Egypt: after the coup

Issue: 142

Philip Marfleet

The military coup of July 2013 was a serious setback for the revolutionary movement in Egypt.1 For army leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi it was an act of rescuing the revolution: for Egypt’s radical activists it was a counter-revolutionary offensive aimed to end the uprising that began in January 2011. The coup has been followed by sustained attacks on activists, by mass arrests and the return of torture and abuse characteristic of the Hosni Mubarak era. The scale of repression was underlined by the death sentence handed out to 529 Muslim Brotherhood activists in late March. The movement of the streets has retreated and most political currents that flourished during months of mass protest are in crisis. The revolution has not been crushed, however. To the consternation of el-Sisi and those who wish to impose their rule across Egyptian society, the workers’ movement remains energetic and defiant. Major strikes remind the armed forces and their allies that issues at the heart of the revolution are unresolved—and looming economic problems threaten their project of subduing the masses and restabilising Egyptian capitalism.

On the third anniversary of the 25 January uprising, police and troops occupied city centres across Egypt—a demonstrative statement by el-Sisi about who controls “the square”, the public spaces seized by the mass movement of 2011. At the same time, however, sustained strike action was under way across the country, focused on demands for a minimum wage, for delivery of promises made and broken by employers and by government, and for tathir—cleansing of corrupt managers and officials associated with the Mubarak regime. In February 2014 a government appointed by el-Sisi fell apart, as ministerial resignations were followed by dismissal of the entire cabinet—apparently an attempt by the military to exercise greater control over millions of workers still intent on change. In his first speech new prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb urged: “Stop all kinds of sit-ins, protests and strikes. Let us start building the nation”.2

The strike wave involved doctors, pharmacists, public transport employees, the police, pensioners, post office employees, workers in the textile industry and in several other state-owned enterprises. “Things were at a low ebb”, says an activist in Cairo:

After the July coup el-Sisi attacked the movement on many fronts. But he was not confident enough to assault the workplaces and it’s there that people have been able to defend their interests and show how to maintain the momentum of the movement. The main issue for the left is how we analyse both the defeats and our potential to respond.3

With many activists disoriented by recent developments a sharp assessment is required—one in which the ambitions of the armed forces and of Egypt’s civilian political actors are set alongside the potentials of the movement from below.

Coup and repression

The events of summer 2013 caused confusion in Egypt and around the world. Was the removal of President Mohamed Mursi and installation of an army backed government a “revolutionary” initiative or a coup plain and simple? According to the armed forces, to Egypt’s mass media and to most leaders of its liberal and radical parties, el-Sisi was engaged in an act of rescue of the Egyptian people consistent with the aims of the uprising of 2011.

When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) struck deals with the Brotherhood in the early weeks of the revolution, the quid pro quo for electoral openings offered to the Islamists was the latter’s agreement to impose public order, returning Egypt to business as usual—to economic and political arrangements in which the military and security apparatus had their own stake. Mursi and the Brotherhood failed spectacularly to keep their part of the bargain. They first provoked huge demonstrations over unfulfilled promises and highly partisan policies. More seriously for the military command, they failed to control industrial struggles, which in the early months of 2013 reached historically high levels—an expression of continued confidence in independent trade union organisation and of anger at power cuts, fuel shortages and price rises.4 This radical mood affected even the police, producing strikes and mutinies in some cities of the Nile Delta. In this climate el-Sisi sought means to isolate Mursi with the aim of safeguarding institutions of the state and more broadly restabilising Egyptian capitalism. Showing sophistication unusual in Egypt’s recent history, the officers moved behind Tamarod (Rebellion), a street-based initiative that had already called on the president to stand down.5 Businessmen, feloul (“remnants” of the Mubarak order), key figures in the state bureaucracy and the judiciary, and most political parties established since 2011 found common cause in backing the campaign.6

A national day of protest organised through Tamarod on 30 June drew vast crowds. The army now intervened openly, telling Mursi to “meet the people’s demands” or face imposition of a “roadmap” for the future.7 In a significant development a founder of Tamarod, Mahmoud Badr, declared for direct military intervention against the Brotherhood, asserting that “the army’s historic role is to take the side of the people”.8 Tamarod was no longer a protest campaign—it had been co-opted by el-Sisi, with whom Badr and others were soon in talks at military intelligence headquarters. The army command had successfully weakened the mass movement of the streets from within.

