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‘The People Demand the Overthrow of the Regime’ echoed through a packed Tahrir Square again last Friday. But then the regime struck back. John Rees looks at the balance of forces.

protestors and riot police inTahrir square clashes

It was called ‘The Friday of One Demand’ and it turned into one of the biggest demonstrations in Tahrir since the fall of Mubarak in February. It was also one of the most united demonstrations since the fall of Mubarak. It was made up of the youth coalitions, the Popular Committees, the left and, importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood - and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians not closely allied to any organisation. There was indeed ‘one demand’: that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body that took over from Mubarak, leave power in favour of an elected government. In another parallel with the 18 days of the original insurrection the demonstration in Tahrir was matched by demonstrations in Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities.

After the demonstration in Tahrir, emboldened by its size, a relatively small group of protestors, among them those injured in fighting during the 18 days, stayed on to occupy the square. On Saturday the hated Central Security Forces (CSF) and the police started attacking the demonstrators and attempted to clear the square. This began a battle which lasted all day, all night and into Sunday. Thousands of protestors returned to Tahrir to battle with the police, including the Ultras, supporters of Cairo’s two football clubs. In yet another echo of the 18 days these normally fierce rivals joined forces to fight the police, as they did in the days of the ‘camel battle’. The independent unions joined the crowds. The crackdown was brutal and lethal. New forms of tear-gas, manufactured in the US, were used. So were rubber bullets and, in a new departure, buckshot. At least eight protestors are dead and two more have lost an eye, one of them in fighting in Alexandria. Reports, likely to be an underestimate, say that 700 have been injured.

To understand what is at stake in this latest phase of the revolution we need to be clear about what has gone before. Firstly we need to be accurate about what caused the fall of Mubarak in the first place.

There were three forces which broke Mubarak’s rule: the mass protests of millions of Egyptians, the escalation of strike action in the last days before Mubarak fell and the emerging splits in the armed forces. These three elements were of course closely interrelated, but they were all necessary for the regime to crack. The demonstrations were the bedrock of the revolution: they destroyed the police and the CSF, the state’s most important line of defence, in days of open fighting, especially on Friday 28th January. And, after two weeks of mass mobilisations, they gave workers the confidence to begin a wave of strike action. But even the demonstrations and the strikes would not have succeeded if the armed forces had not begun to fragment. We now know from Libya, Syria, Yemen and other places that if the armed forces agree to continue to fight for the regime the revolutionary process will be much longer and bloodier - even where there are general strikes, as there have been in Yemen and Syria. But in Egypt the fraying of the armed forces' loyalty began early: air force officers refused to strafe Tahrir Square in the first week of the revolution, as Mubarak ordered them to do. Senior officers went on TV to guarantee that they would not attack demonstrators on the eve of the great day of mass mobilisation, Tuesday 1st February. And in the days immediately before Mubarak fell middle ranking officers, in and out of uniform, were joining the crowds in Tahrir. No regime can stand a simultaneous onslaught from mass mobilisations by millions, strikes and the threat of fragmentation among the armed forces.

Some vulgar Marxist accounts of the revolution attempt to reduce the fall of Mubarak simply to industrial action by workers. This is wrong because it misunderstands what happens in the opening phase of a revolution and it prevents us from understanding the post-Mubarak political landscape in Egypt. Most revolutions do not open with a fully mobilised working class as the key force in the revolution. Even the February revolution in Russia in 1917 was not like this. On the contrary, most revolutions start because a regime, or its figurehead (the Tsar, Mubarak), has lost legitimacy among a wide section of society, including much of the middle class and even some of the ruling class. It is critical in this process, indeed almost definitional of a successful revolution, that the armed forces of the state are defeated, split or in some other way rendered at least partially inoperative. This process cannot be understood as merely epiphenomena of strike action. In Egypt it had two causes. One was pressure from below, both from the mass demonstrations and the strikes. But it also resulted from the ruling classes’ desire to save the regime, and critically the unity of the army, by throwing Mubarak to the ‘mob’.

Thus the outcome of the first phase of the Egyptian revolution produced a stand-off between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the ‘25th January Revolution’. The revolution could count the fall of the dictator and his subsequent trial and that of his family and other regime figures, the dismemberment of the police, and the subsequent sacking of the security forces’ headquarters in Cairo and Alexandria among its victories. Most importantly, after the fall of Mubarak, the level of strike action and the formation of independent unions rose almost exponentially. The initial victory of the revolution swept millions of workers into action and made their presence much more central to the continued fate of the revolution than they had been in its opening phase. Again, the same process happened in Russia in 1917.

