Revolution and Counterrevolution in Egypt: The attack on academics, journalists, and leftists

Since July 2013, a number of academics, artists, and journalists have been arrested, censored, or tortured by Egyptian military. Egyptians and foreigners have been quelled by the state leading revolutionary socialists such as Sameh Naguib to propound that repression under the current regime are worse than they were under former President Hosni Mubarak. The repression began with the June 2013 coup that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi and his fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporters but it shortly extended to high journalists and researchers who were based in Egypt.

Egypt was never immune to censorship legislation but the practice of arresting Egyptian and foreign-born journalists that critique the military, president or government has led to the arbitrary arrest of a host of reporters. Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and Peter Greste were detained for over a year by the Egyptian state for allegedly “aiding a terrorist organization.” At the same time, Egyptian journalist Rasha Gafaar was arrested for filming polling stations. French journalist Alain Gresh was arrested for having a conversation with an Egyptian female journalist in a Cairo cafe in November 2014. Journalists, in their power to relay the suppression of the state, are a target but they are not the only ones.

Within the academy, scholars have been detained or tortured. In July 2015, a French master’s student was deported after conducting research with members of the April 6th movement in Damietta. Most recently, Cambridge University doctoral student Giulio Regeni was murdered and tortured by the Egyptian government. Like other scholars who conduct research in Egypt, Regeni’s murder not only undermines one’s ability to conduct research in Egypt but it can potentially rupture academic partnerships between Egyptian and foreign scholars.

In rhetoric, the Egyptian government has mostly directed its counterrevolutionary tactics towards the Muslim Brotherhood, however, in practice they have extended their tentacles to all forms of opposition–including Egyptian leftists. Most notably, the anti-protest law from November 2013 that bans public demonstrations. The Egyptian state murdered poet and Socialist Popular Alliance Party activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh on 24 January 2015 during a peaceful protest in Cairo. Her death was not only a loss for those she inspired but it was also a temporary defeat for public demonstrations by the organized left in Egypt. Most notably human rights lawyer and socialist Mahienour al-Massry was detained for allegedly violating anti-protest laws. Moreover, Dr. Taher Mokhtar, Ahmed Hassan, and Hossam al-Din al-Hamady are leading activists for the Egyptian Doctor’s Union who were detained by authorities on 14 January 2016 for wanting better conditions for health workers. The doctors were detained for protesting and allegedly “possessing publications calling for the overthrow of the regime.”

The attack on the journalists, academics, and leftists are embedded within two facets of the counterrevolution and both have stifled democratic organization from below. On the one side, the state has cracked down on broader political movements and lumped together all forms of resistance as “terrorist” activities. On the other side, there are armed terrorist groups that have exercised violence and sabotaged the bona fide demands for bread, dignity, and freedom from the 2011 uprisings. The rebel violence directed toward the state has been initiated by such groups as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Based in Sinai, they have taken credit for some of the bombings in Egypt including a series of attacks in 2014 and 2015. In one attack, the group bombed the Islamic Art Museum which is adjacent to the Egyptian National Library. It must be noted that Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’s violence are counterproductive, sectarian force that gives the Egyptian regime legitimacy in cracking down on everyone. The assassination of Hisham Barakat on 29 June 2015 also heightened the regime’s surveillance. These counterrevolutionary tendencies do not happen in isolation but are part of a broader contingent that go against the hope and prospects of the Egyptian masses.

Counterrevolution has also been coupled with the imprisonment and detention of Muslim Brotherhood supporters or those presumed to be part of it. The Egyptian state is using such repression to demonize all Islamist and secular organizations as “terrorist”—under the guise of Islamophobia—while also criminalizing everyone who dissents. Death sentences have become commonplace and these jurisdictions have lacked fair and speedy trials. They have also gone so far as to sentence a four year old to a life sentence.

