Saturday, August 17, 2013

Egypt: Sometimes Revolutions Fail

The aftermath of the army's crackdown on the Ikhwan: A grief-stricken man among the bodies in a makeshift morgue.

‘[I]f the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it,” it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this “alienation”.’ —V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917

It has been two and a half years of hope, cycled with fear and disappointment. In the winter of 2011, millions of Egyptians took to the streets. In Cairo, Tahrir Square was turned into a carnival of revolution, an encampment where hundreds of thousands shook off the quiet of decades of political and military repression. In a model for the Occupy movement which followed later in the U.S. (which, it must be said, never quite reached the critical mass of the Egyptian — or Greek— squares movements), people camped out in public spaces, talking and celebrating and building a new reality 24 hours a day, defying the rules and laws of established order. There were waves of repression and violence, sectarian tension, and massive social ferment. Egyptians watched as the military, key to Egyptian state power in the most obvious ways, stood down and then consented to the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February of 2011.

It's worth calling out the role of the United States during the Egyptian revolution: while cops used American-supplied teargas against protesters, the Obama government made equivocating noises until the die was cast that Mubarak would fall. As the U.S. has loudly shouted "Democracy!" it's clear what they've really meant was "Order!" It's also clear their primary concern is for the protection of Israel: Egyptian revolutionaries have over and over again called into question the peace treaty signed by Anwar Sadat, even as successive governments including Morsi's have done their part to enforce the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Jumping ahead a moment, the new military regime has been coordinating military attacks against Islamist rebels in northern Sinai with Israel and Israeli drones.

An interim government — again with the backing of the military — organized elections. After a long period of confusing debate a run-off election seemed to exclude both liberal democrats and leftists, forcing Egyptians to choose their new leadership either from a candidate tainted by association with the previous machine, or Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the long-banned Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party and social movement that sought to establish an Islamic State in a multi-sectarian nation. The Ikhwan promised to be more moderate than the far-right Salafist Islamist parties. Morsi won the election, and proceeded to use his new government to undermine democracy and give the Islamist movement permanent advantage. Leftists, liberals and Egypt's significant Coptic Christian population began to get nervous.

Fast forward to this summer, a new movement called "tamarod" ("rebellion") mobilized millions of people back into the streets. Some claimed that the ensuing demonstrations were the largest gathering of human beings ever. The military moved into action quickly, delivering an ultimatum not to the protesters, but to the Morsi government. In July, the military acted, and it deposed Morsi in a quick show of force. Millions celebrated the coup d'etat in the streets, though not the Ikhwan, who recognized that it had been backed into a corner.

A woman protester challenges a cop breaking up an Ikhwan protest encampment

The Brotherhood soon set up its own protest camps in different districts of Cairo. Demonstrations turned violent, and a confrontation seemed imminent. This week, the military acted and attacked those camps. Over just a few days, hundreds maybe thousands of people have been killed, significantly including dozens of members of security forces. A heartbreaking post from an eyewitness on Facebook conveys some of the horror of the military crackdown on the Ikhwan:

"For the first time in my life I thought I wasn't going to make it home. This is a nightmare. After Friday prayer we had the Day of Rage march spilling out of the mosque into the streets. We prayed upon the deceased, wrapped in shrouds at the front of the minbar, their loved ones crying out in pain and raising their hands to the sky. We drove to Ramses, where all of the protests around the country were funneling into a massive one. As soon as I started walking, I saw reporters scurrying here and there with their cameras trying to get into the mobs. Smoke was everywhere...for the first time I experienced tear gas. That stuff hurts. Your eyes water, your throat cracks, you can't see, and the only way to relieve it is to pour pepsi into your eyes or water with yeast and breathe into a cloth. I was walking with my family into the crowd when we saw people running back, warning us not to go, they are firing live ammunition, people are dying. Helicopters are everywhere, dropping tear gas canisters. You can distinguish the crisp shots of live ammunition as opposed to the muffled blunts of the cartouche. I look up and I can see snipers atop the buildings. All of a sudden it is chaos. Everyone is running, everyone is pushing you or pulling you along; on one side there are thugs advancing upon you with sticks, on the other side are snipers and helicopters. The only thing you can do is flatten yourself against the walls of the buildings. One man lost his temper and started screaming in the middle of the streets, almost ripping his clothes off, telling us "WHY ARE YOU SCARED. THEY ARE TEN. WE ARE TEN THOUSAND. STAND YOUR GROUND." None of the protestors were armed. No one. As we advanced ahead, more gunshots, more people with cartouche wounds in their face. Small motorcycles were operating as makeshift ambulances as they urgently puttered back and forth, each time with a different man or woman on it covered in blood, some lifeless, some screaming in pain. There aren't enough motorcycles; some people are holding others like babies and running in the streets to the mosque which is housing injured folk. Dead bodies are being transported atop floor mats. There are mini fires on every corner of the street so as to make smoke so the helicopters don't see clearly. As we turned to head home, we found the street we were on was blocked with thugs. We took a side alleyway, hoping it was safer. As I was walking in the quiet alley, passing by a guy making bean sandwiches, I heard a sharp rat-a-tat-tat and turned to my right. A man not one meter in front of me, RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE, got shot in the head and plopped to the floor, lifeless. His brother was holding him when this happened and started shaking the man's bloody face. He gave one last futile kick...I swear I saw his soul go out of him...and sunk like jello. His brother screamed in anguish...the deepest anguish I've ever seen, and threw himself at my feet. Sobbing uncontrollably, pounding at the floor like an infant, wiping his face and smearing blood everywhere. People picked him up, hugged him, kissed him, consoling him for something that couldn't be consoled. The dead man was carried away, pools of viscous ruby red pouring out of his head on the floor. When I walked home I saw a tank with soldiers sitting on it, stoic expressions on their faces. One woman in hysterics asked them if they were content in their hearts, to which the soldier replied yes, yes I am very content. I don't even know anymore. You can sit behind your computer screen talking politics, talking about churches or mosques or brotherhood or the STUPID word 'islamists' all you want...go ahead. This stuff can't be unseen."Eman Haggag (August 16)

