North Africa, West Asia

From revolution to reaction in Egypt

Young people's experience of revolution has not evaporated, or been eradicated by oppression. Start building a new revolutionary wave that will not fall prey to the 'Islamic vs. secular' division.

Sameh Naguib
12 February 2016

Press Association/AP/Virginie Nguyen Hoang. All rights reserved.Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of Mubarak's ouster, but the current conditions in Egypt do not match the jubilation that erupted onto the streets on February 11, 2011. The government has revved up its repressive tactics, lashing out in an unprecedented manner, and no one is immune.  

On 25 January, Giulio Regeni, an Italian Phd candidate at Cambridge researching independent unions in Egypt, went missing near Tahrir – despite the security lockdown in the area. His body was found nine days later bearing the signs of “inhuman” torture. The Egyptian security forces deny any involvement, but it is far from impossible that he was killed at their hands.

In the last week, 20 students in Alexandria are victims of forced disappearance. Police threatened and assaulted doctors in Matareya Hospital, demanding that they fabricate a medical report. Hundreds have disappeared only to turn up dead later. Thousands are detained, awaiting the political expediency of a presidential pardon, the ‘justice’ of the courts, or the interminable (l)anguish that is the fate of so many unknown prisoners. In the run up to 25 January, security forces raided flats around Tahrir, arts and culture centres, and in the months preceding it they detained artistsactivists, journalistsstudentsyouth and banned human rights defenders from traveling. Visiting academics and even writers close to the regime are included in the campaign to quell all and any kind of opposition.

It seems unthinkable that in this climate any will to resist would survive, and yet it persists in places all over Egypt. It hardly has anywhere to go, given that the demands of the revolution, whether economic, social, or political have not been met, and that oppression is rampant. This is true for everyone, even those who think that their revolution was that of 30 June; their demand for stability has not been met either. In this interview excerpt, Sameh Naguib gives his perspective on the nature of the counter-revolution and the scale of its oppression, reasons for optimism, and how progressives in Egypt might move forward.

From the moment that the military tossed out Mubarak, the whole point was to use his ouster as a concession in the hopes of bringing the mass mobilisation in Tahrir Square under control and blunt and contain it. Immediately, the forces of counterrevolution began strategising about the steps necessary to do so. Can you talk about the various sources of the counterrevolution, and what their means and goals were?

Sameh Naguib: It's important when discussing counterrevolution to understand what exactly we are talking about. The role played by the Muslim Brotherhood towards the Egyptian revolution was one of betrayal – a classical betrayal by a reformist non-revolutionary movement. It attempted to broker a deal with the old regime to get a place at the table and to share power with the old regime. Yet it failed to do so.

The Muslim Brotherhood was not a central part of the counterrevolution. You could say that it was understandably the first beneficiary of the revolution, in the sense that it was the first freely elected political force that came to power – in formal terms, at least – in the wake of the revolution. But it was also the first victim of the counterrevolution. It's important to understand this because some people blithely talk about "two wings" of the counterrevolution – the Muslim Brotherhood being the religious wing and the army being the military wing – as if this was a fight between two sides of a counterrevolution.

This is an extremely reductionist view of the process of revolution and counterrevolution. People did not go out and vote in the millions for the Muslim Brotherhood because they were voting for a counterrevolution. No, they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out the demands of the revolution. It was only when the Muslim Brotherhood betrayed the revolution that we began to see a movement against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood lost support because: one, it generally continued the policies of the Mubarak regime, particularly neoliberalism; two, it refused to carry out any serious investigations into the role of the military in Egypt in the violence during the revolutionary upsurge; three, it refused to try the police brass for their role in the deaths of Egyptian revolutionaries; and four, it refused to change Egyptian foreign policy with respect to the US and Israel.

All of this produced a radicalisation that led to a movement in 2012 and 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate elected in June 2012.

But again, it's important to understand that there were two types of opposition to the Morsi regime. The first was an opposition that wanted to continue the 2011 revolution by either forcing the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out the demands of the revolution or by removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power, as it did the Mubarak regime, and replacing it with a more representative political force that would actually reflect the demands of the revolution. This was the left-wing opposition to the Morsi regime.

