The Revolutionary Socialists in Post-‘Arab Spring’ Egypt

By Irina Tsaregorodtseva

Introduction

Along with the rise of Political Islam, in recent years, has come a relative resurrection of Left movements in Arab states. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, communist parties were restored in Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine and Jordan. A number of newly founded Left parties emerged all over the region, including some with a revolutionary Trotskyist ideology. These movements have not been much studied.

Academic disregard of Trotskyism is due primarily to the fact that it has been relatively weak in the region. Alexander (1991: 602) points out two main reasons. First, restrictions were posed by Arab authoritarian regimes on most such parties and groups. Second, Trotskyism initially lacked the international support enjoyed by other Marxist movements. In the Soviet Union there was an official ban on Trotskyism. At the same time, West European socialists were generally put off by the Trotskyists’ strict interpretations of what constituted socialism.

Trotskyist organizations began to emerge in the Middle East after World War II, but it was not till the late 1970s, 1980s and particularly 1990s that they entered the political arena. The Lebanese Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) was the most substantial party in the Arab area in 1970s (Alexander 1991: 602). Later, other similar groups were established in Algeria (Socialist Workers Party), Egypt (Revolutionary Socialists), and Palestine and Israel (Socialist Struggle Movement). All of them remained illegal till recently and appeared to have little impact on Arab politics.

From the early 2000s, Egypt has witnessed a series of mass protests and labor demonstrations which were regarded by some scholars as a rehearsal for the ‘Arab spring’ (Beinin 2012; Fadaee 2016: 115; Darwisheh 2015: 112). Unlike most protests of the past century, which were primarily led by Islamists, these post-2000 actions were organized by a ‘countervailing force [that] grew up in the form of the Trotskyite Revolutionary Socialist Party’ (Cole 2015: 72). In one example that Cole describes as “one of the largest and most threatening in recent Egyptian history” (73), 17,000 night-shift workers downed tools in a textile plant, signaling the weakening of working-class deference to management. Through activities like these, according to Fadaee, the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) became one of the leading forces in the labor movement; in effect, they were ‘building trust among the working classes and revolutionary youth groups leading to the mass protests’ (Fedaee 2016: 115).

Such recognition of Trotskyist activism in Egypt in 2000s raises natural questions. If the RS played such a pivotal role in labor activism of that time, then, where are they now? What was their role in the mass protests of the ‘Arab spring’? And what are their prospects in al-Sisi’s Egypt? This paper addresses these questions by tracing the RS’s development from its establishment through to the present. It also attempts to demonstrate that the outburst of RS activity in 2000s was not incidental and that it still influences RS’s course in post-‘Arab spring’ Egypt.

History of the Left in Egypt

The emergence of the RS is deeply bound up with the development of the broader Left movement in Egypt. It traces its roots to the early 20th century. The Egyptian Socialist Party, later transformed into the Egyptian Communist Party (ECP), was among first leftist movements in Egypt. It was active till the repression by the authorities in the late 1920s, following several workers’ uprisings which demanded the resignation of the government.

It was not until the early 1940s that scattered leftist groups began to recover from the years of repression. The monarchy viewed leftists as a counter-weight to both German and British-oriented forces, and was therefore relatively tolerant of them. The Egyptian Movement for National Liberation and Iskra Movement were the most prominent groups (Belyayev and Primakov 1974: 50-55). In the late 1940s the communist movement in Egypt passed through another period of decline. During the first Arab-Israeli war, it was associated by the government with Zionism, which resulted in public suspicion of Egyptian leftists (Ismael and El-Sa’id 1990: 69).

The revolution of the Free Officers in 1952 opened a new page in the history of the leftist movement in Egypt. From the very beginning, most of the communists opposed the military. The ECP, the largest leftist movement of the time, accused the regime of being a military dictatorship with some fascist coloring (Botman 1988: 123). The leftists were also strongly dissatisfied with the proposed reforms, especially the Land Law, claiming the reforms were incomplete and did not improve the condition of most peasants. The military regime responded by repressing the communists, excluding them from the Egyptian political arena by the early 1960s. Even the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (or HADITU), the only leftist movement to support the new regime, eventually went over to the opposition. Some of the remnants of leftist groups were later incorporated by the regime into the Arab Socialist Union, which claimed to represent all the progressive political forces of that time. The beginning of political and economic cooperation of Egypt with the USSR in the late 1950s forced President Nasser to moderate his opposition to the Left.1

It was not till the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that the Left reemerged. The defeat of the Arab army made a strong impression on Egyptians and thus stirred all the national political forces, including those which operated illegally.

