“Never going back”: Egypt’s continuing revolution

Issue: 137

Philip Marfleet

For 35 years Egypt was a laboratory for neoliberalism—a local state in which hegemonic world powers and financial institutions played out their strategies for the global economy. It was also a stage on which the United States and its allies rehearsed policy for control of key assets in the Global South. From the mid-1970s their support for the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were means of containing collective responses to an increasingly aggressive neoliberal agenda. When the Tahrir uprising began in January 2011 the stakes were high: could Egyptians contest alnizam (the order), a state machine which bore down brazenly upon the mass of people in a local expression of global inequality and inequity? The slogans of the movement, and its aspirations, echoed worldwide—in removing Mubarak, Egyptian activists made tahrir (liberation) a synonym for wider resistance. Two years later Egypt’s revolution is still the epicentre of opposition to capitalist “liberalism” and to the machineries of state which support its relentless search for profit. Where does the revolution stand today? What are its potentials? What is to be done?1

Obituaries for the revolution are produced daily in the European and North American press. Its detractors maintain that the Tahrir events were no more than a “reflex”, at best a “revolt” which shortly exhausted participants. They maintain that a grim reality has settled over the Egyptian movement—the rise of Islamism and the certainty that atavistic religious currents will crush democratic aspirations. In an analysis of developments across the Middle East since January 2011, Agha and Malley maintain that “This is not a revolution”:

Darkness descends upon the Arab world… The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories… The only consistent programme is religious and is stirred by the past.2

“Amid chaos and uncertainty, the Islamists alone offer a familiar, authentic vision for the future.” In the case of Egypt, “The Muslim Brotherhood prevails”.3

When Egypt’s parliamentary elections of December 2011 brought success for the Muslim Brotherhood many journalists wrote off the country’s mass movement: “Arab Spring” had become “Islamist Winter”.4 They presented the Tahrir events as an interlude—an episode which merely prepared the ground for religious reaction. In conservative media and think-tanks there was palpable relief at the Brotherhood’s electoral advance, seen as confirmation that Arab-Muslim societies were unable to sustain popular movements for radical change. In Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained that Arab countries were “not moving forward toward progress; they are moving backwards”.5 When Mohamed Mursi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, won a presidential run-off in June 2012, Islamophobes charged their pens. According to the American think-tank Foreign Policy, it was now a matter of “containing the Islamist revolution… It’s time to retrench and protect US interests from the Islamist tidal wave”.6 In France Le Monde reported Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist Front National, to the effect that: “The ‘Arab Spring’ has changed into an Islamist Winter”; the key outcome, she said, would be a wave of emigration from Arab countries, prompting fear among the people of Europe.7 Here, Tahrir Square was not a reference point for global resistance; rather, events in Egypt were a further round in the imagined “clash of civilisations”, demonstrating that volatile and backward Muslim cultures of North Africa threatened societies of Europe and North America.

Egypt has not experienced a religious “tidal wave” or “Islamist winter”. Since January 2011 its religious activists have had a mixed experience, as electoral successes have been combined with serious retreats. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular has had a rough ride from the mass movement, which continues to insist on change and for which new authoritarian formulas, including those advanced by the Brotherhood, Salafis and other religious currents, have met with increasing impatience. The Brotherhood—far from fulfilling its own historic mission of leading Egyptian society towards an Islamic order—has suffered numerous splits and defections, losing much of the coherence developed during the Mubarak era. Egypt’s Salafis, who emerged from the sidelines to achieve electoral prominence in 2011, have likewise struggled to maintain momentum. Meanwhile, some secular currents which had seemed exhausted by decades of ineffective resistance to the dictatorship have experienced a revival. Radical nationalism has been renewed and, for the first time since the 1940s, Egypt has a new left which is an organic element within the revolutionary movement. In workplaces, on campuses and in local communities the level of collective organisation is more advanced than at any time since the 1940s and there is a huge audience for ideas about self-emancipation and revolutionary change. But—a large but—Egypt’s workers, the key actors in the revolutionary movement, have not advanced towards a sustained challenge to those now in power.

The Egyptian state, with all its histories of repression, is intact: the dictator has gone but the structures of repression remain. The military is still embedded at the heart of the system, controlled by an officer elite that for decades has claimed ownership of national politics. Egyptian capitalism—a hybrid formation in which private and state interests cohabit—has been destabilised but is not yet challenged by the movement from below. Those with the power to initiate further radical change are still to coordinate in ways that can meet aspirations of the mass movement—the demands for ‘aysh, hurriya, ‘adala igtamaeya (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”) heard at almost every strike and demonstration. The key issue at stake is not a new rule of the ayatollahs; it is the problem of a revolution in process, in which activists struggle to make the politics of the past adequate for the acute challenges they face today. Most pressing are problems presented by, on the one hand, legacies of nationalism and communism, and on the other hand by an associated religious “reformism”. It is these which restrain the workers’ movement, inhibit activist agendas and—in their most damaging form—provide opportunities for partisans of the old regime to reassert their influence.

Mursi and the crisis

Common to many current assessments is the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood will successfully assault Egypt’s movement from below. This may be an aim of some Brotherhood leaders—but it is likely to remain an aspiration. Suppressing the movement would be a huge challenge for any government: Mubarak’s successors in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) failed to do so and Mursi is ill-equipped to launch his own counter-revolution. The president faces economic pressures far more serious than those which confronted Mubarak in the period before his fall. Turning to international capital to address his problems, he is ready to bear down on a population which requires him to meet basic needs and to guarantee the gains of the revolution. The Brotherhood faces its greatest political challenge since the end of the colonial era.

Mursi’s problems are captured in his difficulties over the issue of bread. In Egyptian Arabic ‘aysh means both “bread” and “life”, and for decades subsidised loaves have been essential to the survival of most working class, peasant and poor families. Key moments in contemporary Egyptian history are associated with the availability of bread and since the fall of Mubarak there have been many edgy episodes when supplies have faltered. The cost and quality of the basic five-piastre8 loaf are matters of daily discussion for most families and appeared at the top of a list of priorities and pledges issued by Mursi after the presidential election. Mursi says he has created a “bread file” and that he monitors supplies regularly: when he spoke at a public rally in early October 2012 he claimed that 80 percent of targets set for ending shortages had been met.9 Government officials say they have directed “mega-bakeries”, formerly used by the army and the police, to supply public needs: by this means, they claim, “any shortage anywhere can be tackled immediately”.10 There is high scepticism among the public—an online “Mursimeter” which measures the president’s success in fulfilling his promises casts doubt on official claims.11

Even Mubarak hesitated over bread subsidies, knowing that the issue could be incendiary. In 1977 a reduction in the size of the loaf, imposed by President Sadat to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), produced massive nationwide protests which for several days threatened the regime. Sadat survived—but only after using the army in a risky campaign of mass repression and only after reinstating the cuts. After this “intifada of bread” Mubarak used the threat of popular protest in negotiations with the IMF and others: a tactic mobilised to resist pressures for subsidy cuts over which the Fund was increasingly forceful during the 1980s and 1990s.12 Today Mursi also faces pressures from world financial institutions, while he is under observation by a highly mobilised and expectant population. There have been no IMF loans to Egypt since 1993; now a $4.8 billion loan, said to be among the largest lending programmes by the IMF outside the Eurozone, is accompanied by demands for sweeping subsidy cuts. Egypt’s parliament (currently suspended) rejected a $3.2 billion loan on similar terms last year. The IMF is pressing hard; it views Egypt as a test case for lending in the Middle East: according to the Wall Street Journal, “Negotiations with Egypt will offer a laboratory for the world’s emergency lender as it tries to aid the new democracies created by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings”.13 The loan is critical for Mursi: its projected 1.1 percent interest rate compares with the record (and unsustainable) 16 percent currently paid to domestic banks, to which the Egyptian government has turned for funds to meet a huge annual deficit—at some $30 billion, this is already (November 2012) $6 billion more than predicted for 2012-13.14 When agreed, officials say, the IMF loan will release further resources from the World Bank, the African Development Bank and various Middle East states.15 Global financial institutions approach hesitantly—Egypt is ranked as the world’s tenth riskiest debtor, with a 27.3 percent chance of default over the
next five years.16

The IMF insists that Mursi must cut state spending in general and subsidies in particular, which make up 30 percent of this year’s budget.17 In 2011 the Egyptian state subsidised each five-piastre loaf with a 19.8-piastre subsidy; in 2012 the subsidy will be 24.08 piastres, reflecting increases in the cost of wheat on the world market.18 Last year the government doubled the price for wheat offered to local producers, marking a sharp change from Mubarak’s policy of encouraging production of exotic cash crops for export. Small increases in local production are, however, described as “just a drop in the bucket”:19 Egypt urgently needs huge quantities of grain which must be found in the world market: on average over the past five years it has bought in 45 percent of annual needs from abroad.20 With grain prices forecast to rise even more steeply, the timing could not be worse for Mursi.

