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The position of the left and its role in the Egyptian revolution and in the “post-January 2011” posed a big interrogation in the intellectual, political and social arenas in Egypt. The question stems from the mechanical search for “a left” in light of “a revolution”. What is meant by “the left” is the presence – or emergence - of political and social forces that fight to attain gains which are - in their core - related to enabling the sectors subjected to injustice and exploitation (by the existing power system) to have their political and social rights. The main bases of this empowerment are: the fair redistribution of wealth and enabling these sectors to manage resources and represent themselves. Hence, the left is a struggle process based on a vision and a reading of the nature of the social conflict.
The History of the Left in Egypt: The First and Second Constitutions
Egypt has a long history of leftist and Marxist organizations, intellectually and politically present since the beginning of the twentieth century, but also socially present throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties of that century. However, to understand the left today, it’s essential to begin with understanding its defeats in different historical stages and its reconfiguration with the renewal of its struggles.
The left has been defeated in one of the most important stages of social and political conflict in Egypt in the early fifties and sixties by the government of free officers of 1952. The state had finished off the left with a security grip, and it absorbed the leftists’ discourse through some implemented changes and measures that had a “socialist” character. Most of the left-wing parties at the time were loyal and subordinate to the Soviet Union, which had then decided to support the bourgeois nationalist regimes of a military nature. However, the conflict was soon renewed after the horrific defeat to Israel in 1967. The left reemerged through the students’ uprising of 1968 in response to the defeat and democracy started to become an urgent question, considering that the dictatorship was one of the biggest factors leading up to the defeat.
The left's presence flourished in the Egyptian universities and some workers’ collectives since the “bread uprising” in 1977. The 1970s saw the marriage of organized left-wing forces and their intellectuals with the labor and student movements. The left had succeeded in taking root within the sectors it targets ideologically and in the context of the struggle. Since the movements of 1975, the ruling regime and its security services have recognized the seriousness of this situation when the workers of “el-Mahalla el-Kobra” marched in a massive demonstration. The movement was met with great violence as the police forces killed seven workers and wounded thousands.
The “Egyptian Communist Labor Party” had a central role in the 1970s, but it also took some painful security blows in the aftermath of the 1977 Bread Uprising, which led to the eradication of the party. That generation of leftists was defeated and the uprising ended with no positive outcomes. It also took severe blows in light of the alliance between Sadat’s authority with the Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular). The Islamists in all their various formations had succeeded in defeating the left yet again in the universities, while the security forces pursued and repressed them in their different labor positioning.
The decline of the left in Egypt was abrupt in the eighties and the nineties of the past century- despite several labor strikes and sit-ins that took place at the time, most notably the sit-in of the iron and steel plants in Helwan. Many factors had contributed to this decline, including the growth of the Islamic ideology , the intensification of the “war on terrorism”, along with the fall of the Soviet Union. The latter was the least significant cause, as the defeat of the left in Egypt was already largely enacted because of internal organizational issues – particularly because the National Progressive Unionist Party (El Tagammu’ Party) had dominated all representation of the left and chose to stand with the authority rather than engage in any sort of struggles against it in fear of the “Islamic extremism”. El Taggamu’ Party had abandoned some big central battles, such as the uprising of Idku city in El Beheira governorate in 1992, despite a strong presence of the party and its cadres in that governorate and in the city itself. This abandonment confused some of the party’s members in the city in which they had previously played different roles. Even after the uprising was subsided by police oppression and social negotiation, El Tagammu’ Party still did not make any attempt to lead and crown the popular struggle with any political gains.
Contrary to the “calcification” of El Tagammu’ Party, some other leftist groups fought a long legal battle against the authority, and the courts were main arenas for their struggle. The names of Ahmed Seif El-Din and Nabil El-Hilali became prominent as both of them succeeded in gathering a group of young left-wing lawyers who became inspirational models for later generations.
Mubarak and hereditary politics were understood as being the biggest political problems in Egypt, while corruption was just viewed as a symptom of the lack of transparency, lack of accountability, lack of competence, and lack of the rule of law. The violations of the police of the Ministry of the Interior and its political repression were believed to be solvable by changing the leaders, while it was believed that most problems of governance in Egypt could be resolved by building a representative democracy and ensuring the integrity of the elections.
However, there was a shift at the dawn of the new millennium that gave the left room to reconfigure itself once again. Left-wing groups started to form numerous human rights and development organizations (working on local development, preparing youth leaders for civil work, developing resources and local projects… They also coordinated and worked with the United Nations and “Development Support Programs”). It was these left-wing formations that were to be found on the ground at the moment of the first spark of the revolution in 2011.
The beginning of the third millennium was not just the climax of the neoliberal transformation in Egypt, but also the inauguration of a decade of open conflict with the power system and Mubarak's political system.
