What next for Egypt’s revolution?

Please see Support the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia! for an important Marxist-Humanist organizational statement from News and Letters Committees. What follows are my individual reflections, spurred by following the news and participating in today’s solidarity demonstration/celebration in front of the Egyptian Consulate in Chicago.

The revolution of the people of Egypt is a great achievement. Not least is the overthrow of the hated President Hosni Mubarak. Still, the revolution has achieved much more than that. In the days, weeks, months to come, there will be a struggle–on one side to defend, extend, and deepen the revolution; on the other side, to cut it short, to push it back, to remove the historical initiative from the hands of the masses and channel everything into “building democracy.” The question of the day is the one that has been central to the development of Marxist-Humanism as a philosophy of revolution: What happens after the revolution?

Great pressure is already being put on those who have occupied Tahrir Square and other public spaces and on workers on strike to “go back to normal.” The emergency law will be revoked, says the Army–when Tahrir Square is liberated from liberators. President Obama’s speech after Mubarak’s downfall, continuing the basic thread running through all the zigzags of his administration’s statements, depicted the Army as “caretaker to the state” and steward of “a credible transition to democracy.”

This is the same Army whose officers and military police tried to quell the uprising. Human Rights Watch reported on Feb. 9: “Army officers and military police arbitrarily detained at least 119 people since the army took up positions in Egyptian cities and towns on the night of January 28, 2011, and in at least five cases tortured them.”

The Army got a lot of good press after saying it would not order soldiers to fire on the demonstrators. The truth is that the senior officers knew they could not count on rank-and-file soldiers to follow such an order. It would have been likely to spark a mass mutiny. At the very same time, however, its actions behind the scenes were reportedly in stark contrast. According to the New York Times, quoting Robert Springborg, a professor at the U.S. military’s own Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.,

“Mr. Springborg said that he believed that the military’s leadership was orchestrating events, and had been involved in allowing attacks against the protesters by pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels–but not by the army, so as not to taint it in the public eye.

“‘Behind the scenes, the military is making possible the various forms of assault on the protesters,’ Mr. Springborg said. ‘It’s trying to secure a transition for itself. There’s lots of evidence that the military is complicit, but for the most part Egyptians don’t even want to admit that to themselves.'”

As always, history is being rewritten as it is happening–not only to write the Army into the role of hero but to obscure the significance of what the masses have done. The demands that united a whole nation are only political, we are being told, and only political demands for fair elections, freedom of speech, and so forth could have united them. In truth, today’s movement builds on years of increasing labor revolt, and workers’ demands run through the whole time from Jan. 25, when those who called the first big march on Tahrir Square recruited protesters in poor neighborhoods by focusing on issues like the minimum wage; through Jan. 30, when the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions was created by several independent unions and other workers’ organizations, and called for a general strike; to Feb. 8-11, when strikes were spreading across Egypt, and helped force the Army into finally acceding to the masses’ demand to remove Mubarak.

Rulers across the Middle East and in Europe are pushing the same line as Obama: that the masses should cede control to the Army to oversee a transition to the same type of bourgeois democracy operating in the U.S.

We should not overlook the importance of bringing down a police state and winning what will likely be a vast improvement in human rights. However, what none of these rulers understand–or, if they do, they totally reject–is that a far deeper democracy, a deeper freedom, was created in Tahrir Square, and dissolving that is exactly what the rulers aim for. Many voices of people in Tahrir Square, reported in newspapers and on television, made note of this deeper freedom.

“You feel like this is the society you want to live in,” declared one. Protesters pride at their “leaderlessness” reflected a rejection of old forms of representation and an appreciation of the direct democracy they were building. Women reported that, for the first time, they were able to be in a public place free of sexual harassment. From neighborhood defense committees to self-organized cleanup committees, from medical clinics in the Square to the form of decision-making practiced there (see testimony by Ahdaf Soueif on Democracy Now), people discovered through their own self-activity and self-organization new ways of acting together, before which bourgeois democracy pales.

It is not only the self-interest of the rulers that threatens to halt the revolution. An equal danger is the widespread, insidious ideology that a total philosophy (usually labeled “ideology”) leads to tyranny, and that “democracy” is the best we can hope for. This has been expressed by many on the Left, who project, as Gilbert Achcar put it, that the masses “need to acquire the kind of political education that can be achieved only through a long-term practise of democracy.” Even one so important as Amr Ezz, one of the young leaders of the April 6 Movement, said, “Now the role of the regular people has ended and the role of the politicians begins. Now we can begin negotiations with the military in order to plan the coming phase.” A philosophy of liberation is needed to resist the ideology underlying these pronouncements.

We must not lose sight of the fact that it is the masses’ self-activity that is the essence of the revolution, not the ousting of Mubarak, and certainly not his proposed replacement by a multi-party system overseen by the Army. It is that self-activity that creates the basis for workers’ control of production, for breaking the law of value, for establishing a new society in which the division between mental and manual labor can be broken down. Without it, a new democracy cannot break out of the serious crises plaguing the world. With it, a banner of freedom can encourage the rest of the world to move to break away from capitalism and its crises. What is needed now is to support the real revolution, to support its deepening. What is needed is to oppose all efforts to replace that revolutionary self-activity with the building of a bourgeois democratic state. That is true whether the pressure comes from the U.S. administration, from the European states, or from regimes across North Africa and the Middle East; whether it comes from the Army or from Egyptian opposition parties; from El-Baradei or from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Inevitably, the Army and members of the opposition groups will collaborate to set up a transitional government. There will be resistance from those who see their gains being taken away from them. Already today there are reports of debates between occupiers of Tahrir Square about whether they should leave it. Conflict will grow more serious as the limits of the reforms become clearer, and poverty, mass unemployment, difficult conditions of life and labor continue.

Without a philosophy of revolution, the high points of revolution are too easily lost, rather than being expanded, deepened, and raised as a banner to engage the strongest solidarity from the masses around the world. Philosophy of revolution is needed to disclose the trail to total freedom. The Egyptian masses have opened a path to total uprooting of this decaying society. Let us all support their drive for freedom, and bring it home to our countries. The struggle continues.

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