The IMF wants agreement to subsidy cuts before it will deliver the loan. Other international financial organisations and governments are watching: in October 2012 the EU and the US suspended two grants worth a total of $1 billion pending agreement between the IMF and the Egyptian government. Challenged on the issue of bread by international finance on the one hand and the people on the other, the president seems initially to have made concessions to the latter. In August 2012 his officials announced that a larger ten-piastre loaf (said to be of better quality) would soon be produced: in effect, the government was ready to double the price of bread by preparing to phase out the smaller loaf. In October 2012 Ahmed Issa, the official in charge of the president’s “bread file”, said: “There will be no increase of bread prices which can prompt social instabilities. Subsidised bread will remain at 5 piastres”.21

Mursi faces similar challenges in relation to fuel, where the IMF also wants big cuts in subsidies. Butane gas is used by most Egyptian families for cooking. Officially, gas cylinders are for sale at LE2.5 (Egyptian pounds) but the black market price can be 30 times as much—beyond the reach of poor families in a country in which 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.22 There have been repeated shortages all over Egypt, with furious crowds demonstrating at distribution centres. So too in the case of petrol and diesel: long queues build up at filling stations where drivers can wait for hours for deliveries. Taxis and minibuses (integral to daily life in all Egyptian cities) join the queues, there is traffic chaos and the issue of fuel takes on symbolic importance as an expression of general crisis. There have many protests, fights between drivers and police, and incidents in which drivers have staged collective protests including blockages and occupations of roads and railways.23

“Piety versus expediency”

Mursi is under enormous pressure to accede to IMF demands. Since January 2011 Egypt’s currency reserves have collapsed: then they amounted to $36 billion; in September 2012 they stood at $15.04 billion: barely enough to cover three months of imports.24 The Egyptian pound has fallen fast against hard currencies: in September 2012 it was at a seven-year low against the US dollar.25 The IMF has called for devaluation—at the time of writing it seems that Egypt’s Central Bank is allowing the pound to fall, accepting de facto a devaluation which will have further impacts, including on the government’s ability to finance wheat imports. One recent assessment warns of “an economic calamity that could be triggered by a sharp fall of the Egyptian pound”.26 Loans from Qatar and Turkey have provided temporary relief but the president needs major funds to pursue his strategic aims of bringing domestic stability and of invigorating Egyptian capitalism (see below).

Many Egyptians are opposed to the whole idea of an international loan. When the SCAF-appointed government attempted to negotiate a $3.2 billion deal with the IMF last year, academics and activists in the Popular Campaign to Drop Egypt’s Debt launched a high-profile media initiative opposing the loan, arguing that Egypt should abandon practices of the Mubarak era. The government should refuse to repay loans raised by the state both outside and inside Egypt, they said—the money had been misused by the former regime and the Egyptian people could not be expected to repay it. In a memo to parliament the campaign proposed that raising a further IMF loan sent an unacceptable message to the people: “We will borrow in your names so that your children and grandchildren continue paying off our debts”.27 The latter were “illegitimate” and should be abandoned in the interests of “people’s welfare”.28 Many Islamists meanwhile declared that payment of interest to the IMF was haram—proscribed by Islamic principles in relation to usury. Before parliament was suspended earlier this year only six of 365 members of the Lower House (with its large Islamist majority) supported terms required for a smaller deal with the IMF: Islamist members then declared, “This loan will lead us all to hell”.29

But Mursi insisted on pursuing the deal, which he said would serve the public interest, develop Egypt’s economy and bring growth. A few months later Brotherhood leaders announced: “Our decision not to reject borrowing is based on Egypt’s supreme economic interest”, quoting Shari’a (the Islamic legal code) to the effect that “necessities allow the forbidden”.30 The leading Egyptian news website Ahram Online commented tersely on “piety versus expediency”.31 Mursi has since struggled to convince his own constituency about the loan. In October 2012 he told a public rally that repayments to the IMF would not constitute riba—usury. “I would never accept that Egyptians live off Riba… We would rather starve than eat off Riba”, he said.32

Just as millions of Egyptians reject politicians and officials of the Mubarak regime as feloul (“remnants” of a discredited system) they oppose deals with international organisations complicit with Mubarak. The IMF was chief architect of policies that Mubarak pursued with
vigour—including privatisation, de-regularisation and de-sequestration of land.33 There is widespread hostility to further deals which imply renewal of these policies—revulsion at the idea of activities associated with Mubarak’s criminality (for which he and others are in prison) being sanctioned by a new government. The prospect of a further loan also raises questions about the assets of Mubarak and others, who salted away billions of dollars in overseas bank accounts and invested in property across Europe, notably in Britain.34 Opponents of the IMF mega-loan ask why Egypt should enter new debt relations when key states associated with the IMF, such as Britain, are still in possession of assets which belong to the Egyptian people.

The IMF loan raises a host of unpleasant associations for many Egyptians: Mubarak’s criminality; unresolved allegations against feloul; foreign exploitation of local resources; profiteering and the role of Egyptian and foreign banks; the colonial legacy and the long history of Egyptian state debt; imperialism and its impacts on Egyptian society. When IMF chief Christine Lagarde visited Cairo in August 2012 she was greeted by a protest which asserted: “No to crony capitalism,” “Down with capitalism,” and “Reject the loans”.35 In November 2012 a coalition of 17 political organisations marched in central Cairo to protest against the IMF deal, denouncing financial “colonisation” and secret talks between the government and the IMF.36 The Egyptian Popular Current, led by Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, called for a mass email campaign in which Egyptians should protest to the IMF about its conditions for the loan. Sabahi’s model message told the Fund: “Your loan is causing our poverty. Your condition to interfere in our politics [sic] is unacceptable. And the history of your institution and loans was disastrous to our economy”.37 Sabahi reflects the views of many workers, urban poor and members of the urban middle class, among whom an underlying issue at this stage of the revolution is captured by another slogan heard repeatedly across the country—”Never going back”.


The new mega-loan is dangerous territory for Mursi. With every evasive speech on the IMF, and on cuts and subsidies, he loses authority. An Egyptian academic and activist comments:

The aura of religious authority which has been essential to the influence of the Ikhwan [the Brothers] has been falling away, especially since Mursi was elected. He’s seen more and more as just another politician striking dubious deals. Many members of the organisation who fought in Tahrir and in other battles to get rid of Mubarak are furious about where he’s going. The Brotherhood faces big problems as a party that’s seen to have power but can’t use it for moral purposes.38

Questions about the Islamist movement in general and the Brotherhood in particular are highly charged issues in Egypt and abroad. Over the past decade, as the movement re-emerged as a significant current across Arab politics—notably in Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia and Egypt—it has prompted increasingly strident reactions. It is said to be “fascist”, bent upon destruction of the mass movement, and likely to install a regime far more repressive than that of Mubarak. These assessments are widespread in Europe and North America but are also heard in Egypt, especially among Communists of the older generation. What is the nature of the Islamist movement—and
what are the implications for the revolutionary process today?

For George W Bush, speaking in 2006 as Hezbollah engaged Israeli forces in Lebanon, the problem was one of “Islamic fascism”—an “ideology that is real and profound”.39 These comments projected worldwide terms of reference hitherto used on the political margins in Europe and North America, and more widely in Israel. A debate on their relevance, initially confined to literary magazines, received wide media coverage and disseminated the notion of Islamic political movements having a “fascist” component.40 In Britain the conservative columnist Janet Daley applauded Bush and developed his argument: “Islamic fundamentalism is fascistic in the precise, technical sense of the word”, she wrote.41 Calling for strong endorsement of Israel (which she described as “the West’s proxy”) in the Lebanon conflict, Daley argued:

This enemy [Islamism] does not even bother to offer explanations for its actions that fall within the acceptable bounds of Western debate: it is overtly racist, explicitly imperialistic and unapologetically inhumane….

