Egypt: In the heart of the struggle

Issue: 152

Philip Marfleet

A review of Maha Abdelrahman, Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings (Routledge, 2015), £34.99

This book was written as the Egyptian Revolution unfolded. Its author experienced the hopes and anxieties of tens of millions of people, sharing “moments of soaring elation, periods of uncertainty and self-doubt, instances of retreat and dark days of potential defeat” (pvii). Her analysis of rising opposition to the Hosni Mubarak regime, of the mass uprising that began in 2011 and of the military coup of 2013 is especially important for activists seeking to understand these tumultuous events. Her conclusion is notable: quoting Lenin, she observes that despite all difficulties, those prepared to “preserve their strength and flexibility”, learning from experience and pursuing their aims with vigour, can anticipate new opportunities to effect change (p142).

When the uprising against Mubarak began in January 2011 most journalists and many academics expressed surprise, even astonishment. It seemed to them that an Egyptian population they viewed as docile and compliant had overnight discovered an appetite for change—for what millions were already calling a “revolution”. The uprising promptly deposed Egypt’s dictator but when the dictatorship proved more resilient these pundits were quick to assert that the movement had failed. There were soon many obituaries for the revolution, reflecting on its abrupt rise and fall. Maha Abdelrahman takes a different approach, seeing Egypt’s revolution as a process—part of a struggle for change that began long before the uprising in Tahrir Square and one that continues as the regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi grapples with economic crisis and popular hostility to its own intense repression.

Abdelrahman is precise, asserting that: the revolution “did not start in Tahrir” (p29). She rightly identifies the solidarity demonstrations launched in September 2000 by supporters of the Palestinian intifada as a key development. These protests created space for public action soon occupied by ­anti-globalisation and anti-war activists, then by the Egyptian Movement for Change (the democracy movement known by its slogan Kifaya!—Enough!), and in 2006 by workers’ struggles on a scale not seen for 60 years. Abdelrahman describes the cumulative impact of “a tidal wave of protests” (p55) that set the scene for the uprising of 2011.

These struggles were invisible to most academic experts. Concentrating on institutional matters and above all on the apparent resilience of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, they ignored politics from below. This approach reproduced the policies of colonial and post-colonial regimes that for decades practised a politics of denial. British rulers of Egypt maintained that Egyptians were passive and incapable of organising for change. Gamal Abdel Nasser, first president of an independent Egypt, saw slothfulness and lassitude among the masses who, he said, required to be led. His successors Anwar Sadat and Mubarak were contemptuous of the people, viewing them as bystanders to their projects of personal enrichment and monopolisation of power.

Abdelrahman is focused on the mass of people and their creative energies. She addresses the innovative methods of the pro-democracy movement and the “organisational ingenuity and professionalism” of workers in struggle (p61). Tracing in detail the interlocking struggles of 2000 to 2010, she identifies a “normalisation of protest”, as struggles in workplaces, campuses, schools and neighbourhoods embraced millions of people, so that subversive action became “part of everyday lived reality” (p69).

Unlike almost every other academic analyst Abdelrahman is interested in relationships between activist groups and political organisations including nationalists, Islamists, Communists of the old left, and a new generation of revolutionary socialists. She notes that most activists rejected the established parties of the left: rigid and highly centralised, these inhibited mobilisation against the regime. The most effective campaigns against Mubarak “aimed to be everything these formal groups were not” (p49), operating with fluid structures, participatory decision-making and forms of public protest that proved effective in the face of the regime’s clumsy methods of repression.

