Egypt: sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state
During a march in solidarity with Abbassiya detainees [protesters imprisoned by the military regime], a young comrade I know from Cairo University – a medical student who was among the field hospital doctors during a Ministry of Defence sit-in – approached me. He told me the story of a Salafi woman in niqab, who kept on kissing the Revolutionary Socialists’ red flag during the sit-in, while shouting: “Forgive me I didn’t know about you before!”
I replied with the story of another comrade who was entering the sit-in and was being searched by a Salafi sheikh. When the latter found in the student’s bag the flag of the Revolutionary Socialists, Marxist books, as well as issues from The Socialist newspaper, he told the young student: “Come in son; may God be with you!”
These were just two stories, among many, witnessed by our comrades during the controversial Ministry of Defence sit-in, which lasted for a week. The sit-in was subject to attacks by knives, swords, firearms and machine guns fired by plainclothes thugs working closely with the army. It was finally suspended by a crackdown by the military police and army’s special forces, resulting in the arrest and torture of hundreds.
The sit-in was started by a group of supporters of the disqualified Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. They marched on the Ministry of Defence Friday night, 27 April, and decided to stage a sit-in calling for the dissolution of the Presidential Electoral Committee, which they blamed for the disqualification of their candidate. The SCAF-controlled committee has also been the target of the revolutionaries’ wrath from all shades of the political spectrum.
If you think Islamophobia is on a worrying rise in Europe, you should have seen the Egyptian twitter sphere during that week of sit-in. Liberals and leftists were reacting in the most disgustingly way.
There are those who by default will stand against anything Islamist, anything with a beard or niqab, and will avoid them like a plague. Hence their position varied from neutrality – as if this fight between the Islamists and the army is happening on another planet – to praying that the two sides by some miracle will finish each another off, to supporting the army’s crackdown on those Islamists.
And of course you got the usual chorus, which always comes up whenever there are clashes with the police and the army: “It’s not the time for this, we have other important matters.” Usually those “important matters” are elections – or another SCAF-sponsored milestone in the political process.
But the “Islamists” are not a unified homogenous block. We are talking about millions of Egyptians from different backgrounds and provinces who are part of the Muslim Brotherhood and the different Salfist groups.
It’s even wrong to lump “Salafists” all in one basket. Let’s remember that young Salafis took part in the January 2011 uprising contrary to virtually all the Salafi celebrity sheikhs’ pro-Mubarak position. Many of the workers I have been bumping into during strikes from 2007 onwards have beards that almost reach their bellies and are followers of Salafi sheikhs. The latter had prohibited strikes and demonstrations, yet their poor followers obviously were moving in a different direction.
Already the Salafist movement has splintered, and the dismal performance of Abu Ismail in the crisis, including repeatedly disowning his supporters, is bound to create a disillusioned base. Isn’t there a critical mass that could be won to the side of revolution? Of course there is, and the revolutionary socialists have to play a role in influencing this base as much as they can, according to their capabilities and political weight.
There is nothing more farcical than the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is an iron fist organisation whose members are following the Supreme Guide’s orders blindly. The organisation has been marred with factions and splits for years along generational and class lines. Despite refraining from mobilising for an entire year following February 2011, there is not a single time a serious clash happened with the state without stumbling on a group of young MB members who attended the protests or the clashes contrary to the group’s line. And I personally witnessed that on several occasions.
What do you do as a revolutionary socialist in the midst of this? One should not stop exposing the hypocrisy and the counterrevolutionary politics of the MB leadership. But we should not give up trying to attract the youth and those in the MB who are sincerely pro-revolution to the revolutionary camp and even winning them to socialist politics, something that I’m also increasingly witnessing.
That’s not going to happen by sitting on Twitter and ranting about the MB like many leftists are doing, but by physically being present on the ground at the events they organise and continuously arguing and debating with their young members. When a fight breaks out with the state, you don’t withdraw and say may God burn them both, you have to take sides. But you take sides while still maintaining your organisational independence. You fight under your own red banner and shout your own chants.
The Ministry of Defence sit-in represented a step forward for the revolution, not a regress, despite the army’s onslaught that saw several comrades detained, and brutally tortured. We have taken the fight to a new level, breaking a great taboo, which is staging sit-ins and direct actions in front of the headquarters of the counterrevolution itself. We have also reached out to and earned the respect of the most revolutionary wing of the Salafi movement. I salute the bravery of all the comrades who took part in the sit-in and resisted the army’s crackdown.
All Revolutionary Socialist activists and sympathisers are now out of prison, but there are hundreds of Islamists, independent activists and ordinary citizens who are still languishing in custody and await military prosecution. We must do our best to stand by them and secure their release. We will continue to organise against SCAF and we should be more than keen to reach out to the Islamist cadres who are willing to join this fight.
The polarisation within the Islamist movement will only increase with every betrayal and compromise the Islamist leadership brokers with SCAF, with every confrontation with the state, with the growth of a revolutionary left that could provide an alternative for the disillusioned youth, and more importantly with the escalation of the strike wave.
But in all cases, we must be vigilant enough to remain organisationally independent, move under our own banners, with our own literature, and never compromise.
We should be sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state.