The scale, energy and continuity of street protest had been key to the movement’s early success but masked several major problems, including the absence of representative bodies in which experiences could be shared and strategy determined, and collective organisation that could advance the revolutionary agenda. For some participants and academic assessments, absence of formal organisation was the greatest strength of the movement. Decentralised forms of organising and “leaderless” protest were said to give it a “horizontalist” character that encouraged participation, minimising the stifling influence of traditional political parties.9 Networks of activists were indeed formed and reformed around specific campaigns, usually without engagement of collectives such as parties, trade unions or workplace groups. In February 2011, however, the movement required the intervention of organised workers to secure removal of Mubarak. As street protests became more fitful, workplace organisation continued to advance, translating collective experience into strikes which bore directly on the interests of employers and the state. It was anxiety prompted by the strikes of 2013 that led the military command, in effect, to enter the popular movement, with a new activist network as its vehicle. Tamarod focused genuine anger at betrayals of the Muslim Brotherhood; it also accommodated the interests of those hostile to the mass movement, who now used mobilisations of “the street” to prepare a counter-revolutionary initiative.

Strongly supported by Tamarod, in July 2013 el-Sisi called a national mobilisation to back the army against the Brotherhood. The armed forces now returned to the streets in massive numbers, soon undertaking murderous attacks on Brotherhood protesters, including massacres at two demonstration sites in Cairo in which there were at least 1,000 victims—the
biggest state-sponsored killings in modern Egyptian history. In the months that followed, says Amnesty International, security forces enjoyed “a mandate for repression”, attacking Islamists in the streets and on campus, and seizing and incarcerating thousands of people, among whom many “disappeared” into interrogation centres and prisons made notorious during the Mubarak era.10

The army and the people

Generations of military men have claimed popular legitimacy for their local tyrannies. Since the end of the colonial era the Middle East has seen scores of episodes in which generals and colonels have made bids for power in the name of “the people”, “the nation” and “the revolution”. According to Hazem Kandil, between 1952 and 1966 there were no less than 18 coup attempts against Egypt’s first independent leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, all from within an apparatus of state in which claims for popular legitimacy were routine.11 For Nasser and the Free Officers Movement, initiators in 1952 of a coup against the pro-British monarchy, the armed forces stood “at the service of the people”: they were “the tool of the popular will”.12 Their legitimacy rested initially on claims to leadership of “the revolution” (the coup), on their assertion of national sovereignty, and on their implementation by decree of reforms said to reflect the interests of the masses. Throughout the Nasser era the army was officially synonymous with the state which, said Nasser, acted as “trustee” in relation to the people.13

In February 2011 continuous demonstrations followed, critically, by mass strikes prompted SCAF to seize control from Mubarak. The generals declared that they too had commitments “to protect the people, and to oversee their interests and security…to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt”.14 On 11 February Mubarak was removed from the presidency. The army had met the key demand of the mass movement; at the same time, it had assumed formal control over “the nation”. The generals invoked claims to authority first made by Nasser and the Free Officers, tapping resources of enormous importance in Egyptian society—official histories and popular memories of the Nasser era in which the army is an embodiment of common interests. In 2011 this was not merely a matter of rhetoric. During weeks of demonstrations and of savage fighting with police and Mubarak’s paid thugs, protesters had asserted: “The army and the people are one hand!” In the event, the military command—unsure about the loyalties of its rank and file of conscripts—did not order armed intervention.

