Egypt – why the left needs to learn to tell counter-revolution from revolution

Photo: The Muslim Brotherhood
Bodies lie in a Cairo mosque following a massacre

By Jane West

The unfolding counter-revolution in Egypt has been an object lesson in the correctness of Lenin’s insistence on the need to analyse each situation from the point of view of the interrelation of all classes and social layers if its dynamics are to be understood and the correct class lines identified.

Since the beginning of this year Socialist Action has warned that the military and Mubarakite forces in Egypt were preparing the conditions for a counter-revolutionary coup. This analysis has been proven correct in the bloody unfolding of events in Egypt.

Despite the evidence of deepening coup plans, regrettably most of the left in Britain failed to see what was occurring. They believed that the unfolding dynamic of events was a further step forward in a revolution, when in fact it was the open preparation of counter-revolution. In other words, they were not able to tell a counter-revolution from a revolution.

This failure of analysis meant that even when the counter-revolutionary coup had actually taken place it was initially either claimed that this is not what had taken place or that it had not actually taken place yet.

Thus Socialist Worker on 9 July headlined its analysis ‘Egypt – a second revolution sweeps out a president’. The day before, Counterfire wrote that ‘The fall of Morsi wasn’t a military coup, but the danger is that it will lead to one.’

Tragically the overthrow of Morsi was not a ‘second revolution’ but a counter-revolution. It was also precisely a ‘military coup’. The world can see more clearly everyday that what unfolded in Egypt was not a step forward in a revolution but a brutal and bloody counter-revolution – one that was carefully prepared for months and which adopted precise tactics to ensure its success.

It is obviously vital that those who attempt to provide political leadership in the class struggle have to be able to tell a counter-revolution from a revolution. Any method of analysis that does not allow you to tell the difference between the two is a fundamentally wrong one. It is therefore necessary to be clear about the real processes which took place in Egypt and what wrong method of analysis led to these wrong judgements on the dynamic of events and what actually occurred.

How the Egyptian counter-revolution was prepared

In the period leading to Egypt’s counter-revolution it was not enough to see that there were big demonstrations against Morsi to conclude that this meant a new phase of the Egyptian revolution was being launched – as much of the left appeared to believe. In order to judge the character and dynamic of these actions it was necessary to first understand what class forces were encouraging and orchestrating these protests, which forces led and controlled them, and what their outcome would be.

A slogan ‘Down with Morsi’ can evidently unite a wide range of class forces that have entirely different reasons for their opposition and different proposals as to what should replace him. The question is which class forces are leading and controlling this process and where is it going?

It was crystal clear from the end of 2012 that a coalition of the Egyptian army and Mubarakists had moved from just obstructing the progress to democracy in the Egyptian state – dissolving the Parliament, resisting the replacement of Mubarakite judges and officials, putting off the elections – to preparing the ground for a complete counter-revolutionary coup. An article which appeared on Socialist Action’s website on 13 February this year explained the unfolding process. Its title was self-explanatory: ‘Israel, Saudi Arabia and US preparing a coup in Egypt’. The article started:

‘Imperialism and Israel have never reconciled themselves to the 2011 overthrow of their client Mubarakist regime in Egypt. Israel and the US perfectly understand that not only is Egypt the most populous Arab state but it is the decisive one from the point of view of any military confrontation with the Zionist state.

‘The Saudi Arabian dictatorship, concerned above all with its own survival, is terrified by any unrest in the Arab world and looks to the US and Israel as the only reliable pillars to support it.

‘None of them consider the moderate Muslim Brotherhood dominated presidency of Mohamed Morsi radical. But nothing other than the purest of client regimes in Egypt is acceptable to the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia. They are therefore determined to restore a Mubarakist regime, without the former dictator, in Egypt.’

The tactics of the coup plotters, aimed at preparing and providing a cover for this counter-revolution, included carefully integrating into their preparations pro-Western liberals and old-style Nasserite forces.. These latter groups could usefully carry out mobilisations for actions that would be fully headed by the counter-revolutionary Mubarakists and their US, Saudi and Israeli backers.

Tragically, sections of the socialist left also put their opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s variant of political Islam above the more fundamental class line of divide with the forces of the previous regime and the army and went along with this. Their support for the anti-Morsi demonstration on 30th June, called by a coalition of the right, liberals, Salafists and Nasserites backed by the army, further legitimised the army’s actions so that it could claim to be operating on behalf of a coalition that represented the ‘real’ will of the Egyptian people.

The Muslim brotherhood

There is no doubt that since the outbreak of the Arab spring the Muslim Brotherhood forces across the Middle East have had a thoroughly wrong orientation. Instead of taking the Arab uprisings as the basis for forging a new alliance of all those forces to some degree in conflict with imperialism and its puppet regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood made a bloc with imperialism against secular Arab nationalism. Rather than seeking alliances with Arab nationalism and the left it united with imperialism against Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria.

By making this political orientation the Muslim brotherhood entered into alliance with those forces that were actually determined to cut its throat – and which are currently doing so quite literally (although machine guns used against crowds achieve the same ends with quicker and bloodier results).

