Egypt – Islamist Revolution or Permanent Revolution?

10.12.2012 | Harun YILMAZ

Obviously the mobilization in Egypt (and in general, in the African continent) might lead to, for instance, a fundamentalist regime instead of a successful workers’ revolution. This as a prospect can hardly be denied. However this prospect can hardly be a reason to preach to slow down the movement, or halt the revolution, as the spokesmen of the imperialist powers maintained. The prospect is one thing, the reality is another. Socialists should take into account not only the prospects, but also the actual events taking place and the objective revolutionary role of the working class as the main dynamic of society. When the working class with its power coming from the production intervened in the revolutionary process, the red colour of the revolution will become clearer.

The significance and class character of the mass movement in Egypt has sparked off heated debates in the bourgeois media as well as in the socialist movement since the beginning of the mass mobilization started on January 25. The right-wing, under the influence of the outright imperialist ideologues proclaiming that “after Mubarak comes the Islamists”, and actually leaning on a deep-rooted ideology in the form of orientalism, has preached racialist ideas. The other wing, though lacking any common basis with the former, has taken a position that could be summed up as “half-revolution, half Islamists”, and displayed a similar confusion.

This controversy signifies to a question of utmost importance for the socialist movement as a whole, for it must be a most irksome tragedy that a revolutionary to be unable to recognize the revolution as it happened.

Why demands of an immediately class character not in the forefront?

Egypt has awakened! The silence of long years was once again interrupted by an accidental event, and then Egypt had witnessed colossal events that condensed ten years in a span of ten days. That is how Engels compared ordinary times with the revolutionary times. In ordinary times two days pass like twenty years, but in the revolutionary period twenty years concentrate into two days. That is what has happened in Egypt. In Egypt nobody thinks or feels like he or she did before January 24. That’s the most concise definition of a revolution!

Regardless of differences of religion, language, sex, all sections of society took on to the streets and began fighting against Mubarak dictatorship. The emerging movement has brought together the different sections of the society. As a reflection of this, quite different political currents have declared support, or rather paid lip service to the revolution. Thus, those who expect a “pure” revolution lost their heads and raised questions like “is it possible to have a revolution championed by the fundamentalists or by pure bourgeois leaders, or a revolution without a professed socialist leadership?”

However, it is quite natural, if not acceptable, to start a revolution as it unfolded in Egypt. Since Mubarak is still formally ruling the country, the class character of the struggle in Egypt remained vague for many on the left. The profound hatred towards the Mubarak dictatorship brought together the different classes and groups in society. Hence motley of “supporters” to the revolution from the Islamists to the liberals, from reformists to Ahmadinejad and Tayyip Erdogan. But the overthrow of Mubarak’s dictatorship will show who really supports the revolution and who has only jumped on its bandwagon for purely material interests, and will make everyone understand whether a genuine revolution started in Egypt or not.

The fact that the Revolution being restricted to the demands of revolutionary-democratic character, therefore, stems from the broad base of the anti-Mubarak movement. The revolutionary wave has mobilized all sections of the society, which reflected in the demands of a bourgeois-democratic character.

Revolutions cannot be made according to a scheme. Every revolution brings not only practical gains to the class struggle, but also new experiences and lessons. But there are undoubtedly a number of common features that allow us to generalize various revolutions, especially revolutions of the same class character (proletarian revolutions) taking place in different time and place, and to make use of the common experiences.

One of them is that the masses start the revolution neither with a clear-cut revolutionary program nor with general ideas about the necessary phases and problems of the revolution. Trotsky wrote that,

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. (The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1)

The immediate effect of this is that the masses, at the beginning of the revolution, know what they stand against, or rather what they do not what, but probably do not know what and how to put its stead.

Thus, at the beginning of the revolution it is natural that democratic demands rather than radical revolutionary ideas appeal to the broad masses. Though leaps in the consciousness of the masses are enough to impel them to go on to the streets, it is hardly enough to immediately express or adopt the socialist demands. Though the mass struggle paralyses the state power, demands of the movement might not be directly in conflict with the order represented by it. The revolution thus acquires too many fellow-travellers.

Though they started to throw off the dominant values of the old system, the masses nonetheless cannot immediately embrace the socialist alternative in a full-fledged manner. The broad masses adopt the socialist alternative not as an ideal, not in a theoretical manner, but as a result of the elimination of the other, capitalist alternatives. Here the intervention of a genuine revolutionary leadership to the process plays a decisive role.