The decade witnessed several important transformations at the beginning, which provided the left with new opportunities to engage in political and social conflict:
1- The role of human rights organizations in opposing the brutality of the Ministry of the Interior in particular has expanded. After the victory of the Ministry in its war on terrorism, the police rule continued to reinforce itself and the establishment completely dominated the daily life in Egypt with the patterns of its exercise of power becoming increasingly harsh. This was one of the most important starting points of a major human rights battle fought by institutions whose backbone was the left-wing, such as “El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture” and “Hisham Mubarak Law Center”. These institutions had succeeded in mobilizing their human and financial resources, and the legal struggle through left-wing lawyers hence became fundamental. These organizations also included a number of researchers with left-leaning tendencies.
2- The labor struggle against the neoliberal transformation had also moved to the courts, especially to what is known in Egypt as the administrative judiciary. In this space, other human rights institutions, such as the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, played an important role.
3- This neoliberal transformation provided a wide space for the emergence of newspapers relatively independent from the state’s authority, which meant that left-wing journalists found an opportunity to interact in the Egyptian press scene.
4- Finally, the political struggle against Mubarak erupted in 2005 with the emergence of the “Kifaya Movement”, which was formed by leftists , liberals (in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word) and Nasserites.
On the other hand, the “Revolutionary Socialists” organization received a major security blow at the turn of the millennium, which turned into a case in the Egyptian courts. However, this blow constituted the true birth of this organization that was formed in the nineties of the last century by a group of students and professors of the American University in Cairo. The organization had made serious attempts – in very complicated security conditions - to engage in the various social struggles that culminated in 2006, 2007, and 2008. It also tried to embrace political demands with social protests and produced subsidiary tools, such as “The Socialist Magazine”, which tirelessly accompanied all forms of protest in Egypt. It also established a website, while some of its cadres were actively involved in labor issues as journalists, political activists and lawyers.
Inside the leftist sphere, there was also a struggle that revolved around the attempts to build a new left against the rusty old leadership, specifically against El Tagammu’ Party and its Stalinist character. This conflict highlighted the features of the new leftist currents and prompted them to become more vital in interacting with the explosion of the sociopolitical conflict in Egypt again.
With the founding of the “Kifaya Movement” in 2005, many youthful movements began to emerge, such as “The Youth for Change”, the “Solidarity Movement” in 2006 and many other youth coordination such as “The Coordination Office for Political Forces” in Alexandria in 2009, “The Youth Movements” in 2010 after a young man was brutally murdered by the police in front of his house in a middle-class neighborhood, whose case became widely known by his name; “Khaled Saeed”. Most of the young leftist members have been vigorously involved in small, effective, but short-lived movements, of a nature that transcends the ideological dimension in favor of working on specific issues. Many of the left's youth is concerned with limited but important conflicts, such as the displacement of residents in favor of capitalist projects (one example is the "Toson" case in Alexandria in 2008) or environmental issues (such as the pollution caused by cement factories in 2006).
The “Kifaya Movement” and the “National Assembly for Change” diagnosed the problem in Egypt as being summed up in the issues of corruption and tyranny, without examining the structure of the ruling social class, its affiliations, interests, and the mechanisms through which it asserts dominance, or examining the social forces tasked with working for change. This reflected in the confusion of these forces’ stances on the ruling apparatuses and institutions, such as the army, public intelligence directorate, or the judiciary.
Since they were fighting these battles without strong organizations and with the lack of a broader political vision, their political and ideological presence has diminished, andthey became overwhelmed by their frontal nature, basing their work on the centrality of a certain issue without elaborating on its political and social treatment. However, these movements sometimes succeeded in networking human rights and development institutions, and networking the various political formations among themselves. They challenged power and maneuvered their way skillfully, broadening the struggle to spaces away from the large democratic battles waged by the “Kifaya Movement” and the purely legal battles that limited a substantial part of the effectiveness of their activities to the legal profession. They pulled a large part of the struggle to a ground far from the wholesome Islamic perceptions and in favor of a serious clash with the material reality of life in Egypt. The leftist cadres were distinguished by their movement across the various organizations and the multiplicity of their roles.
The new left was characterized by the interruption of the historical accumulation of the previous generations because of its huge battle with the Stalinist left. Other characteristics of this left include the predominance of the legal and humanitarian sides over the material and historic reading of the social realities in Egypt, the efforts it exerted to receive funds for its legal propositions, liquidity, and the lack of strong organizational skills.