This is a critical moment. What we must call the “free world” will either decide that it must unite unequivocally against a force so dark that it is almost incomprehensible to democratic peoples, or else succumb to a daydream of denial that is nothing more than appeasement.42

Daley and others felt increasingly free to express deep hostility towards all manner of Islamist groups and parties. Their attitudes drew on long-established European traditions of prejudice vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims—centuries of Orientalism and the cultures of imperial rule. These had been renewed and sharpened by post Cold War debates about a “Clash of Civilisations”, formalised by the conservative American strategist Samuel Huntington but which originated in the work of the British-American academic and partisan of Israel, Bernard Lewis. In 1990 Lewis had set out a case for the influence of both Nazism and Communism on Islamic thought in the mid-20th century, asserting that at times of crisis—and increasingly often in contemporary history—Muslim grievances expressed “an explosive mixture of rage and hatred”.43 The idea that Islamic activism/Islamism bears features of fascism and amounts to an erruption of hatred and violence has gained wider currency, especially in Europe, where it has been mobilised alongside arguments about the implausibility of multiculturalism and in support of exclusionary migration policy.44

When the world economic crisis began in 2008, producing new waves of resistance in the Global South, there were more systematic attempts to damn the movement. It became a target for those wishing to displace responsibility for the failures of global capital: protests, strikes and “riots” were associated with alleged cultural deficiencies of those involved, and especially with the influence of Islam.45 Tony Judt had anticipated just such responses from both neoconservatives and “liberal” intellectuals, noting that Bush’s “War on Terror”, his invasion of Iraq and the 2006 conflict in Lebanon were viewed by liberals in particular as “skirmishes in a new global confrontation”.46 They were part of “a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international Communism”. In a world seen once more as ideologically divided, “today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with ‘Islamo-fascism’ “.47

The left in Egypt has also had multiple problems with the notion of fascism. During the 1940s Communists sometimes worked with the Muslim Brotherhood in demonstrations against British occupation; when they fell out with the Brothers they dubbed the latter “fascist”.48 When Gamal Abdel Nasser and the radical nationalist Free Officers group organised a coup against the Faruq monarchy in 1952, the main Communist organisations first welcomed the initiative, then attacked Nasser and his colleagues as a “fascist dictatorship”49 and finally embraced the Nasser regime as a progressive force and ally of the Soviet Union. In 1965 the Egyptian Communist Party (ECP) disbanded on the basis that the Nasser regime “alone was competent to carry out the tasks of the revolution”, its leading members taking up key positions in Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union (ASU).50 This auto-liquidation was to have enormous consequences, leaving Egyptians without a coherent presence on the left and opening a large space in which Islamism—initially the radical groups of the jihadi tendency—soon exerted a strong influence. In 1975 remnants of the ECP formed the core of al-Tagammu’ (“the rally”)—the National Progressive Unionist Party—one of the “platforms” or “pulpits” (manabir) permitted to operate as shell parties by Sadat at a time when the Brotherhood was semi-legal.

When the Brotherhood grew as a mass organisation in the 1980s Tagammu’ aligned with the state against the Islamists: with tens of thousands of members and supporters of the Brotherhood in prison, the Communists hoped for accommodation with the regime and a role in government (they were disappointed). These ECP veterans were the enfeebled left wing of what Brysk has called “low-intensity democracy”51—arrangements encouraged by the US and its allies in which a formal commitment to electoralism and political pluralism is accompanied by systematic repression.52 On the fall of Mubarak, Tagammu’ split—the majority entering an alliance with liberal capitalist parties, notably the Free Egyptians of billionaire Naguib Sawiris. Their main aim was to oppose the Brotherhood, accused by Tagammu’ leader Rifaat Al-Said of trying to “hijack Egypt and Egyptians”.53 In the presidential run-off of 2012 Tagammu’ backed the SCAF’s candidate Ahmed Shafiq against Mursi, arguing that this was the only way to prevent Egypt becoming an Islamic state.54

Stalinist Communism was dismantled as an organised force at the global level by events in Russia and Eastern Europe during and after 1989. It continues to have a long ideological half life, however. In Egypt the remnants of the ECP maintain their historic search for a “progressive” bourgeoisie; rebuffed by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, they are seeking deals with the country’s wealthiest business dynasty, itself networked with the military elite. Their campaigns against the Brotherhood mimic the Islamophobia of Europe and North America, where those who rant at “Islamo-fascism” are often partisans of neoliberalism keen to displace the multiple failings of global capital onto the latter’s victims. In the case of Egypt’s domestic politics, Tagammu’ displaces the failings of the Stalinist left onto Islamic activists. Having played a key role in bringing Islamism onto centre stage, its leaders now demonise both the movement and many activists who played a key role in the downfall of Mubarak and subsequent battles against the state.

Workers—uneven movement

The Muslim Brotherhood won a large parliamentary majority in elections in November and December 2011; in June 2012 its candidate was elected president. There is no compelling evidence of the classic behaviours of fascist movements experienced at such cost in Europe in the 20th century: mass offensives on the working class; systematic mobilisation of paramilitaries and vigilantes against political opponents; an obsession with national identity and the state; and the exclusion of ethnic and other minorities. One leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) says: “Mursi and the Brotherhood leaders are reactionary but not fascists—if they were we’d have been gunned off the streets by now. We have no illusions in the Brotherhood but it’s really no use to present them wrongly in this way—it stops the left dealing with the real problems of Islamism”.55

Egypt’s working class movement remains remarkably vigorous. The events of January and February 2011 stimulated a huge burst of energy across Egyptian society. Strikes had played a key role in removing Mubarak and, full of confidence, workers promptly undertook the widest and most sustained industrial action since the 1940s.56 Many strikes seemed to be successful, with concessions from private-sector and state employers on wages, bonuses, pensions, job security and a host of local issues. Some pursued broader aims: purging of local politicians and of officials responsible for key sectors of industry or commerce, of police and security officials, and of key figures in the state-controlled unions. A new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) was formed on 30 January 2011, with potential to develop a nationwide alternative to the official union apparatus, which for over 50 years had stifled workers’ struggles and played a key role in the incorporation of the old left into the state. Even the New York Times identified the movement as “a growing challenge for the military and the caretaker government”.57 By October 2012 EFITU claimed some 2.5 million members.58

Many disputes have involved large numbers of workers in their first experiences of collective action. There has been a series of national strikes, including highly visible actions affecting the public sector. In 2011 teachers closed most of the country’s schools in the first such dispute since 1951;59 a year later doctors organised the first nationwide strike across the health sector. Periods of relative calm have been followed by waves of disputes. In August and September 2012, following a period of passivity during Ramadan, there was a surge in industrial action with some 1,500 strikes across the country, more than at any time since the fall of Mubarak.60 Many strikes have unified workers across sites: Cairo’s bus drivers called action in most of the city’s depots and for the first time in decades imposed highly effective picket lines. But struggles have remained uneven. Some disputes have brought tangible gains, reinforcing confidence; others have produced only promises. Many early disputes which followed the fall of Mubarak were apparently resolved by employer concessions but these agreements were not honoured or not implemented in full. And while there have been cases of solidarity and imitation, with workers learning from actions in neighbouring plants, schools or hospitals, many disputes have taken place in isolation.

There is no sign so far of local workplace democracy producing liaison across sites—of representative workers’ committees or councils of action. Notwithstanding the tumultuous events since January 2011 no proto-soviet formations have emerged in which wider political agendas are developed. Nor has the movement produced a workers’ party of the sort which grew rapidly in Brazil in the 1980s. An attempt to build a Workers’ Party (formed early in 2011 and later known as the Democratic Workers’ Party) proved unsuccessful.61 The movement is extraordinarily energetic but lacks coordination and a political project that can advance workers’ collective interests. It has not been able to deliver the promise of further radical change contained in the mass strikes against Mubarak of February 2011.

