To Egypt’s revolutionary youth

February 23, 2015

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across the Middle East has posed the question of what role such groups play with respect to the revolutionary aspirations of the popular classes in countries like Egypt.

Prior to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt spent years building their organization while various Islamist currents attempted to use individual acts of violence to spark change. Here, we reprint a two-part letter by RS member Haitham Mohamedain that describes the counterrevolutionary consequences of terrorism--by contrast to the radical potential of mass working class action.

Terrorism or the anger of the masses?

In the context of escalating state-sponsored terrorism, including massacres, arrests, violence against demonstrations, pardoning criminals and wholesale killings, against all who demand freedom and social justice, it was noteworthy that some of the youth reacted to the killing of soldiers [in Sinai] with support or indifference. So what is the correct position in relation to these operations? Do they serve the cause of change and the revolution--or not?

The masses are the solution when they fight back. Hosni Mubarak faced two kinds of opposition during his hateful rule: the first of these was armed terrorism, the method which the Gama'at Islamiyya [Islamist groups] relied on, targeting officers and police stations, tourists and key figures in the regime. So what did it achieve?

These groups replaced the masses with themselves and raised sectarian slogans, giving the Mubarak regime the perfect cover to crush any social or political movements during this period. Class struggle disappeared from the scene, and instead, blood and killings dominated the pages of the newspapers and the political scene in general. The ruling class became tighter knit than ever before, bringing in privatization and forcing hundreds of thousands of workers out of the public sector. Prices of goods and services spiraled out of control. Power and wealth were in the grip of a handful of businessmen, and neoliberalism was the order of the day.

Opponents of Egypt's military rulers fill Tahrir Square in November 2011
Opponents of Egypt's military rulers fill Tahrir Square in November 2011

The mass movement retreated, and those sections that dared to act were mowed down by bullets. Striking workers at Egypt's Iron and Steel Company were shot down in 1989. The police also opened fire on workers in Kafr al-Dawwar in 1994 and killed peasants during their uprising in 1997. Meanwhile, the regime was able to justify all its policies of repression with its State of Emergency decrees, which were continuously renewed on the pretext of fighting terrorism. The armed groups failed miserably in their attempt to institute an "Islamic state" and even recanted their position from inside prison at the end of the 1990s.

In short, armed terrorism failed to bring down the Mubarak regime, and instead helped it.

Armed terrorism steps aside, and the masses take center stage

After the long suffering of the Egyptian people under Mubarak's policies, which impoverished the majority under the cover of repression and the State of Emergency, student and popular movements began to appear again after the dust of the battle with terrorism had settled. Hundreds of thousands joined protests to support the Palestinian Intifada [in 2000], and for the first time since Mubarak took power in 1981, a genuine opposition began to form. Hopes of change began to rise, and for the first time under Mubarak's rule, groups of revolutionary youth appeared who rejected existing conditions and strove to overcome them.

The protests from the universities attracted growing numbers of ordinary people, until the masses entered Tahrir Square in March 2003 in demonstrations sparked by the invasion of Iraq. For the first time, the call for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was raised during popular protests. Confidence began to rise, and thousands of young people joined the movements for change. The Kefaya movement was founded, which played a pivotal role in putting the demand for the downfall of Mubarak on the agenda of the movement for change.

Against the backdrop of the spaces seized by these national and political demonstrations, the social movement entered. A storm of strikes began with the walkout by workers in Mahalla in December 2006, and the slogan "Down with Hosni Mubarak" moved from Cairo to the provinces, from Tahrir Square to Shoun Square in Mahalla during the uprising there, which for the first time showed that the overthrow of Mubarak was possible.

The mass movement continued to rise, rejecting political tyranny and social injustice, until the explosion of the January 25 revolution.

January 28: The anger of the masses is the solution

Over the course of a decade of targeting police officers during the 1990s, the armed groups did not succeed in weakening the institution of the police, which was killing and terrorizing the masses. Nor did they create so much as a crack in the Mubarak regime. By contrast, the Day of Rage on January 28, 2011, represented an earthquake that struck the Mubarak regime and broke its repressive arm, defeating the entire police force within hours.

The masses did not use bombs or cannon: their strength lay in numbers and their just demands. They did not raise the demand of an Islamic state or sectarian slogans, but called for a state of bread, freedom and social justice, a state for all its citizens, Christians and Muslims, a state for the poor and oppressed. They succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and created a new reality, the reality of revolution, which rejected the old policies of repression and injustice, and rejected all those who represented them and who attempted to follow their path. The masses had seized the initiative and knew their strength lay in collective struggle. They knew that they could bring about the change they desired when they moved.

The counter-revolution advances, boosted by sectarian slogans and phony nationalism with the backing of Islamist and secular political forces

Sectarianism is the way of counterrevolution. Tantawi knew this route all too well. The unity of the masses in the squares fragmented, and confusion replaced their consciousness in face of a number of tactics adopted by the regime in order to liquidate the January revolution.

