The roots of the current battle
The roots of the current battle

Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review and an eyewitness to the revolution in February 2011, talks to’s Eric Ruder about what brought about the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood – and the dynamics at play in the new wave of Egypt’s revolution.


Much of the Western media portray the downfall of Morsi as the result of a military coup. But the immediate backdrop was the massive mobilisations on June 30. What’s the political significance of the military stepping in to push Morsi aside?

The military was the heir to the first wave of the revolution that began on January 25 and saw the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.

At that time, the army stepped in and tried to guide – ultimately, to hijack – two simultaneous processes. One process was the transformation of Egypt set in motion by the uprising, and the other was the political process of drafting and implementing a constitution.

Once the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took over political leadership after Mubarak in 2011, the army quickly moved to get a constitution ratified. This constitution largely benefited the third force in Egyptian politics other than the military on the one hand and the remnants of the Mubarak regime (the feloul) on the other – namely, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since then, the military has relied on the Muslim Brotherhood to contain the revolution. The Brotherhood won the first set of elections for parliament, and then it won the presidency.

Over the past year, it became clear that Morsi was intent on advancing the narrow interests of the Brotherhood rather than advancing the interests of most Egyptians, who were angry at years of privation, repression and poverty.

I think the most important moment to understand in order to make sense of how we arrived at the present situation was late last year, when Morsi was being hailed by the American media as “the most important man in the Middle East,” as a Time magazine cover story put it. This was immediately after he helped negotiate a settlement between Israel and Gaza in the wake of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud.

I was in Egypt at that time, and the Time cover article hit the newsstands just as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest Morsi’s attempt to force through an emergency decree that basically aimed at consolidating power in his hands. That sparked a big revival in the opposition movement. Morsi’s forces then pushed back, and there were harsh attacks on protesters. But it was clear that all the aspirations raised by the revolution remained unfilled.

The Tamarod (Rebellion) movement set out to reclaim what organisers considered to be the aims of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity. These are slogans that mean a better life for most Egyptians.

Tamarod organisers set out to collect 15 million signatures on a petition calling on Morsi to resign. Ultimately, they got 22 million signatures in a period of roughly six weeks – an incredible accomplishment. They set June 30 – the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as president – as a day of protest across Egypt for everyone mobilised by the petition campaign.

I don’t think that anyone could have predicted the amazing outcome. The BBC described the mobilisation on June 30 as the biggest demonstration in human history.

This was an astonishing outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. People were in the streets in every major and minor city in the country. Most striking was that support for Morsi in the south of the country – which is the historic centre and key base for the Brotherhood – virtually evaporated.

For a number of reasons, the south is historically poorer and more religious – not unlike rural areas in many parts of the world, including the US South. It’s also heavily dependent on tourism – thus, the southern region’s relationship to the revolution was to see it as a disruption of the tourist trade.

Today, everything’s is different, and not just in the south.

It’s important to understand what led to this shift. Revolutions in particular and social movements generally have ongoing dynamics within them. One aspect of this in Egypt is that a politicised population emerged in the outbreak of the first revolution – the flowering of dozens and dozens of newspapers, of political discussion, of political protest and other activity, of new trade unions. There’s now a political consciousness and a confidence for people to act.

After Morsi’s bid to grab a greater share of power was pushed back, people were rightly worried about another attempt. The Tamarod movement broke the dam by providing a vehicle by which the mass of the Egyptian population were able to make Morsi pay a political price for his actions.

Military coups usually herald the defeat of the revolutionary process – they are often the most extreme representation of the counterrevolution. Does the military’s intervention to remove Morsi, appoint a new president and promise new elections represent the victory of counterrevolution?

Absolutely not. In every capitalist society and in every nation state in the world, the military is the final arbiter, in a sense, of the rule of the class that’s in power – or it’s the representative of one or another fraction or grouping within such a class.

In Egypt, the military’s aim was to contain the movement. But in a certain sense, this was also as an acknowledgement of the fact that the popular will of Egypt would not tolerate the Morsi government anymore. So while the military is in the streets and has overstepped the constitutional limits to its power, I believe that it will seek some means to quickly return power to a civilian authority. I don’t think it wants to hold state power.

There’s a crisis situation in the Egyptian economy and in Egyptian society that could lead to a much deeper radicalisation in the demands of the movement. All over the country, people are now organising and fighting for rights that they feel have been taken from them. That’s why I think it’s a mistake to talk about the role of the military in the abstract, without taking into account what is actually happening on the ground.

The Brotherhood’s strategy to re-establish order in Egypt was to use repression to end the constant strikes and demonstrations. They really did try to clamp down, in cahoots with the army.

But even more than that, Morsi and the Brotherhood began to use classic divide-and-rule strategies, just as Mubarak tried before – for example, the campaign against Copts and stirring up of religious antagonisms with the infinitesimally small Shia population.

This has nothing to do with Islam as a religious doctrine, which also angered many people. Most Egyptians are Muslims, but that’s not the same as the program of political Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood, which has targeted Christians and women and minority Islamic currents in pursuit of political gains.

On June 30, many of the youth – who were in the forefront of the revolutionary struggle in 2011 and were the initiators of the Tamarod movement – again made it very clear that they took to the street to stand for all Egyptians, not for some Egyptians. The meaning of that has a deep progressive content.

Of course, the army, the feloul and the liberal elements say “We’re all one” and “We all have the same interests.” But that’s not really the same as that sense of unity I’m talking about. When those who lead the movement and the revolutionaries who want change are saying, “We’re for all Egyptians,” they mean this as solidarity among ordinary Egyptians – as opposed to “We represent Muslims only.”

In that sense, it’s a way to say, “This revolution stands for the freedoms and rights of all of us, not just some of us.” That’s a tremendously important breakthrough – to return to this kind of impulse, rather than sectarian violence and rivalry, or the narrow pursuit of the interests of one or another political party.

Over 50 years, the Muslim Brotherhood built a base of support and a level of influence that enabled it to project itself into a position of political leadership after Mubarak’s fall. But in a year, that has all come undone. What does this mean for the Brotherhood and for Egypt generally?

It’s difficult to predict anything. First of all, what will happen to the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s a force – it was the third force in Egyptian politics. If Egypt’s capitalist and political class was one pole and the army was another, the Muslim Brotherhood was the third. It would be leaned on for some things, and it would be opposed on others. Those three poles of influence still exist – and now the open question is about the state and who’s politically represented within it.

Then you have the remnants of the old regime, the feloul, who are organising as well. But because of the dictatorial conditions under Mubarak, none of these forces are clearly and well organised into political groupings. There really is a lack of legitimacy for any number of those groups. So one of the things I foresee is a flurry of new parties and new alliances, as there was a year and a half ago when the previous political system took shape.

But I also think that people have learned an awful lot from what they did or didn’t do during that time.

I think that the most important challenge will be finding some way to give political and organisational expression to aspects of the movement. The aim here is not simply to campaign for office at the presidential or parliamentary level, but for organisations to contest for political space right now, and to make sure that the movement isn’t pushed back. I think the coming months in Egypt will be very interesting to follow and full of surprises.

[First published at]

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