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of newly formed political parties and movements. For leftists, this period was also quite favorable. In 1975, the ECP was restored to its previous status in Nasser’s institutions – it did not gain formal legal status, but was tolerated by the regime. Smaller radical Left movements emerged, such as the Communist Labor Party and the 8 January Egyptian Communist Party (Ismael and El-Sa’id 1990: 145). Unlike the ECP, they joined the non-collaborative opposition and were suppressed by the regime.  Al-Tagammu was the first legal Leftist party to be established in Egypt in Sadat’s reign. It brought together several Marxist, Nasserist, Arab socialist and some liberal groups in the Arab Socialist Union and thus represented the moderate left opposition to the regime.

By the time of Mubarak, the Left in Egypt was represented by three main tendencies: (1) moderate legal opposition, (2) collaborative legal movements, and (3) non-collaborative groups which tended to be the most radical critics of the regime. Although the movement was fragmented, it nonetheless was influential, especially in civil society institutions: ‘During the 1980s and 1990s Leftist activists from the 1970s generation were largely responsible for the establishment of the Egyptian human rights movement. Leftists have also played an active role in a number of professional organizations, particularly in the journalists’ and lawyers’ unions, where leftist candidates were able to effectively compete against Brotherhood candidates’ (Shehata 2009: 64).

It was in this setting that the Revolutionary Socialist movement emerged. Its founding was a reaction to both the social needs and the internal developments of the leftist movement of that time.

Origins of the Revolutionary Socialists

There are no reliable sources on the early history of the RS except for its own documents, most of which are policy papers. There is also poor coverage of RS activities in media and academia, whether Egyptian or foreign. By the end of 20th century, with the dissolution of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, socialism was losing its appeal in the region. Scholarly attention then shifted from the socialist movements in the Arab world to Islamists, who have been gaining momentum since the 1970s. 

RS sources provide limited information on the organization’s origins. According to their 2012 paper ‘Revolutionary Socialists: History, Theory and Practice’ (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012), the RS emerged in the late 1980s. Early in the Mubarak era, leftists gradually came out of the shadows, and officially-recognized Left political parties (Al-Tagammu and Nasserites) were allowed to take part in the parliamentary elections of 1987. Candidates of other leftist parties also participated in the elections as independent or on the lists of legal parties. The most successful of these were the Socialist Labour Party and Liberal Socialist Party, which entered a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood and together won 17% of the vote. None of the other Leftist groups was elected to Parliament. Their weakness was aggravated by the fall of the Soviet Union, which they perceived as a substantial crisis of the world Left. The RS also blamed Islamist movements for the failures of the Left (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 11-12).

There was a general decline of what the RS call ‘traditional Leftists’. This substantially affected the way they presented themselves. They became less hostile to legal Leftist parties and Islamists, but their hostility towards the regime remained.

Their first step in the political arena was participation in labour union elections in 1991. As they interpret it, the RS were keen to ‘support leaders of workers’ protests and to cleanse the labour unions of corrupt leadership’ (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 16). Although they failed to reach this aim then, the RS continued to promote themselves as fearless advocates of workers’ and peasants’ interests. In 1994, they participated in perhaps one of the largest pre-‘Arab spring’ strikes in the industrial city of Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria. Approximately 15,000 textile and spinning workers went into the streets to protest against new policies and demand an increase of wages and more rights. Three workers were killed and several wounded in clashes with the police (Ibrahim 2002: 175). Eventually the strike was suppressed; however, the RS seemed to have made gains. First, this provided their initial ‘revolutionary experience’; second, thanks to this experience, they began to attract those who were dissatisfied by the social policy of the regime. As a result, the RS were officially described as ‘outlaws seeking to topple the ruling regime’ (Kassab 2012).