Abdelrahman examines the problems faced by activist networks under Mubarak and the innovative means used to maintain the momentum of the movement. She highlights the role of the Cairo Conference, an event held annually between 2002 and 2008, at which Egyptian activists coordinated with anti-war movements in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and which served as what she calls “a network of networks” for dissident Egyptians (p35). The conference was indeed significant, not least because it provided a rare opportunity for members of the Muslim Brotherhood to engage systematically in debate with the secular left. Some readers of International Socialism who attended these events will recall unprecedented discussions in which young women and men of the Brotherhood engaged with revolutionary Marxists on subjects including the meaning of democracy, the labour theory of value, women’s rights and the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Abdelrahman is not wide-eyed about the activists of 2011. Unlike some recent assessments influenced by autonomist and libertarian traditions, she addresses the limitations of their networks, especially after the fall of Mubarak. The key issue at stake, she suggests, was that of finding a means to facilitate self-expression and, at the same time, to ensure “sustainability” (p83)—to provide coherence and leadership. The ingenuity of activists who challenged Mubarak was not enough, she suggests, to provide a focal point for a revolutionary movement that, after February 2011, confronted the core of the state apparatus in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In order to resist the generals’ repression and to advance the movement’s aim of achieving social justice, activists urgently required new forms of coordination; their failure to collaborate, she maintains, undermined the whole revolutionary project.

The revolution did indeed require coordinated leadership—but why was this not forthcoming? Abdelrahman does not address this question directly. She highlights issues of party loyalty and practical problems of coordination but does not get to the heart of the matter—the tortured history of the established left in Egypt and its willingness to accommodate to the state and to capitalist agendas.

Egypt’s Communists had played a significant role in struggles against the colonial power, Britain. However, inhibited by Stalinist obsessions with the search for “progressive” bourgeois allies, they failed to accept opportunities to challenge the colonial state and the pro-British monarchy. When the army under Nasser seized power in 1952 most Communists celebrated a “revolutionary” initiative. Although they experienced severe repression under Nasser, they later joined his state capitalist regime. In 1965 the Egyptian Communist Party dissolved itself on the basis that Nasser had met its aspirations for change. Deserting the workers’ and students’ movements, it handed the initiative to Islamist currents, soon established as a key pole of attraction for activists.

Presidents Sadat and Mubarak adopted neoliberal policies, supervising the transfer of public assets to private hands, greatly increasing inequality and making the apparatus of the state—al-nizam (“the order” or “the system”)—an object of hatred for most Egyptians. The established left remained a tame reformist lobby, joining the regime in its assaults on the Islamists, whom Communists dubbed a “fascist” menace. When it became clear that the uprising of 2011 might challenge the state itself, the left—including Communists and radical nationalists of the Nasserist current—joined the generals in an outright assault on the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequently upon the revolutionary movement.

The failure of the popular movement to coordinate an effective leadership was less an organisational matter than an outcome of an orientation by ostensibly radical currents upon the state itself. In 2013 Communists and radical nationalists joined with liberals, social democrats, bourgeois parties and feloul (“leftovers” or remnants” of the Mubarak regime) in an alliance with the generals. Some, used and abused by the el-Sisi regime, have since come to regret their naivety as they too are swept up by the current repression.

These largely secular parties were not alone in their embrace of the generals, however. In 2011 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood entered what Abdelrahman calls an “uneasy marriage of convenience” with SCAF (p79)—one that led not merely to divorce but to a murderous assault on the Brotherhood’s members. Abdelrahman might have analysed these developments more closely. The Brotherhood was not the iron-clad organisation described by many analysts of Egyptian affairs, in which the blind obedience of members guaranteed support for the leadership. Nor was it ideologically homogenous and unaffected by changes in wider society. As with her treatment of the left, Abdelrahman might have used historical materials to contextualise the agendas of the organisation’s leaders. Why were they so firmly oriented on the state? What were their political aspirations? How did they envisage their relationship with the mass of people?

The Muslim Brotherhood, says Abdelrahman, had long been largely stable—a closely knit group held together by complex economic and social ties. It was in fact deeply affected by the uprising of 2011, experiencing a series of splits and losing a number of high profile figures and some of its most determined young activists. Its relationship with the armed forces and crude attempts to control the movement resulted in a huge loss of support among those who earlier backed the organisation against Mubarak—the latest chapter in the Brotherhood’s history of complex shifts and changes in fortune.

Notwithstanding these reservations Egypt’s Long Revolution is an important assessment of the revolutionary process by an acute and supportive observer of struggles for change. It draws extensively on the testimony of activists and provides key insights into their motivations, dilemmas and successes. It concludes persuasively that millions of people eager for social justice will continue to ­challenge the prevailing order.

Philip Marfleet is a professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of East London and the author of Egypt: Contested Revoluion (Pluto, 2016).