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Haitham Mohamedain: Letter on sectarianism and counter-revolution

Article by Haitham Mohamedain (part 2)
Read part 1 here

Letter 2: The counter-revolution advances, boosted by sectarian slogans and phony nationalism with the backing of Islamist and secular political forces

Sectarianism is the way of counter-revolution. Tantawi knew this route all too well. The unity of the masses in the squares fragmented and confusion replaced their consciousness in face of a number of tactics adopted by the regime in order to liquidate the January revolution.

Mubarak falls, the masses leave the squares while workers’ strikes continue

The first tactic was to agree to Mubarak’s departure and the announcement of a Military Council with the aim of deceiving the revolution. Meanwhile, the sit-ins in the squares broke up because of the absence of a mass revolutionary party capable of exposing this deception and playing a role in convincing the masses of the necessity of staying in the streets until the complete overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. But the matter was decided and the Military Council began to confront the revolution by forcibly breaking up the small minority which had remained in Tahrir and then turning to the wave of workers’ strikes which had erupted on 5 February and continued after the fall of Mubarak. The Military Council launched a vicious media campaign against the workers’ movement and its demands describing them as “selfish sectionalism” which was impeding the wheel of production and threatening the “national economy”. Strikes were even being described as a danger to the revolution!

In absence of political forces embedded within the workers’ movement, which was raising demands to purge Mubarak’s men and their cronies from industrial institutions and services and realise the demand of the revolution for social justice, Tantawi’s Military Council was able to smear the workers’ movement, before moving on to a phase of direct repression through issuing the first legal ruling banning strikes and considering them to be a crime punishable by jail terms handed down by military judges. It broke up workers strikes using military forces in Suez, Alexandria and Helwan and elsewhere in order to stop the workers’ movement surging forward, which was developing quickly in terms of consciousness and organisation. We were beginning to see coordination of general strikes across whole sectors, demands for the appointment of civilian administrators for the military factories and the purging of generals from the Civil Aviation Ministry, and other demands expressing high levels of consciousness and constituting a serious challenge to the continued control of the military over power and wealth.

The second tactic adopted by the military council was to fragment the mass movement by dividing the poor and oppressed on the basis of religion and sect. It was aided in this by the forces of Political Islam of every stripe, and at the head of them the Muslim Brotherhood. The political scene at the time of the [Constitutional] Referendum of 19 March 2011 expressed this tendency: once again sectarian slogans reappeared after they had been sidelined by the revolution 25 January and public opinion turned against them.

The Coptic Christian masses suffered from poverty side by side with the Muslim poor for decades, but in addition they had to swallow religious oppression, the oppression of the state which treated them as second class citizens, and the oppression of society which reflected the state’s oppression in addition to the spread of reactionary religious ideas.

This section of the masses isolated themselves in the churches, and did not participate in political and social protests except a little, and then only under the pressure of great fear. It was the prisoner of religious leaders in the church and prisoners of the state which oppressed them but which offered them “protection” from the tyranny of the “Muslims”.

But during the last years of Mubarak and number of sectarian incidents occurred where the role of the state was clear. One of the most important of these was the killing of Copts on Christmas night in Naga’ Hammadi, which was devised by Abd-al-Rahim al-Ghul, head of the [ruling] National Democratic Party’s parliamentary bloc. Then there was the incident of the explosion at the Qadissayn Church in Alexandria which was set up by the Ministry of the Interior with the aim of prolonging the state of emergency and disrupting the rise of the masses. The Copts took to the streets in the wake of the Qadissayn incident for the first time since the 1919 Revolution, protesting at the continued sectarian incidents against them, they went out chanting against the police which prepared the massacres and not against the Muslims. They went out in their hundreds of thousands in Cairo and Alexandria, and the first battle of Maspero took place as the police broke up the demonstrations of angry Copts with gas and birdshot.

When the Copts went out, the final elements of the revolution against Mubarak’s regime fell into place. First the students had taken up the nationalist cause, then the workers went out to demand social justice, and the political forces protested against the tyranny of Mubarak’s regime. All of these forces of the poor and oppressed gathered together in the January Revolution: the students and the workers, the Copts and the women, raising the demands of all Egyptians for freedom, social justice and human dignity.

The constitutional referendum of 19 March 2011 came as a blow to this unity, and the Military Council, in alliance with the Islamists was successful in achieving its aim. Instead of representing hope for the Copts that repression would be lifted, in reality the outcome of the revolution seemed to be summed up in the claim that Egypt was “Islamic” and “whoever doesn’t like it can emigrate to Canada”.

Of course the matter did not stop there. Rather this was the beginning of a series of attacks and burning of churches, some carried out by the regime itself and the majority with the support of some of the Islamist forces.

The diabolical plans of the military to fragment the masses culminated in the Maspero massacre [of 9 October 2011] against the Copts to the shouts of “God is great” by some of the soldiers and some of the Salafists who had suddenly appeared at the scene.

This massacre had a destructive effect on the embedding of the Coptic masses with the Muslim poor in the January Revolution, and under the pressure of strong sensitivities towards oppression and repression, the Copts, trapped between the state which was crushing them and the Islamists who cheered on the massacre, huddled once again in the church, raising religious slogans in response. Between the hammer of the state and the anvil of the Islamist movements, between going to Canada and the Maspero massacre, the Copts huddled within the Church, before returning to the embrace of the state, the state which sometimes killed them and always oppressed them, but which would certainly not send them to Canada!

This is one of the negative lessons of the January Revolution – have we learnt it well?

Are we working on winning the Copts back to the Revolution by defending their demands, which are at the heart of the demands of the revolution? It is the duty of every revolutionary to stand against the oppression of the Copts by the state or by religious groups. We must challenge sectarian slogans and practices, and fight against any group which raises them.

The Coptic masses will remain trapped in the embrace of the state – which is a gain for the counter-revolution – as long as the political scene is dominated by sectarian organisations or sectarian slogans. The revolution is liberation for the oppressed and it is a festival for the poor. If it is led by sectarian terror groups, and if it does not raise the demands of the poor, then it is doomed to fail.

Read part 1 of this article here