The movement bears similarities to those which have emerged in other political upheavals over the past 50 years—in Chile in 1973, Portugal in 1974-5, Iran in 1979 or Poland in 1980-1. It is inhibited, however, by the absence of a shared political agenda among leading activists. It is not merely that the workers lack a party—a scenario common to many revolutionary upheavals—but that even networks of solidarity are undeveloped. This is associated in part with problems of resistance by the old order. For over 50 years the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) controlled workplace organisation. It was established in 1957 under the Nasser regime as an arm of the state, working to suppress industrial struggle and to co-opt or isolate activists. Potential opposition candidates were banned from union elections and polls were routinely rigged. Over the next 60 years there were no direct elections to executive committees of any of the 23 national general unions or to the ETUF executive.62

The state viewed workers’ collective action, comments Joel Beinin, “primarily as a security matter” and from 1954 until 2009 there were no legal strikes.63 ETUF was integrated into the regime: its officials were part of the apparatus of state, closely connected to the National Democratic Party (NDP), which operated a vast network of patronage. Activist and radical journalist Hani Shukrallah describes ETUF as a “government-owned and run, Soviet-style dinosaur…no more than a headstone set up on the grave of basic trade union freedoms and rights”.64 In August 2011 the federation was officially dissolved but the ruling was not implemented: aiming to control labour activism, SCAF encouraged officials of the old order to continue as before. Many have retained their positions and privileges, together with access to resources which they use to discourage independent activism. This is particularly important in the state sector, where distinctions between management, unions and the security services are often blurred. Importantly, ETUF officials control local welfare schemes—alsanadiq alkhasr, or “private boxes”—to which workers contribute regularly, providing funds for major expenditures such as health crises and weddings, and which are of vital importance to most families. Shaken by the uprising and by subsequent mass strikes, the old unions still have influence. It is significant that in some of the largest industrial workplaces—such as the Mehalla al-Kubra textile mill and the Helwan iron and steel plant, both historic centres of militancy—independent activists have not succeeded in supplanting ETUF-affiliated unions.

Islamic “reformism”

Leaders of EFITU have made intensive efforts to establish new national union structures—a project which is doubly difficult when the key issue at hand is to strengthen and generalise local workplace action. They too are inhibited by the absence of a political current focused on working-class interests. The effect of Mubarak’s repression, says Shukrallah, was the “eradication of politics”, with activists of the left, including worker activists, confined to small circles and clandestine groups. Even the revival of the workers’ movement after 2006 could not make good a historic deficit: “The dictatorship voided politics, isolating those who might have made a difference. As a result, when the revolution came there was no critical mass on the left which could relate directly to the workers’ movement”.65 This is not only the outcome of repression, however: it is the result of decades of influence by political currents alien to the interests of the working class. Of these the most important is Islamism.

The Brotherhood has had a profound impact across Egyptian society, not least because of its history of anti-colonial struggle, its rhetoric of anti-imperialism and its welfare activism. The Brotherhood’s roots lie in the anti-colonial movement of the late 19th century and the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian who was politically active in India and the Middle East, chiefly in Egypt, where he was associated with the nationalist ‘Urabi uprising of 1882.66 Afghani formalised the idea of pan-Islam as a strategy for resistance to colonialism, arguing that a notion inherent in Islamic tradition—the common identity and interest of Muslims in the umma, or collective of believers—was the key to addressing differences of nationality, sect, language and “race” sown by European powers as they divided Asia, Africa and the Middle East into colonial states. He maintained that Muslims should address the principles and practices of the salaf, the forebears or ancestors of contemporary believers, most importantly the Muslims of Prophet Mohamed’s community of the 7th century CE.67 He was strongly opposed to the colonial presence, attempting—unsuccessfully—to coordinate resistance across the Ottoman Empire.

Islamism as an engagement of religious traditions with political action was not established as an effective movement until the late 1920s when Hassan al-Banna established Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimin (the Society of the Muslim Brothers or Muslim Brotherhood). This started as a cultural association but soon took on a political agenda: in the 1930s it organised against British occupation, demanding land reform and nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and providing teams of fighters in support of the Palestinians in their struggle against both Britain and the Zionist movement.68 The organisation grew with astonishing speed: according to Richard Mitchell within 20 years it had 2,000 branches, 500,000 members and an equal number of supporters, making it the first truly mass organisation in the Arab world.69 The Brotherhood dominated the anti-colonial movement, creating huge problems for the British, the tame bourgeois nationalist Wafd Party and the Faruq monarchy. But it was riddled with contradictions: it moved between strident opposition to the British and the local regime, and compromise with them; it proposed active engagement of Egyptians in the anti-colonial struggle but operated with an authoritarian, highly elitist leadership; it attracted large numbers of marginalised people, including workers and poor peasants, but its core (and its leadership) was dominated by relatively affluent members of the commercial petty bourgeoisie. It was a cross-class movement that grew because of the realities of military occupation, the distorted nature of the colonial economy, the failures of secular nationalism, and the Palestine question. Its inability to challenge for state power ultimately provided Nasser and the Free Officers with their opportunity to mount a coup in July 1952.

Nasser banned the organisation and persecuted its activists. Over the next 40 years it passed through several distinct phases. Naguib comments:

Both the pre-Nasserist history of the movement and the developments of the 1980s and 1990s show the extent to which an organisation such as the Brotherhood has represented different social groups at different moments in its development. Its history is full of shifts, contradictions, and both systemic and anti-systemic features…the Brotherhood has been in a constant state of flux as internal contradictions and changes in the social composition of the movement have forced changes in its strategy, tactics, discourse and programmes.70

When its leading members returned to Egypt in the early 1970s after a generation in exile in Saudi Arabia they had a much more conservative agenda. Dominated by businessmen, especially those involved in Islamic banks, they played an important role in the infitah (“opening”), a programme of marketisation associated with Sadat’s lurch from Moscow towards Washington and the American-Israeli camp. At the same time their younger members (many today in the leadership of the Brotherhood) reinstated work among students and youth. During the 1980s and 1990s Mubarak launched a ferocious assault on the radical jihadi current: as the latter became less effective the Brotherhood grew again as a mass organisation, especially on campuses, in the professional syndicates and through a widespread social programme based on local welfare associations, clinics and schools which provided services to poor families. It soon dominated opposition to the regime, advocating equality and social reform, criticising official corruption and Mubarak’s police state, and even incorporating a “populist critique of neoliberalism in its erstwhile pro-market discourse”.71 With the left still paralysed by the absence of an independent presence the Brotherhood could be all things to all Egyptians—or at least to all Muslims (it had an equivocal stance on the rights of the large Christian minority). It recruited across the spectrum: the rich, the petty bourgeoisie, students, workers, peasants and the urban poor.

The Brotherhood’s electoral programme prioritised the need for social reform guided by Islamic principles. In 2011 it entered the general election with a reformist agenda that appealed to millions of voters:

our election programme regards achieving social justice and ensuring that distribution of revenues from economic activity achieves justice, equality and equal opportunities [as] some of the most important obligations of the state. In recognition of this responsibility, the most important goals of our election programme are addressing the issue of high prices, the elimination of poverty and unemployment, providing basic public services such as education, healthcare, transportation and other services and facilities, improving living conditions of workers and peasants, finding practical solutions to social problems like spinsterhood [sic], street children and those with special needs, supporting adoptive families, and increasing the incomes of pensioners. In all the above, we will work to bring justice to all citizens, taking into account that the recovery of what has been looted from state funds, reforming the tax system, promoting the Zakat and Waqf (national endowment and charitable trust) systems and combating corruption and deliberate waste and squandering of sovereign resources will provide the resources necessary to achieve the desired social justice among all citizens…72

This echoed social democratic programmes worldwide—with the exception of references to zakat and waqf, it might have been a reformist agenda presented by parties across Europe. The Brotherhood now had extensive networks of support in the syndicates—associations of doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers and journalists—and through large student groups which made Islamist politics the dominant current on most campuses. At the same time they benefited from the crisis of another brand of reformism—that of the old left.

