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Egypt: The 18th Brumaire of Mohammed Morsi – and how to stop it

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Journalists have suggest that praise from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for his services over the Gaza ceasefire went to the head of President Mohammed Morsi. It encouraged him to make a grab for near-dictatorial powers. If that was the case the massive response of youth and workers in Tahrir Square and other squares across Egypt must have been a rude awakening.

It proved the Egyptian Revolution was not dead – only, as it were, caught napping. Since then, it has become clear that a decisive struggle has opened between the mass base of the revolution, in the youth and the working class, and Morsi’s own mass following. On the outcome of this struggle hangs the fate of Egypt’s revolution, its democratic aspirations and its potential to become a social revolution for the country’s exploited and oppressed masses.

In fact, Morsi had far more serious and strategic reasons for issuing the declaration than a sudden fit of vanity.

His decree is part of an ongoing struggle on two fronts. The first is against the remnants of the old regime, still defying him within the state. The decree rendered his presidential decisions immune from challenge by the Supreme Court, which was appointed by the Mubarak regime, in particular ensuring that it could not disband his carefully selected Constituent Assembly.

But Morsi has yet another reason for seeking to bolster his powers. The Egyptian government, as a quid pro quo for their assistance to US imperialism in defusing the Gaza situation, has quickly achieved an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on the terms of a $4.8 billion loan. This, as ever, includes accepting economic liberalisation and cuts in government expenditure that will inevitably result in social unrest and organised resistance from the trades unions and other social organisations.

The economic problems facing Egypt's workers are growing ever more acute with unemployment in the 15-29 year old age group now at seventy-five percent. Throughout September, October and November, there has been a wave of strikes by many sectors of workers; airline staff,  port workers, university staff, teachers, bus drivers and unpaid casual agriculture workers, with the Cairo metro workers winning a significant victory.

Inevitably, such working class mobilisations clash with Morsi's regime and its supporters. For example, on Tuesday, 27 November, some 5,000  workers from Misr Spinning in Mahallaal-Kubra and townspeople demonstrated against Morsi’s constitutional decree. As the protestors reached Shoun Square in the town centre, they were attacked by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party who threw fireworks at them. The demonstrators answered with stones and molotov cocktails.

This is Morsi's second front. Here, his decree constitutes a preventative coup against the young leftists and the workers' movement. This is the real social force he fears and against whom he is attempting a counterrevolution.

His objective is to impose a presidential regime in which no constitutional force, neither a legislature nor a judiciary, can check him and where he can rely on the police and military to crush the left and intimidate the workers and their independent unions. At the same time, he is setting out to take over the official union structure for the Brotherhood.

The result would be what Marxists call a bonapartist regime* and it would be a blighting frost for the entire Arab Spring. It would end the hopes of all the young people who fought (and died) for democracy over the past two years. It would repress the new unions and increase the exploitation of Egypt’s workers by the country’s millionaire businessmen and Western banks and corporations.

In 21-century Egypt, with the gangs of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist allies as Morsi’s enforcers, such a regime would undoubtedly have extra reactionary features stemming from Islamism – restrictions on the rights of women, the persecution of gays, the muzzling of journalistic and artistic freedom.

Egypt in the next few weeks is reaching a critical turning point. Can Morsi’s “imperial presidency” be brought down? Can his rigged constitution be torn up? Can the revolution renew itself and open up a broad social perspective for the exploited and poor?

It can; if the workers and the youth mobilise – not simply in mass demonstrations and occupations of the squares but in a general strike that paralyses the economy and the state and forces Morsi and the Brotherhood to surrender. The goal must be a workers' and peasants' government based on local councils of the workers, peasants and rank and file soldiers. Against Morsi's hand-picked assembly, the workers and their allies should fight for a democratically elected and sovereign Constituent Assembly.

Morsi’s coups

Constitutional coups, or attempts at them, have become a way of life for Morsi since he became President a mere five months ago. This is because the principal institutions of the Egyptian ruling class – the army, the judiciary, the old state bureaucracy, in addition to the Islamist and liberal parties, are divided and warring with one another.

Step by step, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political front, the Freedom and Justice Party, which won the rushed parliamentary elections in November 2011 and the presidential elections in June 2012, has been consolidating its power, exploiting the divisions amongst its opponents.