But the regime has also regrouped. SCAF’s strategic aim is to move quickly to a weak electoral process which will construct a facade of civilian government behind which it will still exercise considerable power, as the army has long done in Egyptian society. The army has tried to enact a law that bans strikes and protests. It has arrested some 12,000 activists and tried them in military, not civilian, courts. Most recently, in a signal case, it jailed well known activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah. And the army has repeatedly attacked demonstrators in Tahrir, including the Women’s Day demonstration on the 8th March, demonstrations by Coptic Christians and by protestors outside the Israeli embassy. Even the parliamentary elections which are set to begin this month will take 3 months to complete! All this has exhausted the considerable political capital that the army accumulated by refusing to open fire on the revolution during the 18 days. Then the popular slogan was ‘the people and the army are one hand’. Now the slogan is ‘the people demand the Field-Marshall must go’, a reference to Field-Marshall Tantawi, the head of the SCAF government.

This opposition to SCAF, and the calls for a Second Revolution to remove it, were becoming louder in the early summer with some important mobilisations in Tahrir. But it has reached a new peak now. Partly this is because the deputy Prime Minister, Ali El-Selmi, made proposals which reserved special powers for the army in any new constitutional arrangements. This helped push the Muslim Brotherhood back into the camp of the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood has at crucial junctures since the fall of Mubarak sided with the regime against the protestors in Tahrir. They, like the regime, want a quick electoral process but for their own reasons: they are the longest standing and best organised opposition force and they think that they will gain most from the regime’s electoral timetable. But El-Selmi’s proposals, that initially included two controversial articles that would have granted the Egyptian army exclusive powers over its budget and internal affairs, shielding it from parliamentary oversight, were a last straw. The Brotherhood are vacillating between supporting SCAF and supporting new mobilisations according to their calculations about whether the regime is allowing them enough room to emerge successfully from the convoluted electoral process. These will not even allow a President to be elected before 2013. To attract Muslim Brotherhood supporters permanently to the side of the revolution (and the youth wing of the Brotherhood has already split away over the parent body’s opposition to the summer mobilisations in Tahrir) will need continuing momentum to be generated by the left and the workers movement.

So what are the conditions under which this new confrontation with the regime could be successful? One thing is certain: a simple combination of socialist propaganda and strikes, no matter how desirable these things are, will not do the trick on their own. There are plenty of both already and it is not visibly taking the movement forward. There is a vital third element that is missing: an alternative centre of power which institutionalises the forces of the revolution. There is, in a sense, already dual power in Egypt. The army is one source of power and the other source of power is the ‘Republic of Tahrir’ (i.e. the constant mobilisation of revolutionary forces including, but not limited to, the demonstrations in Tahrir). But the army has (and is rebuilding) state power as its weapon and the revolutionary forces are not creating their own institutional form of power, like the workers, soldiers and peasant councils of the Russian revolution or, even, the National Assembly of the French Revolution. One of the reasons that the Tunisian revolution has made a faster transition away from the old regime is because it did at least create some form of popular representation, whatever the weaknesses of the regime that has emerged so far. Such an institution would make the revolution stronger by allowing it to co-ordinate and concentrate its forces and political demands. It would allow the working class to emerge as the leader of all the oppressed and exploited and not just act as (and be portrayed by SCAF as) a sectional economic interest. It would allow revolutionary socialist forces the platform to get their strategy and tactics heard by a far larger audience.

Revolutions disorganise the whole of society, including pre-existing revolutionary organisations. One might almost be tempted to say that revolutionaries can deal with anything except a revolution. This is to be expected. Those preparing for revolution in advance have only past revolutions to guide them. Yet each new revolution is inevitably a combination of old patterns with new patterns which are absolutely unique and which require fresh thought and new solutions. This tension between the old and the new tends to split revolutionary parties during revolutions. Famously the Bolsheviks were divided almost to the point of destruction over whether or not to oppose the Provisional government that emerged from the February revolution and to call for a second revolution, as well as over a host of other strategic and tactical issues. The main revolutionary organisation in Egypt split in the years approaching the revolution and has further fragmented during it. This need not be a fatal weakness as long as the revolutionaries who are clear about what needs to be done assemble their own forces and those of their sympathisers around a strategy to take the revolution forward at this critical juncture.

Critical to this development is the relationship between the most advanced fighters of the revolution and the mass of the oppressed and exploited in Egyptian society. Tamer Wageeh of the Socialist Renewal Current highlights a problem which also exists in the global anti-capitalist movement. He says that those who began the sit-in in the square on Friday are heroic fighters but they have little strategic sense of how to connect their fight with a wider mobilisation of workers and the oppressed. He says the revolutionary vanguard has to patiently explain its case against SCAF, and against liberal strategies of just pressurising SCAF into a better electoral process, to wider layers of the workers movement and Egyptian society. Tamer also reports that the debate about creating a national institution which can become an organising focus for the revolution’s forces is now in train in Egypt.

In short that strategy should be: no compromise with SCAF; for a Popular Assembly of all revolutionary forces; full support for the workers struggles; for workers to take a political lead in defending every oppressed and exploited section of society against the SCAF government. If these developments, or something like them, do not take place soon then the counter-revolution will gain an advantage, perhaps a decisive advantage.

Tagged under: Middle East Egypt
John Rees

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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