The coup in Egypt: First impressions

This is the text of a presentation made to a meeting of the Alliance for Workers Liberty in London on 11 July 2013.

Let’s start with what we probably agree on:

1. support for early, free and fair elections
2. swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
3. no return of Morsi to power
4. any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Now we get to the tricky bit.

Two years ago, back in May 2011, Kamal Abbas of the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) spoke here in London at a packed event which the AWL organized.

His organization, which laid so much of the groundwork for the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and that formed the core of the new independent unions in Egypt, has issued a series of statements before and after the coup.

But before telling you what they say, we need to review what the trade union movement has been saying, and in this case, the TUC here has been echoing the views expressed by the International Trade Union Confederation based in Brussels.

And their views, I might add, are indistinguishable from the views of the British and other European governments, or those of the USA.

The consensus expressed by the ITUC, TUC, David Cameron, Barak Obama, etc can be summed up in this way:

1. Morsi, though elected, was a terrible ruler and was becoming increasingly authoritarian. This is no surprise because we knew all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was not committed to democracy and as the AWL has correctly noted, is a clerical fascist movement.

2. The protesters in Tahrir Square were basically right, and were continuing in the spirit of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

3. Nevertheless, the army decision to topple Morsi was wrong, and is unacceptable.

4. But having said that, we are not demanding Morsi’s reinstatement and instead are moving on, facing the future, and so on. As the ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow put it, “Egypt now has a second chance to build a democracy that respects the rights and interests of all women and men, and guarantees social justice.”

This position, which is very widely held, is full of contradictions.

If you genuinely believe that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi was legitimately elected and should be replaced only by opponents chosen by the people in free and fair elections, then you must call for Morsi’s reinstatement. But that is not what the labour movement or Western governments are calling for.

Which brings me to the extraordinary gap between what labour movements in the West are saying and what our comrades in Egypt are saying.

Let me start with a quote from an Egyptian trade unionist that appeared on the website of the MENA Solidarity Network.

“The army intervention,” he said, “stopped terrorist groups, who were prepared to use weapons against us and against our revolution from shedding citizens’ blood.”

The view that Morsi’s government was basically authoritarian and would soon be crushing the demonstrations in Tahrir square was widely held.

I have no doubt that our comrades in Egypt had studied what happened in Turkey in the last few weeks and watched a far more democratic Islamist government behave ruthlessly with brutal violence against peaceful protesters in Taksim Square and elsewhere.

They fully expected either the police or the Muslim Brotherhood itself to come down hard on the protests, and saw the army as coming to their rescue, and preventing further violence.

That violence was not hypothetical – it would have been an intensification of the violence already used by the Brotherhood against workers.

As the ITUC itself stated on the eve of the coup, “Actions by independent unions to support pay rises for workers on poverty wages have been routinely met with violence and dismissal of union supporters in recent months, women are being subjected to unprecedented levels of violence, and media are facing suppression.”

As the CTUWS put it in a statement issued before the coup, “The past year witnessed widespread human rights crimes, on a scale that rivaled [those] under the Mubarak regime. The brutal suppression of political and social protest movements did not cease; indeed, the security forces are no longer the only party to use of excessive force against demonstrators, as MB supporters have also been given free rein to use violence to punish and intimidate their opponents”.

It was this atmosphere of fear, of the clerical fascist Muslim Brotherhood growing increasingly violent, that led to the welcoming of the coup by our comrades.

And how did they welcome it? With critical support? With the kind of neither-the-brotherhood-nor-the-military third camp slogans?

Not at all – they embraced it with all their souls.

Here is how the statement issued by the CTUWS on the morning after the coup begins:

“For the second time in less than two and a half years the Egyptian people prove the wonderful and dazzling ability to create miracles, millions … rise up in all the streets and the squares of freedom responsive to the rejuvenated rebellious appeal, determined to bring down the fascist regime that had been able to, in the absence of everyone and under the conditions of a complex political grab of this great revolution .. The great Egyptian people rose up to restore to this nation its identity of moderation .. Tolerance .. Unity and not divisiveness, and to restore Egypt as a homeland for all, without exclusion, and a nation of freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

And it’s not just the CTUWS that’s expressed unqualified support for the coup.

The National Salvation Front, a broad coalition, had this to say on the morning after:

“We would like to confirm that what Egypt is witnessing now is not a military coup by any standards. It was a necessary decision that the Armed Forces’ leadership took to protect democracy, maintain the country’s unity and integrity, restore stability and get back on track towards achieving the goals of the January 25 Revolution.”

If you just watch the BBC, you’d think that the National Salvation Front is just Mohamed El Baradei, who was a former regime loyalist who only slowly woke up to the evils of the Mubarak dictatorship.

But if look into who actually makes up the Front, it also includes the venerable Communist Party of Egypt and several socialist parties – including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, affiliated to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists.

So we have a situation where everyone outside of Egypt seems wary, at the least, of military rule; but inside Egypt, our comrades and basically everyone who’s not an Islamist, seems pretty happy that the generals stepped in.

Can socialists ever imagine a scenario in which they would support a military coup?

In the AWL’s recent statement, you cited the example of the May 1926 coup in Poland, which is probably not the best-known example.

In more recent times, many socialists – though not the AWL – cheered on the left-populist putschist Hugo Chavez, who did eventually come to power in a free election, but only after trying his hand at a classic military coup d’etat.

Probably the most interesting historical example is offered by the Bolsheviks, though of course this may not as familiar to you as the May 1926 Polish coup.

In October 1917, the Petrograd garrison mutinied, helping to bring to power a government headed by the Bolsheviks and their partners, the Left Social Revolutionaries.

Had the garrison remained loyal to the Kerensky government, Lenin and Trotsky would be footnotes to history. But they were not loyal and in fact were actively disloyal to their government – just as the Egyptian military was last week.

The signal for the storming of the Winter Palace in that revolution (or coup) was the firing of the guns of the cruiser Aurora, whose crew had turned on the Provisional Government and thrown in their lot with Lenin.

The parallels with what happened in Egypt don’t stop there.

To those who complain that Morsi, however bad, was a democratically elected leader and could only be removed in a free election, may I remind comrades of the arguments used by the Bolsheviks to justify their decision to close down the democratically-elected Constituent Assembly early in 1918.

The Bolsheviks would have been the very last to make a fetish of free elections and parliamentary government. They didn’t hesitate to use the military to bring down what was a far more representative government – Kerensky’s coalition – than the one they replaced it with.

And it was armed soldiers and sailors who dispersed the Constituent Assembly by force.

In other words, you as people who politically identify with Lenin and Trotsky, should be the very last to stand on ceremony in this case.

And we all, no matter what we think of the October revolution (or coup), have to take into consideration what our comrades in Egypt have been saying for the past week.

We don’t have to agree with them, but we have to hear their reasoning and try to understand them.

That having been said, I return to what I believe we can agree on:

  • support for early, free and fair elections
  • swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
  • no return of Morsi to power
  • any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Thank you.