President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has relied on populist authoritarianism by invoking a neo-Nasserist program and rejected the upsurge of class struggle. When collective actions of workers and peasants exceeded authorized boundaries and challenged the regime, they were quashed. Similarly, in 1952, the Free Officers suppressed the textile workers’ strike at Kafr al-Dawwar by hanging two of its leaders. The Egyptian state has asphyxiated dissent through arrest, disappearance, and torture. Prior to the fifth year anniversary of the Arab Spring, the government arrested four key April 6th movement activists (Source: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/12/29/april-6-leaders-detained-ahead-of-anniversary-of-25-january/). Since March of 2015, over 1,840 people have disappeared.

Whenever the masses lead a rebellion authoritarian regimes go on the offensive and quell the vestiges of resistance. Socialists should unequivocally condemn the oppression of the Egyptian state against academics, journalists, and revolutionaries. As the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt have indicated in a solidarity statement:

“Every dictatorship uses terrorism as an excuse to increase repression and create a state of national panic and hysteria across the widest sections of the masses in order to force everyone to close ranks behind the dictator. However, this hysteria now extends to liberal and leftist opponents of the regime, who at least in theory are opposed to Sisi’s coup and his counterrevolution, and this is creating surprise and disgust.”

Similar to the 1973 coup in Chile, the Egyptian security apparatus is a bulwark against democracy. However, it is key to look to domestic and international forms of struggle to challenge Egypt’s repression.

Resistance within the sea of state suppression can take on a variety of forms but it is essential for the working class to use its powers in the ways that they have yielded substantive results. At the domestic level, the April 6th movement and the strikes in Mahalla were key to putting forth economic and political demands under the Hosni Mubarak regime. Moreover, the Ultras and soccer’s popularity were able to garner public protest with a working class and left base during the 2013 coup.

International solidarity has particularly been key for challenging the regime. The Al Jazeera journalists were able to be free after a year of campaigning and international support. On the question of arms, the European Union parliament passed a resolution to suspend military cooperation with Egypt because of Giulio Regeni’s murder. The United States could follow suit to honor the lives of the many people who have disappeared.

As it currently stands, Egypt has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. The global economic recession has hit Egyptians hard and the working class wants to improve their materials conditions—even at the behest of the current regime. President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi recently indicated that he would be cutting water and gas subsidies. However, President Sisi received high levels of criticism when he delivered this news after walking on a 1.6 million Egyptian pound ($200,000) red carpet. In the context of the economic crisis and the callousness of the elite, it is important for Egyptian labor to exercise its power in a collective fashion. Recently in Alexandria and the Delta, public sector workers utilized their power in a strike wave and demanded that they be paid their overdue bonuses.

At the same time, the counterrevolutionary forces must not solely be defeated on Egypt’s terrain. Rather, it is essential to end U.S. military funding to Egypt. The money spent on suppressing the population could be spent on housing, education, etc. At the same time, terminating military contracts would also make the state less capable of repressing its population. As of October 2015, Egypt spent $2.6 billion on French warships and the Russians provided the Egyptian government with $1 billion in equipment.

Dovetailed with these other initiatives, it is imperative the Egyptian state allow for free press to reign and to free all political prisoners including individuals such as Mahienour al-Massry, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Maher, Aya Hegazy, Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, and countless others. Of these, Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein is Egypt’s youngest political prisoner and he was arrested for wearing a t-shirt that read “A nation without torture”.

Finally, if the revolution will continue then the working class must be able to democratically assemble and labor must be able to freely organize. Labor was and will continue to key to challenging the regime. In 2011, Egyptian doctors held sit-ins and teachers led strikes thus revitalizing the previously sedentary labor movement. In fact, it was the strikes led by transportation and dockworkers in Egypt that were tipping scale for Mubarak’s fall. The latest phase of worker militancy in Alexandria, Aswan, and the Delta actually shows that the Egyptian working class is bringing material concerns to the forefront. It is in this vein that the political strategy is key and that Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists were right when they proclaimed:

The only revolutionary road is to revive the weapons of mass struggle through strikes, sit-ins and protests against the corrupt military dictatorship that will bring us nothing but poverty, repression, violence and terrorism.”

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