Today, the RS membership is in the thousands, although most of them are not from the industrial workers, but rather from student and professional strata (Charbel and Halawa 2012). The growth of the RS was not only a result of their alliance with street protesters. One of their distinct features, which differentiates them from the bulk of the oppositional groups and works to their advantage, was perhaps the RS’s principled opposition to the ruling regime. Unlike some traditional oppositional groups, including the legal Leftist parties, which might negotiate with the authorities on particular issues, the RS attitude, especially its non-collaboration stance, towards the regime has not undergone any substantive changes since its founding.

In an article ‘On the principles and history of the Revolutionary Socialists’ the RS outlined their general views. They start with denunciation of the Soviet Union and blame Stalin for the distortion of Marxism2 and, therefore, for eventual degradation of the Soviet state: ‘The collapse of the USSR was not the collapse of a socialist state; in fact, it was the destruction of one of the forms of capitalist state’ (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 12). The RS called for a return to Marxist ideals of ‘workers’ democracy’, which, in their view, were implemented in the early Soviet period before Stalin took the reins of power in 1924.

RS is quite critical of left governments (including the Soviet Bloc, except for the brief Bolshevik era from 1917 to 1924), and also of the various Egyptian governments. Unsurprisingly they accuse the Egyptian monarchy of ‘total bankruptcy’ and neglect of workers’ interests, but they also refuse to recognize the Free Officers’ coup of July 1952 as a ‘military coup which then turned into Socialist revolution’ (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 263). This is in contrast, of course, to the Soviet view that Nasser’s Egypt was a “socialist-leaning” country. Nasser’s State Capitalism policy (ra’smaliyyat al-dawla) led, the RS believe, to ‘economic crises’ and a ‘direct attack on the living standards of masses’. Therefore, it was predetermined, in the RS view, that this regime could not last.

Sadat’s reign and economic policy receives no special treatment in the RS paper.3 It seems that, for the RS, between Nasser’s death and the Soviet collapse, there were no significant events that could be associated with the socialist movement and therefore interpreted by the RS in new terms. The decay of the Soviet state opened a new era of ‘hegemony of neo-Liberalism’; and the person who incarnated all the vices of that era, in their view, was Hosny Mubarak. 

Criticism of Mubarak’s reign takes a small but important place in the RS paper. They showed no mercy towards the ex-President: ‘The policy of Mubarak’s neoliberal regime resulted only in an increased level of poverty, indignity of the masses, and unacceptable concentration of wealth by a small number of families and transnational companies’. However, they ‘could understand that the crisis of neoliberalism is coming and, therefore, since the mid-2000s, we are ready to raise a wave of people’s and workers’ resistance to neoliberalism’ (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 13).

Although this sounds a bit naïve (is it really the case that they were the only ones to recognize the critical trends in the Egyptian economy of that time?), it reveals how the RS see their role in current politics, i.e. non-collaborative strategy and mobilizing masses till a ‘social revolution’ completes its mission. Non-collaborative strategy is based on the observation – known as “moderation theory” – that the more a political force is involved in public politics and official institutions, the less it retains of its distinguishing features, be they radical or conservative (Wickham 2004, Schwedler 2006, Ashour 2009).

The development of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) in the late 1980s and particularly in the 1990s illustrates this theory. Fatah lost much of the Palestinians’ support when it was negotiating with Israel in Oslo (Polyakov and Hasyanov 2001). At the same time, there was a certain support among Palestinians for the establishment of the first Palestinian National Authority. In Egypt, the moderation theory is manifested in the MB, which has been turning to a strategy of cooperation (or, at least, non-confrontation) with the government since the 1990s, thereby alienating some of its traditional supporters (Tammam 2006). The MB achieved more influence over public debate after 2005, when it became the largest opposition group in the Parliament (Al-Anani 2007).