2005-2011: Leftists without a Left
The political situation since 2005, with the initial movement against Mubarak and his son and against the brutality of the Ministry of the Interior, was marked by several contradictions; most notably the absence of a general intellectual and analytical nature in favor for the focus on general national issues. This was manifested in the “Kifaya Movement” and then in the “National Assembly for Change”. These entities diagnosed the problem in Egypt as being summed up in the issues of corruption and tyranny, without examining the structure of the ruling social group, its affiliations, interests, and the mechanisms through which it asserts dominance, or examining the social forces tasked with working for change. The moral and the legal natures characterized the change movement and the Mubarak opposition. This was reflected in the confusion in these forces’ stances on the ruling apparatuses and institutions, such as their stances on the army, public intelligence directorate, or the judiciary. This last point was especially dangerous because it produced a political strategy that implies a method of managing the social and political struggle from within the existing system.
What was happening around the spinning factory of the industrial city of “Mahalla” in 2008 seems far more important than what was happening inside of the factory itself. It turned out that the workers were not the main actors in what quickly escalated into an urban warfare.
Indeed, the hope that everyone had long lost was suddenly manifesting: the revolution broke out! There was as much hope as there was a painful confusion. The left was unable to lead the enormous masses, nor did it succeed in organizing and rooting its movement to finally reach its desired goals.
This perspective dominated the political struggle until 2013 and created a common ground for what was known as “The National Forces”. It specified the limitations and the conditions of the political and revolutionary action later on. It had three main characteristics: the first was the moral nature which overshadowed the struggle; the second was the normative and legal nature; and the third and most important one was the absence of the issue of the power in the deep sense of the word, along with the absence of the notion of social struggle from the arenas of the battle for change.
This predominant stance did not require major theorizing efforts in order to understand the Egyptian social reality and the nature of the state. According to this vision, the Egyptian state was authoritarian because of the hegemony of Mubarak’s regime, so the socio-economic relations only needed to be emancipated politically from Mubarak's domination, and the judiciary system was a just one that only needed to activate its independence and improve some laws. Likewise, the judges – according to this same perspective - were honorable protectors of the constitution, its values, laws, and sovereignty in society, whereas the army was a long-standing national institution that protected the people and was to be protected from political conflicts. As for the people of Egypt, they were authentic and honest people that needed nothing but liberation from the nightmare of the dictatorship weighing heavily upon their chest.
The army, meanwhile, was also sending messages through various channels inside the camp calling for change, suggesting that it was not satisfied with the situation and the hereditary politics.
This political vision was consistent with the liberal and moderate Islamic trends, yet the contradiction lied in the left’s position from the process of change. This vision does not seriously consider the mode of production and the need to modify it while changing the conditions for producing in Egypt. It sees repression only at the political level or merely as a violation of the law, but it does not see the social dimension of repression and oppression exercised by the authority. More importantly, it misses any viable vision on wealth, its management and redistribution, which is supposed to be the question of the left par excellence - while there is only constant talk of corruption.
Between Whispers and Artillery
The dilemma of the left manifests here: What differentiates the left from the liberal and national forces? Large sectors of the left have come together under the banner of this vision to work in coordination, trying to build bridges with other power forces to improve the conditions and the feasibility of political action in light of security oppression and restrictions. This led to the incorporation of fresh blood into the political movement and conflict in Egypt, meaning that it succeeded to expand the circle but cast a heavy shadow of doubt on the left's ability to crystallize a political and social project away from leading protesting and defending rights.
The left was incapable of building a vision for a project that leads to wholesome change. Its “human-rights-defense” tendencies camouflaged its escape from discussing the issue of power and the imperativeness of crystallizing an assessment of power away from the normative level and the international criteria; a discussion that would define the nature of power and define its practices; i.e. how it manages and governs the society.
Hence, the left is positioned as a compass of moral and legal corrections that protests and revolts against violations of rights, but it is not a force driving change towards a perception of governance and administration. Furthermore, it remains incapable of gaining positions of power within the society like the Islamists do (especially the social presence through service work and its institutions, in addition to the augmentation of Islamists as a religious social authority and their involvement in various social networks that manage wealth and resources), nor is the left able to provide a vision of a different and possible pattern of life and social relationships. Hence, the forces of the left are capable of making normative corrections but remain powerless in making any social change.
The Revolutionary Socialists saw that there was a huge class disparity inside the Muslim Brotherhood. It realized that the Brotherhood represented wide popular sectors that could be prompted to partake in the revolution because of the contradiction of interests between the leadership and the broad sectors of partisans. It is a stance that had completely dominated their view, blocking the Brotherhood's reactionary, sectarian and neoliberal dimensions.
This powerlessness portrayed the left as a liberal force dealing with the police state through an approach based on amending legislation and laws rather than catalyzing change in political conditions, production patterns, and their relationships that create the objective conditions for the continuity of the police state brutality and clientelism in Egypt. There was no attempt in the first place to put forward an assessment or a new vision of a different production pattern which was not copied from theoretical ideas or from other experiences, but rather relevant to plausible possibilities in the Egyptian / regional reality. On the contrary, the left was proposing a horizon that was impossible to attain (considering the conditions), nurturing delusions about its leadership of the popular masses and believing that once liberated from the oppressive grip, those masses will come to the left because it is sincere in representing the spirit of the masses... Or, it was sticking to the legal battle for rights that some of its members had suggested and were confining themselves in. The abandonment of the agenda,the mission and the envisioning of change explains the left’s slide into the situation described above. It also explains the inability of the left to fight for the uprootingof the state and its social networks when the revolution erupted.
