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Egypt: Hundreds dead as military tries to consolidate power in blood
Increasing sectarianism threatens revolution's future - Workers' independent action urgently needed
Robert Bechert, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)
Millions across the world, and especially in the Middle East, have been shocked by the killing of hundreds of mainly unarmed people in the Egyptian military's brutal clearance of the two pro-Morsi camps in Cairo. In the days since then the military has continued its offensive.
While sizeable, the recent demonstrations of support for deposed President Morsi have not been as large as the vast anti-Morsi protests a few months ago. In fact the two pro-Morsi camps, while an annoyance to the new, military-led regime posed no direct, immediate threat. The timing and the brutality of their clearance was fundamentally a show of force by the generals to serve as a warning to intimidate any current or future opponents to the military.
This is why already there is questioning and opposition, including from those who have little or no sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood's aims, to this assault organised by corrupt generals who have no "democratic" credentials whatsoever. There are justified fears that this is an attempt to begin the re-establishment of Mubarak's 'security state' under a new leadership. This assault has enormously deepened the polarisation in society, but a polarisation not on class lines, but increasingly on pro- or anti- the military tops' actions.
Many have been shocked by the violence. There are reports of self-defence groups, both pro- and anti-Morsi, developing in different parts of Cairo. Such groupings need to be democratically based and link up as part of a wider, non-sectarian movement of working people aiming to taking control of their lives and future. But, if there is no independent movement organised by the working class, and if the developing battle over Egypt's future is simply waged between the generals and conservative religious forces, these events threaten to seriously derail the revolution that began in 2011. Genuine trade union and workers' organisations are the only force capable of uniting all sections of society in a battle against dictatorship and capitalist exploitation.
Immediately after Morsi's removal as President, the CWI warned that the Egyptian generals' hijacking of June and July's huge, up to 17 million strong, anti-Morsi mobilisation was a basis for them to take power themselves. It "opened the doors to the dangers of sectarianism, different varieties of counter-revolution and the possible ultimate defeat of the revolution." (Polarisation grows - No trust in the generals, 10 July)
The brutality of the camps' dispersal and the bloody repression of the subsequent protests, following on from the killing of many pro-Morsi demonstrators, both at the beginning and end of July, has given a taste of how the generals would like to deal with all opposition.
Attacks on workers
Now it is pro-Morsi protestors who are being crushed, but just two days before the bloody 14 August attack on the pro-Morsi camps, the regime moved against a workers' sit-in at Suez Steel, arresting two of the occupation's leaders. While the attack at Suez Steel showed the generals' class character, it was not a new experience for workers in post-Mubarak Egypt. Previously Morsi's government had also shown its capitalist character when, last February, security forces attacked a Portland Cement workers' sit-in in Alexandria.
Since the 3 July ousting of Morsi, the military tops under General al-Sisi have worked to consolidate power in their own hands. Old Mubarak era security units have been re-activated. Two-thirds of the new provincial governors announced on 13 August were either army or police generals, some with "glaring records of hostility to the 2011 revolution" (the Economist, 17 August).
One commenter said that: "What Egypt has experienced since the coup has been the systematic return of the military and police state through arbitrary arrests, media clampdown and the shooting of protesters... The security apparatus is taking revenge for the last two years when it felt threatened by the possibility of any new order that would eventually hold it accountable. Since the coup began it feels it has taken control again and is ready to strike hard at anyone who challenges it, whatever their ideology" (the Guardian, 16 August).
But the military did not simply stage a coup, they falsely claimed they were acting on behalf of the mighty movement against the Morsi-led government that unfolded in June. The generals were able to take over because, unfortunately, this magnificent protest of millions did not have its own representative and independent leadership able and willing to show how that movement could take power itself. So the generals took the initiative and seized power while pretending to be acting on behalf of the protestors.
The fact that the military took over enabled the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to present themselves as defenders of democracy, even though increasingly authoritarian methods were being used during Morsi's brief presidency. At the same time, there can be no doubt that among those who supported the downfall of Morsi, the ruthlessness of the camps' closure and the brutal suppression of protest, plus the increasingly clear way in which the generals are consolidating their power, will all serve to raise questions, doubts and opposition. However, this will not automatically develop in a straight line.
The mounting sectarianism, shown in the attacks on the Christian minority's churches because the Christian leaders are perceived to be supporting the military, can mean that the military will be seen by some as a protection against religious conflict and the development of jihadist violence. But this is not the case. Actually the military's removal of Morsi, and the support it has got from many foreign governments, will itself fuel Islamic guerrilla and terrorist activity if supporters of right wing Islamist parties draw the conclusion that the Muslim Brotherhood's strategy of gaining power through elections has failed. The impact of these events will be felt throughout the Middle East and beyond.
This danger in the present situation is, as the CWI previously wrote, because currently there only "appears to be a battle led on the one side by the reactionary, conservative Muslim Brotherhood and other sectarian leaders and, on the other side, by the military tops.