On 15 June, the Supreme Council of the Armed forces (SCAF) under Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, struck back at the MB/FJP by dissolving the parliament and issuing an interim constitutional declaration restoring all legislative powers to the SCAF until fresh elections were held for the lower house of parliament, a move intended to clipped President Morsi’s wings.

Yet it soon became clear that Tantawi had overshot himself, provoking another series of mass mobilisations and alienating the more junior commanders in the military caste who were rapidly attracted by offers of promotion to the top ranks by Morsi and the Brotherhood. The president launched a palace coup against the aged Tantawi. On August 12, he forced the resignation of the Field Marshall and revoked the interim constitution’s limitations on his powers.

He then appointed the youngest member of SCAF, Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, former head of military intelligence, as defence minister and sent 70 generals in the Egyptian armed forces into retirement. Even then, however, the Supreme Court remained a continued bastion of the old order and waged a relentless struggle – invalidating Morsi’s decrees.

It appears that, in late November, this body was once again preparing to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and, for good measure, the remaining chamber of parliament, the Shura Council. The Supreme Court and the SCAF had already dissolved the lower chamber, the People’s Assembly, on 15 June, shortly before Morsi’s inauguration on 30 June.

The Court had invalidated and dissolved a previous Constituent Assembly – basically because it had been indirectly appointed by the (dissolved) lower house of parliament. Its replacement, only 100 deputies strong, was again appointed, not elected by the people. It, too, had a strong Islamist majority dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party and the Al Nour “Salafist” party of more radical (that is, reactionary) Islamists.

Over the past month or so, in ones and twos, the token liberals, Copts and leftists have walked out of the Assembly, as a result of being ignored and steamrollered on most issues by the Islamists. With the Assembly on the verge of collapse, the Supreme Court saw its opportunity to pounce one more. That is why Morsi has moved quickly to pre-empt it. It is also why, in a single session lasting 15 hours and without any opposition present, the Assembly rushed through the new constitution before the Court could intervene and then sent it to Morsi for signature before a plebiscite within 15 days.

The new constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of Sharia, or Islamic law, are the "main source of legislation". Whereas the constitution asserts the importance of promoting family values, it nowhere proclaims equality between men and women. When questioned as to why it makes no reference to women’s rights beyond the home and family Morsi replied that women were citizens like all Egyptians.

Moreover, the constitution has a potential catch-all since it forbids 'insulting a human', which could be used to punish criticism of the president. The constitution limits freedom of religious thought to followers of the Abrahamic religions; Jews, Christians and Sunni Muslims. The position of Shias and other “heretical sects” is not explicitly protected.

Even now, however, the constitutional battle is not yet over. It is the judiciary that must oversee any plebiscite and they have called a strike of all of Egypt’s courts. Nonetheless, the real battle will be decided not in the courts but in the streets and the workplaces.

The content of Morsi’s decree

In classic bonapartist fashion, Morsi’s constitutional declaration is disguised as a blow for the revolution, primarily against the old Mubarak era forces who are, naturally, hated by the youth and workers of Egypt.

Article 1 orders retrials for Mubarak and other former regime members and security officials responsible for the murder of hundreds of protesters during last year's uprising. The president has also replaced the public prosecutor, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak crony who ensured mild prison sentences against the former leader and his associates and murderous police chiefs.

Article 2 states that all constitutional declarations, laws and decrees issued by Morsi since his inauguration are "final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected".

Article 6 is the most important since it grants the president "power to take all necessary measures and procedures" against any potential threat to the revolution or national unity.

An important supplement to Morsi’s coup was a measure, Decree No. 97/2012, which appeared to purge the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) of the old Mubarak-era bureaucracy. In fact, it is a preventative coup against workers' democracy. The decree limits the upper age of union officials to 60 years and, since 80 percent of the executives of federation are over this age and are former members of Mubarak’s party, the NDP, it will force their automatic retirement. Good, one might think!