Not clear from this account is the massive division taking place in Egyptian society. It seems the military government has the support of massive numbers of Egyptians. And it's true, even as the Ikhwan is being violently repressed (again, U.S.-supplied teargas and weapons), its supporters have been attacking Christian churches as they retreat.

A statement from Tahrir-ICN, an anarchist network, nails the danger faced by the Egyptian people:

"The events of the past couple of days are the latest step in a sequence of events by which the military can consolidate its hold on power, aim towards the death of the revolution and a return to a military/police state.

The authoritarian regime of the Muslim Brotherhood had to go. But what has replaced it is the true face of the military in Egypt — no less authoritarian, no less fascist and for sure more difficult to depose.

The massacre carried out by the army against pro-Morsi supporters in Nadha Square and Raba’a has left around 500 killed and up to 3000 injured (Ministry of Health figures — the reality is likely much higher). It was a pre-orchestrated act of state terrorism. Its aim is to divide the people and push the Muslim Brotherhood to create more militia’s to revenge and protect themselves. This in turn will enable the army to label all Islamists as terrorists and produce an “internal enemy” in the country which will allow the army to keep the military regime in an ongoing state of emergency.

They go after the Muslim Brotherhood today, but they will come after anyone who dares to criticize them tomorrow. Already the army has declared a state of emergency for one month, giving the police and military exceptional powers, and a curfew has been declared in many provinces for the same amount of time from 7pm to 6am. This gives the army a free hand to crack down on dissent..." (August 15)

A cumpled poster for overthrown President Morsi

So what has happened here? How is it that a revolutionary process that seems to have birthed so much hope all over the world seemingly come to such a terrible, bloody end, with an entrenched military dictatorship stronger than ever?

Let's go back again to Lenin:

"A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organization of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters."

It seems this crucial bit of revolutionary understanding has been lost. Even the Ikhwan, which rightfully saw seizing the government as key to its social agenda, seems to have forgotten that the state is nothing without the naked power of the military. The working-class communist left was destroyed by the radical nationalist Nasser in the 1950s. As happened across the Middle East, repression by rightward drifting nationalist forces drove a Leninist understanding of the state underground. While Egypt has a new generation of left organizations, none of these seems to have a strong mass base. The Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists, for instance, seems to have bravely taken part in these two years of revolution, even losing martyrs to the repression. But in the end the Revolutionary Socialists supported the election of Morsi that has led to this predictable conclusion.

In my opinion, what the tragic unfolding of events in Egypt teaches us are some of the limits of horizontalism. Who could fail to be inspired by millions of people going out in the streets? Who could fail to be inspired by the new reality created in the mass democracy of the squares? In the early days of the revolution in 2011 there was some discussion of popular and factory committees, suggesting some will toward parallel horizontal self-reorganization of society; I can't tell how widespread or continued this movement was. But it's clear that this inspiring movement of people into the streets never challenged the real source of power of the Egyptian state. Indeed, Egyptian popular reverence for the military is repeated in news accounts ad nauseum. The whole world crossed its fingers and hoped that the Egyptian people would win, would win a new reality. How could millions of people in the streets, a scale unimaginable in the United States, lose? And yet, here we are.

