campuses, and in Tahrir Square.
 
Working class
This perspective restores the Egyptian working class to the heart of the discussion about the revolution’s future. In its emphasis of the contradictory nature of these events, it also identifies the potential for resistance to a repressive regime. For example, by acknowledging the impact of the widespread radicalization that preceded the June 30 protests, it develops a more accurate reading of Egyptians’ potential ability to resist the coup, even if they currently support it. That radicalization continues to inform Egyptians’ expectations about what el-Sisi should deliver. Worse still for the regime, its appeal to Nasser’s legacy has raised expectations even higher: the reforms that Nasser achieved during the massive expansion of the Egyptian state in the 1950s and 1960s are impossible for el-Sisi in today’s economic climate.
 
By identifying the contractions that face the regime – ongoing economic stagnation, the inability to deliver meaningful reforms, Egyptians’ high expectations, their memory and experience of successful protests since 2011, and a growing anger that has not fully dissipated – this perspective also develops a more accurate reading of the regime’s weaknesses, and therefore locates openings for resistance. That the regime has had to co-opt the movement as much as repress it also represents the potential for improving the terrain of struggle.
 
The results of Egypt’s recent referendum on a new constitution are another example of these contradictions: while the regime trumpets a 98.1-per cent yes vote (a clearly rigged outcome), it remains silent on the poor voter turnout, around 38 per cent. That so many Egyptians stayed away from the polls suggest that the regime’s popularity is already beginning to flag.
 
Strikes
The return of strikes and protests in Egypt in recent weeks, even if only on a modest level, demonstrates an emerging impatience with el-Sisi, the same kind that targeted Morsi on June 30. There is nothing inevitable about its development into a genuine mass movement against the regime, but the possibility remains for the seeds of June 30 to blossom into something much more powerful.
 
Even if they do, the revolution still faces another challenge: the absence of a mass, experienced and well-rooted revolutionary organization that can co-ordinate struggles across the country and unite Egyptians’ anger into a common movement against the entire system. Such an organization cannot be built overnight, but the gradual return of resistance in Egypt can help accelerate that process and draw growing numbers of Egyptians into revolutionary activity. The key is to recognize where that potential exists and to exploit all the contradictions on which the coup came to power.
 
Next steps
Egyptian revolutionaries face brutal repression for any public act of opposition, and an increasingly McCarthy-like climate in which all dissent is branded as treason. There will likely be more setbacks and retreats in the months ahead, as activists struggle to find opportunities to unite with all opponents of the military dictatorship. Despite these obstacles, there is still widespread anger among Egyptian workers and the potential for important fight-backs to emerge in Egyptian workplaces. Any battles won among the Egyptian working class, no matter how small, will create more space to resist the regime, and to regroup the forces on Egypt’s left that recognize the military state as its greatest enemy.
 
For activists outside Egypt, the climate is much more favourable for meaningful acts of solidarity. The main tasks are to generate support for Egyptians’ demands for “bread, freedom and social justice” and to limit foreign governments’ support for el-Sisi. That means putting pressure on Egyptian embassies and consulates, demanding the defence of Egyptians’ right to organize, protest and strike; the release of all political prisoners; and an end to the repression. According to Egyptian blogger and journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy, over 21,000 Egyptians are now in detention, simply for their opposition to the coup. There is a real urgency among the solidarity movement outside Egypt to work for their release, to help free activists and revolutionaries who have been at the heart of the revolution.
 
In the course of building solidarity, activists must also find ways to unite against the regime, despite their differences over who or what should replace it. In Toronto, a city-wide rally on January 25, organized by the Egyptian-Canadian Coalition for Democracy, showed the potential for a united response among activists outside Egypt, although much work remains to bring together all progressive forces into a common movement. Mobilizations like these and the other solidarity actions that took place across the country on January 25 will help focus opposition to the regime on Egypt’s foreign offices in Ottawa and Montreal, as well as pressure the federal government to end its support for el-Sisi’s coup.
 
The year ahead will be a tough one for the Egyptian Revolution, but not without its contradictions. As Egyptian revolutionaries attempt to renew their struggle and resist the pressure of counter-revolution, they will need our solidarity to forge ahead. The instability of the regime and Egyptians’ high expectations for real change mean that the re-emergence of popular resistance remains a possibility, even if it seems a remote one at the moment. Small, isolated struggles, over time, can begin to shift the terrain and build Egyptians’ confidence to fight for their own liberation. This is the key to the revolution’s renewal: the return of the Egyptian masses to the front of the struggle.
 
With the future of the revolution hanging in the balance, the stakes for revolutionaries couldn’t be higher.
 
* * *
 
Sign and share this petition to Egypt’s ambassador to Canada. Tell him:
Respect Egyptians’ right to organize, protest and strike.
Release all the political prisoners.
End the repression.
Stop sexual violence by security forces and the military against protesters.
 
For more information, contact the MENA Solidarity Network or the Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy.

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