But, instead of opening the way for democratic elections by the membership to replace them, the new law empowers the government’s Manpower Minister, a loyalist of the Muslim Brotherhood, to appoint people to all the vacant leadership positions. Given that the ETUF is the longest established union federation, has a membership of some 2.5 million workers in 23 unions and extensive resources including a workers' university, this would put a powerful weapon into the Brotherhood’s hands.

The ETUF monopolised Egypt’s movement since Nasser’s nationalist military dictatorship in the 1950s. But it came under challenge from a militant strike wave in 2006, symbolised by the actions of 24,000 workers textile workers in Mahalla Al-Kubra in the Nile Delta. Such unofficial strikes led to the establishment of the first independent trade union, in December 2008. The key role of workers and their independent unions in the 25 January revolution led to many more workers joining these unions. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) now claims 2.5 million members.

In the months after Mubarak’s fall, the first provisional government included a few radical ministers. One was the Manpower Minister, Ahmed Hassan al-Borai, who presided over drafting a Trade Union Liberties Law. This was never implemented and has been dumped by the completely pro-capitalist and free market Morsi regime.

Meanwhile, the ETUF, which is now led in part by a number of caretaker officials, some from factories like the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla-al Kubra, has proclaimed it will organise rallies, marches and sit-ins in protest against its takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. The EFITU has also, correctly, denounced Decree 97. Fatma Ramadan, a socialist member of its executive board stated:

“Morsi is clearly preparing a systematic crackdown against Egypt’s union movement, against the right to strike, against the right to organise and against union plurality.” She continued; “This is a blatant and unwarranted intervention in union affairs from the state. (…) At the EFITU we are standing against Morsi’s takeover of the state and against the Ministry of Manpower’s takeover of the ETUF.”

She added; “If Morsi were genuinely concerned about democracy within the ETUF, then he would’ve called for trade union elections so that workers could democratically vote for their representatives. Instead, he has postponed these elections even further, while he seeks to handpick his own representatives.”

According to Saber, the Brotherhood is desperate to expand its hold beyond the professional syndicates, such as the lawyers, doctors or engineers, where it is strong, to take over the blue-collar workers’ unions. “I believe that the Brotherhood is interested in taking over the ETUF along with its workers’ bank, holiday resorts, workers’ university and its cultural centres across the country.”

On 27 November, the two independent union federations, the EFITU and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, EDLC, plus several left political parties joined forces to form the National Front for the Defence of Labour Rights and Union Liberties. Its demands include;

• cancellation of the restrictive Trade Union Law 35/1976.

• passing of the draft Trade Union Liberties Law promoting workers’ right to free association, protection against victimisation for union activities, punishment for violations of labour protection laws by employers or the state.

• the establishment of a pay-scale based on a legal minimum and maximum wage (no more than 15 times the minimum).

Political Conclusions

Recent events show how totally wrong it was for the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt (a member of the International Socialist Tendency) to give “critical support” to Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential elections. Their justifications, that he was the “lesser evil”, or the “conservative face of the revolution”, and their conclusion that the ouster of Tantawi and the SCAF constituted a victory for the revolution, were a fundamental breach of revolutionary principles and programme.

In no sense whatsoever do Morsi and the Brotherhood represent the Egyptian Revolution. Whatever heroism and devotion to the revolution individual young Islamists or Islamist youth groups showed in January 2011 and at various points since, their leaders and parties represent one face of the counterrevolution. They were not a lesser evil than Tantawi, or the Supreme Court, or the NDC bureaucrats. Indeed, since these were all aged, weakened and compromised forces, there was actually less danger of them launching the counterrevolution. Morsi, and the Salafists, precisely because of their greater popular social base, were, and remain, the spearhead of the counterrevolution.

If they are able to consolidate their power, that is, gain full control of the armed forces and the brutal paramilitary police and purge the judiciary, their rule will certainly be no more benign than that of Mubarak. In fact, it could be a great deal worse because their power will have been established across the fallen bodies of the democratic revolutionary forces and the working class.

The sections of the military, the judiciary and the state bureaucracy inherited from the old regime, who now find themselves under attack from Morsi, have no right to masquerade as secularists or democrats protecting the rule of law from the islamists. The same is true of those false friends of democracy the liberal bourgeois parties, who want to subordinate Egypt to western capitals and US imperialism.