However, this interpretation assigns the left a lot more than its potentials, as there are historical and material conditions that led it into a state that did not allow this task to be accomplished. The presence of substantive elements of a social and political conflict does not necessarily mean that the left is going to be the political force most likely to lead the conflict and define its course. The left crystallizes in the context of a long struggle process in which social forces are able to represent their interests with a different vision for power (and alternative interests), and to seek change in the relations of production and the nature of the distribution of wealth and resources, all while waging this war with the right tools that allow the left to achieve meaningful gains.
The Left and the Revolution: Dream and Confusion
The networks formed were able to clash with the authority and destroy some of its components, but its main goal was only to make a shift in the pattern of power, it did not really consider seizing the whole apparatus of the state. The rest of the organized left, meanwhile, was just beginning to create its new partisan organizations, such as the “Popular Alliance” and the “Social Democratic Party”- in which the left was not the only component, and later the “Bread and Freedom Party” which still struggles to establish itself as an official partywhile suffering from several security blows.
The left had three different positions before and after the landmark event of the revolution, and during it as well.
- The first direction considered it imperative to gain seats in power, whether on the social or political levels, through competing with the ruling forces and the Islamists, especially in the elections. This current was comprised of some forces of the democratic left that joined the “Social Democratic Party” (and those are the biggest supporters of this trend and the most effective in the several elections that Egypt had post-revolution). The social composition of this party clearly reveals that most of its members belong to the upper middle class, and that it incorporated some kinship networks from Upper Egypt, intellectual groups, and a significant number of Christians. The leftists who were part of the party believed in the essentiality of creating a broad political current that contained within it alliances among various liberal and civil forces in a factional form.
- Another current saw that the historic moment was overall not in favor of the left, and that therefore, any serious strategy to deconstruct the power or to overthrow the socially hegemonic forces and disrupt their relations would inevitably lead to the Islamists seizing power. This current preferred to make compromise with the existing authority and tried to assume the role of the adviser. This trend was mainly comprised of El Tagammu’ Party, particularly the so-called enlightenment intellectual leftists.
- The third current, closest to the revolutionary status, rejected power, the fight over it, and even engaging in any way in it. This trend (which is hostile to the authority but not willing to fight over it at any level) represented some sectors of the leftist youth distinguished by a high sense of puritanism and the Revolutionary Socialists Organization. The latter took pride in supporting other candidates in the elections, such as Mohammad Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-off against General Ahmad Shafiq in the 2012 elections. Several sporadic speeches from known leftist groups condemned any involvement in the electoral political process after the revolution, and voices emerged to emphasize the trend, such as “Muqati’oun” (Boycotting) and the “Martyr’s Fund instead of the ballot box”.
The revolution is a leftist dream par excellence. The promise of a revolution that topples the ruling regime and changes the status quo is a feature of the movement of the left in any society. Indeed, the hope that everyone had long lost was suddenly manifesting: the revolution broke out! There was as much hope as there was a painful confusion. The left was unable to lead the enormous masses, nor did it succeed in infiltrating the ranks to organize and root its movement to finally reach its desired goals. The mapping of left with all its factions remained as it was before the revolution: El Tagammu’ worried about any popular movement, the revolutionary socialists were eager to engage in the process of change, the democratic left was trying to contemplate its position and comprehend what was going on to figure out its next move, and the “Socialist Renewal Current” sought to create a new umbrella under which the left can gather. Different cadres, most of which were emanated from the democratic left or rebellious against the El Tagammu’ Party, took two different directions: the first was trying to create a broader political party (the “Social Democratic Party”), and the second was trying to build a left-wing party with a clear ideological orientation (which is the “Popular Alliance Party”).
The Popular Alliance
There were several attempts to build a clear-cut left-wing party. The first attempt began with the creation of a “Popular Alliance” in 2011 which played a prominent role in founding both the Democratic Left and the Socialist Renewal Current(born in 2009 after the Revolutionary Socialists split over the priority of democratic transformation and the support for El Baradie, while the others - who remained within the Revolutionary Socialists - saw that the priority should be supportingthe labor strikes). During its first days, this Popular Alliance succeeded in attracting young and older left-wing cadres.
This alliance, however, was confronted to two issues: its inability to create a democratic organizational and its inability to resolve its internal struggles in a way that allowed its continued coherence and effectiveness. It appears that it was, on an intellectual level, adhering to the ideology in the literal sense, when it comes to its political content and agenda, while Egypt did not have a full-fledged working class of a vanguard nature because the conditions of modernization were not met in such a way that would allow that the Alliance’s proposal to work in the conditions of the Egyptian reality.
