Speaking of bungled acts of repression, the Egyptian military's assault on protesters after last Friday's mass protest has revived the country's revolutionary movement and (so I hear) put a general strike on the agenda. Tahrir Square has been retaken. This image (left) shows what the square looked like on Friday. Following the protest, which was against the military council's usurpation of dictatorial power, dozens of people decided to stay on in the square overnight. They were assaulted by troops using tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to clear the square. The resulting uproar saw tens of thousands drawn back out onto the square. Repeated assaults seem only to have broadened the array of groups willing to stand against the military. Beyond Tahrir, there have been mass protests in Alexandria and Suez, among other places. The assembly of forces looks remarkably similar to that in February - trade unionists, liberals, socialists, Nasserists and Islamists, all out against the regime. There are now calls for international solidarity as the revolutionary movement, in tens of thousands not dozens, faces down rubber bullets and tear gas. The country's trade unions are calling for their 1.4m members to join protesters in the Tahrir Square sit-in. The struggle is still 'in the balance', as it were, but what a turnaround.
For a time, it seemed as if the armed forces would control the tempo of events. Elections would proceed in the manner prescribed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and most significant forces would participate. The army would incite sectarianism against coptic Christians, and murder them with impunity. The leadership of the Muslim Brothers - expecting to do well in any prospective elections under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party - would tend to side with the army in maintaining 'order' against those leftists, liberals and Islamists who antagonised the new ruling order. Indeed, at a crucial moment in July, a mass Islamist rally in Tahrir appeared to show that the alliance between the military and sections of the Islamists was being consolidated. Salafists, jihadis and Muslim Brothers chanted slogans in favour of national unity, while speakers defended the SCAF. The mobilisations of liberals and leftists against the regime, by contrast, looked small. Shortly after the rally, armed thugs were sent by the army to assault opposition supporters camped in Tahrir Square.
Some, in response to this situation, went so far as to declare the revolutionary process at an end. Others descended into indiscriminate rants about Islamists, and enjoined us to remember Iran, 1979. Here was a case of Islamist counter-revolution if ever there was one. Since many of the people I am referring to (I'm being deliberately vague, not to avoid giving offence, but to ensure that the offence is taken widely) are marxists, it is odd that their mistakes were so liberal. They began and ended their assessment of the forces assembled in Egypt on the basis of an ascribed ideology, with little or no reference to class or other political determinants. Whether or not ideology plays the dominant role in situating actors in a given struggle surely depends on the circumstances, but the imperative to be concrete was blithely evaded. Abstraction governed their responses. Relatedly, even while restricting the discussion to ideology, their discussion of that level of struggle was curiously flattened: Islamism was treated not as a complex, incoherent and frequently antagonistic combination of elements, but as a spiritual totality reducible to an incorrigible reactionary essence.
So, it is of more than passing interest that the current mobilisation has drawn support from salafists and detachments from the Muslim Brothers. We needn't deceive ourselves about the role that such forces play. They enjoy mass support, and the Brothers in particular have the infrastructure for a viable political organisation. But, where they have supported progressive political struggles - for democratic and human rights, for Palestine, against the dictatorship - they have tailed, rather than led, secular formations. The responsibility of marxists, however, is to look for the dominant line of political division in any given situation. In this situation, the struggle is between the armed forces, who have murdered and injured several people over the weekend, and the revolutionaries, who include thousands of Islamist activists. The political logic of demonising Islamism in these circumstances would either be a purist abstentionism, or worse, support for SCAF as a bulwark of secular power against the Islamists.
Thirty three people have been killed by armed forces in Tahrir Square since Friday. The level of brutality is shocking. I understand that the military opened fire with live rounds on protesters as they attempted to storm the Interior Ministry. Yet, as you can see, the response from the revolutionaries continues to be defiant:
The military appears to be producing a situation from which there can be no return. Either they will consolidate their power as a new despotism with a slender democratic facade - and elections are now in doubt - or they will be decisively weakened, and a new alignment of democratic forces will have the initiative. As the revolutionaries of Egypt say, Glory to the martyrs, Victory to the revolution, Power and wealth to the people.