The tension between the old state and the revolution is re-emerging. If the revolution is to be successful, the army will have to be won over, and popular committees created, argues John Rees.
The period between the referendum on constitutional amendments on 19th March and today has been crucial in determining the future of the Egyptian revolution. The day of the referendum was a triumph for the revolution, but the result was a defeat.
The vote itself was a triumph because this was a day that Mubarak and the old regime never wanted to see. Millions of Egyptians went to the polls in the first ever fair elections. They queued for hours to get into the polling stations in scenes reminiscent of the first post-Apartheid elections in South Africa. Only a genuine revolution could have made this day possible.
But the amendments which the ruling armed forces put forward were the most marginal constitutional changes that they thought would be acceptable. They were supported by Mubarak’s old party, the NDP, and by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Army and the Muslim Brotherhood put forward amendments favoring same system and disadvantaging new candidates in forthcoming elections. Those in the No camp were most of the left and those in the forefront of the revolutionary movement plus the youth sections of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The result, a 77 percent Yes vote, bolstered the Army administration. In the wake of the vote the Army has on more than one occasion used force to dispel protestors in Tahrir Square - a task previously left to the police and the hated Central Security Forces. The Egyptian cabinet then approved a draft law that criminalizes strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins that affect the economy in any way. The proposed law also assigns severe punishment to those who call for or incite action, with the maximum sentence one year in prison and fines of up to half a million Egyptian pounds.
But the revolution has rebuilt its forces.
The continued struggle of the workers is one central reason why it has been able to do so. Industrial action remains at a very high level. In the universities, the media and other places this is combined with campaigns to clear out the old Mubarak era administrations.
From this bedrock the demonstrations in Tahrir Square on Fridays have also been rebuilt. The demonstration last Friday, 8th April, was the largest in over a month. And it was militant. Palestinian flags were the second most visible after the Egyptian flag itself. A substantial section of the march, numbering thousands on most reports, then went on to protest at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the first time this has happened.
On the main protest itself some 15 uniformed officers joined in the demonstration and echoed the demand for Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Army, to stand down. This is the most visible split in the Army since the 18 days of the revolution.
The Army high command did nothing while the main demonstration was taking place. But later in the evening as smaller numbers prepared to stay overnight in Tahrir Square the Army launched a violent attack on the protesters killing at least two, one of whom seems to have been a protesting army officer. The Muslim Brotherhood has described those protesting against the military as ‘zealots’, and has refused to support their demonstrations: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood condemns any attempt to weaken [the military's relationship with the people], and especially attempts to cause any split between the military and the people or to pit them against each other.’
But in fact the attack on the protesters has dramatized the growing rift between the revolution and Army. The chant is now ‘the people demand the downfall of the Field Marshall’. And many people have been further angered by Egypt's Military Court sentencing blogger Maikel Nabil to a three year sentence for his blog post entitled ‘The army and the people were never one hand.’ The blog entry included an in-depth analysis of the role the army has so far played throughout the 25 January Revolution. Nabil was accused of ‘insulting the military’ and ‘disturbing public security.’
But even as the anger against the Army rises it is essential that the revolutionaries and the left acknowledge that the Army is not a monolith. The rank and file are poor conscripts who have the same interests as the protestors and the workers. If the revolution is to be successful they will have to be won, or a sizable proportion of them will have be won, to the side of the revolution. Indeed it is almost a definition of a successful revolution that it divides the armed forces.
The Army seems uncertain how to proceed. On Sunday, 10th April they allowed Hosni Mubarak to make an audio tape which was then played on the Saudi-based Al Arabiya TV channel. Mubarak’s short speech was a masterpiece of special pleading in which he complained that his character was being defamed, that he would take action against his accusers to clear his name, and that he had no financial assets hidden abroad.
Disbelief and anger were the most common reactions. Seemingly appalled by the reaction to this blunder, the government immediately brought Mubarak to Cairo from his villa in Sharm El Sheikh and promised that he would be questioned over the killings during the revolution and over his financial dealings.
What these weeks since the referendum show is that the tension between the old state and the revolution is re-emerging and that the trust placed in the Army because of its role in the events of the 18 days is now being eroded.
They Army want an elite transition in which democracy is defined by an electoral procedure which installs elite politicians who will not challenge the fundamentals of the economic power in Egypt.
But for the revolution the fundamental aspect of democracy is not only elections but, more importantly, the rights to free assembly, to free speech, to organise, to strike, to meet, to form unions and to protest. And it is precisely these democratic freedoms which the army is out to break as effective forms of action.
Egyptian revolutionaries are now learning in a practical way what the left in the ‘western democracies’ have long experienced: elections and the freedom to protest can be just as easily be contradictory as they can be mutually sustaining. De Gaulle used an election to end the uprising of 1968 in France in exactly the same way that the Egyptian Army attempted to use the referendum in March to end the Egyptian revolution.
Elections favour the rich and already powerful against the poor and powerless. They mobilize the most passive against the most active. In the referendum many not involved in the revolution, though not hostile to it, were mobilized to vote Yes. No doubt many thought this was the best way to embed the gains of the revolution and did not think that it would aid those that wanted to curtail the revolution. Referendums in particular are blunt electoral instruments that favour those already in power who get to set the terms of a Yes or no debate with a minimum of wider political argument. What is necessary to counter this form of electoral structure is to create elected bodies which directly represent the revolution and minimize the intermediary interference of the state, the media and the rich.
This is why popular committees have arisen in so many revolutions: they can directly represent workers, peasants and rank and file soldiers in against the power of the bosses, landlords and generals.
The Egyptian revolution has the raw capacity to resist the old order, as can be seen from the continuing strikes and protests. It must now search for a way of embodying, collectively, this force. The industrial struggle is already at a high level. What needs to happen now is that committees for the defence of the revolution are formed which allow the left and the workers to pull behind them all the elements of the democratic revolution that are willing to continue fighting. In this way the maximum force is unified and it prevents either syndicalist strategies emerging among the workers or purely democratic strategies without social or economic content developing among the 25th January movement. This will make it more difficult for the Army high command to divide the workers from the 25th January revolutionaries and to get an elite transition to a fake 'democracy'.
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.
More articles from this author
- Ring the bells of Old Bailey: judge halts Assange extradition
- The spy who never came in from the cold
- Revolutionaries and trade unions - video
- Corbyn suspension: seven lessons of the Starmer witch-hunt
- Trump is in charge of the political prosecution of Julian Assange
- Assange extradition trial: The prosecution's case does not hold water
- The Assange case: the people have the power