After massive theft of votes from liberal and radical candidates in the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections in May, there was widespread fear that the country’s ruling military would rig the results in the run-off between its favored candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Mohamed Morsi, a fear exacerbated by the delay in announcing those results. To hedge its bets in case it couldn’t get away with outright theft of the election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a series of rulings in the days before the results were announced, dissolving parliament and stripping the incoming president of virtually all power.
SCAF’s measures included giving military police and soldiers the ability to arrest and detain civilians. It also overturned legislation passed by the dismissed parliament that had forbidden former Mubarak regime figures (like Shafiq) from running for president.
To top it all, just a few hours before the polls for the runoff had closed, SCAF announced an “addendum” to the constitutional declaration of March 2011, under which it, and not the now-dissolved parliament, would pick members of the commission to write a new constitution. It also limited what could be in such a document, reserving control of certain ministries to itself, and establishing its right of veto over constitutional provisions that contravened the “interests of the country,” as well as reserving to itself the right to declare war (obviously intended as reassurance to Israel and the United States).
In sum, SCAF was attempting to carry out a “soft coup,” i.e., a usurpation of a variety of powers preserving its dictatorial role, as opposed to a “hard coup” involving violent attacks and mass detentions. No one is under any illusion about the potential for SCAF to switch from the former to the latter. But the Egyptian masses showed by flocking back to the country’s squares that they would not abide by a theft of the presidential election and would continue mobilizing against SCAF’s new measures.
The Tuesday after its dissolution some parliament members had threatened to convene outside their building, from which SCAF had locked them out. In the end, few from the formerly MB-dominated parliament turned out, which was viewed as yet another indication of the MB leadership’s unwillingness to confront the military.
Starting on Tuesday, June 19 (after the second round voting was done), masses of people returned to the squares in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere, answering calls by the Brotherhood along with radical youth and leftist political organizations to demonstrate against the military’s new moves and the threat that Shafiq might be declared president. The squares remained filled until Morsi was declared the winner.
Now the question is whether the Brotherhood leadership—which at a number of points since Mubarak’s downfall has aligned itself with SCAF against pro-democracy protesters—will continue to support mass mobilizations to challenge the military’s legal and constitutional maneuvers.
An early test of the MB leadership’s fortitude came with Morsi’s swearing in. The military had insisted it be done in front of the SCAF-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court, but activists demanded he come to Tahrir Square and take his oath before the masses. In the end he went first to Tahrir, and then to the Court.
The Brotherhood—which, under its religious overlay, is a bourgeois party whose leadership consists overwhelmingly of rich businessmen—is trapped between the awareness of its ranks of the need to mobilize against the soft coup, and its fear of those same ranks. The leaders, like the ranks, realize that they are in danger of becoming a ruling party that isn’t allowed to rule—or perhaps even to exist. Yet the leadership fears far more a coming together of its mostly working-class and peasant base with the revolutionaries in the squares and workplaces who want to pursue to the end this revolution, whose main slogan remains “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.”
The MB leadership is particularly scared because it had been able to keep its ranks from joining mobilizations called by radical groups since the revolution, even when those groups were being violently attacked by the military, and it was able on occasion to turn some of its members toward slander and violence against them. But in June the squares of Egypt once again became a place where the rank and file of the MB and various Islamist groups stood shoulder to shoulder with secular radical elements in opposing military rule and in dialogue with each other about how best to do so. Clearly, this unified, quick, and massive mobilization convinced SCAF not to steal outright the election but rather to rely on the new laws and appointments that it had just made to maintain the vast bulk of real power.
The demands in the statement by a broad alliance of radical groups calling for the Tahrir mobilization gives a good sense of the dangers posed by the soft coup, and the steps needed to roll it back. The groups demanded a mass mobilization against the military’s constitutional and legal usurpations; a declaration by the president-elect rejecting the same; parties, political movements and trade unions to elect a Constituent Assembly on the basis of consensus in order to block the military’s attempts to intervene in the formation of the assembly; and that the president-elect must issue an immediate order calling on the military to return to its barracks and canceling the powers granted to the military police to arrest civilians.
The groups also demanded that the president-elect issue an immediate amnesty for all civilians detained by the military and form a committee to investigate the crimes committed against the revolutionaries and to punish the killers of the martyrs. They called for the president-elect to cancel the exceptional measures that restrict the exercise of democratic rights, and especially the criminalization of strikes.
A related statement was issued by the Revolutionary Socialists. They warned the MB youth in particular to continue their mobilization and to keep a watchful eye on their party’s leaders, and called for masses to stay in the squares until their demands were met.
In addition to echoing the demands of the alliance (of which it is a part) against the “soft coup” measures, the RS demanded the immediate surrender of power by the army; a popular referendum on the dissolution of parliament; the complete purging of all state institutions that have been militarized in recent months; stabilization of prices, an end to privatization, nationalization of the monopolies and the return of the companies for which sales to private owners have been overturned by the courts.
The RS also pointed again to the need to unite the squares and the workplaces, to link the economic and the political. And in fact the return to the squares in June was matched by an uptick in action at workplaces—and even a combination of the two.
On July 6, six health-care workers’ unions united in calling for a general strike over the state budget just passed by SCAF. The unions called on Morsi to fulfill his promises of increasing the health budget. A leader of the doctors’ union, Abdel Rahman Gamal, told Al Masry Al Youm that the unions denounced SCAF for seizing legislative authority and passing the state budget, saying the new budget was no different than the last one of Mubarak.
The same paper (available on the web in English as Egypt Independent) reported that on July 3, hundreds of workers at the Alexandria branch of Pirelli, the huge Italian tire manufacturer, had joined environmental monitoring unit workers in front of the presidential palace to meet Morsi to raise their demands over wage and job security issues.
And the same week a group of Metro workers began a sit-in at a Metro stop and threatened to begin a hunger strike if their demands were not met. They demanded that Morsi implement permanent contracts promised by SCAF-appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri but never delivered.
This workplace-based militancy is being matched by Cairo slum residents who are resisting eviction by rich real estate developers.
An early indication that the MB hopes to be able to ignore such working-class-based action is seen in the report by revolutionary blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy that top MB officials were claiming that workers protesting in front of the presidential palace were part of some “counterrevolutionary plot,” and had called them “mercenaries” paid to protest by State Security Police and businessmen affiliated with the dissolved National Democratic Party.
For news of what U.S. activists are doing in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution, see the website of the Coalition to Defend the Egyptian Revolution: defendegyptianrevolution.org.
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and is reprinted from the July 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.