Where is Egypt going?

From a referendum called with only two weeks notice and voted for on 15 and 22 December, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Mursi has now forced through the adoption of an Islamist constitution that holds great threats for Egyptian democrats and workers.

The proposals from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 64% of the vote on a dismal 32% turnout. Many urban and working class centres including Cairo and Mahalla voted against it. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) distributed two million leaflets against the new constitution in workplaces. However the Brotherhood were strong enough to carry the vote, especially with support from the countryside.

In the run up to the referendum there were mass protests on the streets outside the Presidential Palace, protests which was furiously attacked by FJP and their allies, leading to ten deaths.

Other controversy surrounded the vote. There was a refusal by judges to staff the polls as they were unsatisfied that there could be fair elections. There were widespread allegations of electoral violations such as the mobilisation of FJP supporters outside polling stations intimidating electoral monitors, journalists and women without veils.

Revolutionary democrats were looking for a constitution that would prevent not only a continuation of the dictatorial abuses of the Mubarak period but also likely abuses of an Islamist government. But despite some liberal rhetoric, the constitution makes everything dependent on sharia law. And Mursi has just appointed 90 members to the 270-member upper house of parliament, already dominated by Islamists. The upper house now becomes Egypt’s legislature until the new lower house is elected, in elections which are scheduled for February.

Under the new constitution sharia is widely defined and covers its “general evidence, foundational rules… and ... rules of jurisprudence”.

New laws will need to be approved by Islamist experts. Al-Azhar, the Islamic School in Cairo, now to be funded by the Egyptian state, is to be given an explicit role here but so are other unspecified Islamic “experts”.

The military maintain their right to try civilians on “crimes that harm the armed forces” (Article 198). Because of conservative Islamist objections there are no constitutional guarantees of women’s equality.

The new constitution also includes many anti-working class provisions. Article 14 ties wages to production, as opposed to rising prices. Articles 63 and 70 allow for certain sorts of forced labour and child labour to be regulated, rather than banned. Article 53 stipulates that there can only be one union per sector, which is intended as a blow to the growing independent union movement.
Article 44 stipulates: “Insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets shall be prohibited.”

Mubarak occasionally used concessions to the Islamist agenda in the old constitution, to pacify supporters of the Brotherhood — when he needed to promote division between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. But Islamist clauses are now far more likely to be pursued vigorously. Indeed if Mursi did not pursue them he would be subjected to sustained pressure from many in the Brotherhood’s ranks who feel that the long term tide of history has turned against them and they have to use their immediate dominance to institute the Islamic state they have called for over decades.

Even before the referendum legal action was taken against atheist bloggers such as Alber Saber, cartoonist Daa El-Adl and even TV presenters such as Egypt’s version of Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef. Most of the charges against them are that they have insulted Islam or the president. Attacks on freedom of speech are the most likely way that repression will continue. The Brotherhood’s General Secretary Mahmoud Hussein has even claimed that arguing against the constitution is now illegal and punishable by law.
The constitution deceived much of the western media as it sometimes couched in ambiguous Islamist terms. General inaccuracies in their coverage have caused much anger in Egypt amongst democratic forces.

A Guardian editorial on 7 December, effectively took sides with the government and led to their Egyptian correspondent, Jack Shenker, explicitly disassociating himself from it. (http://bit.ly/128m2Rb)

US analyst Juan Cole has written that “Egypt is deeply polarised... The Muslim Brotherhood has moved from a cadre organisation to providing street thugs to attack leftist demonstrators, in a haunting evocation of what happened in revolutionary Iran in the early 1980s”. This process is not a foregone conclusion, but Cole identifies a real trajectory that cannot be ignored.

In this context, the SWP’s assessment verges on the ridiculous. Socialist Worker (online 21 December 2012) included the following comment: “To denounce the Brotherhood as fascist is a mistake,” said Sameh, a member of their sister organisation, the Revolutionary Socialists.

