Egyptian revolutionary socialist: ‘We are facing a counterrevolution’

Rana Nessim and Rosemary Bechler interviewed Sameh Naguib (pictured above), a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, on October 24, 2013. The interview was published on the openDemocracy website on November 8. Nessim is associate editor for openDemocracy's Arab Awakening page. Bechler is editor of openDemocracy. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has added subheads and abridged the interview for reasons of space. The full text is available at HERE.

More on Egypt HERE.

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Rosemary Bechler: Well a lot has happened since the last time we met, Sameh. How have you been and what is life like for the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt?

Sameh Naguib: It is more difficult than any of us can ever remember, and one of the most difficult aspects is the fact that the majority of left wing and liberal intellectuals are completely in support of Egypt’s military leadership, 100 per cent.

RB: This is a rather strange definition of left liberals, isn’t it?

It’s a very strange definition. People who claim to be on the left… and I am not only talking about organised groups like the communist party – I am talking about writers and novelists, like Sonallah Ibrahim – intellectuals, major poets, well-known figures with a long history of democratic struggle, and standing up for people’s rights and so forth. Across the spectrum, they are all singing for the general [General El Sisi, the military ruler] on the same song sheet.

RB: A shift that has occurred practically overnight would you say?


RB: We need to talk about the role of the media campaign in this shift in the political climate. We are not just talking about intellectuals are we – this campaign has won over large sections of the Egyptian people?

They’ve persuaded a large part, but it is a very complicated picture. It is not that everybody is on board. However if today we tried to organise a demonstration, we would soon be attacked by organised thugs who take only five or ten minutes to show up, wherever we try.

RB: Do ordinary people also react against protests?

There’s a kind of varied reaction among ordinary people. There is fear, “We don’t want any more of this: this is too dangerous.” Others say, “Enough, stop doing this. Let the military sort this out. We’ve had enough of all this”. There is a reluctant kind of support on the part of some bystanders. But today, outside the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is only seasoned activists who actually venture out to protest.

Muslim Brotherhood

RB: So what about your relations with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Again, this is very complicated. We don’t go on their demonstrations: we can’t do that. Not only because of the extreme repression but also because of the sectarian nature of many of the Brotherhood slogans and the fact that they continue to call for the return of Morsi as president, which we are against.

RB: As it is, the regime are peeling off the first and second ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and taking them all into custody?

The Muslim Brotherhood can survive that; they are huge enough and have enough depth to take these kinds of attacks. But we are not. If what survives of the organised left were hit in this fashion, we would be gone for years to come. So, the positions we take are popular enough with the Muslim Brotherhood youth. You can see that from their Facebook comments and so on. But as you might imagine, they always ask us, “Why aren’t you with us on the streets?” And at the same time, on the other side, all the people who support the military accuse us of being part of “the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy”. So, ours is a very isolating, indeed lonely kind of experience. We’re attacked on all sides. The Muslim Brotherhood youth want us to be on the streets with them while others are accusing us of being Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And it is extremely difficult to maintain an independent line and to keep people active in the struggle.

RB: Does this also apply to the independent trade union movement? Are they similarly divided between those two constituencies?

Of course. Their main leader is a minister now, and one of the staunchest supporters of the military regime. And that’s a huge blow to any independent trade union organisation.

RB: Again, it’s a very odd reflection on “independent trade union organisation”.

Well, that’s the really sad thing. This was a serious, independent trade union movement born out of strike committees in mass strikes, in which Abou Eita was one of the foremost leaders of the struggle. And that really shows you the measure of the enormity of the betrayal that has taken place in Egypt.

RB: So, are there any constituencies out there with which to rebuild some kind of coalition?

When you look at it from outside, at first sight it looks as if all there is is a sea of Sisi supporters. And that’s it. But among those who are supporters of Sisi, a closer look shows you people who have very contradictory consciousness and reasons, let alone all the expectations. And the first thing to say is that these expectations are not being met. We are four months into this coup, and there is no revival of tourism in Egypt. The railway network has been shut down for the first time in its 150-year history since the British built the network, so that this year on the feast holidays – like Christmas holidays – there were no trains to take people home. This has caused a huge amount of suffering and chaos for ordinary people. You have over 3 million people commuting every day by rail to Cairo for their jobs from Banha or Tanta and all the small delta towns, as you have in any major city. These people have to pay triple, maybe four times the amount of the normal fares and it takes at least twice as long using microbuses and other private means of transportation to get to their jobs. So you can imagine, this will eventually erode the high level of support people once gave to their new ‘saviours’.