The masses of workers, unlike the individual workers, learn not from the books, but through their own experiences – Lenin always emphasized it. However he did not mean that the theory for the masses is a book sealed with seven seals; on the contrary, he pointed out that under capitalism the living conditions of the broad masses, that is, of millions, of tens of millions, make the method of theoretical understanding an almost impossible, or at least secondary method. Therefore, the masses’ own experiences about the alternatives within the struggle are one of the necessary phases of the revolutionary process.

The onslaught of millions of people into the struggle cannot instantly eliminate the problems originating from long years of inertia. Thus, especially at this stage of the revolution, the concatenation of advanced elements with the backward elements, or rather the existence of contradictory elements is inevitable. We must carefully analyze the demands of the mass movement and try to bring out and reinforce the progressive demands.

A particular example from the struggle of the Egyptian masses will better illustrate. One of the most common catchwords of the mass movement is “We are all Egyptians!” For the revolutionary internationalists who are opposed to capitalism, to its organisation of nation-state, and to the ideological defence of it, nationalism, or patriotism this catchword at a first glance might be seen as a reflection of the backwardness of the mass consciousness, but in the case of Egypt that would be a too biased and schematical approach. Undoubtedly we would prefer that the masses would rather see that “Egypt” represents the rule of the bourgeoisie and the dictators, that the Egyptian identity signifies their rule, that the workers have no country, and its interests are international etc.

In the case of Egypt, however, this catchword is not thoroughly reactionary; on the part of the masses, it might even be seen as a part of a progressive outlook. It’s a well known fact that fundamentalism called political Islam is prevalent in Egypt. Moreover Copts make up about one-tenth of the Egyptian population, who are traditionally seen as an evil, and whose churches and community are regularly attacked by fundamentalists.

This catchword, therefore, also means that the ongoing struggle is not about Islamic goals, but unites the Muslims and the Christians on a common basis. Undoubtedly there exists a more appropriate catchword: Long live the workers’ and toilers’ Egypt, or taking a step forward, Socialist Middle East. Remember that even Mubarak might readily accept the slogan of “We are all Egyptians”, and indeed he did in his speech on February 1. But in an Egypt standing against the rule of capital, both Mubarak and the racialist fundamentalists will be thrown out, and the working masses as a whole will live without any religious, sectarian, national etc. distinctions.

Then, the correct slogan should not be “We are all Egyptians”, but in point of the development of the consciousness of the masses it is not totally wrong either. What the masses stand for is not correct, but what they stand against is essentially correct.

From Democratic Demands to the Socialist Revolution

The theory of Permanent Revolution suggests that the bourgeoisie of the nations that entered the scene of capitalist development too late cannot solve the urgent democratic problems, that it is organically incapable of displaying a consistent democratism in the age of imperialism, and thus the resolution of the democratic problems are to be undertaken by the proletariat. However the proletariat undertaking to solve the democratic problems cannot restrict itself to this phase of the struggle and so the struggle becomes permanent. Moreover, Trotsky rightly points out that the struggle that started in a single country cannot but extend to other countries and so the revolutionary movement becomes permanent in two senses of the word – from democratic tasks to the socialist tasks, and from the national arena to the international arena.

Nevertheless one of the main theses of the theory of the Permanent Revolution is that the given revolution, in terms of its class character and immediate demands, should be a bourgeois-democratic revolution. In other words, the bourgeoisie is to be aiming to attain the state power completely, to be the ruling class as a whole and moreover, in the countryside must be a land question waiting for a solution – a solution whether in the Prussian style or American style. But Egypt has already passed this historical stage, the bourgeoisie has already been in power for decades. Therefore it would be wrong to talk about a bourgeois-democratic revolution and the transformation of it to a Permanent Revolution in the original sense of the word.

However in the light of what we said above in tandem with a quotation of Trotsky, we can and should suggest that even if the original thesis of the Permanent Revolution may not, the idea or the dynamic of the Permanent revolution can clearly be seen in action in the Egyptian revolution. In this sense of the word, the idea or the dynamic of Permanent Revolution can be observed in all revolutions.

As a latecomer capitalist country, Egypt lacks of a bourgeois democracy, and an anti-democratic atmosphere is dominant due to the intervention of the imperialist powers, and the incapability and impotency of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. Though it is not of the same level and character, the advanced capitalist countries are also faced with some urgent problems of a bourgeois-democratic character. Given the increased importance of democratic atmosphere in parallel to the progress in the level of education and culture, it is inevitable that the proletarian revolution in the advanced countries as well as in the capitalistically backward countries initially should confront problems of a bourgeois-democratic character.

