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Egypt: the Muslim brotherhood under pressure
Feature by Sameh Naguib, February 2013
In recent months thousands of Egyptians have protested against President Mohamed Morsi. Sameh Naguib, a leading Egyptian revolutionary socialist, argues that the liberals and Muslim Brotherhood are losing their influence over the movement in the streets and workplaces
The starting point for our analysis has to be the crisis which has engulfed the Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called "secular" liberal opposition forces. In part, this crisis stems from both camps' misunderstanding of the nature of the Egyptian Revolution. Liberal writers, for example, refer to the democratic transformation which took place in Spain in 1974, or the democratic transition in Eastern Europe and the "colour revolutions".
A better comparison would be with the Spanish Revolution which began in 1930 and only ended with the victory of General Franco in 1939. From the perspective of the participation of the masses in the revolution, the Egyptian experience is actually greater than the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the French Revolution of 1789.
It is estimated that around three to four percent of the French population participated directly in the demonstrations and mass protests of the French Revolution. For the Russian Revolution it is estimated that around 7 percent of the population took part. The Egyptian Revolution has seen the participation of over 18 percent of the population, in other words around a fifth of the country's people.
It is unimaginable that a revolution on this scale can simply be contained by a limited and superficial democratic transition without deeper changes in terms of the redistribution of wealth and power in the country. This is the root of the Brotherhood's crisis. The protests over the constitution are not just about defending democracy, but also reflect people's anger as the expectations that the Brotherhood themselves had fostered are being dashed. People expected that wages would rise and that life would get better and this hasn't happened.
The Brotherhood's problem is that it currently represents the interests of big business and the apparatus of Mubarak's state. We have recently seen laughable statements from the Brotherhood attacking the liberals for working with elements of the old regime, while they themselves are in open alliance with Mubarak's army and police. The section on the army in the new constitution not only retains all the army's powers, but deepens and increases them.
The Egyptian state cannot remain as it is if there is to be real change, because the state is there to serve the interests of the capitalist class. In the Egyptian case this role is reinforced by the nature of officers' training and the intertwined relationships between the generals and businessmen, making it impossible to touch the interests of big business without touching the interests of the generals.
One of the aims of the Egyptian Revolution was to cleanse the Egyptian state of corruption. Yet no one has touched the army's power and privilege. The army's economic empire is just as it was. It is widely estimated that the army controls 15 to 20 percent of the economy.
It is also important to remember that its economic interests are intertwined with private capital. For example, Orascom Construction, which is part of the huge economic empire of liberal businessman Naguib Sawiris, has worked extensively with the army over the years. The military budget will not be discussed, and responsibility for setting the budget lies with a council on which the generals themselves are the majority. They still have the right to try civilians in military courts. We have to understand that the army still plays a hegemonic role in Egypt.
There are two aspects to the deal between the Brotherhood and the army. From the generals' side they thought that the Brotherhood's popularity would absorb the revolution. For the Brotherhood's part, they offered to leave the army in its existing role, but to share power with the generals.
However, in December 2012 it became clear that the Brotherhood's capacity to exercise hegemony over the streets was a lot less than anyone had previously imagined. It is important not to underestimate the Brotherhood's power, but the organisation was in a state of crisis as a result of the protests, and this was expressed in their half-crazy statements, their recourse to sectarianism to mobilise and the way they threw themselves into the arms of the Salafists. The generals were watching this unfold in horror, thinking "We're relying on these people! If they can't control the situation, what will we do?"
End of the populist road
The problem for the Brotherhood and for the liberals is that they cannot even start taking limited steps to ease the impact of the crisis on ordinary people without breaking the deal with the army and big business. That populist road is closed because the world has changed. [When the global economy was growing] during the 1950s and 1960s there were opportunities for reformist and populist policies which don't exist today. Without genuine progressive taxation, they can't spend money on hospitals, schools, housing or create new jobs. They are even refusing to renationalise the corrupt monopolies which were directly connected to Mubarak.
People keep asking ,"Where are we going to get the money from?" There is no shortage of money in Egypt: we have a thousand families of billionaires. There is no way to win even a degree of social justice without making these people pay.
So there is no place for frustration. We have to understand that we are still in the first phase of the Egyptian Revolution. On the contrary, there are very important reasons to be confident and active. The first of these is the speed with which the Brotherhood has lost its political credibility and its social base, because it cannot deliver reforms. Those who imagined that having the Brotherhood in power would improve things are in a state of deep frustration and disappointment and are looking for alternatives.
The second reason is that the coming battle will be a social battle. The revolution created huge expectations among the masses. The economic crisis and the continuation of neoliberal policies are not only failing to meet people's demands, but are rather imposing austerity measures which will reduce basic wages, raise prices and increase unemployment.
In December and January we saw the first signs of the approaching storm with big strikes by aluminum workers, tobacco workers and pharmaceutical workers. Meanwhile laws are being passed which forbid strikers to block roads, and ban demonstrations after 7pm. The police have been given new powers to break strikes. It is clear that battle lines are being drawn. The left has a huge role to play in uniting its efforts to work on these social questions. We need to look for ways to link the strikes together, to politicise them and to connect the economic and political demands.