RB: But maybe what is interesting about this is that had this happened under Morsi’s presidency, there would have been an absolute outcry against the Muslim Brotherhood. But under Sisi, people actually don’t respond in exactly the same way? 

No, they’ve given the military the benefit of the doubt. And this is where we must come back to the military and its media outlets, which have launched the most massive campaign, comparing El Sisi to Nasser, talking incessantly about the nationalist role of the army; the modernising role of the army; the centrality of the army.

RB: Is this true of all the media outlets, public and private?

All of them. Because they shut down all the Islamic media outlets and there is no independent press.

RB: Again that is an extraordinary feat – I mean the military manoeuvre in politics that has got everyone “singing from one sheet”.

It is an extraordinary feat, but I don’t think it’s sustainable. [...] Sisi wants to keep power but he wants it to be constitutional. He wants it to be set in stone: above all he doesn’t want to be challenged. He’s just carried out the worst massacres in modern Egyptian history and he wants to make sure that he doesn’t pay for that.

RB: On that subject, how much information has got out about the massacres in the sit-ins? Is it now widely known?

Yes, it’s widely known now, but for some time the police and the army kept up the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood set fire to their own people and that they were heavily armed. That, with time, turns out not to be true. Clearly not true. Even the health ministry says that over a thousand died that day on August 14. The Muslim Brotherhood are claiming over 6000. It’s probably somewhere in between.

RB: Have the human rights organisations been very involved in this?

Very involved, especially trying to create lists of the names and ages of the people. According to the main human rights organisations, there are still 400 people missing from that day. They don’t know where they are. There are lots of burnt, unidentifiable bodies. And the independent human rights organisations that have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood also claim much higher numbers of deaths than those maintained by the health ministry.

But certainly in terms of the media, the whole episode was played down, and the release of information has been very controlled. On Egyptian television, whether on the private or the public networks, what you get are these pictures of them finding weapons in huge boxes and so on in Rabaa El Adawiya. The obvious question is, so why weren’t they using them? I mean they have the weapons and they are being mass slaughtered… But that is not the question that gets asked.

RB: Why wouldn’t they defend themselves?

Yes. Why would you find the weapons in a box somewhere? And the numbers also tell the same story. I mean, 40 something police officers in both major attacks were killed, but there were over 1000 dead on the other side. That’s not a confrontation between two armies or armed groups. [...]

Orientalism, Islamophobia and ‘secularism’

RB: (… ) What does it mean for leftists, liberals, pluralists of any kind to support this coup? Aren’t they simply calling for a return of a certain kind of Nasserist or Kemalist notion of the nation as one monocultural, “National Us”? Doesn’t this suggest that the majority, even the intellectuals, can’t finally think beyond that tradition?

No, that is a kind of Orientalist reaction to recent events. There’s no ingrained stance against pluralism. But there is, and this is in the west to the same extent, Islamophobia amongst secular intellectuals. So, for them the idea that anything is close to an Islamic State or an Islamic system, is something they’re prepared to ally themselves with the devil to get rid of. And you have this in Turkey as well, of course, where a segment of the secular opposition, including the so-called leftists, will always stand with the military against the Islamic forces. It doesn’t make any difference to them how democratic the means were that brought the Islamists to power. 

RB: And the same in Tunisia, you think?

And the same in Tunisia. But the difference is this. At the time of Atatürk and the time of Nasser, there was a major reform program under way with major concessions; major economic concessions and social concessions and concessions to women and so on … that made it possible for people to accept that monocultural or mono-political kind of structure. These were different times. Now there is no space at all for an Atatürk or Nasserite reforming project; El Sisi has nothing to offer. There are no land reforms or major nationalisations or major struggles against colonialist forces waiting in the wings; there’s nothing there to create enough popular support. And the thing is, in a country like Egypt, we don’t even have the political parties who could represent this kind of project.