Leftist revolutionaries, indeed, all sincere and heroic young democrats from the squares all over Egypt, should not seek allies among these forces. First and foremost, they should root themselves amongst the workers in the factories and public transport and services and then reach out to the exploited peasants in the villages and the unemployed or precariously employed of the shantytowns that surround Cairo and other cities. It is these mass forces that the workers’ vanguard must drag away from the network of Brotherhood and Salafist charities through which Morsi and his backers buy votes and mobilise for “million man marches”.

The revolutionary forces need to popularise demands that radically address the economic and social needs of millions, including the expropriation of the rich landowners and the military. They need to help workers, the poor and the peasantry to organise democratic unions and delegate councils to take their fate into their own hands. Only then will they be able to break the spell of the Islamists with their charity and their spiritual opium.

Of course, this requires sensitivity to the religious consciousness of the oppressed and exploited. Of course, too, it may require united action with the Islamist youth whenever they take up progressive stands on important issues. What it does not require are strategic blocks with the Brotherhood or the Salafist groups.

At the moment, the first priority must be mass mobilisations to stop Morsi's plan to force through his Constitution. The demand for a general strike should be raised in every union and workplace and in both the federations. At the same time, revolutionaries and militants should call for the election of local workers' councils to enforce the general strike, if possible to prevent the plebiscite, or to boycott it, or vote it down, whichever tactic is judged most effective.

Against Morsi's hand-picked assembly, they should raise the positive call for a sovereign constituent assembly; for the election of recallable delegates by universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage. Everyone over the age of 16 should be assured of the right to vote without tutelage or supervision by husbands, fathers, elders, imams etc. No political bans or proscriptions must be placed on parties standing.

The genuine mass forces and organisations of the 25 January revolution, those of the youth and the workers, genuine civil rights organisations, etc, should observe and supervise all campaigning and voting and the counting of votes; all parties and independent candidates must be given equal access to the media.

Expenditure on the election should be transparent and restricted to what is needed to inform the public and allow candidates to travel to meet the electorate. Access to the print, online and broadcast media must be free to all candidates. All bribery of voters must be exposed and punished by disqualifying candidates who engage in it.

All parties must be obliged to make clear the fundamentals of their programmes, including their constitutional proposals. Debates between candidates in front of local popular assemblies must ensure that every factory worker, every slum dweller, every villager has a real chance to hear and understand what the candidates stand for. Democratic councils should be elected by mass meetings in every constituency to control their deputy; recalling him or her, if necessary, and also to audit their expenses.

If these measures were carried out and enforced by popular organisations, both locally and nationally, then, and only then, would there be a real chance that the will of the popular masses would be expressed in the composition and the decisions of the constituent assembly.

The urgent task of creating workers' and popular militias to ward off the attacks of the police and the gangs of the old regime, as well as the supporters of the Brotherhood and fascistic Islamists, must be addressed. These alone can give security to public meetings of the left forces, to workers on strike and to popular quarters against antisocial criminals. They alone can be relied on to oversee the security of the election process and to guard a sovereign constituent assembly if one is successfully elected.

Revolutionaries should not conceal the fact that even the convocation of a democratic Constituent Assembly would not resolve the crisis of Egyptian society. It would, however, create a forum in which competing programmes could be presented, discussed and voted upon in clear sight of the entire nation. The central demand of revolutionaries will be for the formation of a workers' and peasants' government, based on the local workers' and peasants' councils and defended by the popular militias.

Whatever the outcome of the battles against Morsi in the coming weeks, the most urgent need is for all those who recognise the need for such a revolutionary programme of action to organise themselves as a party that can lead the struggle for it. This is not only the sole realistic way to fulfil the democratic hopes and wishes of the January 25 democratic revolution but would also open the way to a social revolution against capitalism, landlordism and imperialism.

*So-called from the authoritarian regimes which crushed the radical revolutionary forces in the Great French Revolution of the eighteenth century and the Revolution of 1848 – the firs carried out by Napoleon 1, the second by his nephew, Napoleon III. The first Napoleon’s coup d’etat occurred on 18th Brumaire of the revolutionary calendar (9th November 1799) and Marx mockingly used the name to describe his nephew’s coup of 2 December 1851.

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