The tenth anniversary of the January revolution and lessons from the defeat
Statement by the Revolutionary Socialists 28 January 2021
A decade has passed since the most important event in the modern history of Egypt since 1919. The January 2011 revolution was defeated and we are still paying the price of this defeat today. Perhaps the continuing violence and barbarism of the counter-revolution despite the passing of all these years are the best evidence of the scale of the earthquake which the January Revolution unleashed and the terror it still inspires in the hearts and minds of the ruling class and its state. For the first time since 1919, the masses attempted to change the course of Egyptian history in the first revolutionary clash with the state in the post-colonial period.
But the January Revolution was defeated. Without understanding the reasons why, we will not be able to move a step forward towards ending the nightmare we are living through since the coup of 2013. The revolution was not defeated solely because of a series of betrayals, which began with the Muslim Brotherhood’s partnership with the military after the fall of Mubarak in the hope of sharing in power and ended with the alliance of the so-called democratic civil forces with the same miliary in order to get rid of the Brotherhood, and the support of these forces for the 2013 and the massacres which followed it.
The deeper reasons for the defeat are related to several dilemmas faced by the political forces and movements which took part in the revolution. These resulted in points of weakness which the enemies of the revolution seized on order to destroy it.
Firstly, the slogans of the revolution remained vague and abstract (bread, freedom, social justice). What was the meaning of ‘freedom’ for example? What kind of democracy do we want, and what sort of liberation? Just parliamentary democracy? Or a deeper and more direct form of democracy which would also bring about the genuine liberation of all the oppressed (women and religious minorities for example)? Do we want the cleansing, breaking down and rebuilding of the state apparatus such as the judiciary and police and so on? Or just to achieve some superficial concessions from these institutions, such as the ludicrous renaming of the State Security apparatus.
And what do we mean by social justice? Does it just mean reducing corruption and nepotism, implementing the minimum wage, “realistic” tax rises for corporations and the rich, without touching the core of the neoliberal project? Or nationalising monopolies and putting them under democratic control? Limited reforms to capitalist policies, or a serious attempt to go beyond capitalism? Or perhaps there is something between “realistic” and radical demands? If we are only asking for reforms to reduce the impact of neoliberalism on the poor and the middle class, what is revolutionary about that? Perceptions of the meanings of freedom and social justice varied, not only between the different revolutionary forces, but within their ranks.
Secondly, despite the major role played by workers’ strikes in the fall of Mubarak, and despite the interchange and interaction between the political movement in the streets and squares and the workers’ movement in the factories, companies and workplaces, there remained an almost total separation between the two movements. The workers’ movement remained confined to economic and trade union demands and never transformed into an effective agent on the political scene. And this occurred despite our knowledge that workers’ movements have played a central political role in non-revolutionary experiences of transformation from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy (Brazil, South Korea and South Africa) and that these transformations would not have been possible otherwise. Understanding the objective and subjective reasons for the political weakness of the workers’ movement in the January revolution in order to attempt to overcome them is perhaps one of the principal tasks of the Egyptian left in the coming years.
Thirdly, the political forces which participated in the revolution did not recognise the social depth of the counter-revolution. The military were able to mobilise wide sections of the middle class behind slogans about the danger of chaos and the threat of civil war (as in Libya and Syria). Playing on feelings of insecurity did not only mobilise the middle class, but also many of the poor, and played a major role in the success of the counter-revolution and the creation of mass support for its project. The revolutionary forces were unable to conduct the ideological battle necessary to win the hearts and minds of many of these people, and without winning that battle the revolution could not succeed.
Fourthly, the revolutionary forces underestimated the role of regional powers as allies and supporters of the counter-revolution, and as inexhaustible funders of the project to destroy the revolution. The revolutionary forces suffered from the illusion that the enemy was only the Egyptian ruling class and its state. The experience of the January Revolution and what came after, showed that without a doubt, revolution cannot succeed in Egypt without the active support and solidarity from democratic movements in the Gulf.
Fifthly, the state of Islamophobia which grips large sections of liberals, the left and “intellectuals” generally, played a major role in throwing many of them into the arms of the regime claiming it was a bastion of “secularism” and freedoms against Islamic “fascism”. Over the last seven years we have seen the depth of reaction and conservatism, and the enmity towards secularism and freedoms on the part of this regime and wider layers of the ruling class. Large sections of the Egyptian left, liberals and Arab nationalists simply tail the bourgeois state on the pretext of fear of political Islam. This is a fatal weakness which played an important role in the defeat of the revolution.
Finally, on the strategic level, the revolutions of national liberation in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century were clear in terms of their goals: freedom from colonialism and an end to the control of the traditional classes (such as the large landowners). They represented a step forward in an ambitious project of independent development and industrialisation led by the state (what the late Marxist thinker Ibrahim Fathy considered in the case of Egypt to be “round two” of a bourgeois revolution). But what comes after the end of this period of national liberation, capitalist modernization and the stabilization of local bourgeois rule? What are the goals and demands of a revolution against that class? Do we want to go beyond the rule of that class or simply achieve reforms? Can we imagine a genuine democratic alternative which will finish with this failed alliance of the military and businessmen which emerged in the Egyptian state after colonialism. Can a revolution succeed without preparing for that radical alternative? The revolutions of the 21st century will not win if they remain trapped within the limits of the projects of the post-independence bourgeoisie of the 20th century.
Perhaps now is the time, after the passing of a decade since the January Revolution for a serious discussion about the weaknesses that led to our defeat and to work on developing a new strategic vision which will allow us to rebuild the radical opposition to the regime and prepare for the next revolution. We owe it to the martyrs of the revolution and of Sisi’s massacres, to our colleagues, comrades, brothers and sisters, and the tens of thousands who remain in his prisons as punishment for the January Revolution and out of fear of the revolution to come.