Over the next 12 months, however, there were many clashes between troops and demonstrators—most notoriously during the Maspero protests and Mohamed Mahmoud attacks of October and November 2011 respectively, when some 80 people were killed.15 The mood of activists changed. On the first anniversary of the 25 January Revolution vast crowds assembled in Tahrir Square took up a new slogan: “The army and the police are one filthy hand!” The generals appeared to retreat. With a presidential election imminent troops were seen more rarely on the streets and following the election of Mohamed Mursi in June 2012 SCAF adopted a lower profile. The mass strikes of the following year required a new strategy—one provided by alignment with Tamarod. Placing himself at the head of protests against Mursi and the Brotherhood, el-Sisi declared that the “patriotic and historic responsibility” of the armed forces obliged them to intervene to “stand up firmly and strictly to any act deviating from peacefulness”.16

Crisis of the opposition

Many Egyptians rallied to el-Sisi. His promises of order and stability, and willingness to punish the Muslim Brotherhood for all manner of crimes, real and imagined, were greeted with relief by business, by the feloul networks, by much of the middle class and by many activists incensed by Mursi’s arrogance and partisan policies. At the same time industrial struggles diminished sharply—during the second half of 2013 the number of disputes decreased by some 60 percent.17 In part this was an outcome of new state of emergency powers involving curfews and threats of arbitrary arrest; at the same time it reflected disorientation in the workplaces and unions produced by a crisis of the entire opposition. This was expressed by participation in el-Sisi’s “interim” government of parties of the left and key figures of the workers’ movement, who also called for stability, order and social peace. The military command had used the movement of the streets to reposition for an assault on the revolution; now it used the secular opposition to provide ideological and organisational support.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s leading liberal and founder of the Destour (Constitution) Party became deputy president; Hossam Eissa, a Nasserist and also a founding member of Destour, became minister of higher education; Hazem al-Beblawi, of the reformist Egyptian Social Democratic Party (EDSP), became prime minister; Ziad Bahaa El-Din, also of the EDSP, became deputy prime minister. Most strikingly, Kamal Abu-Eita, a member of the Popular Current—founder of the independent trade union movement—became minister of manpower.18 For a decade Abu-Eita had been a key player in advancing opposition to the Mubarak regime. He had participated in the Palestinian solidarity movement, in protests against the war in Iraq, in Kifaya (the democracy movement), and most importantly in workers’ struggles, as founder and effective leader of the Real Estate Tax Authority Union, Egypt’s first independent union for 60 years. As a Nasserist and a prominent member of the Karama (Dignity) Party, he was a close associate of Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the few independent MPs of the Mubarak era and a thorn in the side of the old regime. Sabbahi had registered remarkable success in the 2012 presidential elections, with a radical campaign based on continuation of mass involvement in the revolutionary movement. He ran feloul candidate Ahmed Shafiq and the Brotherhood’s Mursi close in the first round, winning a majority in each of Egypt’s industrial centres.

Abu-Eita’s journey from the picket line to the presidential palace—a move overnight from poacher to gamekeeper—was unthinkable without Sabbahi’s support for the military government. The most prominent radical in national politics now gave unqualified backing to el-Sisi. Confirming in the summer of 2013 that he had been in extended talks with the military command, Sabbahi insisted that the main obstacle to change in Egypt came from the “terrorism” of the Muslim Brotherhood and that political currents should unify with the armed forces against this existential threat.19 His comrade in arms Abu-Eita, icon of a revitalised labour movement, accordingly joined el-Sisi’s cabinet, resigning from his position as president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. In his first public statement in office the minister insisted that workers should abandon strikes in favour of a “period of national reconstruction”.20 Karam Saber, Director of the Land Center for Human Rights, spoke for many revolutionary activists and industrial militants astonished by the move: Abu-Eita had become part of a government, he said, that “clearly sides with the interests of businessmen, investors and security forces”.21

The new ministers were soon implicated in mass killings. Assaults on Brotherhood supporters in Cairo in August 2013 dwarfed the scale of the attacks at Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud in 2011—but most members of the cabinet remained silent. Only ElBaradei had the spine to stand up to el-Sisi, resigning his post with a message that declared: “I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood”.22 Sabbahi continued to insist: “The army and police are patriotic state institutions”.23 His lieutenant Abu-Eita remained in post as troops attacked protesters, imposed night-time curfews, seized “suspects” arbitrarily and consigned thousands to prison.

