We are all agreed that the Muslim Brothers are a potential threat to the working class, the left, and democracy in general. We are all agreed that we — the left and the labour movement in Britain and internationally — have an urgent duty to build solidarity with the new workers’ movement in Egypt and whatever left develops.
There is a difference of emphasis in how to pose this. I think we need to avoid appearing to say that because the Brotherhood is the strongest force, all prospects are bad; or to say that the only thing which stands in the way of the Brotherhood destroying all democracy is us, the socialists.
There are real forces, principally but not only the Egyptian workers’ movement, which are an alternative to the Brotherhood.
There is a real social force emerging in Egypt. What happens in the next weeks, months and years depends on that social force; it does not literally depend on just us.
There is the real possibility of something good coming out of this. We should argue that we need to build solidarity to make sure other forces triumph over the Brotherhood and other reactionary forces, rather than making our keynote, in effect: “Things could easily go horribly wrong”.
Concern about the threat from Islamism should not prevent us from trying to be concrete. And as far as I can judge, concretely, there is no imminent danger of a Brotherhood take-over.
We should not imply the Brotherhood is no threat at all, or deny that it could quite soon become a serious one. But we shouldn’t be alarmist, either.
In shaping what we say, we must be mindful of our role as a voice of Marxist sanity in a sea of pro-Islamist stupidity on the British left.
If the points Clive considers that “we are all agreed on” were taken as read by the self-defined socialists in Britain and beyond, then we could be much less strident about warning, polemicising, emphasising the dangers posed by the Brothers.
There may also be a difference of assessment about how big a problem the MB might be. The new gains in Egypt are wonderful. But the new movement has only just been born and so is fragile. The MB have a cadre, cash, resources, many tens of thousands of members, resilience...
It is inevitable that amidst general jubilation, many will focus on what’s positive and blank out the nasty possibilities. We need to state what is. Obviously this can be done in a way that gets in the the way of a positive message, but we need to consider the possible worst cases, not just the better ones.
Social and political
I don’t think a Brotherhood takeover is imminent. The Brotherhood consider it rash to go for power straight away.
But a workers’ government, or a revolutionary-democratic government, are also un-imminent. The only “imminent” governmental possibilities are some variant of “technocratic” army-based regime — with more or less army control, granting more or less democratic space in a more or less durable way, granting more or less social reforms, more or less pushed by Brotherhood pressure to introduce piecemeal “Islamisation” of daily life as in Pakistan and Iraq, etc.
Maybe things will just stop there. But we also, and maybe most of all, discuss the possibilities if the mass movement continues, if the army and the state bureaucracy prove fragile and discredited.
In that case it is not enough that a new social force should exist to counter the Brotherhood.
It also requires a new political force. Unless a strong secular middle-class-based movement emerges, it requires that a political force (not necessarily a clearly socialist one, but a political force) emerges from the new workers’ movement.
The possibilities for that are very exciting. But it is not automatic. The experience with the South African unions in the 80s and 90s should warn us against any illusion that it will happen automatically.
Of course we should avoid any appearance of aligning with the manic US hawks who think that an overthrow of Mubarak means Taliban-style rule tomorrow. I’m sure we have thoroughly avoided that.
The Muslim Brotherhood, on its website, constantly stresses how moderate it is.
“The MB confirms that it and the people respect and trust the army which throughout the revolution continued to demonstrate poise, caring for the good of one and all” (MB statement, 14 February).
“The Muslim Brotherhood [has] reiterated that it does not seek power” (MB website, 13 February). “We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September”.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website editor-in-chief Khaled Hamza declares: “the current uprising in Egypt is a revolution of the Egyptian people and is by no means linked to any Islamic tendencies, despite allegations nor can it be described as Islamic...” Hamza “criticised allegations and reiterations by some countries that the uprising was Islamic and denounced claims by the Iranian Supreme Leader... that the protests are a sign of an Islamic awakening inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran” (MB website, 5 February).
“It is our position that any future government we may be a part of will respect all treaty obligations made in accordance with the interests of the Egyptian people” (including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, or is that an obligation not “in accordance with the interests”? Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, MB website, 2 February).
It is widely said that there are serious differences within the Brotherhood. However, in its statements the Brotherhood holds by all the fundamentals of its traditional Islamist programme.
The Brotherhood dissociates itself from the more secularised politics of the AKP party in Turkey.