On the level of political coordination and with regards to its openness toward other currents, the Popular Alliance had made the important experience of building what was known as the list of “The Revolution Continues” in the 2011 elections, forming an alliance with both the “Egyptian stream” which had “post-Islamism” tendencies (that is, it called for reconciliation with the Islamic identity without necessarily and fully adhering to the Sharia (religious law), giving the social and political action a civilizational dimension that stems from the Islamic history), and the “Free Egyptians Party” with liberal tendencies, which was founded in 2012. The alliance clearly rejected the dominance of the military establishment over political life. By the end of 2013, the Popular Alliance witnessed mass resignations which violently shook it.
The stated reason for this wave of resignation was the party’s discourse of appeasement after June 30, 2013 (the demonstrations calling for Morsi's dismissal followed by the then Minister of Defense Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi announcement of the end of Muhammad Morsi's rule on July 3, declaring the handover of power to the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court), thus overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood. But the party was suffering from internal schisms long before June 30, and it was only a matter of time until the conflict imploded between young members and older cadres. In addition, issues related to women and harassment emerged within the party itself. The alliance exploded and some of its dissident elements founded together the Bread and Freedom Party (still in the process of being officially founded).
The Revolutionary Socialists
The Revolutionary Socialists were vastly engaged in the revolution, utilizing the tools they had created and mastered before the revolution along their history of struggle for various social and political issues since the year 2000. Nevertheless, they found themselves bewildered by the revolution on several levels:
1- The question of how they could emerge from their clandestine activity to overt action.
2- Building a clear political vision that defines the level of revolutionary radicalism that they were ready to engage in. At the moment of the revolution’s victory, when Mubarak was overthrown, the organization clearly stated that the regime had not fallen yet. It went on to resume its battles against the military council and the very first chants calling for “the overthrowing the military” were credited to the Revolutionary Socialists.
3- The organization adopted a clear expansion and polarization strategy, but its expansion has caused clear ideological confusion. The structure of the organization was unable to handle the momentum of the newcomers, and it was not able to train new members in a manner coherent with the identity of the organization. As a result, many new actors can be said to be active participants in the organization but they could not actually be considered as leftists when it comes to the intellectual understanding or the progressive perceptions on women for example, their roles within social life, gender equality, and respecting different sexual identities and orientations. In fact, some members even held explicitly reactionary ideas and practices, but the organization was attractive to them because they viewed it as the most radical in the face of the Military Council and the Ministry of the Interior. The organization also lost its ability to devise a political plan and solutions for the existing social conflicts. It fumbled through its attempts to read the Egyptian reality and its transformations, which rendered a tendency within it to use pretentious rhetorical vocabulary. However, despite these deficiencies, the organization spread in the universities and in the media.
4- The revolution stripped the organization of its main characteristic as a left-wing organization whose members were involved in labor and sectoral struggles for a long time, having built a reasonable accumulation of activity, especially after 2005 with the Mahalla strikes and the strike of the real estate taxation authority. It also failed to link the social issues to the political one and, like the rest of the currents, drifted since 2011 into the political struggle at the expense of the social conflict.
The revolution started without a leftist understanding of the dynamics driving it. Until this moment, the Egyptian left has not presented a serious reading of the nature of the social formations that partook in the revolution.
Despite the organization’s coherence in most of its political discourse and slogans, the intensification of the political and social struggle in Egypt, especially with the phase of the “war on terror” and the power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood after June 30, 2013, rendered the organization incapable of formulating any political content, or any interpretation of the reality. It was therefore impossible for it to find its own position in the conflict within these events and away from the moral stances. However, on its website, the organization maintained its important tradition of issuing political statements on various issues such as its refusal of police brutality or the suppression of labor protests.
To this day, one of the most persistent problem of the Revolutionary Socialists remains its inability to read and interpret the Egyptian reality in a complex manner. The organization has a highly ideological, highly-principled perception, which is in a way non-political as it excludes the understanding of politics as a prolonged process of conflict. Perhaps the most prominent example is its reading of the Muslim Brotherhood based on locating the disparities within it at the level of class structure, and the fact that the Brotherhood represents broad popular segments that are liable to partake in revolutionary efforts and change due to the contradiction of the interests of those in leadership and the broad segments of the organization. It is a stance that had completely dominated the Revolutionary Socialists’ view of the Brotherhood, blocking their reactionary, sectarian and neoliberal dimensions from their field of vision. This reading of some aspects of the Brotherhood’s structure (related to class contradiction, or even the intellectual contradiction to some extent - as the Azhari mingles with the Sufi with the Salafi) might prove true. It still excludes attention to the Brotherhood’s ability to create patterns and impose hegemony within it, thus forming a largely homogeneous ideology. Therefore, the Revolutionary Socialists have forgotten the important Marxist lesson that states that inconsistency alone is not sufficient to understand the various social structures.