The RS’s non-collaboration was based both on ideological principles and on a realistic assessment of their potential. In practical terms, non-cooperation allowed the RS to preserve their traditional support base and also to attract those who were disappointed in other ‘collaborative’ political forces. Moreover, their participation in national institutions could scarcely affect Egyptian politics, given their relatively limited resources and all the restrictions imposed on them.4

The RS’s persistent hostility toward the regime brought it together with many oppositional forces in Egypt. The RS, already before the ‘Arab spring’, had some sympathy for Left youth movements such as the March 20 Movement, Kifaya (which included the Nasserist fraction Karama and figures from the ECP) and the April 6 Youth Movement. Together with these forces, the RS associated itself with the anti-war and anti-Mubarak movements in 2003-04 (El-Hamalawy 2007). It also cooperated tactically with the MB, the most influential oppositional force in Egypt before 2011. This case deserves our special attention, since it was unusual for Leftists to ally with Islamists.

Revolutionary Socialists and Islamists

Leftist movements in Egypt traditionally avoided cooperation with Islamists. The hostility between them goes back to the 1940s, when the MB, the only Islam-oriented political force of that time, collaborated with King Farouq in breaking workers’ strikes, and to the 1970s, when President Sadat encouraged violent Islamist assaults on leftist university students (El-Hamalawy 2007). As a result, the Islamists never allied with most of the legal parties in Egypt and instead were forced to cooperate with liberal parties, such as New Wafd and others. Generally, Islamist-leftist cooperation was rare in Middle Eastern political life.5  

In contrast to the position of other Egyptian leftists, the RS initially demonstrated their openness towards certain groups of Islamists. Their slogan was, “Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state.” Moreover, they considered the Communists ‘criminal’ for allying with Mubarak against Islamists in defence of a secular state – which, in the view of the RS, pushed religious Egyptians away from socialist movements (‘Al-Ishtirākiyyūn al-thawriyyūn’ 2012: 14). To achieve their short-term goals, the RS were thus ready to cooperate with Islamists, despite viewing them as ‘reactionary rightists’.6

The RS view of Islamists was sharply expressed by Samih Naguib in his paper, ‘Muslim  Brotherhood: Socialist View’ (Nagīb 2006). He begins by presenting the views of two contemporary leftist thinkers on the MB. The first is the Egyptian-born Francophone Marxist Samir Amin (1931- ), who sees Islamist movements as simply political movements that employ religion in order to attain power, but do not otherwise differ from the ruling elites: “An opposition between these organizations and the authority is no more than a result of competition between different parts of the ruling class.” And again: “There is no contradiction between political Islam and neoliberal capitalist globalization, but there is a co-integration between them” (Nagīb 2006).Naguib believes that this traditional assumption of Amin negatively affected the attitude of many leftists toward Islamists. The second position presented by Naguib is that of an influential Egyptian politician, the leader of the Al-Tagammu, Rifaat Saeed (1932- ). According to Saeed, all Islamists, from Hasan Al-Banna to the contemporary MB, represent “a reactionary terrorist movement hostile to progress and modernization” (Nagīb 2006). Consequently, Islamists “cannot be considered as a revolutionary movement of workers and there is no chance for leftists to cooperate with them in their struggle.” Naguib disagrees with Saeed’s view that Islamism experienced no transformation and development. In examining the MB program, he takes issue with those opponents of the Islamists who criticise them for their strict position towards Coptic and women’s issues.8 Although Naguib recognizes the importance of these issues, he argues that what is crucial about the MB stance is its firm opposition to Zionism and imperialism9 as well as capitalist economics and neoliberal policies. In this sense, Naguib concludes, the MB may have to be the leftists’ ally.

The cooperation between the RS and the MB was not based only on the compatibility of their overall views. It also grew out of more immediate conditions. First, it reflected the ability of the young generation within the MB to build strategic alliances independently of the old guard’s policy (El-Hamalawy 2007). Second, it signalled the MB’s openness towards non-Islamist forces and the RS’s readiness to establish larger political blocs. Third, allied with the MB, the RS could win sympathy of the most substantial and influential Islamist student and trade and professional unions. Fourth, in cooperation with the MB, the RS thus expanded their support base. Unlike most of the urban-based political forces in Egypt, the MB leadership tend to come from rural society, where a majority of Egyptians live (Abdelhadi 2012).