El-Sisi’s government mimicked repressions of the Mubarak era. The general (soon upgraded to field marshal) could rely not only on ministers drawn from among feloul and post-revolution officials but also, crucially, upon party leaders with their own constituencies among revolutionary activists. Destour and ESDP were liberal-reformist currents with middle class constituencies—the former also having recruited a large number of energetic youth. The Popular Current of Sabbahi and Abu-Eita was a reformulated version of Karama, standing in the Nasserist tradition. Established in September 2012, it had drawn in radical activists inspired by Sabbahi’s performance in the presidential election.

For the first time in decades a radical nationalist current had the opportunity to build wide popular support and to articulate key demands of the workers’ movement. Sabbahi had a huge audience. For several months during the presidential campaign in 2012 he had personified—in the most positive sense—an aspiration for continued radical change. No sooner had the Popular Current been established, however, than Sabbahi insisted that it should join the National Salvation Front (NSF)—a coalition established to oppose Mursi’s controversial constitution. This included all manner of parties—Destour, ESDP, Tagammu’ (the Rally Party—rump of the Egyptian Communist movement), the radical Socialist Popular Alliance (with its minority of revolutionary Marxists), Naguib Sawaris and the Free Egyptians Party (liberal capitalists), and key figures of the Mubarak era such as former minister Amr Moussa and his Conference Party. From the first, the Front was paralysed by intense personal rivalries and competitive efforts to court the armed forces: even an NSF official recognised that this “battle of the egos” rendered it ineffective.24

The Front had no public presence: it was silent on every key question confronting the revolution: how to deal in practice with Mursi; how to tackle shortages and cuts; how to create more democratic space; how to address key international issues such as that of Palestine; and how to deal with the shadowy presence of the army. With the exception of liberal Islamists in the Strong Egypt Party, of anarchist and libertarian groups, and of the Revolutionary Socialists on the Marxist left, every opposition organisation had joined the Front. The outcome was an atmosphere of disorientation that affected the whole movement. Even in the most militant workplaces activists were discouraged from addressing the key issues of the moment—there was no national forum for debate, no organising centre and no agenda around which they might unite. The old left, represented by the Stalinist Communism of Tagammu’, had long since allied with Mubarak and in the 2012 presidential election supported the candidate of the old order, Ahmed Shafiq. Newer organisations such as the Socialist Popular Alliance and the Popular Current were formally committed to independent opposition but remained within the NSF. When Tamarod came on the scene parties of the NSF moved even closer to the military command, setting the scene for the coup of July 2013.

Egypt’s “everyman”

Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is expected to stand in presidential elections scheduled for the spring of 2014. Like military figures before him including President Mubarak and Mohammed Hussain Tantawi of SCAF he has risen “without trace”. A bland career soldier schooled in American military academies, he is distinguished only by unusual ruthlessness and—like Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat—an interest in elaborate uniforms and gold braid. Since the coup national media have run a fawning campaign in which he features as a superhuman figure rising above the confusion of Egyptian politics to rescue the country from terrorism, chaos and foreign plots. He is president in waiting—his photograph placed in coffee shops, stores and offices across the country where images of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak were once displayed, and on T-shirts, banners and even chocolates. Writing as Lubna Abdel Aziz (also the name of a celebrated Egyptian actress of the 1950s), a Cairo journalist assesses the great man, whose name has “lit up the darkness”:

He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman.

Composed and cool, El-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow… He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.25

In December 2013 a further media-led campaign induced hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to vote for el-Sisi as Time magazine’s Person of the Year.26 The field marshal is being branded as a new Nasser, ready to take on historic duties of national leadership. Hoda Abdel-Nasser, daughter of the former president, has written an open letter to el-Sisi that has been given wide press coverage. The letter calls on him “to step forward and take responsibility for the destiny that is yours…may God empower you for the sake of our beloved Egypt”.27