The sad story of a stumbling Revolution
A least widely circulated critique of the Revolutionary Socialists is that of their reading of the events of the industrial city of “Mahalla” in 2008 (the strike of spinning workers, which was one of the largest labor strikes in the country). The Revolutionary Socialists insisted that the Mahalla workers were the essential fuel for events and the uprising. However, surveying the field with anthropological scrutiny during the events, with their transformation into a city-wide urban warfare between the protestors and the authority, indicates that the workers were not the main actors in this war. They were actually the least involved with the expansion of the uprising in the city. Had this been realized in a realistic manner, without any prior “ideological projection”, it could have provided a new understanding of the identity of the actors within society. The groups who are willing to escalate the clash with the authority, those who are less willing to withdraw from this clash, and those who are most likely groups that do not engage in this act based on their temperament or even for intellectual reasons, but rather because their act reflects what their lives have come to in the context of the peripheral, subordinate and parasitic production patterns that exist in the country. When attempting to understand the social relations and how they interact with power, what was happening around the factory seemed more important than what was happening inside of it. A major transformation had taken place within the Egyptian society and in its relationship to the state, but the insistence on reading the reality through a purely ideological lens has obscured this understanding.
The Social Democratic Party
Another part of the map of the left after the revolution is the significant wing of the democratic left that had partaken in founding the “Social Democratic Party”. Among all the leftist factions, this group was the most interested in the political struggle and the conflict over power, even when it sought to score some intermediate small gains. These Social Democrats absolutely prioritize elections, managing blocs, collecting votes, and making alliances. They believe in the following three points:
1- Egypt’s main problem is the absence of politics from the public activity, and the absence of organization that resulted from a long heritage of neglecting public action and refuting the idea of political and social organization. It is a heritage that was founded with the “State of July”, the constant security persecutions, the eliminating of political cadres, the reinforcement of ignorance, and the investment in this ignorance to create an uneducated social structure that remains subordinate to the authority. The party believes that the highest priority after the revolution in Egypt must be the consolidation of organization and the unrelenting call for the right to organize at all levels, especially in political work, as there can be no serious political work without a serious presence of political parties taking part in the elections.
2- In the absence of a new free solid political arena that can pressure the state and compete head-to-head with Islamists over the positions of power, there is no way to defeat the Islamists, lead to a change in the elites of the state, or diminish the role of the army. The gradual buildup in a serious political action would, however, be able to disrupt and cause change in the existing social status.
3- Breaking the sectarian condition in Egypt would not be possible unless the Christian blocs are welcomed into the political process. The Social Democrats have worked on infiltrating the Christian blocs, taking advantage of the their concerns about political Islam. They saw an opportunity to push these blocs into a broader social and political struggle beyond the walls of the church.
4- Perhaps one of the most significant and unique Leftist engagements in political action post-revolution was the attempt to enter into the depths of the social networks that dominated the rural areas and the Nile’s Delta, and break through these social structures to engage in the conflict with the Islamists and/or the state. Political work, for the Social Democrats, requires compromises and social alignments in order to make a serious step towards creating social shifts and transforming the forms and contents of the struggle. Those leftist elites therefore paid attention to creating alliances and working on new polarizations for the purpose of competing in the elections.
There are generally two kinds of “Orientalism”. One sees the Egyptian society as ignorant and tied up because of the dominance of religious forces, the second sees that the Islamists are the sincere expression of Egyptian society and the only forces capable of engendering change and challenging the Western hegemony…
This leftist bloc viewed that it was necessary not to engage in the establishment of a purely left-wing party. They considered that the priority, relevant to the historic moment, should be the establishment of a broad party that includes both the left and the liberals. Their primary concern was the inception of a political field that holds the deep-rooted democratic traditions, along with a leftist core, re-introducing progressive ideas through discourse, legislation, and the modernizing of the state, while taking into account the social dimension of the working class within this historic transformation. This bloc regards Egypt as a backward country that suffers from a deficit in the production of wealth, its plundering, and the unjust distribution of wealth.
The party was trying to target what is known as the popular bases of the state and power in Egypt. But, a critical question imposes itself here: Is this a matter of working in politics from within the system and through its tools? Is this attempt eventually nothing but a reproduction of the ruling and power-constituting rural bourgeoisie of the Egyptian society? Was this strategy in line with the existing revolutionary situation that was seeking to overthrow the regime?
Some researchers and partisan cadres see that the party’s approach does not reproduce the system nor the social structure, but rather works on developing this social structure and enhancing the conditions of political action. They also view it as a serious attempt to change the nature of the social relations by making long-term displacements and upgrading the political process itself to base it on the conflict between agendas, modernizing the way resources are managed instead of reinforcing the clientele networks based on tribal loyalties and sectarian dimensions. The vision of this left emerges from an emphasis on the importance of reading and analyzing the Egyptian reality, since there is much difficulty in formulating a pure leftist way of action in the presence of a backward social structure – at the level of the production patterns and their relations.