RB: So, how do the secular intellectuals react to something like Sisi sending back the secular clause in the constitution?

They say it’s wrong and some of them say El Sisi should not be president. Others say he has to be president. They’re divided on it and these divisions with time are becoming sharper and more visible. And this is creating a new kind of hope, a new space for manouevre, because particularly during the first weeks after the massacre, it was just anybody who opens his mouth against El Sisi or begins to question what was happening, was a traitor, and should be killed… If you spoke up in a coffee shop, you’d be beaten up quite severely. That has changed. Again, this is not the first time in this Egyptian revolutionary process. People just take a position: then they start to think. Now in coffee shops and on the streets there are arguments with one person supporting El Sisi and other people saying, “Now it’s too much. Till when will there be a curfew and the state of emergency?… We can’t get back to work. They haven’t done anything, the government is weak, they’re not providing us with anything.” It’s starting all over again; people even questioning their own choices, including questioning their early ready support for El Sisi.

RB: When we last spoke you anticipated this, saying that in the last analysis, the bottom line is that the revolutionary demands have not been met in any way. Are you still of that mind?

Yes – because many people supported Sisi not because they were fascists or ultra secularists, but simply because they thought – “OK, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t deliver on our demands. Maybe, maybe this military will.” There are, of course, sections of the middle class who support Sisi purely because they hate the revolution; they hate the chaos of the revolution. They hate the idea that everybody is suddenly demanding a life, and that the poor, whenever they have a demand, take it upon themselves to go out onto the streets and demonstrate. They hate this. They might have wanted some change at the top, but without all this – revolution. So you have that kind of solid support for El Sisi, but that’s mainly a middle and upper class support. Their criticism of El Sisi now, crazy as it might sound, is that he is not being hard enough. I mean over fifteen thousand in jail, tens of thousands – nobody knows the numbers – of people injured, at least two to three thousand killed and that’s not a hard enough clampdown for them. They want everything cleaned up and back to normal at whatever cost. [...]

Rampant racism and xenophobia

RB: How about minorities and how they are being treated now? We run a regular blog review called “Egypt in the balance”, and the pattern is quite clear: there is an extraordinary upsurge in racism and xenophobia; in anti-Copt, anti-foreigner, anti-Palestinian and the treatment of Syrian refugees. Where does this come from?

There’s a fear campaign; a media fear campaign saying that the Syrians and the Palestinians are all part of a plot to de-stabilise Egypt, to kill Egyptians and so on… It has happened in Europe too at certain moments in history ... to create enough paranoia in Egyptians so that they begin to feel that Syrians, or anybody who has paler skin and who might be a Syrian, might be planting a bomb somewhere. Yes, there’s this very powerful conspiracy theory being put forward. The Americans are involved, the Europeans are involved, the Israelis are involved, the Syrians are involved, the Palestinians are involved, the Qataris are involved … you know this big international plot to dismember Egypt, and to have a kind of Syrian scenario in Egypt, to dismantle the state and to tear it apart.

RB: Is the Iraqi scenario cited?

Yes. And that’s been a central message from the army, "We’re the only army that is still united. That’s still standing on its feet. The Syrian army’s disintegrated; the Iraqi army’s disintegrated. Libya is in a mess.” And once again this message is directed to the Egyptian people in the first instance, “Do you really want to be like Iraq or Syria? If you stand against the Egyptian state, the Egyptian army, the Egyptian security apparatus, then you are pushing the country in that direction.” That immediately instigates a kind of backlash within the middle classes against anybody demonstrating or going on strike … “You’re just helping the terrorists, the people that want to dismember this country.” So xenophobia is put to good use in that way.

RB: Then there is the Sinai operation, playing a similar role, maybe to the terrorist plot which has erupted in the Tunisian mountainous border region. This can all be grist to that mill?

