Egypt: Protesters and army battle for streets

Thousands of activists fought running battles with security forces for control of Tahrir Square, Cario, last weekend, and at the start of this week. At least 33 people were killed and over 1,750 injured. There have also been big protest demonstrations in Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and other cities. Street fighting continued last night in central Cairo, turning parts of the city into “a war zone”. Today, Monday 21 November, clashes are reported as armed state forces try to clear Cairo’s Tahrir Square of protesters.

“The military promised that they would hand over power within six months,” one protester said. “Now 10 months have gone by and they still haven’t done it. We feel deceived.”

On Friday 18 November, a massive demonstration took place in Tahrir Square – the biggest for several months. The majority taking part in those protests were reportedly supporters of Islamist parties. But in the evening a few hundred youth set up a new occupation on the central roundabout. The state forces launched a brutal attack against the camp early Saturday morning. This led to tens of thousands of protesters returning to the Square to defend their right to protest. “The people demand the overthrow of the regime,” was the slogan chanted, as it had been before the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, fell earlier this year. Indicating some splits at the top about how to respond to the latest street protests, Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi reportedly resigned in protest at the government’s handling of the demonstrators.

The Guardian newspaper (London 21/11/11) described the scene, “By Sunday morning, following 24 hours of fierce street fighting and the conquest of Tahrir by revolutionaries, the furniture of the anti-Mubarak uprising was once again wheeled into place in the capital. Civilian checkpoints dotted the square, corrugated iron sheets were torn down for barricades, and the makeshift field hospital…

“When the military attack finally came, dissolving once and for all any lingering boundaries in protesters’ minds between the army on the one hand and the hated black-clad riot police that symbolised Mubarak’s security apparatus on the other, it was brutal and ephemeral…” But “outnumbered and outfought, the soldiers fled, though not before some had been captured by protesters. Fires blazed in all directions, but Liberation Square – the plaza’s name in Arabic – had once again been liberated, although how long for, no one dares predict.

“’We’ll stay here until we die, or military rule dies,’ said 27-year-old Mahmoud Turg with a matter-of-fact intensity.”

Army clings onto power

Last weekend’s events come after growing anger at the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is trying to retain its grip on power. The council, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, is supposedly charged with overseeing the country’s transition to democracy after three decades of dictatorial rule under Mr Mubarak.

Elections are to be held on 28 November, but it is becoming clearer to many that the SCAF will do everything to hold onto power, whatever the human toll. Instead of repealing Egypt’s hated emergency laws, the generals have extended it, while protecting their own privileges. An estimated 12,000 people have been brought to military tribunals over the last 10 months, a higher figure than under Mubarak’s 30 years of rule.

Calls for Tantawi’s resignation were heard during the weekend’s protests. The BBC reported that the demands of the protesters “have changed over the course of the weekend”. Crowds gathered last Friday demanded the military set a date for the handover of power but now “they want the military leaders to resign immediately and hand over to a civilian administration.”

The longest continuous street protests since President Hosni Mubarak was removed in February has raised questions over whether elections due to start next week will take place.

Several opposition parties are reported to have stated they will not take part in the coming elections. Mohamed ElBaradei, a pro-capitalist opposition figure, has offered himself to lead a ‘national government of salvation’.

Scenes of demonstrators in Tahrir Square being brutally attacked by police baton charges, tear gas (made in the USA), bird shot and rubber bullets were reminiscent of the days following the January 25th demonstration. It was those demonstrations that began the 18-day movement that forced the former president, Hosni Mubarak, from power.

Over the past few months, there have been deepening and unbearable tensions between the SCAF regime and the masses seeking democratic rights and a better life. Now these deep-seated and mutually incompatible differences have burst asunder, in what many activists are calling “the Second Revolution”. Like other revolutions, the Egyptian revolution is not a single act but a process. The masses fought hard to remove Mubarak at the cost of many lives. After he was overthrown, strikes broke out in many sectors and protests continued by youth, students and other layers. For big swathes of the population, exhausted by struggle and yearning ‘stability’, they put hopes in the new regime to oversee democratic elections and a better life. But now big sections of the population have correctly concluded that the SCAF is an attempt to continue the Mubarak regime in new clothes and that a new revolutionary upsurge is needed to win real and long-lasting democratic rights and fundamental social and economic changes.