The party also believes that class fluidity and the lack of a clear form of class struggle are substantial problems in Egypt that must be understood and that strategies must be conjured in order to deal with these issues. Eventually, in the light of this miserable reality, the role of the left remains limited due to the complex structural conditions. Its only possible contribution is confined to its attempts to push forward towards building a new political field through involving various political and social forces and to try and materialize success in the political and social conflicts, knowing that this, by itself, is not necessarily a big achievement.
The State, the Islamists, and the People: Where Does the Left Look?
The position regarding the existence of Islamic movements; i.e. movements that use religion as a basis for their operation in the political sphere, seems to be the fulcrum of the dispute between the various leftist currents. It is their main point of disagreement about the movement and the revolution. El Tagammu’ Party has made up its mind since the 1980s: it would always stand with the state against the Islamists. As for the Revolutionary Socialists, their slogan was: “sometimes with the Islamists, but always against the state”. El Tagammu’ was completely subservient to the state, and its agenda – so to speak – revolved around its fear of the state’s fall and the uprising of the Islamists. This stance was not limited to El Tagammu’ Party alone, but it affected all the left.
The rumor that the left has been very weak on the social level all along is not true. El Tagammu’ newspaper (“Al-Ahali”) had a wide audience and prints more than 150,000 copies. Remnants of El-Tagammu’ cadres (the youngest of those is probably in their fifties) could be found in the different villages and governorates where you would least expect a leftist presence, from Aswan to cities in the governorates of El Beheira…
However, the party’s presence under the umbrella of power stripped it of the most important component leftist character, which is the struggle for the issues that concern the marginalized ones, the poor and all the victims of exploitation under a capitalist system and a repressive state. Hence, the central question is: why might people choose to join El Tagammu’ Party and not the party of the regime, represented by the National Party? El Tagammu’ and its members were playing the part of the state’s faithful adviser, and they also tried to play the role of the enlightened intellectuals or technocrats within the state apparatus. The party also accepted “state offerings”, such as the presidential appointment of the party’s president Refaat El Saeed in the Shura (consultative) Council, and the renewal of his position for three sessions in 2001, 2004 and 2007.
All of this reflected on the moment of the January revolution and on its aftermath in many ways: First, the absence of the largest historical organized leftist party from the scene of the struggle in general. Second, its loss of credibility among large portion of the youth. Third, the inability of El Tagammu’ Party to build powerful groups that could impact the events due to the party’s withdrawal from its militant role over decades, especially since the beginning of the serious opposition against Mubarak in 2005.
One of the forces of the left, the Revolutionary Socialists, solved this dilemma by adopting the famous approach of “always against the state, and sometimes with the Islamists”. This approach paved the way for political coordination and networking with ideologically heterogeneous social forces, and opened up horizons for political cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood to work against the Mubarak regime. However, in the phase that followed the 2011 revolution, another dilemma was the feasibility of building a left-wing movement that was capable of distinguishing itself socially, ideologically and politically from the Islamic current. Therefore, the biggest criticism addressed to them was that they were considered as “subservient to the Islamists”.
Political Detention in Egypt
There are two kinds of “Orientalism”. One sees the Egyptian society as ignorant and tied up because of the dominance of religious forces, the second (which expresses a reverse Orientalism per se) sees that the Islamists are the sincere expression of Egyptian society and the only force capable of engendering change and challenging the Western hegemony... This was demonstrated after the revolution in the attempts of rapprochement with the movement of Abdel Moneim Abou El Fotouh, which had left the Muslim Brotherhood to build a moderate Islamist movement with a leftist tint, or the rapprochement with the Brotherhood itself to build clear conditions for an alliance, before Mohammad Morsi came to power. The biggest confusion of the left would rise with the intensification of the struggle against the Brotherhood in 2013, before and after the military coup.
Some main characteristics of the leftist forces organized within parties or small groups are the general absence of an analysis of the situation, the fear of being accused of atheism and the fear of losing the approval of many social sectors because of the clarity of the progressive content.
The absence of a systematic materialistic reading of the Egyptian reality and its recent transformations, away from banalities and generalities, was one of the central factors leading to the lack of a clear and pronounced leftist contribution in the January revolution, and to a confusion in many political, social and intellectual stances in the various stages of the struggle. This was reflected in the insistence of what was known as “the youth of the revolution” and their various coalitions to reject any leftist directions or to impart any intellectual or ideological dimensions to the event, with the emergence of a “post-ideology” discourse. Thus, the forces of the left missed a clear political discourse in the early stages of the revolution, and lacked a serious reading of the Egyptian reality, whether in understanding the nature of socio-economic relations and their transformations, or understanding the major shifts in the Egyptian state and its role. That is, with the exception of some individual jurisprudence, some old works by Samir Amin and Mahmoud Amin Al-Aalem, some cultural studies on the Egyptian society that were produced in the eighties of the last century, the emergence of some new writings in history such as the contributions of Khaled Fahmy and Sharif Younis, and some studies on social movements.