Stalinist legacy

The record of the left in Egypt since the 1960s is one of the most dismal in the history of Stalinist Communism. When the ECP dissolved in 1965 its leading figures joined Nasser’s ASU, the country’s sole legal party. This was in theory a mass-membership organisation with branches in villages, in every urban centre, and in workplaces and educational institutions. In fact it was a shell organisation—it had no internal life and in reality no members. Nasser himself eventually admitted: “The fact is we have no internal organisation, except on the books”.73 The union was no more than an agency of the state, run by bureaucrats and army officers, who controlled every aspect of national political life. In workplaces the ASU’s formal role was to promote education: in fact it operated as part of the security services, maintaining surveillance on workers and even on local managers. The journalist Mohamed Hassanain Heikal, who was one of Nasser’s closest collaborators, observed that in industry the ASU operated mainly as a spy system.74

In joining the ASU former Communists abandoned independent organisation for good, becoming apologists for the dictatorship. They played no meaningful role in the sustained workers’ struggles of the 1970s. Young activists who formed the short-lived Workers’ Communist Party attempted to make good the deficit but operated in the shadow cast by the ECP’s collapse. By the 1980s the remnants of the old left were firmly established in Tagammu’. Initially the party claimed 150,000 members and an active core of 20,000; its weekly paper, AlAhali, was said to have a circulation of 130,000 copies.75 Even if these figures were exaggerated it is clear that at a time of social turmoil the party had a large audience, which it steered unerringly towards accommodation with Mubarak. Apart from protests over Egypt’s “normalisation” with Israel, Tagammu’ had no distinctive profile. Its leaders saw their main task as opposing the Islamist movement and were prepared to endorse the regime’s extreme violence against Muslim activists. In the mid-1990s, secretary-general Rifa’at al-Said said: “We believe that the policies of the ruling party are wrong and dangerous for the country, while Islamist groups are more wrong and more dangerous”.76 The regime used Tagammu’ at will: there were frequent allegations that officials rigged elections in favour of the party in order to undermine campaigns of the Brotherhood.77

In 1999 al-Said made a bizarre admission, commenting that Egypt’s legal political parties “represent nothing in Egyptian politics and have no standing whatsoever with the Egyptian people”.78 All such organisations, he said—including his own—were “just groupings of individuals floating on the surface of society”.79 In 2011 the party’s election statement asserted commitments to all manner of political ideals: it was for democracy, freedom, the civil state, justice and equality; and against poverty, oppression, tyranny, corruption, price-fixing and unemployment.80 Here was a different reformism: one which invoked memories of the Communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and a radicalism which had long since lost its meaning. It shared a key feature with Islamist reformism—each viewed the mass of people as objects of their political project, discouraging independent action and a challenge to the state. But in the truly dreadful circumstances created by Stalinist collapse, the Islamists had much greater impact—their work in the syndicates and through welfare projects, and the repression faced by thousands of their activists gave Islamism credibility as a political project.

Islamism and the left

The revolution involved a break with Islamism and the politics of the old left. In order to take to the streets and to launch mass strikes millions of people cast aside inhibitions associated with the politics of defeat. But the workers’ movement is still inhibited by these traditions. How can it
progress—in particular, how can it advance in the context of mass electoral support for the Muslim Brotherhood?

Over the past decade some political activists, especially young people, have moved sharply to the left, away from Islamism. One key reason lies in the increasing engagement alongside secular radicals of Egyptians influenced by Islamist agendas. This has been clear since the emergence of a major movement of solidarity with the Palestinian intifada of 2000, and subsequently in anti-war mobilisations, in the democracy movement, and in workers’, students’ and community struggles. Rabab El Mahdi refers to the “spill-over” effect of these cycles of contestation vis-a-vis the state, with each phase of struggle between 2000 and 2010 bringing increased confidence and stimulating further actions:

[Those involved included] activists in all manner of industries and state services; parents staging sit-ins in protest at school conditions in remote villages; slum-dwellers displaced by urban clearance schemes; mothers on hunger strike against police torture of their children; scores of villages and towns marching to demand access to clean water.81

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s opposition to the Mubarak state had been dominated by the Brotherhood: in struggles which began in 2000 many Islamists for the first time met activists of an independent left. There was fierce debate, especially on campuses, where ideologies and practices of Islamism were being put to the test systematically. The new left slowly consolidated, attracting young people who would earlier have remained within Islamist circles. Its key strategy was, where feasible, to engage in struggle against Israel, imperialist war, the police, local employers and university bosses alongside Muslim activists. For the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) in particular, a group which had operated underground throughout the 1990s, the key strategic principle was to oppose the state consistently, combining in action with those who were ready to fight. RS was “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”, always maintaining an independent politics of revolutionary Marxism.82 This was a creative application of key principles underlying the strategy of the united front—a means of engaging directly with others in a common struggle to defend the immediate interests of the Egyptian masses against the state and more broadly against imperialism. Commenting in 2012 on their approach to the Islamists, Naguib observed:

Our analysis pointed to the contradictions within and between the various Islamist currents, between their bourgeois leaderships and their petty-bourgeois rank and file and their large constituencies in the working class and in the poor neighbourhoods. These contradictions were always contained by ambiguous religious slogans, and despite the Islamists’ repeated accommodation to the regime, in the absence of an alternative, sections of the masses looked towards them as the only serious opposition.83

Young members and supporters of the Brotherhood were drawn into action and into debate on questions which had not been addressed publicly from the left for decades, including highly charged issues such as the nature of religious sectarianism, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, women’s rights and the nature of democracy. These exchanges also featured prominently in a series of large international conferences which brought together Islamists and anti-war activists on the theme of support for the people of Iraq and Palestine.84 To have opposed Islamists on principle, ignoring Brotherhood initiatives (including campaigns to free political prisoners and in solidarity with victims of Israeli aggression) and to have abstained from debate would have been suicidal for the left—demonstrating that revolutionary Marxists had learned nothing from the tragedies of Stalinism. As a result of these engagements, the direction of travel of individual activists was from the Islamist camp towards the left—a development which reflected deep contradictions in the politics of Islamism. These soon emerged more fully as the level of struggle intensified.

The Brotherhood’s predicament was clear from the start. Days before the 25 January 2011 protests one of its most prominent figures, Essam el-Erian, said the organisation would not support a public mobilisation;85 Mohamed Mursi (now president) told activists that the Brotherhood “will not follow a bunch of kids”.86 The scale of protests on 25 January and the response of the regime soon brought thousands of its members into the front line of the struggle. The leadership promptly made a sharp turn, announcing that Friday 28 January would be “the day of the intifada”.87 It was a day of savage fighting in which many activists were killed. One member of the RS recalls:

The Ikhwan leaders did their organisation great damage by first telling members not to join the protests. The Ikhwan had been in opposition to Mubarak for years—but where were they when crisis finally came? Actually the leaders couldn’t control ordinary Brothers and Sisters [of the Ikhwan] and they joined us anyway. They appeared in large groups, especially on 28 January—we knew they were Ikhwan—and they fought with great courage, alongside us, alongside the people. They were organised and very effective. We all united without differences of religion or organisation—but the Ikhwan was following the people.88

For decades Brotherhood leaders had accepted every sort of humiliation at the hands of the regime. Egypt’s prisons were filled with their members, even octogenarians who had long ceased to play active roles in the movement but who Mubarak jailed for exemplary purposes. Brotherhood meetings were routinely banned or attacked and at election time polling stations in areas with popular Islamist candidates were savagely assaulted.89 Presented with many opportunities to respond, including as part of the anti-war movement and the democracy movement, on most occasions the leadership declined—angering many members, especially among the youth. Its leaders argued that they played a long game—it was never time to take the initiative, which would come insha ‘Allah (God willing) when conditions proved fortuitous. Uncertain as to strategy, the Brotherhood retreated to an even more timid approach: in 2009 a group led by the conservative Mohamed Badei won control and began to restrict the organisation’s political activities. The regime grew complacent: in the 2010 election its vote-fixing and violence proved so vulgar that even the Brotherhood withdrew, furious at the humiliation. The organisation was still licking its wounds when on 25 January 2011 the revolution began and the Brotherhood was swept into the streets.

When Mubarak fell in February 2011, leaders of the Brotherhood believed their moment was at hand—after over 80 years they were about to enter Egypt’s halls of power. There were two obstacles, however: the military elite and the people. Ushering away Mubarak, military leaders had installed SCAF as the commanding authority within the state. Brotherhood leaders did not take long to refocus their efforts: consistent with decades of political practice, they oriented on those in power, setting out to court the generals. Tarek comments on the perception of secular activists that in the early months of 2011, “the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF appeared to be on the same page”; they enjoyed a “honeymoon”, a “behind the scenes deal, agreement or accommodation, from which both sides would benefit”.90 In exchange for preferential treatment by SCAF, including an advantageous position in arrangements for elections and in writing a new constitution, the Brotherhood was ready to pacify the mass movement.