In September, there were massive strikes – national strikes of teachers and postal workers, 62,000 Cairo public transport workers – and even low-rank police officers, who were protesting against corruption and privileges of senior officers. Workers were drawing the conclusion that they could not rely on the new government and would only get improved living standards and real democratic rights by organising and taking action.

On 9 October, there were attacks on a Coptic church that led to a protest demonstration of 10,000 to Maspero, the state TV broadcasting centre. The demonstrators were attacked by troops driving armoured cars in to the crowd, killing scores of protestors. Television reports blamed the demonstrators for the violence. Continuing military trials of civilian opponents of the regime have been highlighted by the arrest of blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah for reporting the role of the military in the Maspero attack.

Meanwhile, Michael Nabil Sanad continues his hunger strike in protest at the three-year prison sentence he received in April. He had written an article accusing the new government of continuing the corruption and anti-democratic practices of Mubarak.

On 27 October, a prisoner, Essam Atta, was horribly tortured to death. The photo of his dead body was a gruesome reminder of Khaled Said, a young blogger killed by two policemen in Alexandria in 2010. The ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook group was one of the movements that called the January 25th demonstration. Many had hoped that such scenes had ended with the end of Mubarak’s rule.

Over the weekend of 19/20 November, there were huge protests in the delta port of Damietta against continuing pollution from the Mopco fertiliser factory. Twenty thousand demonstrators blockaded the port and roads into the city. They were attacked by army and police, with two people killed. At the other end of the country, in Aswan, a mass rally of Nubians protested against the shooting of a Nubian boatman by a policeman.

Same methods of repression as Mubarak regime

These incidents have shown that SCAF are using the same methods of repression as the old regime. This is only to be expected, as these same senior officers served Mubarak for decades. They have massive economic interests, with large companies owned by the armed forces. They are determined to protect these interests, as well as those of the rest of the Egyptian ruling class.

This is why the CWI argued on 11 February, the day of Mubarak’s removal, that the working class and youth should have, “No trust in the military chiefs!” and needed to build an independent movement that fights for “a government of the representatives of workers, small farmers and the poor!”

The forthcoming elections are to the lower house of a parliament that will draw up a new constitution. Two thirds of the seats are elected on a local list basis, with individuals elected to the remaining seats. The election process will strengthen supporters of the old regime, many of whom are running as ‘independents’ or members of the ‘loyal opposition’ parties that Mubarak allowed to give a democratic veneer to his regime.

The government have now declared that the new parliament will not have control over the armed forces, which would continue to control their own budget and policy. After initial outcry, the SCAF ‘compromised’ and said it would be accountable to a National Council. Half would be elected from the parliament and half from SCAF, with the president as chairman. This would leave the armed forces with effective control over themselves.

While Islamists are expected to become the largest bloc in the new parliament, its supporters are divided between several parties. The biggest is the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) ‘Freedom and Justice Party’, which claims to model itself on the AKP that forms the Turkish government.

Young Muslim Brotherhood members broke away in frustration at the older leadership, reflecting pressure from youth activists they had worked with following the January 25th revolution. These younger Muslim Brotherhood members were expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood and set up four new parties. Increasing numbers of conservative Islamists support a number of more hard-line Islamic Salafist parties.

The electoral support of the Islamist parties is based on their record of charitable work, filling some of the massive gaps in social support under Mubarak, as well as their record of opposition to Mubarak and perceived lack of corruption. There have been reports of these parties handing out meat and half price medicines at some election rallies. Arguments over candidates’ lists between these different parties have taken place over the past few months. With growing class conflict, some of these Islamist parties will reflect differing class interests.