Salafis received no special attention of the RS before the ‘Arab spring’. With the establishment of first Salafi political parties and their proclaimed intention to participate in the parliamentary elections, however, they became the objects of the RS’s harsh criticism. The leftists labelled Salafis as baltagiyya (literally, ‘thugs’, meaning those who attacked protesters in Tahrir square) and blamed them for their relationship to the security apparatus of the former regime (Naguib 2011a). In ideological terms, Salafism was perceived as the worst version of Islamism:

Since 2006 the Mubarak regime allowed the creation of Salafist satellite channels, which have been airing their poisonous views, broadcasting a permanent stream of reactionary anti-Christian, anti-woman propaganda, as well as agitating against Muslims who do not share their views, in an attempt to drag the masses back to the Middle Ages (Naguib 2011b).

Thus, the RS distinguished sharply between two groups of Islamists: the MB and Salafis. This differentiation has both ideological and practical grounds. Ideologically, the RS perceived the MB as a ‘lesser evil’ given their relatively tolerant position toward women and Copts. In this regard, the RS could not be afraid of losing much support among these two groups of Egyptians. Practically, the RS could greatly benefit from an alliance with the MB in terms of their organizational and human resources, while they could hardly get any strategic advantage from a union with Salafis, who were primarily engaged in religious issues. Moreover, the RS could not establish any tactical relationship with Salafis, since there were just a few Salafi groups who participated in anti-Mubarak uprisings; most Salafists had deferred to the old order by eschewing politics.

Arab spring’ events

It is believed that the ‘Arab spring’ in Egypt began with the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ movement (see e.g. Ghonim 2012; Hamed 2014). The 28-year-old Said’s sudden death in police custody led to mass uprisings organized by various youth groups in June and July 2010. The leading forces of the coalition were: National Association for Change of Mohamed El-Baradei (mostly secular liberals), Kifaya and April 6 Movements (basically leftist youth movements), the RS, and other youth activists. Protesters were not satisfied with the official communiqué, which attributed Said’s death to drugs. They demanded punishment for police officers responsible for his ‘murder’ (Razhbadinov 2013: 132-136). The protests and civil actions in support of an independent investigation of Said’s death were suppressed by the authorities.

This harsh treatment of the opposition backfired, however, as it contributed to their rapid mobilization in January 2011. Several media sources report that the RS was among many other oppositional movements which played a crucial role in organizing people who went to Tahrir Square and demanded changes (LeVine 2011). They allied themselves again with their ‘old comrades’: April 6 Movement, Kifaya, and supporters of Mohamed El-Baradei’s candidacy for president. Oppositional al-Ghad (centrist and secular rightist) and al-Karama (leftist) parties and the Democratic Front (centre-right) also united with the protesters, as did celebrities such as novelists Alaa al-Aswany and Ahdaf Soueif, actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga, feminist Nawal al-Saadawi and others (‘Days of Anger…’).

The events of early 2011 were a sort of political smile-of-fortune for the RS, who consistently opposed the ruling regime and declared ‘permanent revolution’ their primary goal. However, it is unlikely that the RS could present any serious threat to the authorities since they were not so numerous and, unlike the MB, had no tangible support from national and Arab-Muslim businesses. In this sense, there was no natural way for the RS to make a qualitative leap and to transform itself into a massive political force except as part of a broader revolutionary coalition.

The beginning of the ‘Arab spring’ gave them a chance to ride the protest wave and to move rapidly forward. As leading RS member Samih Naguib stated in an interview on 23 February 2011, before the events the opposition usually failed to gather more than 200 demonstrators since many people feared the security forces.  “But on January 25 the numbers of protesters swelled in Cairo, Alexandria, and city after city as the day went on” (‘Conversation’ 2011). As the protest movement gained momentum and attracted supporters, the RS formulated an agenda. First of all, they demanded Mubarak’s removal, which would be, in their view, the first step of the revolution. Second, all national wealth should be turned over to the people, and all existing monopolies eliminated. Third, they called for an independent Egyptian foreign policy and the end of its being a ‘colony’ of the US and ally of Israel. Fourth, the RS insisted that the Egyptian army should protect the protest movement and not enter into any alliances with the ruling regime. Finally, they appealed to all workers to take part in the revolutionary movement and not to step back till all the demands were met. The final goal of the revolution was further clarified in their statement: ‘We will not back down until the criminal “leaders” and their criminal system is destroyed’ (‘A Call’ 2011).