Leading members of the Brotherhood said they would not nominate a candidate for the presidency and would contest only 25 percent of parliamentary seats, implying deference to the military and its political preferences. El-Erian insisted that the Brotherhood was not a political party and was uninterested in power: “We are working with the people. Our target is the people. Not the power”.91 On the issue of the presidency, he insisted, “We are not going to have a candidate, neither men neither women. We are not going to have a candidate now, at all”.92 The Brotherhood was evasive about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, which it had strongly opposed during the Mubarak era, and on the subject of military trials for civilians (many of its own leaders had been imprisoned by military courts). Mass demonstrations continued meanwhile, with demands for trials of Mubarak and the feloul, for purging of the state apparatus, and for justice for martyrs of the uprising. Strikes across industry raised all manner of economic issues and pursued tathir—cleansing of corrupt managers and owners of enterprises, and of hostile officials of the state-run trade unions. More and more often street actions and strikes were attacked by police in moves clearly sanctioned by SCAF; largely silent, the Brotherhood in effect endorsed the new repression, while it abstained from key national demonstrations, including a symbolically important “Second Day of Rage” in May 2011 called to pursue “completion of the objectives of the 25 January Revolution”.93 When members of the Brotherhood’s youth section defied the leadership, participating in large numbers in the Day of Rage, tensions in the organisation were out in the open.

The Brotherhood now suffered a series of defections. It had long been viewed, especially outside Egypt, as a monolithic bloc in which loyalist members were inculcated into obedience on the basis of religious faith and organisational loyalty. This was consistent with a wish to depict Islamist groups and parties as homogeneous, with membership whose unquestioning loyalty to a rigid leadership paralleled fascist or Stalinist models. In an analysis for Foreign Affairs (the journal of the US Council for Foreign Relations) written after the uprising of January 2011 the Ikhwan was still said to be “the unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood”, in which “members dutifully execute the aims of its national leadership at the local level”, enabling leaders to mobilise followers “as they see fit”.94 This was plainly wrong. In 1996 liberal critics of the leadership left to found the Wasat Party. In 2010 dissident members established a Reform Front, which demanded a more open internal structure. When the revolution began in January 2011 many members ignored the leadership—their solidarity with workmates, fellow students, neighbours, family and friends was greater than allegiance to the old men of the Brotherhood’s maktab alirshad or Guidance Bureau, the key decision-making body. To paraphrase Mursi, Brotherhood members had “followed the kids”. During the flowering of democratic activity which followed Mubarak’s fall, rank and file members were engaged in all manner of street protests, strikes and student and community initiatives. They were profoundly affected by a rise in collective confidence across the whole society—disinclined to accept the authority of the old order and the SCAF, or the Guidance Bureau.

This was reflected in increasing dissidence among the organisation’s youth. In March 2011 leading activists launched an online campaign to attract support for a new organisation, the Nahda (Renaissance) Party, emphasising the need for an economic programme adequate to the needs of the revolution, and for the rights of women and Christians. In March 2011 they and others organised a conference at which young members debated how they should address the mass movement. After months of increasing tension hundreds of young activists split from the organisation, establishing the Egyptian Current Party, which by November 2011 claimed several thousand members committed to the interests of the mass movement and to further radical change.95 Reacting violently to the dissidents, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide96 Mohamed Badie said that no member of the organisation would be permitted to join any party other than its newly established Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). There were soon mass expulsions from the Brotherhood, including historic leadership figures such as Mohamed Habib and Abdel-Moneim Abu el-Futouh, who later stood in the presidential election against the
Brotherhood’s candidate.

Elections, parliament and the SCAF

Lorenzo Vidino argues that these splits do not suggest fragmentation, still less collapse of the Brotherhood.97 This is correct—but without the disciplinary pressures exerted by constant repression, and under the impact of the mass movement, the organisation has been destabilised, its component elements more clearly differentiated on the basis of class affiliation. Rank and file members have been affected by the movement from below, while the Brotherhood’s bourgeois elite has developed a definite strategy which exercises increased influence over the leadership—the attempt to develop an “Islamic capitalism” on the Turkish model.

Since 2002, when it won a first electoral victory in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi—AKP) has exerted strong influence on Islamists across the Middle East. The party promotes neoliberalism with an Islamic colouring, aiming to meet the needs of corporate capital and global financial institutions on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other. Vali Nasr comments:

Turkey’s great progress in the last decade towards capitalist growth and increasing political pluralism has not been contingent on the benevolence of authoritarian leadership on or wads of oil money. Turkey’s success has followed from liberalising, free-market reforms that have unleashed the entrepreneurial energies of the same provincial, religiously conservative rising middle class that is gaining ground all around the region.98

Ömer Taşpınar suggests that the key explanation for Turkey’s recent growth has been the party’s encouragement of “an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie”.99 The AKP’s “dynamic experiment”, he says, offers “seminal lessons for the Arab world”.100 Attracted by its success in apparently escaping from a form of military-bureaucratic rule in Turkey that paralleled successive Egyptian regimes, key figures in the Brotherhood have attempted to emulate the AKP. According to the Turkish press, the Brotherhood has modelled the FJP on the AKP, copying the latter’s policies and even its name.101 Formed in April 2011, the FJP aims to advance the interests of local capital by developing alliances across the Middle East and especially in Turkey. In 2012 leading FJP members formed the Egyptian Business Development Association (EBDA): its launch, attended by business executives from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, was described as “the coming-out party for the businessmen of the Brotherhood”.102 Hansen calls the Brotherhood’s business elite the “Brothers of the 1 percent”—a network of businessmen and financiers marginalised during the Mubarak era and who now intend to claim power that matches their wealth. Many are super-rich, having prospered during the era of infitah and the Islamic finance boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently by developing trade with Turkey. Their unofficial leader is Kairat al-Shater, formerly Deputy Guide of the Brotherhood who was imprisoned by Mubarak. When his assets were seized by the former regime in 2007 he was said to have personal wealth of at least $13 million. 103

This is the context in which the Brotherhood entered its “honeymoon” period of collaboration with SCAF. The generals sought a means of controlling the mass movement and restricting the authority of the Brotherhood. The latter’s leaders intended to seize a historic opportunity to gain power and set out to secure electoral arrangements which would give the FJP its best opportunity of electoral success. SCAF agreed to quick elections, giving the Brotherhood a huge advantage over other political currents which were still struggling to establish formal parties and national networks. The quid quo pro was a Brotherhood agreement to discourage mass action: its leaders called for calm and its most loyal activists appeared on demonstrations mainly to discourage militant action. But the “honeymoon” was also a battle for power: Robert Springborg describes a “deadly struggle” between “the cobra and the mongoose” during which each struggled for advantage against a historic enemy. 104 At the same time, the energies of the mass movement caused further problems for the Brotherhood. In October 2011 a protest by Christians and radical activists in Central Cairo was savagely attacked by police; further demonstrations resulted in battles in which scores of demonstrators were killed. The Brotherhood was compelled to send its members to the streets in half-hearted efforts to support the people. Focusing on a general election, it needed popular backing. When the polls took place in November and December it won some 40 percent of votes for the lower house: an apparent triumph and vindication for the strategies of the FJP.

Millions of Egyptians voted for the FJP as the sole credible national party, rewarding it for years of opposition to Mubarak and in the hope that its promises of welfare reform would meet their pressing needs. No sooner was the election complete, however, than the organisation faced a surge of impatience and anger from the mass movement. The FJP wanted a reformed capitalism, albeit with gestures towards the masses; the people wanted bread, freedom and social justice. On the anniversary of the revolution, 25 January 2012, vast crowds filled Tahrir. To the horror of Brotherhood leaders, who attended to celebrate the uprising, the people called for more change; two days later, in a further huge protest, they attacked SCAF, widely perceived as the Brotherhood’s partners in power, chanting: “Down, down with the military regime” and “We want civilian, not military [government]”. 105

The cross-class character of the Brotherhood and its internal contradictions were being exposed more and more clearly. In April 2012 a Brotherhood delegation arrived in Washington, aiming to convince politicians, strategists and businessmen that they should have a role in American plans for the Middle East. Meanwhile the FJP worked intensively with the AKP to cement regional business links. In September 2012 the Turkish government promised Egypt $2 billion in aid, including a $1 billion loan—crucial to offset the huge budget deficit and to give Mursi time to arrange the IMF loan. After decades of opposition, the Brotherhood had emerged fully as champions of the market economy, eager to develop a modified neoliberal agenda that served the specific interests of their leading members. As they approached the presidential election of June 2012, however, it became clear that other political currents were also making headway.