But there was also a right-wing opposition to the Morsi regime organised by the remnants of the old regime, who were joined by liberals, leftists and nationalists who were part of the revolution in early 2011, but saw the Muslim Brotherhood in power as a bigger threat than the return of the old regime. So they didn't mind aligning themselves with the old regime against the Muslim Brotherhood. They didn't even mind when the military began openly speaking of intervening against the Morsi regime.

That is why the events in mid-2013 were so confusing. On 30 June, 2013, millions all across Egypt marched against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Days later, on 3 July, 2013, the military swept Morsi from power and again installed its generals at the head of the state. These events were confusing because a section of demonstrators represented those pushing for a radicalisation of the revolution. People were realising the limits of the Muslim Brotherhood, realising that the Muslim Brotherhood was just becoming a buffer to protect the regime. People wanted to remove that buffer and continue the struggle against the old regime. But here, we need to be careful about the term "people," because unfortunately, that was not what all the people who mobilised on 30 June wanted.

The old regime, particularly the military and security apparatuses, used the crisis and the paralysis of the Muslim Brotherhood in power to begin what turned out to be the real counterrevolution. They sought to mobilise large sections of the middle class in Egypt around the idea that both the revolution and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood could only result in anarchy and instability, and thus that it's crucial to return to security and stability – after all, we don't want to end up like Syria or Iraq or Libya.

This was a central argument in the mobilisation against Morsi from the right. This paved the way for Sisi to come to power, and it was how it was possible to generate the coup against Morsi and start a process of counterrevolution far surpassing anything we've seen so far in terms of repression and violence.

We should understand revolution as a process, but the word process can be confusing because revolution is both a process and a set of events, or really an "ensemble of events." So the 18 days of protest between 25 January and the fall of Mubarak on 11 February are central events in the Egyptian Revolution, but they also represent the start of a process. The same thing applies to the counterrevolution. It involves events, such as the 30 June mass marches and 3 July coup d'etat, but it also starts another process or "ensemble of events" in the opposite direction to the revolution. The first victim of this counterrevolution was the Muslim Brotherhood.

So it doesn't make much sense to talk about two sides of a counterrevolution fighting each other. To illustrate the point, what would you call the left and the Nasserists and the other forces that aligned themselves with Sisi, that supported the July 3 coup, that supported the massacres, that supported the anti-protest laws and other repressive laws proposed by Sisi, and that continue to support the regime today? Wouldn't they be counterrevolutionary as well? If so, what does that leave us with? That leaves us with three wings to this counterrevolution!

And it leads to an argument that Engels talked about – the idea of one reactionary mass on the one hand and a hypothetical revolutionary force, a kind of pure revolutionary force, on the other. The world doesn't work that way, and Egypt definitely doesn't work that way. Things are much more complicated. The Muslim Brotherhood is a much more contradictory and complicated movement.

The forces of revolution and counterrevolution – and understanding these two processes and the struggle that was and continues to be carried out in Egypt – is much more complicated than these oversimplifications.

Two more important points to make: One, the coup of 2013 was an attack on the revolution – it's a clear step in the direction of the counterrevolution we've been witnessing for the last two years. The takeover of power, the coup that took place in 2011, was a defensive move, was a move backwards, was a concession to a rising movement. This difference is extremely important, because many people confused the mass mobilisations that led to the fall of Morsi with the mass mobilisations that led to the fall of Mubarak.

It's important to note that the biggest demonstrations on 30 June, 2013, included policemen in full uniform, included military men in full uniform, included army helicopters with Egyptian flags "protecting" people on the marches, with nationalist anthems and songs being sung. Not a single policeman was attacked, not a single army person was attacked, not a single state institution was attacked – this was not a revolutionary mobilisation.

The June 30 mobilisation, as I mentioned, included both a left- and a right-wing opposition, but the main thrust of the mobilisation was – and this is especially clear now in hindsight – quite the opposite of the 18 days of protest that led to the fall of Mubarak.

Given the situation you describe, what are the tasks of the left in Egypt today?

Sameh Naguib: First, it's important to be clear that the process of counterrevolution is ongoing since the coup on 3 July, 2013. The level of repression is much worse than it was under the Mubarak regime. More than 3,000 people have been killed, hundreds have disappeared, and more than 50,000 political prisoners are languishing in jail. The judiciary has become an open tool in the hands of the military regime, and the number of death sentences and life sentences handed out to political opponents of the regime are on a scale that the Mubarak regime would never have dreamed of.