What seems misunderstood to me in a horizontalist, or anarchist, critique of Leninist tradition, is the notion of how revolutionaries should organize. Horizontalists deride "vanguardists" for substituting themselves for the people, for being the seed of a future organized class of self-privileged dictatorship. I agree with anarchists that this is a danger, documented by certain historical failures. But what if the role of revolutionary leadership is to preserve the memory of theoretical and historical lessons? The capitalist state seems to well understand where its power comes from. In today's world it's true that not a lot of people are listening to communists, and there are lots of reasons why this is true, many of them excellent. But communist — Leninist — theory is rich with an understanding of the power of the state, and I think that it is incumbent on communists to offer up a bit of leadership by telling the truths it has learned about how revolutions unfold.

Egypt proves that none of this is an abstraction:

“According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army. Some people ridicule us as advocates of the "omnipotence of war". Yes, we are advocates of the omnipotence of revolutionary war; that is good, not bad, it is Marxist. The guns of the Russian Communist Party created socialism. We shall create a democratic republic. Experience in the class struggle in the era of imperialism teaches us that it is only by the power of the gun that the working class and the laboring masses can defeat the armed bourgeoisie and landlords; in this sense we may say that only with guns can the whole world be transformed.”Mao Zedong (1938)

The Egyptian revolution should remain an inspiration to all of us. It was a brilliant display of popular power, faults and all. Lenin talks about Marx's attitude toward the heroic Paris Commune, which was crushed in 1871:

"It is well known that in the autumn of 1870, a few months before the Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, in March 1871, a decisive battle was forced upon the workers and they accepted it, when the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the proletarian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm, in spite of unfavorable auguries.... Marx, however, was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards, who, as he expressed it, "stormed heaven". Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx endeavored to analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it." 

So many popular movements have been successful in the past few decades, even though they may have not been socially transformative or socialist revolutions, it's hard to see this one apparently collapse. And sadly it probably won't be the last time the people are defeated as blood runs in the streets. We remember the 1960s as the decade when the Vietnamese were waging their ultimately victorious struggle against US imperialism, but we forget that was also the decade when half a million Indonesian communists were killed in a counterrevolution. So this is an opportunity to learn, and prepare ourselves for the next time.

What if the Occupy movement had been stronger? We saw how much the state felt threatened, how repression, albeit non-lethal repression, was quickly (and ultimately successfully) wielded to crush occupations across the country. What were the limits of our own radically rebellious horizontalism? While I think it would have been silly to suggest getting guns and running off to the woods to practice armed struggle, for equal reasons I think it would also be wrong, as some leftists are suggesting to the post-Occupy milieu, to channel all that rebellious energy to fielding electoral candidates. We must create and build popular power, but never forget the enemy we are up against. When there are millions and millions of Americans out in the street— and I believe this will happen one day — we will need to be there to share the lessons of history, and "The people united will never be defeated" is inspirational but incomplete.

(Crossposted to the Kasama Project).


  1. Hello Ish, here I am again at your doorstep and as always in awe of your ability to express yourself on matters I am just trying to scratch the surface of understanding.

    Last May I was in Egypt - Alexandria where I took a tour to visit various sights in and around Cairo and Giza. Our guide was a woman that was quite knowledgeable and also was very outspoken about the Muslim Brotherhood. She had been quite an activist, especially when it came to women's rights, so much so she had been banned from entering some of the small villages there.

    Little did I know that in a couple of months all hell would break loose on the streets where I was playing American Tourist. I smell a rat in the current U.S. position on the "un-coup" taking place. But then I am more than disgusted at how we are continually lied to by our government. Politics as usual, does it ever change?

    I had held out hope that OWS was going to be an answer for the wrongs going on in our own country. Sad that it did not work. But in retrospect I think the problem with America is "too" - too much comfort, too much money in the wrong places, too much power in the hands of a few, too much complacency... need I continue?

    One day America will wake up and realize that the very class they are stomping out - the middle class - is the very class that is the backbone of America.

    When the top 1% gets to heavy the laws of gravity will take over and it will topple. And while we wait for that day to come there will be many innocent victims that will be paying a price to just exist.

    Keep up the good work. Hope you are doing well.


  2. Thanks Annie! So nice to hear from you. I was following your cruise on your blog a bit; sounded amazing. Coincidentally I had another friend visiting Egypt recently who reported back to me how amazingly different reality was from what we are presented with here.

    You know, despite it all, I remain an optimist. People are amazing: people can do anything, and sooner or later, we will.

    much love to you.