There are also other battles we need to fight. The Brotherhood, in alliance with the army, is not only hitting out at workers. We have seen a vicious smear campaign against the Christians and an unprecedented escalation in sectarianism during the past few months. In response Christian youth have begun to mobilise, and we are not talking about rich kids from Heliopolis, but Christian youth from poor areas like Shubra. Socialists must stand with the Christians, because there is practically noone else who will. We are also seeing unprecedented levels of mobilisation by women and a general rejection of discrimination and oppression.
Another factor which we have to take into account is the role of the rural areas in the revolution. The results of the Constitutional Referendum showed a sharp polarisation between urban and rural constituencies. The Al-Fayyoum governorate, which is largely rural, voted 90 percent "yes", while the "no" vote in Cairo was 56.8 percent.
The Islamist base in the rural and semi-rural areas has not been won because the Brotherhood has served the interests of people in the countryside. Rather it reflects a degree of religious mobilisation and the use of slogans to terrify people around the issue of security. The Islamists' campaign focused on trying to convince people that if they voted "no", there would be chaos.
We see these waves of intimidation and fear in all revolutions, and they have the greatest effect on people who haven't been reached by political forces other than the Brotherhood. This is why the left must work hard on the issues which affect the peasants and bring them into the social struggle.
The forces which first come to power in a revolution are not those which will realise the revolution's aims. Rather they are forces, such as the Brotherhood, which were in opposition and are known to people from before the revolution. We have to reject totally the elitist trend among the liberals to brand people who voted "yes" in the Constitutional Referendum as "ignorant" or "illiterate".
We want to win the people who said "yes", so that next time they will say "no". We want to win the Brotherhood's base, because their base is the poorest sections of the lower middle class. These people went towards the Brotherhood because of the crimes and mistakes of the left. For decades the left has repeatedly tailed other organisations and currents, starting with the liberal nationalist Wafd Party in the 1940s, to Nasser in the 1950s and even Mubarak in the 1990s.
Today there are some parties on the left that are following the same policy in relation to the liberals which are in alliance with figures from the old regime. We have to say it openly: the National Salvation Front is a catastrophe. One of the biggest things which helped the Brotherhood get its "yes" vote was the alliance between the so-called secular opposition forces and the supporters of the old regime such as Amr Moussa.
We reject the idea that this is a battle between "secular" and "Islamist" forces. It is a social battle, between those who have no power or wealth and those who have it all. The liberals are obsessed with "secularism"; they don't want to take up the social question at all. On the contrary, those liberals who were in the Constituent Assembly agreed with the articles attacking social rights.
The liberals who defend capitalism, who don't want to take on the army and are prepared to retain the state as it is, are just as much our enemies as the Brotherhood and the Salafists. We want to see the fractures becoming clearer along class lines. The forces of the left in the broadest sense, that is to say, including all the youth who want to carry on the revolution and complete it, have to unite. They need to unite against the old regime and the army, against the Brotherhood, andagainst the Salafists who are standing and protecting the old regime or what remains of it. The left has unprecedented opportunities to put down serious roots in the working class, among the peasants, among Christian youth, women, Nubians and all of those sections of society whose hopes in the revolution haven't been fulfilled.
Our project is to win the masses, which is why we cannot boycott elections or referenda, even if we don't recognise the legitimacy of the authorities which organise them. While the masses are still convinced that the ballot box will deliver something for them, we have to win them at the ballot box. Elections and referenda are a very important indication of the balance of forces in society.
If the left's role in leading struggles is translated into votes for parliament, this means that we're moving forward. It is also important that we don't leave parliament to the Salafists and the Brotherhood. We have to be in the thick of any battle against the Brotherhood and the Salafists and the old regime. We can't pretend to be too pure to get involved. Participation in the elections doesn't mean that we think that parliament is the means to achieve our ends, or that we think that this superficial democratic route is enough, but it is one of the fronts in the battle, and so we have to be there.
There is also a regional dimension which we must consider. Socialists always say that the revolution must be a worldwide revolution, and to a certain extent we can see that process playing out in the series of revolutions in the recent period. We need a victory in Syria, we need the Tunisian revolution to continue and we need change in the Gulf.
The Gulf is the heart of the counter-revolution in the region. The Saudi royal family is terrified and is striking back directly at the Egyptian Revolution. That is why we need a democratic republic in Saudi Arabia. The movements in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are continuing, and we need them to strengthen and grow.
The coming social explosion, which is heralded by the rumblings we hear today, will speed up the process of drawing new political battle lines and provide the left with a historic opportunity. The forces of the left need to unite, they need to act, and they need to be confident. We must have confidence in the masses.
A fifth of the Egyptian people came into the streets in order to get rid of Mubarak, and hundreds of thousands joined the battle for democracy just six months after the first presidential election. These people won't sit at home and be silent. No laws or constitutions will chain them. Rather, the coming revolution will create a new constitution which really represents the demands of the masses.
Translated by Anne Alexander
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