“There are elements which represent the counter-revolution, and counter-revolutions are violent against workers and activists. But we are not witnessing fascism in Egypt. The working class has not been defeated and the struggle from below is deepening.”
This is especially bizarre after Brotherhood thugs injured a member of the Revolutionary Socialists during the demonstrations and are clearly moving against the labour movement and democracy.
So where is Egypt going?

During the run-off to last June’s presidential election between the Brotherhood’s Mursi and the former Mubarak minister Shafiq, few warned of the profoundly anti-democratic nature of both candidates.

No left strategy was publicly debated or elaborated to fight for democracy, let alone government that would be accountable to the increasingly organised working class and the vast number of desperately poor petty-bourgeois and other urban poor. Many of the revolutionaries, most notably the Revolutionary Socialists, called for vote for Mursi as the lesser-evil.

A victory for Shafiq would have likely meant a continuation of the brutal suppression by the hated SCAF (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) which had taken over running the country from February 2011. But the social base of the military was weak. In the face of a likely Islamist victory and the absence of a significant campaign against acceptance of either government, there was a significant Christian vote for Shafiq. But even without an articulated strategy for a third way, the vote for both candidates as a proportion of the population (24% Mursi and 22% Shafiq) was small, with many Egyptians refusing to vote for either Islamist or the military.
Shafiq and SCAF were unable to mobilise anyone on the streets other than the security forces and a decreasing number of paid criminal thugs.

An election victory for him would have given him a boost, but within the majority civilian population he would have remained as isolated as ever. The more affluent section of the population who in the main supported Shafiq would not have had the will to take to the streets. Most Christians who might have been deceived to vote for Shafiq out of fear of an Islamist victory would not have supported any of his attacks on democratic rights.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood as a government is proving potentially more repressive despite having been an oppositional force for decades.

The Brotherhood’s ideology, which apologists for it on the left continue to ignore, is openly hostile to trade union rights; it counts women literally as worth half a man; it believes in an autocratic religious state in which non-Islamic minorities can be persecuted; it believes in suppressing free expression and a free press particularly if it dares to criticise Islam and the Islamists claim to government. And it now has a powerful civilian militia, prepared to go into violent confrontation with those who oppose it.

Trust in the Brotherhood’s credibility as a revolutionary force had been on the wane since 25 January 2011. They were reluctant to give any support to the street protests that brought down Mubarak. They attempted to do deals with SCAF after his downfall. On the issues of the treatment of the Christian minority, of workers, and of women by SCAF they were silent (if not openly supportive of SCAF).

Yet the violent attack on protestors outside the Presidential Palace after 5 December 2012 took many revolutionaries by surprise.
Gigi Ibrahim (@Gsquare86 on Twitter) tweeted at the time “Honestly, I never imagined to become this bad with Ikhwan [the Brotherhood], still in shock about the amount of vicious violent attacks on protesters”.

Dragging, beating and interrogating protestors under the approving eye of Egyptian security, the Brotherhood militias attempted to force them to say they had been paid by opposition figures such as El Baradei. Almost all the ten killed were protestors against Mursi, but that didn’t stop the regime claiming that it was their supporters who had been killed, a lie taken in wholesale by much of the western press such as the Guardian editors. Rightly Gigi Ibrahim and others referred to these attacks as the work of fascists.
Recent reports (such as this one, from the Egypt Independent, http://bit.ly/UrSpWx) indicate that the Brotherhood have started illegally practicing torture on their opponents whilst the Central Security Forces look on approvingly.

Clerical fascists
The Brotherhood have been categorised in the pages of this paper for many years as a clerical fascist movement.
Like any fascist movement they only become popular with capitalist and imperialist interests if state forces feel unable to defeat dissent. In such circumstances fascists can do what the state cannot do.

They can challenge revolutionary democrats organising on the street. They can permeate civil society, identify and neutralise their enemies. With a popular force welded together with reactionary ideas, in the Ikhwan’s case the creation of an authoritarian Islamic state and the rule of Sharia, they can demoralise those who feel that all that stands between them and victory is a small privileged elite in society and the state. Ultimately, if they take full power, they can ruthlessly eliminate and silence their opponents with a completeness not even military regimes can match.

