Shaimaa al-Sabbagh died of her injuries shortly after this photo was taken. Photo: Reuters Shaimaa al-Sabbagh died of her injuries shortly after this photo was taken. Photo: Reuters

Two young women shot dead on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the revolution but, asks John Rees, how did ‘order’ come to rule in Cairo?

It’s all there in an instant: El Sisi’s police gun down two young women as they try to lay flowers at Tahrir Square on the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

The young women, Shimaa Sabagh and Sondos Rida, the latter just 17 years old, were on a protest called yesterday by the Socialist Popular Alliance Party.

The new protest law passed by El Sisi in 2013 outlaws demonstrations that aren’t previously agreed with the police. This one was. It made no difference, the police opened fire anyway.

This is the perfect expression of the counter-revolution in Egypt. Tahrir, the cradle of the revolution, is cordoned off with barbed wire.

El Sisi meanwhile is lauded in Davos by the very same leaders who, so recently, were the Je Suis Charlies of Paris. El Sisi barely pauses before moving on to mourn the death of the Saudi tyrant, his principal international backer, by cancelling the official 25 January celebrations and replacing them with commemoration for the globe’s most prolific beheader.

Many leftists and liberals are now in jail: from January 25 revolutionaries to Al Jazeera journalists; revolutionary socialists to bloggers. Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of the best known, is seriously ill from the effects of his hunger strike. He is not alone.

But the number of leftists is a fraction of the number of Muslim Brotherhood members who have been killed, jailed and tortured.

Could the course of events run differently?

Perhaps, if the left had paid more attention to building institutions of popular power that could have challenged the deep state which remained all through the fall of Mubarak, the rise and fall of Morsi, and the triumph of the counter-revolution.

The revolutionaries were heroic in pushing the mobilisations in Tahrir and elsewhere that were decisive in the overthrow of Mubarak. Nothing can ever diminish the respect and admiration due to them for that, or the long years of opposition without which the revolution would not have happened. Nor can they be faulted for their insistence on the centrality of Egypt’s workers to any further development of the revolution. But it was a fault to imagine that this would simply emerge out of industrial struggles without the creation of political institutions that would draw the organised workers on to the ground on which the fate of the nation was actually being decided.

This was a sin of omission. Others were responsible for sins of commission.

Events would certainly have been different if the Morsi presidency had not paved the way for its own demise by presiding over the deep state’s attempts to crush popular resistance. Who first appointed El Sisi? President Morsi. Hubris begat nemesis.

The broad left opposition to Mubarak, led by figures like Hamdeen Sabhy and labour leader Kamal Abuaita, then made the fatal error of uniting with old regime Mubarak flunkeys like Amr Moussa, against Morsi. This was a disorientating and fatal abdication of principle which helped isolate the left and give the Army the confidence to mount the July 3rd coup.

But the far left also made a crucial error at the time of the El Sisi coup. So angered by the failure of the Morsi presidency to carry forward the revolution, it could not distinguish between those in government and those in power.

Even when Brotherhood members were being shot in hundreds at the Rabaa square protest the revolutionary left persisted in the ‘plague on both your houses’ line. They even set up a ‘Third Square’ protest aimed equally at the Brotherhood, now being murdered and tortured by El Sisi, and El Sisi himself.

Naturally El Sisi increasingly took the chance to move against the left as well as the Brotherhood. The most direct historical parallel is when Russian Army General Kornilov moved against the Provisional government of Alexander Kerensky during the Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks defended Kerensky even though his government was repressing them. They knew if they did not, they would be next. In Egypt it was as if the Bolsheviks had decided there was nothing to choose between Kornilov and Kerensky. Instead of uniting with Kerensky against Kornilov and then triumphing over both, they divided the revolutions forces in the face of the deep state. It was a text book failure.

Unity might not have stopped the coup, but it would without question have strengthened the resistance to it.

This disastrous ultra-leftism has only recently been partially abandoned, though without a clear reckoning or understanding of the error.

The reaction to the recent deaths and the continued resistance of Brotherhood supporters shows that the spirit of the revolution still flows in underground channels. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Order rules in Cairo’. But not as securely as it might seem.

Nevertheless the road back is long and dark, as long and dark as it once was under Mubarak. Time to set our faces against the prevailing wind, find allies where we can, do what we must, learn our lessons anew.

Film of Shimaa Sabagh being carried away after she was shot

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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