The revolution commenced without a leftist understanding of the dynamics driving it. Up to this moment, the Egyptian left has not presented a serious sociological reading of the nature of the social formation that has partaken in the revolution and all its differences. This last point was reflected in defining the historic gent with which the left must engage to change the course of events, deep-rooting the revolutionary act, and investing in the political and social mobility that the revolution has provided. Even more importantly, the left has been unable to develop political and social prospects for the conflict. Therefore, slogans such as “The Voice of the Martyr”, or “No to Politics”, or “Down with every traitor! Military, remnants, or Brotherhood members!” were effective ones. Although doubt lessly sincere slogans, they had no real content nor did they carry any militant horizons for the social struggle whose doors were wide open with the revolution.
What comes after “political Islam”? The real problem lies in the way the people and the state are viewed and understood. El Tagammu’ sees the state as an imperative that has three main tasks: modernization, independence/ confronting imperialism, and providing protection from - or the repression of - reactionary components within society, particularly political Islam and fascist movements. But this left cannot perceive the wider public, as it sees the population not based on the imperialist “Middle Eastern exception”, that is, a perception according to a model that tries to see the public as a creative possibility for political and social action. Moreover, standing behind this state has proven day after day what it really means: standing behind failure and fascism.
The left lacked the ability to understand existing social structures, their language, and their material basis. Hence, it lacked the ability to make any social displacements. It grappled with big headlines, waiting for some metaphysical force to assist it in achieving a historical victory. Before the revolution, and even after it, many were wishfully spreading the promise of a worldwide laborers’ red revolution. And as such, the historical agent became a mysterious thing whose desires and actions must be heeded, and for whom we must immerse ourselves in the obsessive urban sphere. This vague agent was called “the poor of the cities”. In fact, whatever they could not specifically define, they would call “the poor of the cities”!
The left is concentrated in Cairo, with the exception of some presence in different governorates, especially the Revolutionary Socialists’ presence in Alexandria, and, in the 2011 elections, attempts by the “Social Democratic Party” to penetrate the popular bases of the National Party. Until this day, the left has not engaged in social and political struggles, nor has it provided an interpretation of the social and urban structures or of the power relations in new industrial cities, whether it has to do with what was happening inside factories and companies, for instance, or inside the city itself. This means everything from the commercial relations, hooliganism, police’s repressive practices, negotiations, social bargaining between the power and the various sectors, the daily life management, the way informal employment is approached, and the city’s lifestyles and its interaction with the formal and organized labor market. The efforts of the left were limited to areas like El Mahalla, while the industries, along with the workforce in Egypt, were concentrated in the new cities, such as Burg El Arab, EL Dekheila, Asher Men Ramadan (10th of Ramadan), Setta October (6th of October), and Aswan.
Hatem Nassif, the former head of the Independent Syndicate of Workers of the National Stevedoring Company at the Dekheila Port in Alexandria (which went on strike for 18 days in March 2013) said: “I was shocked at the lack of a leftist presence or support even though I had contacted them”. He said that apart from the strike of this company, there were several strikes inside the portand, at the time, the authority had not fully regained its ability to suppress them; however, the left was totally absent in a very important and highly sensitive location like the port of El Dekheila.
Indeed, there is rarely any organized effort to understand these cities, while they have witnessed great transformations and complications. For example, El Dekheila of Alexandia, contains a substantial number of factories, workers and companies inside and outside the port, in addition to the presence of tribal relations and organized gangs... The only prominent effort made was the engagement of the Revolutionary Socialists in supporting the residents of one of the districts of the region, El Mafrouza, when they were forcefully displaced in 2006 in favor of the expansions in the port of El Dekheila.
What Has Remained of the Left in Algeria?
There is an absence of a systematic effort to understand the social workers in industry in Egypt and all that relates to the lives of workers in general. Therefore, there is a deficiency in weaving and formulating a clear, detailed, and effective leftist discourse capable of mobilizing within organized entities that represent the interests of these sectors. The culturalist nature of the left does not come, as some claim, from its exclusively middle-class composition, but is due to its failure inproviding a broader interpretation and involvement within society. It is a reciprocal process, whereby engaging enables an understanding and knowledge of the language and relationships of the various social sectors. Away from the anthropological obsession with the oddities of the Egyptian society, it gives a serious understanding of the nature of the power and the state and crystallizes the ability to produce a political discourse and prospects.
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Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 04/01/2019