This makes sense given that the forces of counterrevolution understand the need to break the spirit of the revolution, to shatter the confidence gained by the people of Egypt in 2011. That spirit hasn't been broken yet, and that's why we see these very high levels of repression.

The extent to which they are scared by the fifth anniversary of the revolution is remarkable. Across Cairo and in all the other major Egyptian cities, the military has positioned tanks and armored cars and arrested activists of all sorts in order to make sure that no serious demonstrations take place on 25 January, 2016. They want to create a climate of fear and intimidation. These are not the actions of a self-confident regime, now more than two years after the coup. It is still in no sense stable or confident of its own rule.

There are several things for us to be optimistic about. The first is that the regime has had to go back to its old ways. For example, the parliament that has just been elected is mainly made up of either old members of the National Democratic Party, former generals from the army or the internal security forces, or Mubarak-era capitalists. There is no opposition in the current parliament. There is no liberal or left opposition and absolutely no Islamic opposition. Given the regime's narrow base of support, it remains quite unstable – which is why the 2011 revolution was successful in the first place.

Secondly, despite all the attacks, the spirit of resistance among workers has not been crushed. We've seen a new wave of strikes in the last two months, involving textile workers in the delta, workers in subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal, cement workers, civil servants, and graduate students.

So on the one hand, there's a revival of the workers' movement, and on the other hand, a degree of panic on their side. Nothing has changed in terms of economic policy. On the contrary, the neoliberal policies of the Mubarak era have been deepened and accelerated. So on the economic plane, there's a retrenchment of neoliberalism, and on the political plane, the ramping up of repression. And the radicalisation of hundreds of thousands of mainly working-class young people still has yet to be uprooted.

Let me give just one anecdotal example: Soccer fans – particularly young, working-class people – in Egypt were a major force in the revolution. The "ultras," as they're known, are associated with the left, unlike in Europe where they are usually associated with the right wing and racism. In Egypt, the ultras are known for their anti-police and anti-oppression stance – and now for their role in the Egyptian revolution.

Since Sisi came to power, there hasn't been a single soccer match where fans were allowed to enter the stadium. All soccer matches – which in Egypt is the most popular sport – are played in completely empty stadiums. Only the police are allowed in. That shows you that this is not a regime that is stable.

Right now, there's an ongoing strike movement as well as active youth groups, all of whom represent a huge threat to the regime. And now we're looking at a series of five-year anniversaries – 25 January is an important day soon to be followed by 11 February. Then there will be 6 April, 30 June and 3 July. On 14 August, there were the massacres in Rabaa Square and Nahda Square. And 19 November marks the beginning of what is known as the second wave of the Egyptian revolution; 9 October is when Coptic Christians were massacred in front of the main television building.

On all these anniversaries, the police and the army will likely be mobilised on a massive scale to prevent anybody from even thinking about having a demonstration. In a sense, the regime is haunted by both dates and places – the dates of the events and the spaces where the events took place.

But this is not a situation that is sustainable. And it has to be pointed out that the dramatic fall in oil prices – not to mention the emerging economic crisis in Saudi Arabia and the barbarism of Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen – means that the steady financing by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of the Sisi regime cannot continue at the same pace and on the same scale as before.

All this means that there are opportunities to start building for a new revolutionary wave. Young people politicised by the Egyptian revolution in 2011 at age 20 are 25 now. Their experience of the revolution has not evaporated. It would require a level of repression that Sisi is incapable of to completely eradicate that experience. The question for the revolutionary left is how to build on this consciousness, how to plan for the next round of revolutionary struggle.

A crucial aspect of this question is how the left should relate to the Islamist movement. Specifically, how should the left relate to the Islamic movement's ongoing opposition to Sisi's military dictatorship? What should be done to avoid the mistakes made during the 2011 revolution? How can the left create an independent, radical left that is capable of winning a mass base independent of the Muslim Brotherhood, but that is capable of competing with the Muslim Brotherhood for the support of the masses?

The position we take is that we want to be part of the movement against Sisi and against the dictatorship, but we want to do that as an independent force. And we want to do that with a clear understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood betrayed this revolution. But we will not be part of the false "Islamic vs. secular" division that has only helped the Mubarak regime previously and the Sisi regime currently to stay in power.

Excerpted from an interview by Eric Ruder published on, with a new introduction by Mariam Ali.

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