Mubarak falls, the masses leave the squares while workers' strikes continue

The first tactic was to agree to Mubarak's departure and the announcement of a Military Council with the aim of deceiving the revolution. Meanwhile, the sit-ins in the squares broke up because of the absence of a mass revolutionary party capable of exposing this deception and playing a role in convincing the masses of the necessity of staying in the streets until the complete overthrow of Mubarak's regime. But the matter was decided, and the Military Council began to confront the revolution by forcibly breaking up the small minority remaining in Tahrir and then turning to the wave of workers' strikes that had erupted on February 5 and continued after the fall of Mubarak. The Military Council launched a vicious media campaign against the workers' movement and its demands, describing them as "selfish sectionalism" impeding the wheel of production and threatening the "national economy." Strikes were even being described as a danger to the revolution!

In absence of political forces embedded within the workers' movement, which was raising demands to purge Mubarak's men and their cronies from industrial institutions and services and realize the demand of the revolution for social justice, Tantawi's Military Council was able to smear the workers' movement, before moving on to a phase of direct repression through issuing the first legal ruling banning strikes and considering them to be a crime punishable by jail terms handed down by military judges.

It broke up workers' strikes using military forces in Suez, Alexandria, Helwan and elsewhere in order to stop the workers' movement surging forward, which was developing quickly in terms of consciousness and organization. We were beginning to see coordination of general strikes across whole sectors, demands for the appointment of civilian administrators for the military factories, the purging of generals from the Civil Aviation Ministry, and other demands reflecting high levels of consciousness and constituting a serious challenge to the continued control of the military over power and wealth.

The second tactic adopted by the military council was to fragment the mass movement by dividing the poor and oppressed on the basis of religion and sect. It was aided in this by the forces of Political Islam of every stripe--at the head of them, the Muslim Brotherhood. The political scene at the time of the [Constitutional] Referendum of March 19, 2011, expressed this tendency: once again, sectarian slogans reappeared after they had been sidelined by the January 25 revolution, and public opinion turned against them.

The Coptic Christian masses suffered from poverty side by side with the Muslim poor for decades, but in addition they had to swallow religious oppression, oppression by the state that treated them as second-class citizens, and the oppression of society that reflected the state's oppression in addition to the spread of reactionary religious ideas.

This section of the masses isolated themselves in the churches and did not participate in political and social protests--and the few exceptions were only under the pressure of great fear. They were prisoners of religious leaders in the church and prisoners of the state that oppressed them, but which offered them "protection" from the tyranny of the "Muslims."

During the last years of the Mubarak regime, a number of sectarian incidents occurred in which the role of the state was clear. One of the most important of these was the killing of Copts on Christmas night in Naga' Hammadi, which was devised by Abd-al-Rahim al-Ghul, head of the [ruling] National Democratic Party's parliamentary bloc. Then there was the incident of the explosion at the Qadissayn Church in Alexandria, which was set up by the Ministry of the Interior with the aim of prolonging the state of emergency and disrupting the rise of the masses. The Copts took to the streets in the wake of the Qadissayn incident for the first time since the 1919 Revolution, protesting at the continued sectarian incidents against them. They went out chanting against the police, which prepared the massacres, and not against the Muslims. They went out in their hundreds of thousands in Cairo and Alexandria, and the first battle of Maspero took place as the police broke up the demonstrations of angry Copts with gas and birdshot.

When the Copts went out, the final elements of the revolution against Mubarak's regime fell into place. First the students had taken up the nationalist cause, then the workers went out to demand social justice, and the political forces protested against the tyranny of Mubarak's regime. All of these forces of the poor and oppressed gathered together in the January Revolution: the students and the workers, the Copts and the women, raising the demands of all Egyptians for freedom, social justice and human dignity.

The constitutional referendum of March 19, 2011, came as a blow to this unity, and the Military Council, in alliance with the Islamists, was successful in achieving its aim. Instead of representing hope for the Copts that repression would be lifted, in reality the outcome of the revolution seemed to be summed up in the claim that Egypt was "Islamic" and "whoever doesn't like it can emigrate to Canada."

Of course the matter did not stop there. Rather, this was the beginning of a series of attacks and burning of churches, some of which was carried out by the regime itself and the majority with the support of some of the Islamist forces.

The diabolical plans of the military to fragment the masses culminated in the Maspero massacre [on October 9, 2011] against the Copts to the shouts of "God is great" by some of the soldiers and some of the Salafists who had suddenly appeared at the scene.

This massacre had a destructive effect on the embedding of the Coptic masses with the Muslim poor in the January Revolution, and under the pressure of strong sensitivities towards oppression and repression, the Copts, trapped between the state which was crushing them and the Islamists who cheered on the massacre, huddled once again in the church, raising religious slogans in response. Between the hammer of the state and the anvil of the Islamist movements, between going to Canada and the Maspero massacre, the Copts huddled within the Church before returning to the embrace of the state, the very same state that sometimes killed them and always oppressed them, but which would certainly not send them to Canada!

This is one of the negative lessons of the January Revolution--have we learnt it well?

Are we working on winning the Copts back to the Revolution by defending their demands, which are at the heart of the demands of the revolution? It is the duty of every revolutionary to stand against the oppression of the Copts by the state or by religious groups. We must challenge sectarian slogans and practices and fight against any group that raises them.

The Coptic masses will remain trapped in the embrace of the state--which is a gain for the counterrevolution--as long as the political scene is dominated by sectarian organizations or sectarian slogans. The revolution is liberation for the oppressed, and it is a festival for the poor. If it is led by sectarian terror groups, and if it does not raise the demands of the poor, then it is doomed to fail.

First published at the Revolutionary Socialists website.

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