"In this situation it is absolutely essential that efforts are redoubled to build an independent workers' movement, not just trade unions, which can offer a real alternative and appeal to those workers and poor, backing Morsi because of their own opposition to the military and the old elite. This is the only way the workers' movement can try to limit the ability of reactionary fundamentalist religious groupings presenting themselves as the main opponents to military rule." (Polarisation grows - No trust in the generals, 10 July)
Since the start of the revolution in 2011 there has been a massive growth of the workers' movement in Egypt. Workers' struggles, already important before Mubarak's overthrow, have enormously developed. There has been a huge movement into independent unions from a membership of less than 50,000 when Mubarak fell to over 2.5 million, and there are also four million in the formerly state controlled official unions. Recently strikes have been running at the rate of 800 a month, not just on pay and conditions but also against Mubarak-era management, victimisations and privatisation.
However, an independent voice from the workers' movement has been hardly heard since Morsi's overthrow. Indeed Kamal Abu-Eita, the president of the independent trade union federation, EFITU, has become minister of labour and begun calling for an end to strikes. Not for the first time in history, a trade union leader has been brought into a capitalist government with the express purpose of holding back struggles and trying to make workers accept a fundamentally military government. Officially, three trade union federations supported General al-Sisi's call for a mass demonstration on 26 July to show support for the new government, although significantly in the EFITU executive this was only after a 9 to 5 vote.
This policy of supporting the military tops is a road to disaster for the trade unions. Workers' organisations need to have their own, independent and class-based programme, to offer a way to prevent both the consolidation of a military regime and the threat of increasing sectarian division and violence.
Immediately the key question is organising democratically-run, non-sectarian defence of communities and workplaces from state and sectarian attack across the country. The workers' organisations have the potential to begin this task, combined with offering a political alternative to military, Muslim Brotherhood and capitalist rule. With such a programme it would be possible for the workers' movement to begin to undermine both the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood leaderships.
The trade unions, especially the EFITU, should demand that Abu-Eita leaves the government and should launch their own campaign against repression, sectarianism and military rule, in defence of democratic rights and for immediate free elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly so that the Egyptian people can decide their own future.
General al-Sisi and his fellow military rulers will not find it easy to firmly re-establish a 'security state'. The revolution is not yet over. The rapid disillusionment and subsequent outburst of opposition to Morsi's rule showed how quickly opposition can develop. While the bloody events of the last few days may understandably produce hesitation due to fears of repression and the growth of sectarianism, this will not last forever. The combination of Egypt's deep economic and social crisis plus the emerging strength of the workers' movement will lead to renewed struggles.
Workers' experiences, such as the clash at Suez Steel, under this new version of military rule, as well as the horrifically bloody crushing of protests, will undermine much of the support which was initially given to the military's ousting of Morsi. This can create opportunities to win support for socialist policies. But this is not automatic, religious forces will also be competing for support from those in opposition, or coming into opposition, to the new regime.
Left or workers' organisations should have no thought of supporting this military regime in anyway; it has never had a progressive character. The military moved against Morsi not simply in order to defend its own privileges and interests, but also to cut across the developing anti-Morsi mass movement that could have led to a deepening of the revolution, a weakening of the capitalist state and moves against capitalism. This is why the regime has been supported by the western powers which, like Obama, have now only been very gently criticising the brutal suppression of opposition.
Unfortunately much of the left in Egypt has been floundering since the revolution started. One of the larger groupings, the Revolutionary Socialists (RS - co-thinkers of the British SWP and the ISO in the US) have repeatedly zig-zagged. Initially the RS did not make any direct criticism of, or opposition to, the military take-over in their 6 July statement. Unlike the CWI, the RS at that time did not warn about military rule or explain that the real alternative would be building support for the idea of a government of representatives of workers, small farmers and the poor. Now, after the latest bloodbath, the RS issued on 14 August a statement entitled: "Down with military rule! Down with al-Sisi, the leader of the counter-revolution!" This statement said that the RS "did not defend the regime of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for a single day. We were always in the front ranks of the opposition to that criminal, failed regime." However, the RS supported Morsi in the second round of the 2012 presidential election. Such huge inconsistencies, both towards the military and Morsi, can only cause confusion among the people they reach.
In tumultuous events like these, the workers' movement, and the revolution, needs clarity more than ever. From the moment of February 2011's euphoric overthrow of Mubarak, the CWI has been arguing that the revolution could only be successfully concluded in the interests of working people when: "the mass of the Egyptian people... assert their right to decide the country's future. No trust should be put in figures from the regime or their imperialist masters to run the country or run elections. There must be immediate, fully free elections, safeguarded by mass committees of the workers and poor, to a revolutionary constituent assembly that can decide the country's future.
"Now the steps already taken to form local committees and genuine independent workers' organisations should be speeded up, spread wider and linked up. A clear call for the formation of democratically elected and run committees in all workplaces, communities and amongst the military rank and file would get a wide response.
"These bodies should co-ordinate the removal of the old regime, and maintain order and supplies and, most importantly, be the basis for a government of workers' and poor representatives that would crush the remnants of the dictatorship, defend democratic rights and start to meet the economic and social needs of the mass of Egyptians." (Mubarak goes - clear out the entire regime! 11 February 2011)
This programme is even more relevant and urgent today.