Twelve years ago the Egyptian Revolution gave hope to millions of people worldwide that another world is possible. What started with the toppling of the 30 year dictator Hosni Mubarak ended with a full scale counter revolution in 2013. We spoke with A.T., a member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialist Movement, about the role of the revolutionary left before, during and after the revolution of 2011.
The Revolutionary Socialists are an Egyptian organization that was founded in the early 1990s in Cairo, was involved in strikes and protests throughout the 2000s, grew rapidly during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and has been severely hit by state repressions since the 2013 military coup d’état yet remains politically active despite said repressions.
Lessons from the Revolution
marx21: You are a member of the organization »Revolutionary Socialists«. Thousands joined your ranks during the 2011 revolution. Why were the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) able to attract so many people from a younger generation during this period?
A.T.: It’s the effects of the revolution. Revolutions do that. Lenin said that the in revolutionary times, change happens in days, which in ordinary times take years: »There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.« people’s consciousness changes dramatically during a revolutionary period. People start searching for ways they can materialize radical change. So thousands joined RS. For us this was of course fantastic, but it presented us with two problems. Firstly, our ability to absorb new members on that scale was tested to the extreme, and secondly, many of the people joining were young and politically inexperienced and tended to take idealistic and ultra leftists positions. So this put the Revolutionary Socialists in a dilemma.
marx21: Could you give an example of what dilemmas ultra leftist positions put the Revolutionary Socialists in specifically?
A.T.: For example an ultra leftist position that we had to counter within our own ranks, particularly from young members was the call for boycotting any kind of elections and regarding only street politics (demonstrations and occupations, etc) as genuinely revolutionary. This was the expression of the revolutionary energy and idealism of the youth, but it was damaging politically. You had the situation in Egypt that after 2011 there were the first free parliamentary elections, followed by the first free and fair presidential elections in 2012. Millions of people went to vote ,for the first time feeling that their voices meant something. The lines to the polling booths were enormous. Ordinary poor people standing in line for 10 to 12 hours.
Now, this was seen by the youth of the revolution as a kind of betrayal of the revolution. They said “These people should be on the streets not standing in line to vote.”This is a typical ultra leftist position and an elitist position because it does not see where people’s consciousness is.
The Revolutionary Socialist position on the other hand is that you have to pick people up there where their consciousness is at. That people have to learn, through trying to vote, that this is not going to lead them to real change. But the fact that they’re voting is a positive factor in itself, and you should be with them as their political consciousness rises. The vast majority of the people voting in 2011 and 2012 had never voted before. They never thought that their voice would matter in anything.
The bulk of people that joined the Revolutionary Socialists during the Revolution were for staying on streets all the time and not participating in any kinds of elections, and they considered our positions on elections as being “right wing” or “conservative” and making concessions to the state.
marx21:Are there ways of alleviating such a chaotic situation that arises for socialist organizations during a revolution?
A.T.: During revolution, there is no time for education. You have demonstrations and strikes every day. You have a revolution going on! All over the place, people are on the streets, when are they going to have time to read Lenin? The schooling of cadres has to take place mainly during non revolutionary times, i.e. before the revolution.
And when you read about revolutions in history, there’s always that problem with ultra leftism. You have young people who are on fire because there are millions of people on the streets, and they’re prepared to die right now for the revolution. And there’s very little time to have discussions and debates. They’re being educated on the streets, they’re being educated by the events. That is a complicated process. And that was a serious problem for us throughout 2011 and 2012, trying to resist ultra-leftism without losing these young people.
Very difficult. So new members with ultra leftist positions would be against any alliance, against any united front with any force for example and they become very idealistic and full of hope, and so on, and fully despair when things didn’t work out immediately.
marx21: Next to political education what else would have helped you work against ultra leftism in your own ranks?
A.T.: As I said, the attractiveness of ultra leftism will always rise during times of revolution. How well you can absorb this depends on how big your organization is before a revolutionary situation. We were too small. So we were in our hundreds at the time when the revolution started. And suddenly in 2011 1000s and 1000s wanted to join the organization. That’s why it’s so important to have many cadres, politically educated and knowing for example about reformist and revolutionary positions on elections and about all the kinds of day to day work that people have to do to connect to people.