The call to rally round a military man leading a project of national salvation resonates with many Egyptians. During the Nasser era millions benefited from land reform, from education and welfare policies, and from state commitments to full employment. Egyptians also took pride in the successes of the anti-colonial movement—removal of a pro-British monarch, expulsion of the British army, nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and Egypt’s role in the Arab nationalist movement and the Non-Aligned Movement of Third World states. Nasser was officially credited with most of these achievements. Initially favourable to Western capitalist models, he moved quickly towards a Soviet-style development agenda—what he called “a socialist democratic cooperative society” in which the people and the state were to pursue a common project of national development.28

The Nasser myths have recalled less about his regime of control. As an elitist accustomed through military practice to authoritarian methods, Nasser and his fellow officers constructed a military-security dictatorship that brooked no opposition. Independent trade unions and political parties were banned, strikes were crushed by troops, militants were executed and thousands of activists who had been at the heart of the anti-colonial movement were sent to prison camps.29 When economic crisis was followed by catastrophic military failure in the 1967 war with Israel, accumulated anger produced a wave of student protests and sustained mass strikes. In a powerful critique, former Communist Anouar Abdel-Malek argued that Egypt had become a “military society” in which the people had fallen into the hands of “a devouring bureaucracy…let loose with the immunity of autocracy”. Notwithstanding progress in economic development and in welfare, said Abdel-Malek, the regime had seized a disproportionate share of national resources which it mobilised for purposes alien to the interests of the majority:

The group in power has no socialist roots in its thinking, it resorts to quasi-socialist schemes and formulas in order to attract the masses, which are deeply angered by the dictatorship, and it uses them to cloak what is in reality planning and statism [so] establishing this enormous bureaucratic and security apparatus with all its privileges.30

By the time of Nasser’s death in 1970 the “socialist-democratic” project was at an end. Mass struggles soon resumed against the Sadat regime, a pioneer of neoliberalism in the Global South, and for many Egyptians the Nasser era took on positive colouring as a period of relative well-being and of independence in the international arena. When Mubarak came to power in 1981, combining a more aggressive neoliberal agenda with consolidation of the security state, the 1950s took on a rosy hue: for the Nasserist current, marginalised by the state and by the Islamist opposition, it became an era of plenty, of national pride and self-assertion, and a vision for a future in which the army, the state and people could again be as one.

El-Sisi is no Nasser: rather than contesting imperialism he intends to confirm Egypt as part of a regional alliance that includes the United States, Israel and the rulers of the Gulf; rather than facilitating social reform he will please the International Monetary Fund with more cuts to food subsidies and to welfare. Like all military rulers, however, he shares with Nasser a deep mistrust of the masses and a commitment to authoritarian methods. Having first supported el-Sisi as a perfect fit for president, even Hamdeen Sabbahi has retreated, arguing that Egypt needs a civilian rather than a military leader, and announcing his own candidacy in the presidential poll. Although this provides one electoral option for those repelled by el-Sisi it deepens the crisis of nationalist currents and of the reformist left in general. They have pressing questions to address: Is the army a benign force? Can it ever express the collective interests of the people? Can it accommodate popular demands for basic freedoms? Why did Sabbahi and Abu-Eita back el-Sisi’s repression?

In February 2014 Tamarod split. Mohamed Fawzi, leader of the new Tamarod 2 Get Liberated group, said that many members’ attitudes to el-Sisi changed as they learned about the real character of the armed forces, adding: “The army’s role is to protect and guard the state, not to rule”.31 El-Sisi’s government was meanwhile collapsing. First to go was deputy prime minister Bahaa El-Din, hinting that he had finally had enough of the repression. A few days later Beblawi and the whole cabinet stood down, with the prime minister admitting limply that it had failed to deal with economic pressures or the anger expressed in resurgent strike action. Its liberal and reformist ministers had been exposed by “mounting criticism from media and the public”, said Farid Zahran of the ESDP, which had supplied members for key cabinet posts.32 El-Sisi promptly appointed a new administration of feloul and state officials likely to be less squeamish about his policies. The episode did not strengthen the armed forces, however; rather it demonstrated the seriousness of the problems that confront them, most importantly the economic problems masked after the July coup by inflows of aid from the Gulf states. Threatened by the continuing revolution, and intensely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gulf kingdoms rewarded el-Sisi with $12 billion of aid.33 Officially, this was to ameliorate problems associated with mass protest, including youth unemployment and poverty wages. In fact much Gulf money has gone to support the Egyptian pound in global currency markets and to subsidise utility costs for private industry. Samir Radwan, a finance minister during the early phase of the revolution, says that Gulf aid is doing no more than “tiding the country over”.34 In March 2014 tourism minister Hisham Zaazou announced that the tourism sector had “completely collapsed”.35 In 2010 tourism had brought Egypt over $12 billion of vital hard currency.36