The socialist tasks can and must be clear for the vanguard of the revolution. But for the millions that participated in the open class struggle in the revolutionary period the primary tasks would be initially of a bourgeois-democratic character in a larger sense. They would, for instance, demand not the abolition of the (exploitative) relationship between the wage labour and capital, but an increase in the share of the labourers, not the overthrow the bourgeois rule, but the ousting of the then ruling bourgeois, anti-democratic government etc. The masses would embrace the revolutionary ideas propagated by the vanguard only after their own practical experiences and through the intervention of the militant vanguard.

Therefore it is not surprising that the Egyptian masses now do not march for “pure” proletarian demands. That the masses have raised demands of a bourgeois-democratic character that in theory do not transcend the limits of, but in practice paralyse the bourgeois system, and perseveringly maintained the struggle should be giving us a clue about the future of the Revolution.

Today, not only in the latecomer capitalist countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America, but also in Europe and the United States the boundaries of the bourgeois democracy are increasingly narrowing and the anti-democratic practices are increasing. Hence in the advanced capitalist countries too, the outbreak of the revolution might possibly be triggered by general bourgeois-democratic tasks as well as “pure” proletarian demands.

Therefore it is necessary to grasp the Permanent Revolution in a broader sense, and taking into consideration of the peculiar character of capitalism in the twenty-first century, unite the bourgeois-democratic demands with the tasks of the socialist revolution.

Permanent revolution: The Arab World is on Fire!

In the age of imperialism a mass struggle that has broken out in a single country will inevitably spread to other countries. In our pamphlet on the French Revolution of 1848 we made a distinction between the dynamics of the spreading out of the revolution in the age of imperialism, that is, after it has become an out-and-out world system and its “pre-history”. Before the age of imperialism the revolution in a given country affected the other countries essentially through political reverberations, but in the age of imperialism we observe a multifaceted phenomenon. Developing in an international scale capitalism led to the growth and deepening of economic, political, cultural etc. relationships between nations and regions. Thus in the age of imperialism the Revolution spreads to the other countries even before it started! In the age of imperialism Revolution emerges as a part and parcel of the same problems, one triggers, affects, and feeds the other.

That is exactly what we have seen in the Middle East! Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, all have risen one after another. 

The first big spark in Tunisia triggered the mass struggle in the other countries of the region. What the imperialist bourgeoisie failed to do through diplomacy, international conferences etc., has been achieved by the working masses in a span of a few weeks. The president of Syria, Bashar Asad, proclaimed that “the conditions of our country are quite different(!)”, that the Syrian masses therefore would never arise, but a few days later disproved himself by promising – reforms! Last week the state has given benefits to the poor. Teachers were promised interest-free loans for laptops, and some public officials were charged with corruption in Aleppo. The opposition groups are planning a mass demonstration for Saturday.

In Yemen, the biggest demonstrations of 33-year rule of Saleh dictatorship have taken place. In response to the ten thousands of protestors, Saleh announced that he did not intend to install his son in his stead, but it was hardly enough to stop the demonstrators. Besides Jordan, Sudan, and Algeria has experienced similar mass movements in the last few weeks.

On the other hand, the revolutionary movement is hardly restricted to a particular region. In the last ten years throughout the world we have seen similar mass eruptions in numerous countries. The possibility of successful revolutions in the Middle East would, for instance, cause sharp fluctuations in oil prices, shaking the whole world to its foundations. The revolution is therefore neither national nor regional, but international.

It is inevitable for a revolution that started in a single country to spread to other countries. The tasks of the proletarian revolutionaries must be not engaging in seismographic estimates, but banking on the international structure of capitalism to endeavour for the building of an international leadership. A world system, capitalism can be overthrown only by a worldwide revolutionary party.


Obviously the mobilization in Egypt (and in general, in the African continent) might lead to, for instance, a fundamentalist regime instead of a successful workers’ revolution. This as a prospect can hardly be denied.

Having passed the threshold in terms of integration to the imperialist system, the Ihvan nevertheless has not yet gone as far as another former Islamist movement, the AKP government of Turkey. For instance misogynist position and action is still an important item in its agenda. We know that women taking huge steps in liberation through struggle have nothing to gain from such a regime and from such a “revolution”.

However this prospect can hardly be a reason to preach to slow down the movement, or halt the revolution, as the spokesmen of the imperialist powers maintained. The prospect is one thing, the reality is another. Socialists should take into account not only the prospects, but also the actual events taking place and the objective revolutionary role of the working class as the main dynamic of society. We should hold our belief in the struggle of the masses. When the working class with its power coming from the production intervened in the revolutionary process, the red colour of the revolution will become clearer.

February 6, 2011