Background to 2011
marx21: Let’s get to the background of what led to the Revolution of 2011. The Second Intifada broke out in occupied Palestine over twenty-two years ago in September 2000. What role did the Second Intifada play in politicizing Egyptian youth?
A.T.: In the early 2000s, the second Palestinian intifada created a big solidarity movement in Egypt, which was huge. Even primary school children were going on demonstrations for Palestine, and people were gathering donations and medicine from all over the country, to send to the Palestenians. So that was a kind of political opening for everyone. In universities and schools and on the streets, there were demonstrations every day.
So things started moving after a long period of quiet. And you started having all kinds of committees,a united front kind of committees on the Palestinian issue. That was the kind of first major change that took place. And we were in a very good position to make use of that. There was also the anti-war movement against the US-Invasion of Iraq. That also created several very, very important demonstrations, including a major demonstration in Tahrir Square in which big posters of Mubarak were burnt down. This was a major event.
marx21: What shaped the political scene after the Second Intifada?
A.T.: In 2004, we started the democracy movement. The campaign was a united front, including Islamists, leftists, nationalists, all kinds of people. And we as the Revolutionary Socialists were part of that from the very beginning. The first demonstration was in December 2004. And we were at that demonstration, and we had our political statements distributed and so on.
marx21: Were there significant workers movements at the time?
A.T.: In 2006 big strikes started in Mahalla, and spread throughout the country, creating the biggest strike wave in that point of Egyptian history, much bigger even than the strike waves in the 1940s and the 1970s. And it was a special kind of strike wave, because lots of sections that would not have gone on strike before went on strike: Teachers, doctors, nurses, bank employees, all kinds of people started to use strikes and pushed for independent unions. These events formed the background of the 2011 Revolution.
2011 didn’t just appear, there was a process of politicization of movements, of different tendencies working together in which our organization of Revolutionary Socialists was strongly involved in. Of course we were a small organization but people knew us. Those striking workers knew about us. The state knew about us. We were part of the scene, which wasn’t the case for the left for a very long time.
We put the left on the political map again in a sense.
The Revolution of 2011
marx21: How were the Revolutionary Socialists involved in the 2011 Revolution?
A.T.: There were demonstrations planned for the 25th of Janaury 2011. After the Tunisian revolution started, the atmosphere was extremely tense. We didn’t expect a revolution when we joined the demonstrations on the 25th in Cairo. On the 28th there were demonstrations all over the country, some of our leading members played a leading role in those demonstrations. We started producing statements. Everyday.
We published a statement every day on the developments, on what the demands were, and how we should proceed. And we were against the army from the very beginning. We had no illusions about the army. When 30 year long dictator Hosni Mubarak left on the 11th of February 2011, we produced a statement saying that this is not over, that we should not trust the Army leaders. But obviously, this was a small minority opinion.
marx21: What role did strikes play during the Revolution?
A.T.: In the last few days of the occupation of Tahrir Square, there was a massive new wave of strikes. Everybody started going on strike, bank workers, railway workers, bus drivers, teachers, cleaning people that sweep the streets, garbage collectors. It was a strike wave that was even bigger than the 2006/2007 strike wave.
The idea that a strike is something you should use to get what you want became universalized. Now after the 11th of February, all political forces besides us as the Revolutionary Socialists and maybe a couple of other groups wanted an end to the strikes. They started saying that Egypt has to work again, that we can’t continue like this and that people have to go back to work and that the political transition period after the toppling of Mubarak should be respected. The state narrative, which was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, was that the workers who are striking are being selfish and are actually damaging the revolution.
marx21: What role did the Muslim Brotherhood play?
A.T.:Throughout the period between the toppling of Mubarak in February 2011 until the election of Mohammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, there was a kind of tense alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. But it wasn’t a complete alliance, they didn’t trust each other. The army promised the Muslim Brotherhood that there would be free and fair elections, if the Brotherhood played a role in pacifying the streets, in pushing people to go back home and in keeping social peace. The Army leaders did continue to prepare a transitional election. And for the most part the Brotherhood played the biggest role they could in “pacifying” the streets.
Muslim Brotherhood Rule
marx21: What position did you take when Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected in 2012?