In a climate of increasing opposition to the Brotherhood’s agenda, both liberal Islamists and secular currents made rapid progress. Abdel-Moneim Abou el-Fotouh established a coalition to back his own candidacy and Hamdeen Sabahi of the Nasserist Karama Party (hitherto a marginal political force) mobilised wide support among workers, the urban middle class and the urban poor. In the first round of elections in May Sabahi gathered over 21 percent of the vote, coming first in each and every major urban centre—a profound shock for Mursi and for the SCAF’s candidate Ahmed Shafiq (placed first and second respectively). This represented a clear class vote, demonstrating the wish of millions of people to advance the revolution by addressing key social and economic issues. Sabahi had been active in the anti-regime movements of 2000-2010, identifying him as a principled opponent of Mubarak and offering an electoral option on the left uncontaminated by the collaborations of Tagammu’. His vote would have been larger but for a boycott campaign among some activists, especially young people who had played a key role in Tahrir and during months of confrontations with the police. Claiming that the electoral process was flawed and could not affect national politics they adopted a policy of avoidance. This reflected some of the problems facing the new left, for after decades of ballot-rigging, fraud and deception electoral strategies developed within the revolutionary Marxist tradition had been largely forgotten. Amid fierce debates about the need for electoral engagement the second round produced a narrow victory for Mursi. 106

The Brotherhood’s vote had halved since parliamentary elections six months earlier. Then the FJP received some 10.5 million votes; in the first round of the presidential elections Mursi received just 5.7 million votes. In the run-off he won a narrow victory, despite the fact that most of the Brotherhood’s competitors eventually endorsed him, fearing that success for Shafiq would be taken by SCAF as a licence for frontal attacks on the mass movement. The FJP was now under suspicion as a party with interests that lay far from those of the masses: its conduct in parliament; its dishonesty regarding a presidential candidate; its business-friendly policies; its leaders’ commitment to the IMF loan; its unwillingness to address the Palestine question and the issue of Gaza…multiple problems undermined its authority, so that the vote for Mursi would have been even smaller if the stakes in the presidential run-off had not been so high.

Revolution continues

Following the election Mursi enacted a surprise move, persuading SCAF to ditch its leader Field Marshal Tantawi and his closest allies in the military leadership, and to withdraw from efforts to limit civilian government powers. This was greeted with popular enthusiasm, including among those who earlier attacked Mursi as a pawn in the hands of the generals. It demonstrated that, just as the Brotherhood is not a homogenous bloc, the military elite is also differentiated and includes factions among which some are open to Mursi’s approaches. It seems likely that the president induced senior officers to concede more political space to civilian government on a guarantee of support for military privileges and—not least—of non-interference in the army’s huge business ventures. 107 El-Ghobashy comments that with this move the Brotherhood has finally been admitted into the corridors of power as member of a dual pact between “Egypt’s two largest oligarchies, civilian and military”. 108

This is a retreat for the armed forces, one which recognises the continuing energies of the revolution: it also contains a warning, however. The Muslim Brotherhood and the army appear to have reached provisional agreement on the agenda for Year Three of the revolution: a joint effort to rescue Egyptian capitalism by pursuing a modified neoliberal agenda and increasing pressure on the movement from below. In October 2012 Mursi and the Brotherhood turned on the workers’ movement. They attacked striking Cairo bus drivers for committing “an act of treason”: the strike, they said, was “illegal” and “criminal”. 109 Officials prepared new labour laws to inhibit collective action, no doubt anticipating strong reactions to Mursi’s deal with the IMF and to austerity measures certain to affect tens of millions of people. The Brotherhood and the SCAF are wary: conscious of the strengths of the mass movement, and of the cost of intervening against it directly, they are seeking ways to isolate and weaken worker militancy. It is certain that Egyptian capital in the form of the state will eventually confront the mass movement. This will involve the military elite and private capital. The two are intimately linked—although events since January 2011 demonstrate that each is differentiated internally and that competing interests may respond variously to pressures from below. The state has its weaknesses, evident in the reluctance so far of the military command to risk a conscript army in a frontal assault on the mass movement. At the same time, the movement will not advance towards further radical social change through action on the streets alone, or mainly through electoral activity or community campaigns. Sooner or later the political will of the workplaces will be tested for evidence that Egypt’s workers have developed forms of organisation that express the interests of a class for itself.

For revolutionary activists there are pressing tasks in hand: to consolidate workers’ organisations and to generalise their struggles; to develop organic links between workplace militants and the new left; and to challenge reformist currents—both religious and secular—which have inhibited the workers’ movement. This requires more intensive engagement with those who have been under reformist influence: more unity in action and more argument which disseminates ideas about democracy from below, workers’ power and the project of self-emancipation. 110

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist who is also a revolutionary activist. “The state of Egypt”, he writes, “is entirely prejudiced towards the interests of businessmen and senior bureaucrats at the expense of the working classes… The demands of protesters are based on genuine social grievances that touch their lives on a daily basis…” What is required, he argues, is “a true revolution” that imposes the will of the majority. 111 Sustained collective action is changing the consciousness of millions of people such as Houdaiby, who are reassessing traditions dominant in Egyptian politics for generations. The key issue at stake is the political trajectory of the new militants and the impact they can make on the wider movement.


In late November 2012 the revolution entered a further critical phase. Events were triggered by an Israeli offensive in Gaza, during which President Mursi intervened to mediate between Israel and the Hamas government. Lauded internationally—and especially in the US—for negotiating a ceasefire, in Egypt Mursi was criticised for failing to back the Palestinians and in particular for refusing to open Egypt’s border with Gaza. The most senior figure in the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, denounced the outcome of talks and called on Muslims to undertake jihad to liberate Palestine. “The enemy knows nothing but the language of force,” he said, “Be aware of the game of grand deception with which they depict peace accords”. 112 This apparent rebuke to Mursi reflected increased tensions within the Islamist movement over Palestine—and general disquiet over the president’s domestic policies.

In an attempt to assert his own authority and to cement an increasingly unstable organisation, Mursi raised the stakes, issuing a declaration that presidential decisions could not be overturned by any judicial authority and that Egypt’s Constituent Assembly and Shura Council (upper house of parliament) would also be immune to dissolution by a judicial body—moves described as a coup and an attempt to provide the president with “pharaonic” powers. Protests nationwide attacked Mursi and the Brotherhood. Radical activists reintroduced slogans from the “18 Days” of January and February 2011: “The people demand the fall of the regime” and “Leave”, together with “[Make] a second revolution”. 113 When Mursi announced an abrupt referendum on a new constitution favourable to the Islamists some 750,000 people marched to the presidential palace near Cairo and there were protests in most cities, including the key industrial centre of Mehalla al-Kubra. With its authority at stake the Brotherhood bussed supporters from all over Upper Egypt to a rally in Cairo and detachments of its members attacked anti-Mursi demonstrators.

The majority of activists now identified Mursi and the Brotherhood as obstacles to securing basic needs and political freedoms. The key target was Mursi’s constitution. The Revolutionary Socialists described it as a document offensive to the mass of people—one “which doesn’t specify social and economic rights, defends the detention of journalists, reopens the door to military trials of civilians, protects the interests of the military establishment, and is dedicated to the marginalisation of Egypt’s oppressed women and Christians”. 114 All manner of political currents were drawn to the protests, including feloul. Hamdeen Sabahi of the nationalist Karama Party, together with Mohamed El Baradei of the liberal Destour Party, welcomed Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa into a National Salvation Front. The left argued that protests should not embrace supporters of the old order. In Tahrir, banners read: “No place for feloul” and “Expel the feloul”. 115

The Brotherhood seemed unable to address the realities: Khairat al-Shater insisted: “We are the people, we are the majority”. 116 There was a contrast, however, between the nationwide character of anti-Mursi protests and the Cairo-centred rallies organised by the Brotherhood. Mursi’s most activist allies were now among Salafis and the jihadi currents; many of his more liberal supporters, drawn to the organisation in the Mubarak era, had left with earlier defections or had fallen aside as the revolutionary movement drew them to clearer understanding of their underlying interests.