Revolution hijacked

The demonstrations across Egypt this weekend show an increasing number of youth and workers understand the SCAF is intent on hijacking their revolution. The youth and workers are courageously resisting the army and police on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere. The movement needs to urgently create democratically-elected and run committees of mass struggle and defence against state repression. The army rank and file can be won over, with a firm and decisive appeal to join the uprising. The soldiers’ grievances about low pay, bad conditions and treatment by their senior officers need to be addressed by the mass movement, alongside calling for the right of soldiers to organise a free independent trade union, to form soldiers’ committees and the election of officers. This can help win the rank and file of the army and sections of the police to the side of the masses. Mass workers’ action, including a general strike, to overthrow Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the whole rotten, brutal regime needs to be organised alongside an offensive to moblise and organise the masses as the basis for a government formed by representatives of workers, the youth, small farmers and the poor that can take immediate action against counter-revolution and for democratic rights, immediate steps to improve living standards and break with capitalism.

The masses are instinctively opposed to a constitution approved or drawn up by the military. The CWI calls for the rapid election of a real democratic parliament, a revolutionary constituent assembly, which not only agrees rules for elections but also a programme to change the conditions of the Egyptian masses. Such a parliament can only be convened – if it is really to represent the majority of the population – under the control of democratic workplace and neighbour committees. Representatives of the workers and poor farmers should form the majority in this parliament or constituent assembly.

Real change in the interests of workers, the poor and the youth requires genuine democratic change. Democratic popular committees in workplaces and neighbourhoods can re-develop or spring up anew in the cauldron of events now taking place on the streets. Such bodies, linking up at city, regional and national level, can form the basis for a revolutionary constituent assembly and a government with a majority of workers and poor.

A workers’ and poor people’s government would introduce genuine democratic reforms, including regular elections for representatives, on average workers’ wages and subject to recall should they act against the interests of workers and the poor. It would also guarantee the right to organise independent trade unions, the right to strike and the right to organise political parties.

These are needed to struggle for decent pay and working conditions, guaranteed jobs, and also decent housing, education, pensions and healthcare. The newly formed independent trade unions need to build their own independent workers’ party to campaign for these ideas.

Such a government would nationalise all the major companies and banks under democratic workers’ control, so that the economy could be planned in the interests of the big majority of the population, instead of being run for benefit of the rich.

The struggle between revolution and counter-revolution continues as the working class strives to complete what it began on January 25th – winning full democratic, social and economic freedoms. A workers’ party putting forward a socialist programme, linked to the daily needs of millions of workers and poor, could gain mass support, and undercut the false alternative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Linking up with workers and youth across the region, such a mass movement could lead to a federation of democratic socialist states, ending poverty, corruption and oppression.

The CWI says:

  • Defend the revolution: Clear out Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
  • No compromise with the old remnants of the regime – No to rule by the military chiefs or the elite.
  • No trust in any new ‘national unity’ regime based on the interests of the ruling class and imperialism
  • For the urgent formation of democratically-elected and run committees of mass struggle and defence against state repression
  • No to sectarianism – For the unity of all workers across religious lines
  • Immediate lifting of the state of emergence. Immediate freeing of all political detainees and prisoners. No prosecution or victimisation of activists in the revolution
  • Full political freedom. Freedom to publish and organise. Democratic control over the state media and opening up of state media to publish the views of all political trends supporting the revolution
  • No restriction of the right to strike and take other industrial action. Full freedom to form trade unions and conduct trade union activity. For democratic, combative trade unions
  • Formation of democratic rank and file committees in the armed forces and police
  • Arrest and trial before popular courts all those involved in the SCAF regime’s repression and corruption. Confiscate the assets of the looters and corrupt.
  • For the immediate elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly supervised by committees of working people, the poor and the youth
  • For a government of representatives of workers, the youth, small farmers and the poor
  • Nationalise the major companies and banks under democratic workers’ control, so that the economy could be planned in the interests of the big majority of the population, instead of being run for benefit of the rich