The RS sought to cooperate on a political level with other forces that welcomed the revolution, primarily the youth and leftist movements. But the most tangible results of this cooperation were reached after the resignation of Mubarak and declaration of the upcoming Parliamentary elections. The RS and other socialists sought to form a broad left-wing political front. Such a front was established in May 2011. It was called the Coalition of Socialist Forces (CSF) and included four main leftist groups – the Popular Democratic Alliance Party, the Socialist Party of Egypt, the ECP and the RS itself. It was reported that the CSF had over 5,000 members – a minimum required for official recognition (Joffé  2013: 64-65).

The CSF decided to create an electoral alliance with the Egyptian Bloc (EB), which represented a wide range of political parties – from liberal and socialist to Islamist. However, because of strong objections by CSF members to functionaries of the old regime on the EB electoral list, the alliance was aborted. At the last moment, a day before the electoral deadline, the CSF formed the Revolution Continues Alliance (RCA), which included some liberal parties and even an Islamic party. They agreed to unite on a broad revolutionary platform, focusing on redistribution of wealth, a democratic form of government with full equality for women and religious minorities, full freedom of expression and assembly, and a foreign policy that would end Egypt’s dependence on the United States (Ali 2011).

The EB was more successful at the elections than the RCA and won slightly less than 9% in comparison with 2.2% acquired by the RCA. Thus, in the new Parliament, the RCA obtained only 1.6% of the seats. The main winners were Islamists of different orientations that together gained more than half the seats. The most popular explanation of the Islamists’ success is that the elections were held too soon and at the moment the Islamic groups were better organized and positioned than the newly established parties (Tadros 2012). Although most of the Islamists had opposed the RS, the latter did not perceive the Islamists as their natural enemies.

The rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

The collapse of the Mubarak regime and emergence of a political vacuum after the ban imposed on the former ruling party provoked a larger split inside the Islamist camp, so the ex-allies began to compete with each other. There were notable clashes between Salafis and the so- called ‘moderate Islamists’ and inside the latter group as well, not to mention that at the same time all Islamists had to resist secular political movements.

In the meantime the MB seemed to be the only political group able to compete with the old-guard candidates, since other Islamist groups were less well known and less organized. As the result of the parliamentary elections of 2011 moderate Islamists from the MB and their allies won 37% of the votes and eventually gained 45% of the seats in the People’s Assembly. Nevertheless, their victory was far from being convincing, as they did not get a majority. The results were fairly alarming for the MB, especially in light of the coming Presidential elections. In May 2012 the Islamist candidate Muhammad Morsi won 25% of votes compared with 24% gained by Ahmad Shafiq, Prime-Minister under Mubarak. Egyptians prepared to vote again in the second round.

In this situation, the RS decided to give all their support to the MB, considering their candidate to be a lesser evil. On the eve of the second round, the RS issued a statement calling on people to vote for Morsi and claiming that Shafiq’s victory would amount to the defeat of the Egyptian revolution. (It is noteworthy that in this proclamation they clearly distinguished between ‘the reformism of the Muslim Brotherhood’ and ‘the fascism of Shafiq’) (‘Revolutionary Socialists’ statement’ 2012).

Although Morsi won by 3.5% over Shafiq, his rule did not last. He failed to gather a wide coalition of national forces and equally did not find common ground with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In late 2012 Egypt witnessed a new wave of street uprisings that almost led to a civil war. That was due to unpopular steps taken by President Morsi, specifically, his attempt to expand presidential power and reduce the Parliament’s functions.

This time the RS chose to join the protesters and reactivated their criticism of the MB. They blamed Morsi for ‘giving immunity to the president’s decisions until the election of a new Parliament’, ‘preserving the Shoura Council and the farcical Constituent Assembly’, and  usurping ‘the right to take any decisions necessary in the face of threats to the country, national security, the revolution or national unity’ (‘Morsi’s power’ 2012). But the most curious thing in their statement was that despite their accusing the MB of cooperating with ‘remnants of the Mubarak regime’, the RS did not cast doubt on the president’s legitimacy. Moreover, it seemed that they still believed in some way that Morsi could be influenced by the revolutionary masses and that the revolution would continue.