“The Muslim Brotherhood group hasn’t changed and won’t change its principles: The full Islamic method is the end of our work, and the success we seek is when when it is applied and carried out in all aspects of life among all individuals, groups, societies, institutions and the regime.
“The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) declares its approval and satisfaction with secularism of the country according to the well known Western concept. This differs from our great main target of founding an Islamic state for Muslims, not a theocratic state...” (Mohamed Morsi, MB website, August 2007).
Because Sunni Islam (a bit like Protestant Christianity, and in contrast to Shia Islam) has no structured religious hierarchy, and most Sunni Islamist activists are not clerics, the Brotherhood argues that its version of an Islamic state is different from Shia Iran’s, which it calls “theocracy”. “The concept of governance based on sharia is not a theocracy for Sunnis since we have no centralised clergy in Islam. For us... sharia is a means whereby justice is implemented, life is nurtured, the common welfare is provided for, and liberty and property are safeguarded. In any event, any transition to a sharia-based system will have to garner a consensus in Egyptian society.” (Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, 10 Feb).
The Brotherhood also maintains such tenets as: “Religious texts ordained that the woman’s body, except for the face and the hands, should be covered in front of all except those who are [close relatives]. And that a woman should not sit in private with a man who is not [a close relative]” (The Role of Muslim Women in an Islamic Society, 2006: MB website).
It commits itself to the destruction of Israel. “Arab nations must sever all ties and declare a state of non-normalization with the Israeli Zionists” (MB statement, 31 May 2010). “The Palestinian cause can never be isolated from other issues like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Egypt, because all these issues are actually stemming from one issue caused by the US backed Zionist entity, said MB chairman Mohamed Mahdi Akef...
“Akef said, directing his speech to the Zionists: Regardless of the bloodletting our nation is facing, it will live and you will perish...” (March 2008).
In many ways this is a non-debate. I don’t think there is any real disagreement with the group’s basic political line: we all agree that the Brotherhood is a potential threat which should be warned against; that the workers’ movement needs to develop its own political voice – independent, that is, of the Brotherhood and everyone else; that if the workers’ movement fails to do so the consequences could be bad; that solidarity with the workers’ movement, and in principle the Left, is an urgent task. I think we are also in agreement that it’s hard to quantify how serious the threat from the Brotherhood is right now, or to predict exactly how it might develop. (Of course we are all absolutely in agreement that the view of some on the left that the Brotherhood is no threat at all is idiotic, and even worse is the notion that they are actually progressive.)
I want us to register two things. I’m not sure exactly what difference doing so makes to the basic politics of the matter; maybe nothing. But they seem to me very important nonetheless.
First, I think we need to absorb the fact that these revolts – I’m talking specifically about Tunisia and Egypt; I think the pattern could be different elsewhere – have been largely secular in character so far and this is very surprising. Maybe some of you are less surprised than I am, but for sure – especially given the probable weight of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamists in Tunisia (who are different from the Brotherhood, although Ghanouchi draws intellectually from the same source) – it could have been enormously less secular.
It’s not just that commentators have tended to suggest that the Brotherhood might win a fair election in Egypt. Egypt has experienced an enormous degree of Islamisation – and general increase in religiosity – over the past quarter century. Not just the Brotherhood, but clerics generally, have grown in importance. In the 1980s there were about 6,000 mosques per person in Egypt; now there are about 750. That’s a hell of a big increase in the number of mosques (especially when you remember that the population has doubled, pretty much, over the period). In the 1980s many women, especially middle-class women, didn’t wear headscarves; now most of them do. (As I said at the London Forum, this is contradictory – but for sure it reveals a growth in religiosity). As the state has withdrawn subsidies and public services have withered, Islamic – not just Brotherhood-run – clinics have increasingly provided health care in local areas. All of this is in the context of a concerted campaign by the state since the 1970s under Sadat to Islamise the country – declaring the law derived from sharia, etc; declaring Islam central to national identity (although there has been a slight retreat from this more recently because of the Brotherhood’s strength). Huge numbers of Egyptians who migrated to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia from the 1970s onwards came back with strengthened – and more hard-line, sometimes Wahhabi – religious convictions. Added to that, the oil-rich, conservative states pumped money into mosques in Egypt. You’ve had very popular conservative shaykhs whose Friday sermons have been listened to avidly. More recently there are very popular Muslim tele-evangelists and widely-read Muslim bloggers. (They sometimes do weird things like implore people to go back to the Quran and then give dating tips. For real.) This growth in the authority of religious leaders has been mirrored on the Christian side.