Of course, to have a war is the most convenient way to keep people silent. Over the years, they have created a very strong enmity in the people of Sinai against the Egyptian state. Now they’ve widened the base of popular resistance. The Egyptian state has always been terrible at Sinai people’s rights, and now they have nurtured this hatred tremendously by sending the tanks in and killing loads of civilians who had nothing to do with armed groups. So, they are sending more and more people into the armed groups who are actually doing the fighting. And the interesting thing is that after four months the army is unable to control the situation in Sinai. It’s not simply that they’re making a showcase out of the war: they are losing there. Their army personnel carriers (APCs) are being attacked. But Israel has given the army all rights of passage in Sinai. And the army has given the Israelis the best present in return; they have destroyed 90% of the tunnels to Gaza, choking off Gaza and its economy nearly completely.

RB: And in Egypt – this has been met with equanimity? 

With extreme anti-Palestinian fervour. And you can imagine the troubles the Palestinian refugees in Egypt are facing with this campaign. Syrian families being thrown in jails; dying all over the place, including children and women, just because they’re Syrians. There is no doubt about it. A counterrevolution is a miserable business for very many involved. And we are facing a counterrevolution.

RB: It seems extraordinary that the Copts are supporting Sisi …

You must of course realise that the Islamic movement in general, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists, are sectarian when it comes to other religions. Their agenda is an Islamist agenda, and part of their program is to make Copts into second-class citizens. I mean even the most moderate part of the Muslim Brotherhood would say that a Copt can’t become president, for example. And that’s the most moderate. You have a whole range of people at the other end of the spectrum who want to close down churches and basically want the Copts to leave the country. So, the myth of the nationalist army and state that is secular, that protects the unity of Muslims and Christians alike becomes a very useful one. And that is the kind of help that the Islamists gave directly to the military; simply by being so narrowly sectarian.

The thing is, the more the Muslim Brotherhood were under attack, the more they used an Islamist harder line to win the Salafists over to their side. But of course, that meant pushing the Copts in the other direction. Any alliance with the extreme Salafists, and I am talking about the Islamic Gama’a – extreme Salafists – means that churches are going to be attacked, Copts will be attacked in the streets and the Muslim Brotherhood understood very well that this would happen. What the army did was again very clever. In not protecting the churches, they let it happen, “Let the Copts come running to us.” And they have and you can understand their fears especially in the south; churches, shops and houses are being burnt down.

What the Revolutionary Socialists are doing

Rana Nessim: Would it be best for we Egyptians to have General Sisi as president and hope that he will receive the same kind of exposure as Morsi? What do we have to lose, since he is going to be no more able to fulfil the demands of the revolution for “bread, freedom and social justice”?

Ideally, you would at least have some candidate for the leadership who hasn’t sold out to the military but who is also not an Islamist. We don’t want to repeat that scenario again. Even if that candidate got a very small percentage of the votes, that must be the way to maintain an opposition movement in some kind of momentum. That’s why we’ve been working with the Way of the Revolution Front, which basically has the small minority position of trying to create an independent third voice in this situation. Ahdaf El Soueif and several other major figures are in this front. It includes organisations like the April 6th Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, parts of Strong Egypt (Masr el Qaweya) -- which is partly and especially among some of its youth, an ex-Islamist/leftist group -- and independent trade union youth activists, anarchists, all kinds of people as individuals. There are very few intellectuals; the remaining intellectuals who have not sold out to the military. 

The front is based on individuals not on organisations, and we are making a real attempt to ensure that the organised groups don’t dominate the front through any blocs – we want to make it as open as possible for people to join and influence and lots of people are joining. They will contest any military candidates and are already contesting the military trials of civilians, as well as the new draconian laws they want to put in governing protest in Egypt.

These are amazing laws that make it nearly impossible to hold a demonstration and that give the police the right, at the end of the day, to shoot live ammunition at demonstrators. Ahdaf Soueif is taking a very courageous and strong stand on things and she’s being attacked like there’s no tomorrow. The front is being attacked for being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, an attempt to dismantle the state and dismantle the military, a front of the Revolutionary Socialists who are a bunch of mad people who want to burn down the country. And this is an organised campaign by both public and private media.