A.T.: When Mohammad Morsi became president, our position was completely oppositional to the Muslim Brotherhood presidency. Morsi was completely paralyzed. He started negotiating with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) agreeing on austerity measures. You’re talking about a country, where millions are on strike with demands for better living conditions and better wages. He went in the opposite direction, creating a lot of anger against him. Now obviously, at the same time, the army and police were sabotaging his presidency. It wasn’t just him being paralyzed. It was them paralyzing the state machine. From day one the army started sabotaging the whole project, and using the anger that was growing against the Muslim Brotherhood rule. This was a very clever plan, in which Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Morsi’s minister of defense and field marshal, was involved from day one until he completed a coup d’etát against Morsi in 2013, one year after Moris’s rule began.
marx21: What was the political situation like for the Revolutionary Socialists?
A.T.: As the alliance between the Muslim Brothers and the army started to break, the army started working against the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and a new alliance between the army and the liberal and reformist left opposition began. The narrative was that Muslim Brotherhood rule is by far the worst possible scenario and that we have to get rid of them, even if it means an alliance with the army and remnants of the old Mubarak regime!. And since we can’t get rid of them on our own and we can’t get rid of them through elections, as they’re far too powerful for that, we have to ally ourselves with the army generals, so the narrative goes. And again, Sisi was the main figure in creating this new front.
The position of the Revolutionary Socialists was that we were against the Muslim Brotherhood in power. But we were also against any alliance with the old regime or the army. That started to isolate us. This clarity I’m talking with is retrospective clarity. It wasn’t that clear, then, it was very confusing, and changing rapidly.
marx21: Could you explain how the Muslim Brotherhood rule period from July 2012 to July 2013 was different from the Revolutionary period?
A.T.: Around the Revolution, in 2011 and 2012, things were very good for us. Our organization was growing and growing and growing all over the place. Groups of Revolutionary Socialists were springing up in places that we previously had no members. Suddenly, you get a group in Aswan, for example, of 50 people announcing that they’re a new chapter of the Revolutionary Socialists. This shows you the extent to which revolutionary socialist, Marxist ideas can have a very serious audience in Egypt. There are prospects for the radical left in countries like Egypt. The problem started when there was this alliance of the army, liberals and Stalinists against the Muslim Brotherhood. We as Revolutionary Socialists were trying to cut through with an independent position, which was extremely difficult to do. But in general, we maintained our independence. We never did join the alliance against the Muslim Brotherhood.
marx21: When the military coup d’etát happened on the 3rd of July 2013, how did you respond?
A.T.: We were one of the first groups outside the Islamists to call it a coup as such. We started working against the military coup d’etat as well as the counterrevolution in the same week of the coup. And we worked as much as we could against all the mobilizations that the army created to support the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time Sisi’s military coup was getting international support, from the European Union, from the United state.
marx21: What situation has the counterrevolution, which has lasted nine and a half years now, put the Revolutionary Socialists in?
A.T.: All this created a new crisis for the Revolutionary Socialists: how to survive in this kind of condition. Obviously, you had lots of people who joined during the revolution, whose first political activity was to be in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. So you can imagine the level of frustration and demoralization of these people. So it became very difficult to maintain the membership to keep us working. So there are two elements. One was fear, it became extremely dangerous to continue political activity. And the other was demoralization. So the struggle was against these two factors to maintain our existence. Many groups could not maintain their existence.
Several of our leading members were put in jail for a very long time. The opposition has been crushed completely. The army used overwhelming force. The workers movement was crushed, the independent union movement was crushed. We don’t have independent unions anymore.
marx21: Do you think that Sis’s military dictatorship is sustainable?
A.T.: It has been sustainable for almost 10 years, it’s difficult to say that it’s not sustainable. But it’s not sustainable in the long run, and it’s starting to crack. And we seriously think that it’s starting to crack and that we need to prepare for when it actually cracks. The economic crisis is severe. Sisi’s projects are extremely expensive in monetary terms, for example building unproductive new cities in the desert. All these projects mean less spending on hospitals or on education. What we need to do is to continue to survive and to try our best to keep going. If it’s about to crack, we need to prepare for that. And we need to start changing our tactics and strategies to make use of any opening that might start emerging.
We truly believe that there will be a second Egyptian revolution, but when that will start, or how, is completely unpredictable. We must always keep in our minds “the actuality of the revolution”, however difficult things become.
marx21: Thank you for the interview!
The interview was conducted by Omnia Ismail.
Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy
The German Translation of the interview can be found here.
Schlagwörter: Ägypten, Konterrevolution, Revolution