The Brotherhood specifically has been by far the strongest opposition. The elections to the current parliament were boycotted by the Brotherhood and others because they were so ludicrously rigged. In the previous parliament – which was still rigged – the Muslim Brothers had 88 MPs, that is about a fifth. The bourgeois secular opposition movements, be they Nasserist or more Western-liberal are much weaker, and anyway quite permeated (at least the Nasserists are) by elements of soft Islamism. (The legal left-Nasserist party, Tagamu’, certainly used to have well-known imams in its leadership).
The Brotherhood was central to militant protests against Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, which were also, therefore, protests against Mubarak’s complicity in them. These included demonstrations of up to 50,000 people. I think it’s probably true that although the links between the Muslim Brothers and Hamas are largely historical, Hamas has a certain cache from being democratically elected in Gaza (which is, after all, on Egypt’s border), and the Brotherhood could bask to some extent in their reflected glory.
Moreover, a political culture so infused with Islam and Islamism, whether specifically Brotherhood-inspired or not, is not one, on the whole, which deals in themes about ‘democracy’. And it should not be forgotten that even right at the end of 2010 there was a brutal sectarian bomb attack against Christians: the drift has been towards greater, often violent, sectarianism.
It seems to me, given all that, that you would expect religious slogans and themes, and behind them the Muslim Brotherhood, to be very central in protests against the government. They were not. On the contrary. The central organisers of the protests since January 25 have been secular. The demands and slogans have been overwhelmingly secular. There has been very little anti-Israeli sloganising, indeed, which is even more surprising. This has been a movement absolutely focused on democratic – and non-sectarian – demands. It has made a big deal out of its secular and non-sectarian character (and the Brotherhood has echoed this sentiments, opportunistically).
I think under the circumstances this is little short of completely fucking amazing.
Of course it could prove to be fragile; it isn’t a guarantee against a much increased role for the Brotherhood (or other Islamists, maybe, too) later. But it does seem to me to reveal that under the appearance of a hugely increased role for religion, religious leaders, and religious political movements, something else was happening - something very deep, and very profound (if that's not tautological). And that should give us grounds for optimism.
In other words – which is the second thing I think we have to fully register – there is a real social basis, including and most importantly in the new labour movement, but also among the youth movements and students, etc, for a secular, leftist, working-class based movement independent of, and in opposition to, the Brotherhood and the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie.
Martin took me to be suggesting that the existence of a social movement, and strikes and so on, are in themselves politically sufficient. Of course they aren’t: the workers’ movement must find its own political voice. And if it fails to do so, it is likely to – at best – fall in behind the political parties of the bourgeoisie (or at worst be crushed).
That isn’t what I was trying to say, though – that strikes, unions, youth and women’s movements, etc, are enough by themselves. My point is this: fundamentally, either there are people in Egypt who agree with the idea of working-class political independence, or will recognise the need for it very soon, or there aren’t. We can do what we can; conceivably, in conversations with Egyptian militants in the medium term, we might be persuasive enough to really make a difference. But that still, even in the version of events in which we - you reading this comment and me writing it - are the most helpful and central we could possibly be, presupposes people in the Egyptian workers’ movement who are very open already to the idea of working class politics.
In other words, all our exhortations for working class politics only make sense if there is the real possibility that the actual, flesh-and-blood workers’ movement in Egypt has, at least, the not-so raw material for it actually to develop. In a certain sense it does not depend on us. In a certain paradoxical sense, it is the fact that it does not depend on us which makes what we can do by way of offering political advice more urgent. But this is what is so wonderful about what is happening now. Something is really happening of world historical significance.
Of course we need to put an argument which stresses the urgency of solidarity. But – as I put it before – I think we do have to be careful to avoid the suggestion that it is only our solidarity (and our political advice) which stands in the way of an ultimately terrible outcome to the revolution; of suggesting that without us it will end in a Khomeini-style bloodbath. It’s a difficult line to walk, because there are historical lessons (which the left seems unable to learn), and there is a vital-ness to what we have to say. But fundamentally our solidarity is about identifying and helping the people within Egypt who are already – at least to some degree – on the course we recommend.
And the point is, I think, they’re there.
I don’t mean that there aren’t, therefore, arguments, sometimes fierce ones, to be had with the Egyptian militants we are able to reach. I was personally involved in some of the very similar arguments with South Africans, and in the end we failed to persuade them. I am not arguing simply for passive cheerleading, or whatever. I am keen, though, for us to register that something really important really is happening.