On July 3, 2013, a military coup deposed Morsi and his government. Islamists in Egypt finally split between supporters and opponents of the overthrown MB regime. There were no signs that Islamists would unite again in the immediate future, and the state stood on the threshold of a new wave of revolution. RS appeared to be no longer interested in the MB and did not hesitate to blame them for the failure of the Egyptian revolution. In a tactical move they stated:

The Revolutionary Socialists did not defend the government 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 which betrayed the goals of the Egyptian Revolution (‘Statement from the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists’ 2013).

At the same time, the RS were also far from being enthusiastic about those who were going to replace the rule of the MB.

The RS launched a harsh criticism of the military circles including Al-Sisi himself. According to the RS, the SCAF was closely associated with the old regime for it has the same ‘criminal history’ as the Mubarak regime. During the previous years, it accumulated ‘huge powers and privileges’ and now controls ‘roughly 25% of the Egyptian economy’. Moreover, the RS accused the SCAF of honouring the Camp David agreement, which they believed to be humiliating for the national interests of Egyptians and Arabs. Therefore, the military coup, they claim, is nothing else than a ‘counter-revolution’, which denounced the achievements of the Egyptian protests in January and February 2011 (‘Statement from the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists’ 2013). And on the basis of these arguments the RS proclaimed their participation in the struggle against the system, in a statement released a few weeks after the coup: ‘We must use the downfall of the Brotherhood to deepen the revolution, not to support the regime’ (‘Bayān al-ishtirākiyyīn al-thawriyyīn’ 2013).

The position that the RS took after 3 July 2013 seemed to be quite risky in terms of their political survival, since Al-Sisi seemed to enjoy strong backing. In a short time, he enlisted support of the main political parties and religious institutions in the country including Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church and tried to win the sympathy of regional and world powers. At the same time, he brutally suppressed the anti-military street movements, including those organized by leftist forces. Although their main target was the MB, the military used all its power and resources to clean up irreconcilable groups at once. Under the slogan of fighting ‘the guilty Islamists’, they announced restrictions for media and launched a campaign against opposition journalists. By the end of 2013, most of the key MB leaders were put behind bars, and the opposition in general was suppressed. Al-Sisi began his presidential campaign and was eventually elected the sixth president of Egypt on 8 June 2014.

The RS did not have sufficient resources to resist their suppression. At the same time, they seemed to be quite realistic about their political perspectives in a new Egypt. The RS authors complained in an August 2013 statement:

Our principled position may result in our temporary isolation in the midst of the masses. But we must not allow ourselves to give in to any degree of frustration, for as long as contradictions continue in the consciousness and capacity of the masses to organize themselves, the mass movement will remain a vehicle that can be affected by many intersecting factors, which compel it to proceed along winding roads and not constantly along a straight and rising path. The real content of the repressive regime now in power will be revealed before the eyes of the masses, and they will gradually begin the struggle against it (‘We stand with Egypt’s masses’ 2013). 

Evaluating the new political reality as hostile for them, the RS felt compelled to move their main fight to the media. They keep and regularly update a website called ‘Socialist: A Media in the Name of Revolution’ (http://revsoc.me), which comprises various online articles, books, translations and brochures as well as critical essays on current policies of Al-Sisi. They also have access to the online version of the international weekly journal Socialist Worker (socialistworker.org), which regularly publishes RS proclamations and other materials.

Conclusion

It may seem that the Trotskyists do not take a prominent place in Egyptian politics and, therefore, could be considered as political outsiders in this country. Contemporary experts and analysts are rather more concerned with Islamic parties. However, a deeper look at the RS reveals that they possess some features which make it merit further study.

First of all, they demonstrate an increasing level of social activity which has its effect on Egyptian revolutionary tendencies. The RS actively participated in the labor and social protests in 00s and, thus became a connecting link between workers and revolutionary youth – the 6 April movement, Kifaya, the youth wing of the MB etc. In subsequent years, the RS endeavored to draw benefits from their leading role in labor activism. For example, Hossam Al-Hamalawy, one of the RS members, launched a course titled ‘Social Mobilization under Authoritarian Regimes’, which, doubled with his charisma and personal experience of social protests, attracted new members to the RS and activist movement (Khosrokhavar 2012: 196-197). We have already cited some observers who believe that the protests of 00s were a repetition of the ‘Arab spring’ (Fadaee 2016: 115; Darwisheh 2015: 112). The experience of social mobilization which the RS gained at that time appeared to make them helpful during the first days of anti-Mubarak demonstrations. Eventually, it was the worker’s strikes and protests that played a critical revolutionary role in Egypt’s ‘Arab spring’ (Smith 2014: 281). As Telci also argues,

