Egypt: parliament and revolution
Joseph Daher and John Rees report from Cairo as the new Egyptian parliament is sworn in.
Article also available on Counterfire (http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/international/15460)
The newly elected Egyptian parliament met for the first time yesterday. What does it mean for the revolutionary process in Egypt?
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has ruled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. They had a very simple attitude to the elections. SCAF wanted to erect a façade of democratic legitimacy behind which the economic and political power of the army, and the wider ruling class of which it is a part, would continue with as little alteration as possible.
To this end SCAF has fought a year long battle to suppress the revolutionary movement, increasingly relying of Mubarak era mechanisms of repression.
In the end they hoped that, like the referendum that President De Gaulle used to end the events in France in 1968, the ‘discipline’ of mobilizing the least politically conscious masses in an election would smash the momentum of the ‘Tahrir revolution’. The constantly repeated government phrase that ‘Tahrir is not Egypt’ was the give-away formulation here.
The Muslim Brotherhood has, for the most part, assisted SCAF in this project because, as the organization with the largest pre-revolution social base, it expected to benefit most from a rapid electoral timetable.
In the event, and despite the substantial vote for the Brotherhood, the election has been a much more ambiguous process than SCAF will have wanted.
This is because there are a number of reasons why the elections are seen as illegitimate.
Firstly, the months long election process took place against a background of intensifying street battles and industrial action which millions still see as more central to the revolutionary process than the elections.
Secondly, the turnout in the elections was low. A mere 54 percent of voters turned out, lower than the declining rates of participation in many western democracies. But also much lower than the turnout in other first elections in post-dicatatorship societies. For instance, in the first post-Apartheid elections in South Africa over 90 percent of the electorate voted. Even the December 2005 elections in occupied Iraq had a turnout of over 76 percent.
Thirdly, these elections are only for the parliament. Many thought the Presidential elections, not due until June (and only then because SCAF were forced to bring them forward by last autumn’s demonstrations) should have come before or at the same time as the vote for MPs.
Fourthly, SCAF relies on the Muslim Brotherhood to deliver this transition but there are tensions between the two forces. It was the announcement by SCAF’s deputy prime minister that the Army intended to remove parliamentary oversight from the military budget and governance that forced the Brotherhood to briefly, but crucially, to throw its weight behind the ‘Second Revolution’ return to Tahrir in November last year. This led to the fall of the civilian prime minister and to a renewed intensity in the street mobilizations ever since.
Now there are more tensions because although the agreement was that SCAF would leave power when the new parliament was elected, it is now saying that it will hang on until June. Many fear that there will be a further delay when June comes.
Parliamentary politics and the left
So the election results are unlikely to allow SCAF to close off the revolutionary process in the way that they wished. Nevertheless the parliament will be an element in the political situation from now on and it will have some legitimacy that SCAF lacks. How the left deals with this, and with the dominant political force in the parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood, will be crucial for the future of the whole revolution.
One thing is clear: a simple rejectionist model will not work. SCAF wanted to mobilize the most conservative layers of society against the revolution using the election and the parliament. The left and the workers movement will not hegmonise these layers and win them away from both SCAF and the Brotherhood simply by counterpoising the streets to the parliament, even though such a counterposition is in itself well founded.
The first step was taken in a broader and more effective strategy by those forces on the left who successfully intervened in the electoral process itself. The bar for participating at all was set by SCAF at 5,000 signatures for each political party. Some of approaches which involved setting up front organizations for electoral purposes failed to reach this figure and therefore were excluded from using the electoral process to popularize the lefts arguments. Other left organizations, like the Socialist Renewal Current, did manage to be part of wider coalitions despite the difficulties of holding these together.
The result is that although the left struggled in the unfavourable terrain of electoral politics there are 7 MPs from the ‘Revolution Continues’ bloc in the new parliament. These are the representatives that, when some Brotherhood MPs added the words ‘and God’s law’ to the parliamentary oath when they were sworn in, they added the words ‘and the revolution continues’ or ‘without forgetting the martyrs’.
There is no doubt, however, the left faces a tough battle. The election result overall was a substantial victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, the more religiously conservative Islamic current.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral arm, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) , won between 43 and 47 percent of the votes, assuring them 235 seats in the new People’s Assembly (out of 498), while the Salafists, represented in the Nour Party, came in second, winning around 22 percent of available seats.
Other political forces are weakly represented in the new Parliament: the liberal Wafd party gathered 8 percent, while the Egyptian Bloc, a new liberal coalition led in part by billionaire telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, won almost 7 percent of seats.
One way is which the left can demonstrate both the superiority of its analysis and the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle is by demanding that the new parliament actually fulfill the hopes that people have of it…even if, perhaps especially if, we do not expect these desires to be realized by the MPs.