Egypt is not yet a fascist state. Such a frightening prospect may not be far off. First, however, the Brotherhood faces a number of problems.

Egypt’s ruling class has long held the Muslim Brotherhood in disdain. The Brotherhood’s international politics, particularly their anti-Semitism, have been an embarrassment. Their ideology has elements of medievalism unproductive to a modern capitalist economy. The Egyptian ruling class is educated and extensively “westernised” and culturally at odds with the Brotherhood.
Just as in pre-1979 Iran, the Islamists and the associated religious figures very much appear as a historical relic. They had been periodically rounded up and imprisoned by Mubarak as well as by his predecessors, Nasser and Sadat. Many ruling-class figures have never been considered them credible as the leading force in a capitalist state.

An alliance with Islamists has not been an easy step for the Egyptian ruling class. Although Mursi has taken acton to limit the military’s power (last August), the military high command is still phenomenally powerful both in the personnel in charge, and the capital and wealth they have accumulated.

Mursi has gone some way to assuage their fears. For example, the new Egyptian constitution grants the military the autonomy that Field Marshal Tantawi and Chief of Staff Lt. General Sami Ennan sought during the SCAF period.

The military budget is shielded from public view; the military dominates the National Defence Council; and the defence policy remains the exclusive realm of the military. This is a sop to the military and their US government backers, who have provided year-on-year approximately $ 2.5 billion in direct military aid.

The removal of Tantawi as Head of the Armed Forces and Mursi’s replacement of him with a suspected Brotherhood supporter, General Abdel Fattah al Sissi, did not lead to dissent in the military — a possible indicator of some degree of Brotherhood penetration of the military as well as a softening of attitudes from the military to the MB.

However any further extension of Brotherhood control would risk the developing mutual confidence of the former military rulers and the current Islamist ones.

The Egyptian ruling class are not yet convinced that the restriction of the Brotherhood’s social policies on their own lives are worth the potential economic benefits to them of an intimidated and shackled working-class movement that the Islamists might provide.

Fascist movements have always required centralism and discipline to be successful. They are not bonded by a democratically-decided rational common interest. They need to do drastic tactical reversals without questions asked. They need to demonstrate to the capitalist class that they can maintain discipline – that the future they offer is not as disordered as the chaos they promise to overcome. Discipline, discipline, discipline; order, order, order; profit, profit, profit.

At the moment the Brotherhood cannot offer that. In fact, the tactical switches on foreign policy and Israel, on relationships with the military and the remnants of the Mubarak regime, have so far resulted in greater divisions in the wider Islamist movement. The relations between the Brotherhood and various salafist groups have worsened.

The main Salafist party, Nour, looks to be in decline and is splintering. For the Brotherhood it has served its purpose. Whilst it pulled some votes away from the Brotherhood, it pulled many more Islamic fundamentalists, who had previously abstained from politics, into political activity.

As Nour divides it is throwing up a dangerous new force the Hazemoun, militia forces around Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail.
In retaliation for the December protests the Hazemoun attempted to blockade Media City, the area in Cairo from which foreign correspondents reported, usually unfavourably, the killings by the Brotherhood militias outside the Presidential Palace. In the last few weeks the Hazemoun have even stormed cafes and intimidated women who were dressed immodestly by their sharia standards. Hazem Abu Ismail has openly propagated the need for violent attacks on secular revolutionary forces.

Now the vice chair of the Nour party has quit that party to form a new party, Al Watan, with Abu Ismail.

Ismail reportedly has the support of Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri.
The nightmare scenario for democratic and socialist revolutionaries would be the coalescence of the Brotherhood militias with those of Hazemoun whilst the Brotherhood uses its governmental position to shape the political relationship with and reassure the old ruling elements and imperialism.

However, the US would not want Mursi developing a closer relationship with Abu Ismail and that will stymie such a development, for now.

Abu Ismail portrays his forces as defending the President rather than attacking him as a compromiser. However he continues to demand an end to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and to call for a law making it mandatory for women to wear veils and defining the marriage age as "puberty".

