North Africa, West Asia

Problems of revolutionary organisation

An approach to building revolutionary organisation addressing the specific challenges of the Egyptian context, while also being rooted in a broader tradition of revolutionary socialist politics.

Anne Alexander Mostafa Bassiouny
20 November 2014

This article is an extract from Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution, published by Zed Books, 2014.


The phase of the Egyptian Revolution that unfolded between 2011 and 2014 was pregnant with unrealised possibilities for deeper social and political transformation. One of the great problems confronting organised workers, and the wider layers of the poor more generally, was their lack of organisations of their own. As we have traced throughout this book, despite the very rich experience in building independent unions to take forward struggles in the workplaces, workers lacked a political voice. Therefore we will briefly sketch out here five elements of an approach to building revolutionary organisation which seeks to address the specific challenges of the Egyptian context, while also being rooted in a broader tradition of revolutionary socialist politics.

Setting down roots for revolutionary organisation in the workplaces constitutes the first element. Its representatives would have to be organisers of a specific kind, striving at every opportunity to breach the current limited horizons of the organic democracy of the workplaces. Here we have already reached the second element: the transformation of the democracy of the workplaces into an instrument of alternative political authority of and for 'the people'. 'Of the people' in the sense that these democratic practices and embryonic institutions will be created from below, by a section of Egypt's exploited and oppressed majority; 'for the people' in the sense that this transformation can only be achieved by convincing workers not only to act for themselves, but to take up a role as 'revolutionary leaders of the people' against the capitalist class and its state.

The third element is necessitated by the second: such a revolutionary organisation would need to be composed of women and men who consciously 'think like a state'. To a certain extent, any revolutionary minority has to think like the state it wants to defeat. It has to centralise its small forces, deploy its resources carefully, generalise lessons learnt across space and time. It has to consider how to use the balance of class forces to its advantage, make and break tactical alliances beyond the ranks of the working class. Above all it means building organisation which knits together people who are able to make the right arguments in enough places to shift the balance of forces in the wider class struggle.

But, and this brings us to the fourth element, they will also need to think beyond the state as it currently exists, to imagine a different state altogether - not reformed but remade according to the principles of the January uprising; a state of freedom, social justice and human dignity. As noted above, from the earliest hours of the Egyptian Revolution a question was waiting to be asked: would the people remake the state in their image, or would the state remake the people? What is critical is to expand the numbers of those who can begin to think beyond the existing state and start to put flesh onto the bare bones of the imagined state-to-be which arises like a shimmering ghost out of Tahrir's 'Republic of Dreams' and the myriad struggles for tathir it unleashed.

The final element also involves thinking beyond the state, but in a different way. As discussed at the beginning of this book, the revolution of January 2011 was the result of the intersection of crises at national, regional and global levels. Nationalist and internationalist interpretations of the 18 Days uprising were both possible, and many demonstrators in Tahrir Square drew on both. Yet the ubiquitous symbolism of the Egyptian flag - which in January 2011 was deployed in defiance of the Mubarak regime - was relatively easy for the military to reappropriate. Campaigns whipping up fear of 'foreigners', whether western NGO workers and journalists or Syrian and Palestinian refugees, were just some of the most obvious manifestations of this process. The intersection between counter-revolution and xenophobic nationalism provides a compelling reason for Egyptian revolutionaries to adopt a conscious and active internationalism.

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