Egypt and the fight for democracy

Submitted by martin on 21 February, 2011 - 1:05

“It is impossible merely to reject the democratic program; it is imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it...

“As a primary step, the workers must be armed with this democratic program. Only they will be able to summon and unite the farmers. On the basis of the revolutionary democratic program, it is necessary to oppose the workers to the ‘national’ bourgeoisie.

“Then, at a certain stage in the mobilization of the masses under the slogans of revolutionary democracy, soviets [workers’ councils] can and should arise...

“Sooner or later, the soviets should overthrow bourgeois democracy. Only they are capable of bringing the democratic revolution to a conclusion and likewise opening an era of socialist revolution”.

Are these ideas — put forward by Leon Trotsky in the Transitional Programme in 1938 — relevant to Egypt today? I think so, and primarily by virtue of the first clause: “it is impossible merely to reject the democratic program; it is imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it”.

You could make a case that the argument is anachronistic. In 1938 Trotsky was writing about what he called the “colonial and semi-colonial countries”, and identified the “central tasks” there as “the agrarian revolution, i.e. liquidation of feudal heritages, and national independence”.

Egypt acquired national independence 58 years ago, when a military coup overthrew the British-backed monarchy. Successive land reforms in the 1950s and 60s broke up many of its quasi-feudal large landed estates, limited maximum holdings to 84 hectares, restrained rents and gave security to tenants, and redistributed a sizeable amount of land to small farmers.

Recent “counter-reforms” in agriculture are geared to capitalist export business, rather than anything “feudal”.

But the “bourgeois revolution” of national independence and land reform in Egypt, as in many other countries, was carried through by middle-class forces using the template not of Russia’s 1917 workers’ revolution, nor even of 19th century democratic revolutions, but of the results of Russia’s Stalinist counter-revolution.

Stalinism in Eastern Europe generated land reforms and industrial development — but also a political frame for society which was in many ways “pre-bourgeois” and which would, when the people finally rose up in 1989 to break it, generate a series of... bourgeois-democratic revolutions.

In the heyday of Nasserism Egypt had incomplete forms of many of the characteristic structures of Stalinism — the monopoly over politics of a single “party”, state-controlled trade unions, ownership of much of the economy by a corrupt bureaucracy calling itself “socialist”... Much of that heritage remains, melded with the results of decades of neo-liberal policy.

Time has moved forward since Trotsky wrote in 1938 — but also in some ways backwards, or sideways. Trotsky was codifying the ideas of an era, the 1920s, when the prime model for revolutionaries in poorer countries was the workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917; when sizeable working-class revolutionary parties, inspired by the Russian workers’ example, existed in countries like China and India.

Egypt today

In Egypt, as under Stalinism, independent working-class politics has been stifled for decades. There has been a tremendous upsurge of trade-union battles in Egypt since 2004, but for independent working-class politics everything is yet to be built. The working class needs time in the “open air” to discuss, to clarify, to build.

The “Socialist International”, the international association of social-democratic parties which includes in many countries the main parties linked to the labour movement, like the Labour Party in Britain, recognised Mubarak’s stooge “party” as its Egyptian affiliate!

To propose that in Egypt, too, “the workers must be armed with this democratic program”, is not to propose any rigid “stages” theory, any more than Trotsky was proposing such a thing in 1938.

It is to learn a lesson from Iran. One of the mistakes we (AWL’s forerunners) made in 1978-9 was to pose the issues as “workers’ rule versus the Islamists”, and to assume that the Islamists were only an ideological veil for bourgeois economic interests. To imagine that the issues of democracy and secularism had been left behind by class struggle was in fact fantasy.

Egypt’s working people need free trade unions, with the right to strike; freedom of association, freedom of the press. Those have scarcely existed there, except very feebly in 1922-52.

They need to break the stifling hold of the army, which is also a major factor in big business. The army must be pushed out of politics; stripped of its corrupt economic interests; and have its officer corps purged.

The Tahrir Square demonstrations were inspiringly secular: “Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians!” Yet since 1980 Egypt’s constitution states that “the principles of the Islamic Sharia shall be the main source of legislation”.

This was in good part “fake Islamism”, used by Mubarak to fend off the real Islamists. But issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody of children, are regulated for Muslims by sharia courts, and for Christians by separate courts. There has been a “creeping Islamisation” of Egyptian society for decades now, and the real Islamists are strong.

Egypt’s working people need to reverse that, to win a secular society with equality before the law for all and especially for women.

They need an elected constituent assembly. Egypt has had no real elections since the feeble landlord-dominated parliaments of 1922-52. Elections are not the whole of democracy: elections won by a political-Islamist party which would then suppress all democracy, claiming to substitute “God’s law”, as in Algeria in 1992, would be undemocracy. But the demand for a democratically-decided constitution must be part of the package.

Egypt’s working people in the countryside need a new land reform. Today, 43% of farmers have plots of less than 0.4 hectares, nowhere near enough to support their households, while a three per cent minority own 33% of all agricultural land. Agricultural rents have rocketed since the government deregulated them in 1997, driving many tenants off the land.

All these struggles can intertwine with battles pointing to workers’ power and socialism — for the purging of old-regime managers, for workers’ control, for the organisation of rank-and-file soldiers’ committees, for the election of officers, for publicly-provided welfare provision under democratic control, for neighbourhood committees.

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