The left must demand that SCAF now vacates all power and hands it to the parliament. SCAF is completely unelected and has no right to exercise any political power. The parliament, however weak, is at least an elected body. But more than this SCAF represents the main, armed, counterrevolutionary force in Egyptian society and the more it is pushed out of the political arena the more the threat of direct counter-revolution is marginalized.
Finally, for as long as the least politically conscious masses have some faith in the parliament, demanding that it take revolutionary measures is an important way of educating them on the limits of parliament and the political forces that dominate it. It was for this reason that the Bolshevik Party campaigned for the Constituent Assembly not only alongside their commitment to the Workers Councils throughout 1917 but still continued to do so after the October revolution. Only the Constituent Assembly’s final emergence as a counter-revolutionary threat to the Workers Council’s brought the revolutionary government to the point of dissolving it in 1918.
The revolution continues
For all this, parliament is not the main arena in which the fate of the different political forces will be decided. And it is not a body that under any circumstances can deliver a revolutionary transformation of Egyptian society. As labour organizer Fatma Ramadan says ‘we are undeterred by parliamentary elections. The battle for parliament is only part of the struggle. The street is where our main fight lies.’
This fact was clearly visable on the first day of parliament. Different groups, from leftists to liberals’ opposition groups and youth popular movements, demonstrated outside the parliament. They were determined that martyrs killed since the beginning of the revolutionary process are not forgotten and sought to keep the pressure up on the deputies to continue the revolution.
There was a workers’ march which took a back street to reach the Parliament, joined by two other marches: one demanding freedom of expression for artists and another demanding martyrs’ rights. All three converged in the small area outside the iron gates on Maglis al-Shaab Street where protesters chanted, “Bread, freedom and social justice” and “Speak, say, power must be handed over.”
The Muslim Brotherhood mobilized its members as well around the parliament on the first day of the session to stop any protest turning “violent”. This was clearly in order to preserve the smooth running of the first session of the parliament.
The Brotherhood has repeatedly insisted that any difference in views should not turn into a confrontation and that there should be co-operation between the military council, interim government and elected parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood has approved SCAF’s opposition to strikes on numerous occasions since the overthrow of Mubarak, while calling several times to support SCAF and praising its role in ‘protecting the revolution’ and ‘backing the people’.
Recently the MB and Egypt’s state-run affiliated media outlets launched a campaign to make supporters of the continuation of the revolution look like criminals. The MB accused Anarchists and Revolutionary Socialists of being inciters of violence and propagandists of state demolition. They actually filed a lawsuit against members of these parties.
The Brotherhood’s meetings with US officials at the beginning of this year and their unwillingness to end the Qualifying Industrial Zones agreement under which hundreds of Egyptian companies export products with Israeli components duty-free to the United States – shows its weakening position towards imperialism.
The struggle of the left should never be limited to parliamentary issues, especially after the victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunis and Morroco, which will try to limit the process of change in their countries. The continuation of the revolution will not be secured through parliament but outside in the streets, universities and workplaces. Democracy, social justice and independence will not be achieved merely by concentrating on parliament and raising demands inside this institution, whatever the tactical virtue of doing this might be.
The left has to continue raising socio-economic issues such as supporting the demands of workers through strikes, the re-nationalization of industries sold to private investors, and the creation and recognition of newly created independent unions. Since the beginning of the revolution last year, some 300 independent unions have been established nationwide, with a reported membership of nearly two million workers. These new independent unions must be recognized by parliament. They must while continue to mobilize, aiming to co-ordinate the struggles of protesters in the streets with militancy and self-organisation in the workplaces.
On anti-imperialist issues, the left must call for the end of political and economic relations with Israel: a refusal of any normalization with the colonial settler-state.
Many elements for the successful continuation of the revolution exist. Many thousands of convinced revolutionaries want to continue the fight, even though they are not mostly in organized left parties. There is a still an ongoing revolt among Egyptian workers who continue to strike and form new unions at an impressive rate. But there is a political vacuum which exists because the revolution has no institutional form which can act as an alternative centre of organization and authority. This is all the more important since the parliament will now be used to legitimate the ruling class if they are able to overcome its weakness at birth.
Now more than ever the revolution needs its own single centre of government. A successful revolution requires revolutionary organization and it requires the industrial struggle of workers. But these two conditions are necessary but not sufficient for victory. Without a political centre of authority these first two elements are likely to produce a vacillation between propagandism and syndicalism, not a hegemonic strategy for working class revolutionary politics. The struggle to unite the revolutionary forces in a single popular council as a really democratic alternative to parliament is the precondition of the long term success of the revolution.