the youth are in the streets!
An interview with Hannah Elsisi. This was originally posted at the International Socialist Network website.
Is today a victory for revolution or counterrevolution?
In a way, both. I’m currently sitting just off Tahrir Square with the woman who started ‘no to military trials’, a musician, one of Cairo’s most active street artists, and a novelist of the revolution. That is precisely the question we’re discussing now – and we are split down the middle. Half of us see this as a victory for the revolution and the other half as a victory for the counterrevolution – half as a step forward, half as a step backwards.
We’re in this café, not the square, for a reason. We all feel and know that this is not the square we owned – as if we have no tangible place in it, despite knowing that we hold a ‘place’ in the revolution.
Which half of the discussion are you in?
I’m in the optimistic half. Despite the fact that I’ve been most vocal about this unease for a few weeks now. Here’s why.
Two years ago there were untold millions who either knew nothing of the revolution or had no time for it because they couldn’t afford a minute off. Some resented it for stripping them of their privileges. Others even saw it as a return to the nice, ‘civilised’ Egypt that they knew under British occupation and the monarchy!
What we have today is a mixture of the following. Several million Egyptians who previous took to the streets and remember the Muslim Brotherhood’s lies, the blood they abandoned and the blood they themselves spilled. And many more, particularly outside the cities (where Morsi still managed to fare well in the presidential elections after a six month majority in parliament) have taken to the streets to protest their despair and disappointment in those they placed their faith in – not just now, but for a good 20 years.
However overarching this is a set of objections to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule that transcend class, religion, social occupation or revolutionary reference-points.
What are the politics of the protests, and which tendencies dominate?
There is still a very strong discourse that Mubarak, and Sadat’s regime before him, built over many years and for specific historical reasons. This discourse is built on both a rejection of ‘political Islam’ without a rejection of Islam itself – indeed they entrenched Islamic discourse. At the same time they built a fairytale scenario where the Muslim Brotherhood and its members contain some transgenerational, transpolitical trait that causes them to rule ruthlessly and dictatorially, in a manner that is somehow worse than Sadat or Mubarak’s dictatorships.
This is what motivates the majority of Egyptians on the streets today, though to varying levels. It is most extremely entrenched within the middle classes, and among Coptic Egyptians and older generations. Another motivating feature of the protests is a bourgeois notion of safety or “law and order” having disintegrated over the past few years, particularly under Morsi’s rule.
However, the revolution itself is yet to explicitly take up an ideology or “leadership”, and there are so many who have taken to the streets against Morsi simply to protest against their social and economic living conditions without any clear alternative in mind.
I feel the majority of those I encounter are there to remove the Muslim Brotherhood and their beards before they are out to remove the government. Here, I am in a minority. Beyond that though it seems as if most people are out to remove the government rather than wanting to install the military in power. Here, I am with the majority.
So the victory for the revolution today, in my opinion, shows the ruling class’s weakness. Our prime fear should not be the military, as there are many who do not find the answer to their prayers there. The victory for the counterrevolution is quite frankly the threat of popular sectarian violence against a particular group of citizens that also happens to be the military’s greatest political foe.
Can the rank and file of the army be split from the generals, or is this over-optimistic?
The rank and file of the army will only consider such a situation if the majority or a large number of lay soldiers are forced to rule and govern, and deal with civilians. However, if the army can achieve what it had managed to not only in the shape of Morsi but also Sadat, Mubarak and Nasser – that is, rule under the auspices of revolutionary or liberal parliamentary governance – then there is no need for such direct rule, and as a consequence the circumstances will not necessarily be ripe for the institution’s disintegration.
We’ve heard over the years about efforts to form a new, mass workers’ party. How far have these efforts got?
Notions of class have nowhere in Egypt’s history (save for short spells in the 1890s and 1920s-30s) asserted themselves over political, cultural or socio-religious considerations. It is difficult to speak of a workers’ party when we cannot speak of any more than 700,000 to a million Egyptians who identify with this notion at the most basic level.
Working class self-organisation has not ebbed one bit over the past five years, and under current circumstances there is nowhere for working class consciousness to go but to develop further. However I say this to emphasise that while revolutionaries in Egypt use the slogan “general strike until the regime falls”, and many agree, on the ground for all of us the main contradiction that needs explaining – or the main discourse we feel we lack – is a revolutionary narrative against the current government that stands on clear principle with respect to the military’s role, while also rejecting the reactionary discourse against the Muslim Brotherhood specifically and supporters of political Islam more generally.
Right now I can hear the calls to prayer, and a march chanting ‘Egypt (clap clap clap) Egypt’. And this is what I was referring to earlier in terms of the reactionary discourse of the revolt, making nationalist, militaristic sentiment the focus.
What is the left doing, and what does it have the capacity to do?
The left has the capacity to nurture and give confidence to those sections of the square who have no vested interest in military rule. We are working hard to keep chants and art against “el 3askar” (military rule) on the walls and on our tongues. The left will no doubt work hard to defend human rights and reject any calls for indiscriminate violence against any group. It will continue to build campaigns against sexual assault, and against the electricity shortages across Egypt’s governorates. However uncomfortable we might sometimes feel, communists’ place is on the streets, where the masses are.
What do you think of ElBaradei’s manoeuvring?
This is also a topic we have been discussing for a few days. At one end there are those like myself who thought the army’s game was to keep supporting the revolutionary movement on the street – and popular violence against the Muslim Brotherhood – while leaving the Brotherhood in power until its organisation had disintegrated enough to no longer pose a threat to the military. This would also have meant waiting until at least a good chunk of the population were at the point where they were begging for the army to rule. The other half predicted that the street would outstrip the military’s expectations, and want the government out ASAP.
ElBaradei or any similar liberals might be an unnecessary phase for the military if popular demand for straight-up military rule is high enough, and the Brotherhood is weak enough. For those with the latter view, ElBaradei is part of a larger play than just encouraging popular revolt against the Brotherhood, and will quite frankly be the next suit the military will rule through.
It is important to remember that the US government plays a not insignificant role in these outcomes. If the US has given up on the project of a client political Islam state in Egypt, at least for the time being, them some setup with ElBaradei at the helm is not unlikely.
I can hear celebrations – gunshots in the air. I’m half deaf! Wish you were here.