On December 8 2012 Mursi cancelled his constitutional declaration. The contentious referendum would proceed, he said, under conditions that—as this journal went press—were still unclear. He also declared a range of subsidy cuts and tax increases to conform with IMF demands: within 24 hours, however, these were cancelled under pressure from key figures in the FJP. 117 The “unbreakable” Muslim Brotherhood had failed to enforce its will and now struggled to present coherent policies. The mass movement entered Year Three of the revolution intact.


1: Acknowledgement is due to members of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, who have provided many political insights, and to Egypt’s new media-especially to Hani Shukrallah and the journalists of Ahram Online, now Egypt’s publication of record. Thanks also to Wassim Wagdy, John Rose, Anne Alexander, Alex Callinicos and Jonny Jones for comments on this article in draft.

2: Agha and Malley, 2012, pp71-72.

3: Agha and Malley, 2012, p72.

4: This clichéd headline seems to have originated (at least in current usage) with an article in Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2011: “Arab Spring, Persian Winter”-Kaye and Wehrey 2011. It appeared as “Arab Spring-Islamist Winter” in the Washington Post in December 2011 and has since appeared routinely, especially in the US and in Israeli media. See Byman, 2011.

5: See Mitnick, 2011.

6: Former Israeli deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh, writing in Foreign Policy-Sneh, 2011.

7: Le Monde, 2012.

8: About 0.5 British pence or 0.75 US cents.

9: Hussein, 2012.

10: Hussein, 2012.

11: The Mursimeter can be viewed in Arabic at www.Mursimeter.com and in English at www.Mursimeter.com/en

12: Momani, 2005.

13: Reddy and Bradley, 2012.

14: Hyde, 2012b.

15: Wroughton, 2012.

16: Standard and Poors assessment-Hyde, 2012c.

17: Hyde, 2012a.

18: Hyde, 2012a.

19: Magda Kandel, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, quoted in Detrie, 2012.

20: See figures published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation-FAO, 2012.

21: Hussein, 2012.

22: Marroushi and Shahin, 2012, Ahram Online, 2011.

23: Al Masry Al Youm, 2012a.

24: See Reuters figures in Ahram Online, 2012a, also Samhouri, 2012.

25: See Haddad, 2012.

26: Samhouri, 2012.

27: Elmeshad, 2012.

28: See www.dropegyptsdebt.org/

29: Alabass, 2012.

30: Alabass, 2012.

31: Alabass, 2012.

32: AFP, 2012.

33: Under the de-sequestration law of 1992, landowning families of the colonial period were given legal powers to regain lands distributed under Egypt’s reforms of the Nasser era. See Bush, 2009.

34: Shenker, 2012.

35: Mourad and Feteha, 2012.

36: Kalin, 2012.

37: Ahram Online, 2012d.

38: Interview in Cairo, September 2012.

39: Greene, 2006.

40: See for example Judt, 2006, and Hitchens, 2007. Hitchens attributes the first use of the term “Islamo-fascism” to Malise Ruthven, writing in 1990. According to Daniel Pipes, the term was initially used in mainstream American politics by right wing Republican senator Rick Santorum: Pipes quotes various sources to the effect that this prompted its adoption by Bush-Pipes, 2006a. See also Pipes, 2006b, for an account of intense debates about the meanings and relevance of the term, especially among right wing politicians and commentators in North America.

41: Daley, 2006.

42: Daley, 2006.

43: Lewis, 1990.

44: See, for example, Benhabib on the impacts in Germany-Benhabib, 2012.

45: On “IMF riots” see Marfleet, 2006.

46: Judt, 2006.

47: Judt, 2006.

48: Meijer, 2002, p118.

49: Agwani, 1969, p50.

50: See Agwani, 1969, p86.

51: Brysk, 2002, p12.

52: On the impacts of “low intensity” regimes see Marfleet, 2006.

53: Jadaliyya, 2011.

54: Ahram Online, 2012c. Since the June 2012 presidential election Shafiq-Mubarak’s last prime minister-has been charged with corruption. In November 2012 he was being tried in absentia after fleeing to the United Arab Emirates.

55: Interview in Cairo, September 2012. Sections of the Islamist movement have an inclination towards public displays of hostility towards political rivals that can be expressed in what Shukrallah calls “an occasionally fascistic bent”-Shukrallah, 2012b. There is a difference, however, between such incidents and systematic assaults organised as part of a political strategy.

56: See Alexander, 2011, 2012.

57: Shadid, 2011.

58: Charbel, 2012.

59: Ali, 2011.

60: Naguib, 2012a.

61: The party was formed to co-ordinate activities of worker militants and to establish a base for parliamentary elections. It seems to have suffered from lack of clarity as to key strategic aims.

62: Beinin, 2009, p69.

63: Beinin, 2009, p69.

64: Shukrallah, 2012a.

65: Interview in Cairo, September 2012.

66: For an account of Afghani’s complex and unusual political career see Keddie ,1972.

67: Salafiyya is the term applied to both ideological and activist agendas which invoke the beliefs and practices of early Islam: in translation the term for participants is usually “salafis”.

68: A key reason for the particular hostility of Israeli politicians vis-a-vis the Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas.

69: Mitchell, 1969, p328.

70: Naguib, 2009, p105.

71: Naguib, 2009, p116.

72: Muslim Brotherhood, 2011.

73: Quoted in Baker, 1978, p96.

74: Heikal, quoted in Baker, 1978, p189.

75: Jadaliyya, 2011.

76: Al-Ahram Weekly, 1995.

77: Jadaliyya, 2011.

78: Comment made as part of a debate on “Twenty years of multipartyism in Egypt”, in Hussein, Al-Said and Al-Sayyid, 1999, p77.

79: Quoted in Hussein, Al-Said and Al-Sayyid, 1999, p77.

80: Tagammu’, 2011.

81: El Mahdi, 2009, p100.

82: An approach set out by Chris Harman, 1994.

83: Naguib, 2012b.

84: The Cairo Conference met regularly between 2003 and 2008, attracting thousands of participants, including hundreds of international delegates.

85: Fahmy, 2011.

86: Al Masry Al Youm, 2012b.

87: Mekhennet and Kulish, 2011.

88: Interview in Cairo, April 2011.

89: Marfleet, 2009.

90: Tarek, 2011.

91: Cairo Review, 2011, p95.

92: Cairo Review, 2011, p100.

93: Ezzat, 2001.

94: Trager, 2011, pp119 and 115.

95: Ahram Online, 2011a.

96: The murshid-guide or teacher-usually appears in English as “Supreme Guide”.

97: Vidino 2011, p12.

98: Nasr, 2009, pp233-4.

99: Taşpınar, 2012.

100: Taşpınar, 2012.

101: Akyol, 2011.

102: Hansen, 2012.

103: Feteha, 2012.

104: Springborg, 2012.

105: Marfleet, 2012a.

106: Sameh Naguib summarises the position of the Revolutionary Socialists in the wake of the presidential election: “We cannot under any circumstances isolate ourselves from the political and electoral battles which are coming, as this will deny us an opportunity to raise concrete and general political demands”-Naguib 2012b.

107: On Egypt’s military economy see Marshall and Stacher, 2012; Marfleet, 2012b.

108: El-Ghobashy, 2012.

109: Ahram Online, 2012f.

110: There were signs of more effective coordination in the workers’ movement in November 2012, when Cairo Metro workers won a quick victory after striking to demand the resignation of senior management, who they accused of corruption. The government conceded after threats from rail and bus drivers to strike in solidarity with the Metro union. See Ahram Online 2012f.

111: El-Houdaiby, 2012.

112: Associated Press, 2012.

113: MENA-Egypt Independent, 2012.

114: Revolutionary Socialists, 2012.

115: Daily News Egypt, 2012a.

116: Daily News Egypt, 2012a.

117: Ahram Online, 2012g.


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