What will happen when Gulf aid is reduced? How to tackle fuel shortages and power cuts, which proved so damaging to the Mursi presidency? How to support subsidies on basic foods? How to meet promises on the minimum wage, on bonuses, pensions and on local deals reached and broken by employers and the state? The situation in industry is volatile, raising questions about the stability of government and the authority of the military regime. How will el-Sisi proceed—as military ruler or civilian president? If the latter, how to construct a political machine that—like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party—might coordinate between the army, the security agencies and Egypt’s aggressive business interests?37 What is the role of the country’s feeble and disunited liberal capitalists? How to resolve the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that retains the loyalty of millions of people?

Crisis—and opportunity

The counter-revolution has inflicted serious damage on the movement of 25 January. Although many activists on the streets are tired and deeply frustrated, they are also engaged in an intensive learning process, as leading political currents set out their agendas and are found wanting. The workers’ movement remains defiant, but faces not only issues of workplace and union organisation but broader questions of political strategy—of coordination, coherence and political leadership. There is a pressing need to embed a revolutionary party within the workplaces—one independent of nationalist and Stalinist traditions, and focused on the interests of the masses. The energy and self-sacrifice of activists on the streets opened the way for revolution: to advance the process requires the power of the working class organised at the point of production. The opportunity for revolutionary Marxists is real—and the task is urgent.


1: Thanks to members of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, and to Anne Alexander, Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, Judith Orr and John Rose for their comments on this article in draft.

2: Hendawi, 2014.

3: Interview with a socialist activist, March 2014.

4: Enein, 2013.

5: In February 2014, disillusioned Tamarod members who had split from the movement admitted that it had been penetrated by the intelligence agencies at an early stage-Saleh, 2014.

6: In a significant admission, Naguib Sawiris-leader of the bourgeois liberal Free Egyptians Party and a billionaire media mogul-says that he threw all his personal influence behind the project-Blair and others, 2013.

7: Ahram Online, 2013a.

8: Ahram Online, 2013a.

9: See, for example, Chalcraft, 2012 and Hardt and Negri, 2012.

10: Amnesty International, 2014, p27.

11: Kandil, 2012, p60.

12: Abdel-Nasser, 1972, p103.

13: Wheelock, 1960, p69.

14: SCAF, 2011.

15: Carr, 2011.

16: El-Sisi, 2013.

17: El-Fiqi, 2013.

18: Ahram Online, 2013b.

19: Ahram Online, 2013c.

20: Charbel, 2013.

21: Charbel, 2013.

22: Fleishmann, 2013.

23: Ahram Online, 2013c.

24: Taylor and Saleh, 2013.

25: Abdel-Aziz, 2013.

26: In February 2011 the same publication had featured five young activists of Tahrir Square as its cover personalities. See Kingsley, 2013.

27: Abdel-Nasser, 2013.

28: Abdel-Nasser, 1961, p389.

29: See Baker, 1978.

30: Abdel-Malek, 1968, pp368-369.

31: Saleh, 2014.

32: Al-Tawy, 2014.

33: Saudi Arabia provided $5 billion, Kuwait $4 billion, and the United Arab Emirates $1 billion and an interest-free loan of $2 billion-Kotb, 2014.

34: Kotb, 2014.

35: Aswat Masria, 2013.

36: Shoueikhy, 2013.

37: On coordination among and competition between factions of the armed forces, the security agencies and private capitalists from Nasser to Mubarak see Kandil, 2012.


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