So, it’s too early to tell what will happen in elections. We still don’t know what kind of system they’re going to come up with in the constitution. We have made a beginning by contesting them on the legality of this constitution; and the show that they’re putting on there. But yes, you’d have to contest these people every single step of the way. We need to be clear. The Egyptian revolution has received its worst blow since it began. This is very serious. The Muslim Brotherhood turned out to be a complete disaster. Many people voted in Morsi because they didn’t want Shafik, but you also had 4 million people, nearly 5 million people, who voted for Hamdeen Sabahi, who seemed to most people to be a secular, leftist alternative. He’s now turned out to be a pro-military fascist. That’s a demoralising fact for all these millions who have no idea who they should support now. The so-called secular left that some people thought might be their Nasserists are all backing El Sisi, so it’s a very difficult situation. But this whole democratic movement from 2005 onwards started with a very small minority of people standing in front of the Journalists’ and Lawyers’ Syndicate and, were eventually able to win considerable support. So, we have to start again.

RN: Obviously the opposition is completely divided at the moment, a gap that the Way of the Revolution Front is trying hard to bridge. But where do the Muslim Brotherhood fit into this? They’re continuing with all their demonstrations, while most of their leadership is behind bars. Obviously they avoid demonstrating in main squares for their own safety, but what’s their plan? What lessons have they learned? It’s clear they don’t want to go into negotiations and at the same time the opposition can’t stand with them, because as you said, it’s too dangerous. So what’s next for them? 

First of all, it’s not only a question of the danger involved. It’s also about them having a sectarian, right-wing agenda. You can’t just go and demonstrate with people under these slogans. What they are demanding is the return of Morsi. We were in the demonstrations against Morsi: we don’t want a return. For us, this is a coup against the revolution and its demands. For them it is just a coup against a legitimately elected Morsi, and there is a difference between these. There was a real mass movement against Morsi. It wasn’t just the demonstrations; it was also the strikes. But at the same time as you had this mass movement against Morsi, you also had generals conspiring to exploit the scene to get rid of Morsi and turn the clock back on the revolution.

As for the disenfranchised Morsi supporters, the severity of the oppression they have faced obviously unites people. You’re talking about a leadership in jail and thousands killed, so no, you won’t find much internal contestation. There are of course questions, all kinds of questions being put forward. 

For example the Revolutionary Socialists argued consistently that unless you dismantled the state, the revolution would be defeated, to which they answered that this was a betrayal of the state and that the military has to be united, “What are you talking about dismantling the state? We don’t want to dismantle the state.” They were very critical of us and even tried to prosecute us for saying it. But now a lot of the younger Muslim Brotherhood voices are saying, “No, you’re right. The state has crushed us and we let them, because we didn’t attempt to dismantle it.” To what extent that is representative of a wider group of individuals, I don’t know. Will the question arise that the Muslim Brotherhood made a big mistake in allying itself with the military and with the police? I am sure. It’s just logical; that question must arise. They kept praising El Sisi, the generals and the police who promptly crushed them. Something is definitely wrong with that plan. But right now, of course, no one is going to break ranks under these circumstances.

RN: What role, if any, will the Muslim Brotherhood play in the next elections?

Right now what they’re trying to do is gain concessions from the military to get the leadership out of jail at least and to have some kind of space to move. Morsi is meant to be going on trial on November 4. But just one telephone call and it can be postponed for another few months. That’s just another part of the show, because everything depends on what happens with the negotiations. The Muslim Brotherhood knows that the country can’t continue without railway networks, and so forth – that’s unsustainable. What they are telling the membership is, “Patience. Lets keep the pressure on” – knowing that this system can’t continue as it is, and that something is going to have to give. This is the kind of pressure that creates more differences among the generals, “Maybe we should talk to them? Maybe we should get a few of them out of jail?” 

They’ll have to give in eventually if the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain this day-in day-out pressure: they’ll eventually have to make concessions.

Among the military there are two different strategies; one is to say, “We have to negotiate and reach some kind of settlement. Let’s see. Let’s experiment with talks.”

There are two leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who are not in jail and they’re openly speaking to the media and so on… They’ve left them as a kind of possible door to negotiation. All attempts to negotiations have failed until now, but I think eventually they will come to some kind of an arrangement.