The Muslim Brotherhood went beyond any tactical compromises to avoid a premature clash with the Egyptian army into putting faith in the idea that, if its subsidy from the US was guaranteed, the army could be relied on to stay out of politics. Attempts were made to appease the US and Israel by not even taking very serious steps to end the blockade of Gaza.

On the basis of this compromise with imperialism and its entirely erroneous belief that it either had or could neutralise the army, the Muslim Brotherhood set its face against building any internal coalition with the Nasserites and secular nationalists or indeed the left, and instead attempted to lead the ‘new Egypt’ on the basis of the support for political Islam alone.

Not only did this seriously weaken the forces standing against imperialism in the Middle East, but it robbed the Brotherhood of the support in the region and in Egypt by the key forces that would defend it when imperialism – as it inevitably would – turned on it. The Muslim Brotherhood made a disastrous mistake of seeing Assad in Syria, not the US and its puppets, as its fundamental enemy.

However, none of these disastrous errors and misjudgements, which allowed imperialism and its Mubarakist puppets to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood and undermine its political support, alter the fundamental class line of divide – which is that the Egyptian army, its US backers, and its Israeli and Saudi supporters, are the most fundamental enemy faced by the Egyptian people. The reinstatement of the role of the army is far worse than Morsi, both for the struggle against imperialism (including in Gaza) and for the resulting internal repression of democratic debate and social struggle within Egypt.

The coup places in command those who organised a 30-year period of repression, summary executions, torture and terror that disfigured Egypt before the 2011 uprising. While the key target is the Muslim Brotherhood today, any serious opposition to the army from the Nasserites, liberals or the left will rapidly make them its targets too.

That is why it is a deep tragedy, and a sign of total political disorientation, that large parts of the left in Egypt gave the counter-revolutionary coup plans a left cover by joining an unprincipled bloc against Morsi and uncritically supporting the demonstrations being co-ordinated between the army and Mubarakists to provide the excuse for his forcible ousting. In this way the disorientation of the left in Egypt aided the coming to power of the counter-revolution which is now unfolding.

The reason for these errors

Two fundamental errors of politics lay behind the failure to correctly analyse the situation, to understand the difference between a counter-revolution and a revolution, and therefore to arrive at drawing the class line where it rightly belonged.

First, and most straightforward, a large part of the left placed its opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood variant of political Islam above the more fundamental division between the working class on the one hand and the imperialist-backed Egyptian army and Mubarakism on the other. That is it formed a bloc with the Mubarakists against Morsi.

Whatever its wrong positions, the Muslim Brotherhood presidency was an advance over the previous Mubarakite regime, as is now being demonstrated daily. It may have pursued a politically sectarian line to its potential allies internally, but the repressive apparatus of the state was held in check compared to either the Mubarak period or what is unfolding now, there were no mass arrests and killings on anything like the scale that is now being witnessed, and its claim to legitimacy rested on a democratic process that it was pledged to continue.

Socialists don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines, hankering for an illusory ‘third camp’ or citing ‘neutrality’ when the state launches a coup, rounds up opponents, massacres protesters and stages show trials. Even less should they be mobilising in a bloc with those who are preparing a counter-revolution.

Sadly even the reality of an actual counter-revolutionary coup and massacres of Muslim Brotherhood protesters has still not penetrated some of the left. Some of the main currents of the socialist left in Egypt – and a few here – continue to explicitly or de facto endorse the coup. While claiming to be against military rule, they shamefully endorse the outcome of the coup – the overthrow of Morsi – and the method of achieving it.

This is as morally and politically bankrupt as saying to a thief that you condemn them for stealing but perhaps they should give the proceeds to you. And the Egyptian army is even less likely to hand over power to the left in Egypt than the thief is likely to hand over their swag.

However, there is another fundamental error in the analytical method which meant the coup preparations were not identified, and the mobilisations on 30th June were falsely characterised as a ‘second phase of the revolution’ rather than a cover for a counter-revolutionary coup.

To understand this error requires a return to Lenin.

Lenin insistently asserted that the political line of the working class could not be based on an analysis of its own situation alone but must be based on an analysis of the relations between all classes and groups in society. As he put it in Left-Wing Communism: ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’ (Lenin V. I., 1920a, p.81). This is simply an application of the fundamental Marxist concept of the totality.

For Lenin, as a Marxist, the ‘subject’ of the revolutionary process (that which acted, that which needed to achieve class consciousness) was the working class. But Lenin pointed out that what the proletariat needed to understand and therefore to act upon – that is the ‘object’ – was not only itself but the interrelation of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses.’

As opposed to this insistence of Lenin – that a political line has to be based on analysis of the interrelation of all classes – many currents on the left have adopted a different philosophical approach – that the working class is indeed the ‘subject’ of the revolutionary process, but that to determine the correct line of action it needs to acquire the fullest knowledge not of ‘all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses’ but only of itself. Instead of analysing the interrelation of all classes they analyse only the situation of the working class.

