Egyptian political and activist groups are to build fresh mass demonstrations on Friday 8 July demanding that plans to hold elections in September are dropped. Alex Snowdon looks at the tensions behind the protest call.

Egyptian protestor with flagThe Guardian reports on plans by Egyptian political and activist groups to build fresh mass demonstrations on Friday 8 July. It is informative, but doesn’t entirely grasp the dynamics of what is happening. We are told:

‘Egyptian activists have threatened to bring mass pro-democracy protests back to Cairo, with a “million-strong” occupation of Tahrir Square planned for 8 July unless the ruling army generals abandon their current “roadmap” to democracy. In an increasingly rancorous debate, which has developed into a proxy war between the nation’s fledgling Islamist and secular political forces, 40 different liberal and leftist movements have joined forces to demand that plans to hold elections in September are dropped.’

The article overstates the extent to which what’s unfolding is an Islamist vs secular conflict. It correspondingly downplays what is really crucial here, which is a conflict in visions of democracy, i.e. a political difference, one that isn’t primarily concerned with Islamism.

In the continuing revolution in Egypt there are, broadly speaking, two versions of democracy competing with each other. The military council and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood – the strongest political force, post-Mubarak – tend towards a conservative view, seeking a standard parliamentary republic like we have here in the West.

The Muslim Brotherhood is keen on early elections (September) partly for opportunistic reasons – it is well established and gains from not allowing less developed and organised forces from having time to build their influence. But its leaders also desperately want to keep control of the revolutionary process and limit it to modest democratic reforms.

The Brotherhood was an important oppositional movement during the Mubarak years, one that was viciously persecuted by a highly repressive security apparatus. It initially lagged behind the protestors during the 18 tumultuous days of revolutionary upheaval which began on 25 January, and concluded with the downfall of Hosni Mubarak on 12 February.

Those mass protests were initiated by youth and left-wing groups, but the Brotherhood became part of the revolution as it grew. The real danger is its capacity for reformist compromise, not the Western media’s bogeyman of an Islamist, Iran-style theocracy.

The military council, which rules in the interim period before elections take place, also wants to limit the scope of change, while maintaining the army’s influence after the elections and preserving its economic interests (most military top brass are wealthy and have a personal stake in business interests going unchallenged).

The alternative vision comes – in differing degrees – from a range of liberal and left groups, youth organisations and new workers’ associations in the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. Many of these are organisationally embryonic, but they express a widespread desire to pursue the revolution.

Democracy, for them, includes mass demonstrations, independent trade unions, the right to strike, popular democratic forums and women’s rights. Democracy therefore isn’t simply a matter of getting the constitution right or electing professional politicians to a new parliament, necessary and worthwhile as these things are. It is broader and more participatory than that.

This is the movement symbolised by Tahrir Square: having fought in their millions to end the old regime, in the process creating their own mass democratic assemblies, why should they now simply acquiesce in a Western-style order?

It has repeatedly mobilised, including large-scale protests on Nakba Day (15 May) and again on 27 May, when hundreds of thousands of protestors re-occupied Tahrir. Demonstrations took place in other Egyptian cities too. These, and other, protests have put enormous pressure on the ruling military council.

The revolutionary movement is also raising crucial social and economic issues, like increased pay and job creation. Mass pressure from below has previously forced both democratic and economic concessions from the interim regime, but a huge amount more needs to be done.

The continuing struggle for ‘real democracy’, to use the phrase popularised by the mass movement in Spain, is intertwined with battles against economic exploitation and inequalities. The main challenge for the Egyptian left is to mobilise large turnouts for co-ordinated protests on 8 July, which link the fight for real democracy to economic and social struggles, articulating a more radical vision for Egypt (and the wider Arab world) than the reformist Muslim Brotherhood and military leaderships.

Mass mobilisations on 8 July can strengthen the partially developed popular assemblies which are emerging as radical democratic forms. They can also provide the basis for left-wing organisations, such as the Popular Alliance Party, developing as serious and influential political players ahead of the elections.

Luna17 Activist

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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