As for banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a political entity, of course it was banned before. But they are part of Egyptian society. This is an organisation that has over a million cadres, what are you going to do? Put them all in jail? What about the 10 million that support them? They’ve been around for over 80 years and are not going to disappear. The idea of political Islam is not going to disappear. It didn’t work anywhere, not even in Turkey after all their attempts. You have this huge Atatürk project, and one hundred years later the Islamists are still around and the idea of Islam is still strong and is not going away.

Take the football supporters, the “Ultras” who not only participated in the uprisings, but who were at the forefront of the revolution and still are. Their movement is being crushed again. Just as the Ultras won't go away, and they shouldn't, the Muslim Brotherhood won't go away either. For example, if the secular leftists or the Ultras or any other group attempt to reclaim Tahrir Square, don't you think the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood would rush to join? Like the uprising in 2011, their leadership didn't participate from the beginning, but the youth were there. These demonstrations are vigorous and supported by thousands of men and women – people who belong to the debate about Egypt's future. 

RN: Now they’re going to release the draft of the new constitution and then there’ll be a referendum supposedly and elections will follow. Will everyone participate? Or will it be like before, when many people decided not to participate because they say the election is rigged and people don’t trust the process – the military is in charge and they won’t allow international monitoring?

I think it’s too early to tell in terms of elections, whether boycotting would make any sense or not. I don’t think it will. In this particular situation, the opposition will have to take part because of all the disenfranchised people, because of the people who will be in a mess at that point; where are they going to go? If we don’t vote, “What are you saying? What are you telling us? It’s all over?” So, that’s dangerous and in that sense probably the opposition will have to participate. Again it depends on what happens. If it’s going to be tanks in front of every polling station and the thugs out in force, we might have to think again. It depends how bad it’s going to be.

RB: So, do you need the world’s eyes on Egypt during this process?

Well, that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes of course. There has to be as much international solidarity from supporters of the Egyptian revolutions as possible. But again, that is being used to make frenzied claims about foreign conspiracies and plots to destroy the state and so on. The most important thing to remember is that if we become demoralised, we’re helping them to win outright, and they haven’t won yet. But this is one of the main things that we have to overcome; the feeling that the revolution is over. 

And the symbolism of the whole thing has never been so clear. Tahrir Square has become a graveyard. It has become a garage for tanks basically. People, and this was worldwide, saw Tahrir as a symbol of revolution, change, of democracy. For that hope to turn into a huge garage with dozens and dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles, walls and barbed wire and completely empty of any people is to say the least, demoralising.

But that only means that we have to retake Tahrir.

We’re at that crossroads now, where there is nothing to be done except to retake Tahrir Square. The only way to revive the Egyptian revolution is to reclaim it. The coming battle will be all about reclaiming that Square and that’s why the Muslim Brotherhood tried to reclaim it on October 6. That is why the army shot to kill that day and they killed over 50 people just for trying peacefully to march towards Tahrir Square. The army knows that if they lose that square, they’re in trouble again. And everybody in the Muslim Brotherhood and everybody on the left, knows that without regaining that square … we’re in serious trouble.

So, there’s a battle over spaces and a battle over dates. In terms of spaces, obviously Tahrir Square and its symbolism, Rabaa El Adaweya with its symbolism, for the Islamists, has become a central motif, along with the whole idea of the number four and the yellow colour. Rabaa El Adawiya has become a major symbolic space. Then there is time, so days and dates: November 19 – the Mohamed Mahmoud massacre; this will be a major battle in front of the Ministry of Interior. January 25, what’s that going to be like next year? Is this going to be a celebration of the police and military with jets flying above? What will the space of Tahrir look like on that date?

RB: Are the graffiti people at work? Is all that still going on? 

Yes, there’s a huge battle over the graffiti; mainly between the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-military forces who paint over it every day … every day … every day. They paint and repaint … battles and battles through the night and every morning. You can see all this: “Sisi is a murderer... Sisi is a killer… Sisi out”, and so on. Then it’s painted over, completely. Within hours, again it comes back.

So, in a sense the revolution is continuing. It’s taking this special form of a symbolic battle between the Islamists and the army, but it means that the revolutionary energy is still out there, fighting over the simplest things, like graffiti and “who owns these walls?”.