Unlike many analyses from the Western media and intellectual circles that expressed concern about the Islamist motives behind the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, the scene and actors were different than was thought in Tahrir Square. Major opposition groups that constituted the crowd in the main square of Cairo were, however, mostly leftist. Among these groups Revolutionary Socialists (RS) was one of the largest and most courageous (Telci 2011: 180).

But what seems to me more curious is that the RS is now seen as a potential valuable ally for the outlawed but still influential MB. What is odd is that in 2013 the RS condemned President Morsi and in 2015 the organization appeared to take an opposite position. The RS issued a statement which said: “Two years after the coup our main enemy is the military dictatorship and not the Muslim Brotherhood, and we must stop dealing with the two sides according to the same logic” (‘On the counter-revolution’ 2015). Although, as the statement goes on to say, the RS do not intend to make a coalition with the MB immediately, the latter reacted positively to this statement, meaning the Islamists are taking the Trotskyists seriously. “We are trying to work for coordination, based on the Revolution’s objectives, which may evolve into a revolutionary alliance, despite the different political agendas of each component of the revolutionary alliance, if it does come about”, said the spokesmen for the MB’s Freedom and Justice party Ahmed Rami (‘Freedom and Justice Party Leaders’ 2015).

At present, the RS remains the only significant left actor in Egypt to demonstrate its support to the MB; their possible cooperation may establish a novel and even decisive Islamist-Leftist coalition in the Middle East.

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Notes

1. It should be noted, though, that the Leftists were not the only objects of such repression. Other larger groups and movements, e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd Party, were also proscribed by Nasser. 

2. This interpretation relies on Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism. See, e.g., Saccarelli 2008, 129-182.

3. That is not surprising since the 1970s were years of a partial resurrection of the Left, naturally, with the exception of Nasserites.

4. The MB, although also banned, could affect public policy thanks to its wider public and financial support.

5. There were exceptions, however. The Islamic Revolution in Iran was by a Red (Leftist) and Black (Islamist) alliance, while in Lebanon Leftist forces (PLO, Lebanese National Movement) collaborated with Islamists (Hezbollah, Amal) during the Civil war.

6. As eloquently noted by Reem Abou-El-Fadl: ‘Unlikely fellow travelers brought together by a common purpose’ (Revolutionary Egypt 2015: 67).

7. Amin’s view of the Islamists as a neoliberal movement appears to be quite subjective. As was persuasively demonstrated by C.R. Wickham (2002), Islamists significantly advocate progressive social policies, which accounted for their increasing popularity in Egypt in the 1990s and 2000s. This was true of both the MB and Salafi movements, although the latter did not enjoy as much support as the MB.

8. Here Naguib seems to be unaware of the MB’s position on Copts and women and its actual mismatch with the views of the RS. According to the MB, Copts and other Christians constitute a vital part of Egyptian society, but it would be unthinkable for a Christian to rule a Muslim-majority country. Men’s and women’s rights are also equally guaranteed until they prevent a woman from exercising her traditional role of housekeeper and child-raiser. Compare this to the RS exhortation: “Complete equality between men and women in all wages, allowances and bonuses. Increased penalties for sexual harassment and all forms of oppression and discrimination. Restoration of rights to maternity leave and the provision of a nursery at all workplaces employing more than fifty people. An increased budget for healthcare and education for women. Changing the personal status laws [governing marriage, divorce etc.] to ensure women’s rights” (‘Together for the victory…’).

9. On these two issues, the views of the RS and the MB seem to coincide. According to the MB, Egypt ought to reconsider its close relationships with the US and Israel and ally itself above all with Muslim and Arab states. The RS is harshly critical of US policy toward Israel. It opposes US aid to Egypt and supports Hamas and Hezbollah against Israeli forces in Gaza and Lebanon (Omar 2014).

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