The first of these would be difficult for Mursi to grant and continue to enjoy US support. But child marriage and the compulsory wearing of the veil may be easier. It would lead to mass protests, but if Hazem Abu Ismail has the opportunity of violently taking them on and intimidating them with tacit government and military support, that might prove attractive to the Brotherhood. They know that they are unlikely to enjoy future electoral success unless the spirit of the democratic movement is broken.

Even if Mursi’s government and allies were able to put down the street protests of the left, that would not necessarily mean that they have won. The next major confrontation is set to be 25 January, the second anniversary of the revolution’s start. It looks as though a protest planned by government opponents will be declared illegal.

The bourgeois opposition around ElBaradei and Moussa have few weapons other than street demonstrations, and direct or indirect negotiations with Mursi using their contacts with the US and the Egyptian state machine as pressure.
The west’s influence on Mursi does not appear to be working much for them — both are now being investigated by Mursi’s agents on a potential charge of treason.

But workers have other potential weapons, based on organisation in their communities and workplaces. Even if the Islamists were able to blockade Tahrir and central Cairo from oppositional gatherings, workers could still assert their power through strikes and defend themselves within their local communities from attacks by the Islamist militias and police.

The preparedness within the workers movement for it to take such a lead in opposition is unclear. There is an understandable reluctance to play second fiddle to forces they believe take them for granted and are not attuned to their concerns. Occasional demands for a general strike made by some of the oppositional forces without considering the precise conditions of the trade unions have not always been considered helpful.

However, in the lead up to the referendum an interesting development took place in Mahalla, the major centre of trade union radicalism in Egypt.

On 7 December 2012 several thousand met in the town centre and proclaimed a “Republic of Greater Mahalla” independent of the government in Cairo. The declaration seems somewhat of a gesture but it is still a hopeful development.

The involvement in the initiative of some major trade union figures such as Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS and EDLC and Mahalla workers’ leader Sayyid Habib shows that alternatives to the monotonic demands from the democratic opposition for protests exclusively in the form of demonstrations are being thought about.

There is little doubt that, if they could, the Islamists would crush the new trade union movements and take away any power they have been able to build up.

Mursi could use the continuing economic crisis to scapegoat trade unions and democratic social forces. Inevitably, as economic crises continue alongside political uncertainty, right–wing arguments to restore authority and order will gain support from not only from the Egyptian capitalists and US and other imperialist interests but also from despairing petty-bourgeois elements in Egypt.

Any belief that the trade unions can gradually build up their strength under a Brotherhood government would be foolish. The trade unions need to plan to defend themselves and create an alternative form of government as a matter of urgency.

Genuine popular democratic forces need to be built very quickly and need to be strong enough to defend themselves from authoritarian and sectarian threats as well as have the ability to create a government that will create jobs and promote social justice.
The left internationally needs to warn loud and clear about the threat from the Brotherhood. It must make solidarity with the new Egyptian labour movement, making direct links and help it to thrive.

This labour movement is the best guarantor not only of workers’ rights but of democratic liberties in the face of the threat from the Islamists.

Note: the left and Islamism

For many years sections of the left, most clearly the SWP in the UK, operated on a principle that Islamism, particularly in Egypt but also elsewhere, was a movement with which revolutionary socialists could form meaningful alliances.

The SWP, in sharp reversal of the traditional socialist approach, coined the slogan “with the Islamists sometimes”.
Implicit in this perspective was the belief that many of these “anti-imperialist” Islamic activists would fuse with socialists in a sustained anti-capitalist revolutionary movement. The last two years in Egypt have confirmed that this was a completely false perspective, which did nothing to prepare the socialist and workers’ movement for what the Islamists are now doing.

Other than isolated individuals perhaps once attracted to Islamism, there has been no breakaway to the left from Islamism.
If there is a likely potential “anti-imperialist” breakaway from mainstream Egyptian Islamism, judged solely by opposition to the state of Israel, it would be a right-wing, indeed openly fascist, breakaway.

Its “anti-imperialism” in respect to Israel would not be based on fighting for the national rights of Palestinians, but on the anti-Semitic aim of driving Jews out of a future Middle Eastern Islamic state.