Put in crude terms it leads to the entirely non-Marxist and non-Leninist concept that ‘if there are a lot of people involved it must be progressive.’ Those who want to understand this issue from a more fundamental point of view should read the article on this website ‘Lenin versus the early Lukács’.

In reality those preparing the counter-revolution in Egypt well understood that, given the scale of mobilisation that had overthrown Mubarak and brought Morsi to power, they would themselves have to assemble a reactionary bloc – exploiting the wrong line of the Muslim Brotherhood to do so.

The steps in this were clear. Egypt’s economy was deliberately sabotaged by preventing any economic aid being delivered. Relentless media campaigns against Morsi were waged. Attacks on Copt churches were carried out to sow sectarian divisions. Attempts to purge Mubarakite officials were presented as ‘attacks on democracy’.

The aim of this entire operation was to sew together a coalition of liberals, Salafists, Mubarakists, Nasserites and others to ‘defend democracy’ against Morsi. Leadership in this, of course, was held by the Mubarakite army, which far from ‘defending democracy’ had the intention of destroying both it and the mass movement, with a ruthlessness and bloodshed that Morsi never remotely approached.

The coup preparations were clear from early in the year. Key opposition players knew this was the endgame. El-Baradei and the pro-Western liberals were entirely complicit. In March this year El-Baradei went to the UAE (where most of the Mubarakist leaders fled to in 2011) and met with Crown Prince Bin Zayed and Shafiq – the Mubarakists’ defeated candidate for President against Morsi. They agreed that the only route was an army coup against Morsi, which the exiled Mubarakists had been secretly organising for since 2012, and set about lobbying for Western support.

The WSJ has revealed that there were regular meetings in Egypt between the topg enerals and representatives of the opposition leaders, where the Army agreed to topple Morsi if enough protesters could be got onto the streets to provide a cover for their actions.

The anti-Morsi petition by the previously little known Tamarod became the political vehicle to organise this mobilisation. The small founding group were backed by powerful business interests, getting free advertising including on Egypt’s most viewed TV channels and subsidised office space, while signatures were collected through not just the liberal opposition channels but the full weight of the Mubarakist political machine was thrown behind it.

The agitation around the petition created the push behind the mobilisation on 30th June, the key plank in the plan for the army to carry out its coup.

All this was plain to see for those examining not just the rebellious mood developing among the masses, but what political forces were driving this process, the central role of the Mubarakists, the complicity of the right-wing Arab states, and the role of the army. A full-scale counter-revolution was in progress, within which the participants in the mass demonstrations just had a walk-on part, not a leading role.

But for a left mesmerised by the sight of a large demonstration this was disregarded. Instead of seeing the looming counter-revolution the left comforted itself with the mantra that ‘revolution is a process’. But so is counter-revolution, and that is what the demonstrations were orchestrated to facilitate.

As Adam Shatz accurately put it in an intelligent and clear article on his LRB blog: ‘So this is how it ends: with the army killing more than 600 protesters, and injuring thousands of others, in the name of restoring order and defeating “terrorism”. The victims are Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, but the ultimate target of the massacres of 14 August is civilian rule. Cairo, the capital of revolutionary hope two years ago, is now its burial ground.’

It is not surprising that the pro-Western liberals, Nasserites, the Emirs and Sheikhs of the Middle East, the Mubarakists and the rightist Islamists had illusions in or promoted the ‘democratic’ credentials of army and the state. This is deep in their political raison d’etre.

What is more shocking is that sections of the socialist left were drawn into this trap and have still not drawn the evident conclusions about the coup and its own dreadful misjudgement.

Now – although this is too late as it is after the counter-revolution has take place – more correct headlines are emerging. For example Counterfire now described the situation as ‘The return of the military Pharaohs’. And Socialist Worker admits to the scale of the crackdown: ‘Egypt’s morgues overflow as military massacres hundreds.’

This is good, but Marxism is not about being able to belatedly recognise a counter-revolution after it has taken place. It is about being able to understand a social dynamic as it is happening and therefore what attitude to take towards it. As noted at the beginning, a political method that cannot distinguish a counter-revolution from a revolution as it is unfolding, and not merely when the counter-revolution is openly walking the streets, is totally wrong.

Socialist Action clearly explained step by step this year the preparation of a counter-revolution in Egypt, while those who had a wrong method of analysis falsely believed a developing counter-revolution was a new stage in a revolution. Events have very tragically shown which of these two analyses was correct

Anyone who seriously wants to learn from such errors should fundamentally reject the wrong methods of analysis that led to it. This means returning to a Lenin’s method of considering the interrelation of all classes and layers in society. This, not populism, is what leads to the accurate analysis of the situation. It is the approach Socialist Action took to judging the situation in Egypt and why its method of analysis was proved correct.

The most important question in relation to Egypt now is to do everything possible to attempt to safeguard the Egyptian masses from the consequences of the counter-revolution which is now unfolding. While it is also vital to draw the general lessons of these events for future struggles, this should not stand in the way of unity with all those that are in solidarity with the Egyptian masses against the onslaught it now faces.